We Went To A Taoist Medium In Selayang

Despite being Buddhist, my family has never been devout. We have an altar at home dedicated to Guanyin (the Goddess of Mercy), and make offerings at temples during religious occasions – but they mostly stem from tradition, because these were practices handed down by our ancestors.

Lately, my mother has become increasingly spiritual. She is going through a hard time, what with old age, illness, and the inability of medicine to help alleviate the pain. I’d like to believe that religion has given her some comfort – but we’ve also advised her on the dangers of superstition, as there are many charlatans out there preying on the desperate.

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On the recommendation of a friend, she went to seek blessings for an upcoming surgery from a medium in Selayang, Kuala Lumpur. The ‘temple’ turned out to be a double-storey terrace house in a quiet neighbourhood, hardly distinguishable from the rest of the houses if not for the giant brick furnace outside (for burning offerings) and several small shrines within the compound.

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The place didn’t look much like a temple, aside from baskets of paper offerings in a corner. There were several couches at the waiting area and a large wooden altar with Buddhist and Taoist deities. I recognised the main one as Guan Yu, the general-god, and Guanyin. The altar was furnished with the usual trappings; platters of fruit, oil candles, a reflective mirror (for repelling evil spirits) and a tapestry depicting heavenly scenes.

My dad got there at about 7.30AM to get a number, as the medium is very popular. The temple opens at 9.30AM, after which the medium will see you according to the number you have written.

 

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The medium was a curly-haired lady, not much older than my mom. She had a stern face but kind eyes, and a mole almost at the centre of her forehead, like a third eye. If I passed her on the street, I would have assumed she was just another auntie going about her grocery shopping.

By the time 9.30AM rolled around, the temple was already filled with people eager to get a reading, or ask for advice and blessings. I thought that it would mostly be people my mom’s age, but there were many young people as well, some younger than me. Because most of my close friends have agnostic views towards religion, I just assumed that the younger generation did not care much for spirituality. I was obviously mistaken.

The medium here is Taoist and channels Ho Sin Gu (He Xiangu), one of the Eight Immortals in Chinese mythology and Taoist beliefs. She is the only female among the eight immortals, and in mythology, carries a lotus flower that is able to improve one’s physical and mental health.

The medium first invited the deity to enter her body. There wasn’t much pomp aside from some clapping and praying, which was very different from the deity I remembered visiting as a child, when I had seizures. The medium/deity sat at a ‘consultation’ table (reminded me of a doctor or a physician, really). There was an assistant on hand to translate, since the medium spoke in Hakka Chinese.

 

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Mom was third, and she asked for blessings for the operation to go smoothly. The medium advised that she should go for it, but it wasn’t going to be all hunky-dory because she foresaw ‘a long and difficult time’ for my mom’s illness(es), and cautioned her to be mindful of her health, avoid stress and look after her intake of food. She then proceeded to write on some talismans in red ink; some of these were to be burnt and consumed, one was to be kept on my mom’s person.

During our consultation, parents with children brought their kids to the medium for blessings. They seemed completely at ease, even going up to the medium and hugging her like a favourite grandma, so I think they come here pretty often. The medium then blessed them with a pat to the head and a stamp of Chinese characters in red ink (presumably a talisman or amulet of sorts?) to their backs.

The consultation took less than five minutes, and there was a token fee – kind of like a consultation fee when you go to the doctor’s. My mom was also advised to consume some pearl powder for recovery, which she bought at the temple.

If you’d like to ask for a reading / blessings, the temple is located at 7262, Jalan Len Omnibus, Taman Selayang Baru, Batu Caves, Selangor. 

Thoughts 

I’m an INTP, and despite my love for theories (which are intangible), reason often rules the roost – so faith is something I seriously lack.  It is not that I don’t believe in the supernatural or a higher power, it is simply that I don’t believe in much of what makes up organised religion. The reason I call myself a Buddhist is because Buddhist teachings centre around morality, rather than reliance on a higher power. My favourite quote is about how the Buddha only “points the way; but it is you yourself who must walk the path.” There is no ‘if you don’t believe in this, you go to hell’, or ‘you must pray to god to for salvation’. Buddha’s philosophies are about leading a mindful life.

Taoism, a relatively new religion rife with Chinese culture, Buddhist teachings and Chinese folk beliefs, requires a faith in the supernatural which I do not have. That being said, visiting a medium was still an interesting insight and experience, and it is heartening to see the solace and comfort many people find in their beliefs. If it makes things more bearable for them, then why not?

