Nestled along Burma Road in George Town, Wat Chayamangkalaram is one of Penang’s largest and most impressive Thai-Buddhist temples. Dating back to the 19th century, the temple was built during the Straits Settlement era, on land granted by British queen Victoria to the Siamese community of Penang. Today, it draws thousands of visitors and is an important cultural hub, with large-scale celebrations of Thai festivals such as Songkran and Loy Krathong held at the temple each year.
Thai-Buddhist architecture is vastly different from that of Chinese-Buddhist temples. While the latter features lots of red, the former favours gold and yellow, and these shades adorn everything from the elaborate archways and the building’s exterior, to the Buddha statues within the temple. You’ll also find many decorative figures from ancient Thai-Buddhist mythology, such as apsaras (celestial fairies) and nagas (mythical serpents).
Upon entering the temple’s compound, you’ll be greeted by the sight of the main shrine, richly decorated in the traditional Thai style. The front features a portico topped by three intricately carved pediments, the entrances guarded by two giant yakshas (guardian protectors) and hydra-like nagas, whose colourful glass bodies glitter in the sun. Next to them is a towering stupa that rises several storeys high.
Parking is difficult to find as the compound is tiny, so I recommend taking a Grab or public transportation if you’re planning a visit.
Step into the cool confines of the hall and marvel at the sight of the temple’s crown jewel : a giant reclining Buddha that stretches from one end of the hall to the other. The statue, called Phra Chaiya Mongkol, was built in 1958 at a cost of 100,000 Malayan dollars, which I’m sure was a phenomenal sum at the time. The money was contributed by the local community, the Malayan and Thai governments, as well as notable personages from the Thai royal family. It was officially unveiled by the late Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Queen Sirikit on a state visit in 1962.
Reclining Buddha statues are commonplace in many Buddhist cultures around the world, and represent Gautama Buddha during the last stages of his illness before entering parinirvana. The statue in Wat Chayamangkalaram measures some 32 metres long, parts of which are gold plated, and lies on an elevated platform which actually houses a columbarium within, accessible via the Buddha’s back. Lined up in a row in front of the statue are various smaller statues, including those of former temple abbots.
The sides of the hall act as a mini museum of sorts, with paintings depicting scenes from Buddha’s life, alongside pictures of important people who have contributed to the temple as well as documenting historic events.
A placard commemorating contributions in building the temple, and portraits of King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit.
At the base of the statue are more carvings depicting scenes from Buddha’s life, painted in blue and gold.
Smaller Buddha statues in various poses at the back of the giant reclining Buddha. The recesses behind them house urns containing ashes of the departed. We were there during Ching Ming (Chinese Tomb Sweeping Day) so there were a number of families paying their respects with fresh flowers and prayer items.
Another photo for good measure.
Penang isn’t the only place with a giant reclining Buddha statue – there’s an even bigger one in Tumpat, Kelantan which measures 40metres, although the craftsmanship is much simpler.
There’s a smaller shrine next to the main hall, which is dedicated to the Goddess of Mercy, Kuan Yin. A large bronze statue of the goddess in a silky pink cloak sits in the center of the shrine, with a dozen smaller ones seated in front, also wearing exquisitely embroidered cloaks.
Lotus flowers feature prominently in Buddhism. It symbolises purity and spiritual awakening, because despite growing in muddy waters, the blooms are able to emerge completely clean. This is why Buddha and many other Buddhist deities are often depicted seated on lotus flowers.
A plump, old temple dog we found sleeping near one of the shrines. Soooo cuteeeeee.
WAT CHAYAMANGKLARAM (TEMPLE OF THE RECLINING BUDDHA)
17, Lorong Burma, Pulau Tikus, 10250 George Town, Pulau Pinang
Opening hours: 8AM – 4PM
Entrance is free. Donations are welcome.
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