My mom often chides me about my non-belief. “I was like you when I was younger. I felt like I didn’t need god. But when you’re closer to death’s door, you will understand.” Perhaps, but that time has not come. In the meantime, I’m quite content just following what I feel is best, doing and practising good deeds.

PS: Mom had her surgery and is in recovery at the moment.

 

 

 

Oldest Taoist Temple in Singapore – Thian Hock Keng, Chinatown, Singapore

Singapore has a significant Chinese population (74%). Long ago, when the first Chinese immigrants arrived on the island republic with nothing to their names but hopes and dreams, Chinatown was the epicentre of everything. Today, it spans several blocks within the Outram district and houses numerous heritgae sites and old buildings – an important reminder of the country’s culture and history.
For our Chinatown Tour, we had Shal from Ruby Dot Trails as our guide. And what a guide she was! Visiting places of interest is one thing but having a good guide is another: and Shal really elevated our experience by telling us loads of interesting stories and tidbits. It felt more like having a very knowledgable local friend bringing us around. 🙂
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Our first stop for the day was Thian Hock Keng, or the Temple of Heavenly Happiness. Established in 1839, it is the oldest and most important Hokkien/Taoist temple in Singapore. Shal pointed out that the temple sits on Telok Ayer Street, which was so called because the area where Chinatown is right now was actually by the sea (now it’s not due to land reclamation).
Dedicated to the Goddess of the Sea and patron deity of seamen, Ma Zu, the temple was originally a simple shrine located close to the shoreline. Sailors arriving after a long voyage from China would offer their prayers as thanks for safe arrival to Singapore. Eventually they brought over a Ma Zu statue from China and erected a proper temple in 1842, at a cost of 30,000 Spanish dollars.
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There are separate entrances to the temple. We entered through the side door, because the main one is only for VIPs. The side doors are painted over with images of two fierce generals, or the ‘Door Gods’, who guard the temple from evil.
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The main entrance, on the other hand, has different ‘door gods’, which, according to Shal, are eunuchs (since Mazu is a goddess, so it’s more appropriate).
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The main temple. It’s not very large, but it sure is grand. Just look at the elaborate details!
The structure is typical of Chinese temples, with a spacious courtyard and a huge ash urn for joss sticks. Shal pointed out some interesting fixtures for us. If you look up at the beams, there are Indian elements – figurines of Indian craftsmen alongside the usual dragons and phoenixes. During the temple’s construction, Indian craftsmen and workers were brought in to help. As a gesture of thanks, they were allowed to carve their images into the structure. It proved that racial harmony and tolerance were in place, even back in the days. How cool is that?
Even though it wasn’t a very big temple, it was surely an important one. Visitors looking up might notice a large scroll-like hanging at the top of the chamber, which was a decree from a Qing Dynasty emperor – a great honour for a temple in what was considered the ‘boondocks’. The decree has been stored away for safekeeping, but we can still see the replica at the temple today.
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Source: taoist-sorcery.blogspot.com note: NOT the Ma Zu statue at Thian Hock Keng temple.
Pictures of the main shrine housing the Mazu statue wasn’t allowed, but I wanted to illustrate the story with a picture, so yeah.
Mazu: The Goddess of the Sea
Like many Taoist deities, it was believed that she was an actual person before being deified (is that a word?) Her real name was Lin Moniang, and she lived in 900s Fujian province during the Song Dynasty. An excellent swimmer, she wore red garments while at the shore to guide fishing boats home, even in harsh weather. Her father and brothers were fishermen. Legend has it that a big typhoon arose while they were at sea, and Lin Moniang fell into a trance where she dreamed of them drowning and attempted to save them. She saved her father but her mother woke her up from her trance, thus dooming her brother. The father returned alive and the villagers believed a miracle had happened. It was said that Lin Moniang ‘died’ when she climbed a mountain alone and flew to heaven, becoming a goddess.
Mazu is often flanked by two generals, Cheen Lei Ngan (thousand mile eye) and Soon Fung Yee (with the wind ear), from the legend of the 10 Brothers. They are her eyes and ears, and lookout for sailors or fishermen in trouble.
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Chinese temple, but European-style tiles from Holland. The outside gate is Scottish steel.
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Side area, housing other deities. There are deities for everything you could possibly pray for – Mazu for protection and blessing, Confucius for kids who are studying, another deity for health, and one for matters related to love.
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Another interesting story is that of the Black and White guards of Hell, or the Heibai Wuchang. 
Legend has it that they were once two constables of justice, Xie Bi’an and Fan Wujiu. While looking for an escaped convict, they split up and promised to meet at a bridge. Fan Wujiu was on time but due to heavy rain, Xie got delayed. Not wanting to break his promise to his colleague, Fan waited, but the rains swept the bridge away and he drowned (hence the black colouration of the deity, due to decomposition). Upon finally arriving, Xie was so overcome by remorse and guilt that he hung himself (thus the long tongue). Looking down from heaven, the Jade Emperor was impressed by their loyalty and friendship, thus appointing them guardians of the Underworld.
At Thian Hock Keng, Shal explains that devotees pray to these deities if they wish for wealth from ‘unorthodox’ means, ie striking the lottery or such. A closer look at the statues reveal that their tongues and mouths are stained black from opium and more recently, cigarettes – since unorthodox wealth = unorthodox offerings lol. There was a small table with an ashtray and sometimes you’d see beer or alcohol as well. Those with very sick and old relatives also pray to the Heibai Wuchang, to strike the person’s name off the list, since they are soul catchers.
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After all that, stepping out from the temple to the sight of towering buildings was a bit disorienting. We are still in the middle of 21st century Singapore!
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Thian Hock Keng Temple 
158 Telok Ayer St,
Singapore 068613
Opening hours: 730am-530pm
Entrance: Free – but observe local customs and dress decently.
thianhockkeng.com.sg

Journey to Enlightenment @ Chin Swee Cave Temple, Genting

TRIGGER WARNING: This post contains images that may be disturbing for some. Reader discretion is advised. 

….I don’t know, they always put that on TV shows. Anyway, if you’re the easily offended kind, here is a nice picture of flowers, and you can safely proceed to the X button. If not, read on.

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I blogged about visiting the Chin Swee Cave Temple in Genting in my last post. It’s a beautiful place up in the hills, with giant deity statues and amazing views of the valley. But there’s a section in this Taoist temple that chronicles the ‘Journey to Enlightenment’, which explains the different levels of hell one has to go through before rebirth. In Chinese diyu or hell, there are said to be 10 ‘courts’ where souls go to face their judgment and subsequent punishments (similar to Dante’s Inferno).Discounting the brutality of the punishments, the exhibit is actually a very interesting insight into Taoist/Chinese culture and mythology.

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We begin in the First Hell Chamber, which is overseen by Qin Guang Wang. he manages a book which dictates birth and death in the mortal realm, determining if they’ll live a long life or die a premature death. He’ll also do ‘sorting’: so if you’ve done a lot of good deeds, you’ll go to the Heavenly Realm (ie heaven/ like a Chinese version of Nirvana). If you’ve done both good/bad, you’ll be sent to the 9th chamber to be reborn into the mortal realm and if you’ve been a real rotten egg… well, you know what awaits.

The ideal is, of course, to achieve Nirvana and go to heaven, but unlike in religions where you only get one shot at life, Taoists believe that you can be reborn many times over. As devotees, one should strive to do as many good deeds as possible not just to avoid hell, but be finally free of the rebirth cycle.20160731_090159-tile

Taoist hell is a terrifying place with Hell guards and loads of suffering. Some of the prominent characters here are the ‘Guai Chai’ or Black and White Ghost Guards (picture above) who escort prisoners to the Underworld. Like Yin and Yang, they represent opposing forces of good and evil, balanced as a whole entity.

**More info here: Heibai Wuchang 

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In the right chamber there will be a mirror which shows the prisoner their past misdeeds. The Hell Guards will be there to keep an eye on the prisoners. They are depicted as fierce-looking demons, ready to mete out punishment with swords, spears, whips and chains. Two prominent Hell Guards that feature in every folklore is the Ngao Tao (ox head) and Ma Meen (horse face).

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The second chamber of Hell is ruled by Chu Jiang Wang and is dubbed Reviving Hell. Kidnappers, doctors who intentionally caused harm through malpractice, those who caused disabilities in others, adulterers, and those who have committed suicide will be punished here after death, according to the placard written next to the exhibit.

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It gets worse from here. Third chamber of Hell is ruled by Song Di Wang, and is called the Black Line Hell. Cheaters, disloyal and dishonest individuals, those who harmed others for self benefit, robbers and thieves will receive punishment here.

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This is the fourth chamber of Hell, or the Rounding Up and Crushing Hell. People who evaded taxes, cheated in sales, disrespected the elderly, bullied poor folks, did not abide by the law, were prone to vanity, etc are punished here. I don’t know why the ‘rules’ are so specific that they would have punishments for people who didn’t pay taxes (??) but sometimes things get lose in translation from Chinese to English. Also, bear in mind that these are based on folklore and belief blended with religion.

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Moving on, we have the Fifth Chamber of hell, or the Howling Hell. Those who haggled over fame and fortune, rapists, liked to fight and gamble, was jealous of the kind hearted, those who shot poultry and birds, wrested away farm land or destroyed water sources will be punished in this chamber. For their sins, prisoners are tied to a fiery rod to burn.

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The Sixth Chamber of Hell is controlled by Bian Cheng Wang, and is dubbed the Great Howling Hell. It’s not enough to call it Howling Hell, so they added a Great – so you can bet the punishments are really severe. Those who disregarded the gods and their teachings, violated ethical practices and wasted staple food will be punished in this hell.

I understand the part about wasting staple food. Ancient China was an agricultural society and food sources were not always easy to come by, especially during famines. My bro and I were taught never to waste food, and we even have sayings to deter food wastage, like “if you don’t finish every grain of rice in your bowl, your spouse is gonna be pockmarked.”

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This is the Seventh Chamber of Hell, or Heating Hell. No points for guessing what they do to prisoners there – they boil them alive. And saw their heads. Those who lived lavishly, gambled, practiced abortion , bullied the weak and fabricated truths will receive punishment here.

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Filial piety is a pillar of Chinese culture, and those who disobeyed, disrespected or treated their parents badly will suffer in the Eighth Chamber of Hell, called Intense Heating Hell. They’ll be crushed by heavy slabs, or thrown into a pit of fire.

The final chamber is called Ultimate Torment Hell. Crimes: Abortionists, men who raped young girls (apparently there are separate hells for rapists and rapists of young girls, the latter considered more severe?) and ‘those who enticed young men’… whatever that means.

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We’re almost at the end of the long and arduous journey. In the final Chamber, prisoners who have gone through their punishments will then be sorted to be reborn into the mortal realm. Even after punishments, if your sins are too severe, you might be reborn into an animal’s body in your next life. Else, you’ll become human again.

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Prisoners will drink a liquid called ‘Mang Po Tong’ (Blind Woman’s Soup). The Blind Woman is a figure who helps souls pass on to the next life. Her elixir will wipe out all your memories, so you won’t have any recollection of who you are in the past and can start afresh.

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Souls pass on through bridges into the mortal world. There are several categories that you can be reborn into, including Human, Mammal, Bird, Aquatic creatures (fish, turtles, etc) and Insects/invertebrate. The higher realm is of course, the Heavenly Realm resided by gods and deities.

…and that was the Journey to Enlightenment exhibit, although it was more a journey through hell.

I can’t say I agree with everything, but it’s not for me to judge. Different cultures/religions have different beliefs. Understanding is more important than judging, I say.

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Less trigger-ing pictures. Gorgeous mountain views.

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From Hell to Heaven – ‘Fairies’ on clouds, pulling a carriage in which the Heavenly Mother or Wong Mo is seated. The scene shows preparations for her birthday celebration, where all the gods and deities come together in heaven for a feast.

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Fook, Look,Sau – three deities that represents prosperity, wealth and status, and longevity.

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Wong Mo’s birthday always features giant peaches, which grow in heaven and promises longevity. In the Chinese classic Journey to the West, Sun Wukong the monkey wreaks havoc when he steals into the garden and eats all the peaches meant for Wong Mo’s birthday celebration.

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Part of the temple complex.

Chin Swee Cave Temple is a great place to visit for the views, culture and architecture. Entrance is free, but donations are welcome. If you stay at their accommodations, the money is donated to charity.

HOW TO GET TO CHIN SWEE CAVES TEMPLE

The best way to get to Chin Swee Caves Temple is by taking a cable car from Awana Skyway at the base of the mountain, near the Genting Highlands Premium Outlet. The temple is one of the stations where you can hop off at no extra charge.

Dusk to Dawn: Chin Swee Cave Temples, Genting

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Hi guys! We’re at Genting Highlands, a mountain retreat that houses the only casino in Malaysia, at 6,000 ft above sea level. While most people would opt for resort hotels and apartments at the top of the hill, the fam and I went for a tranquil, less crowded option, away from all the entertainment. Just a 10min drive downhill, the Chin Swee Cave Temple is a Taoist temple that also doubles as a hotel, with very basic accommodation. When I say basic, I mean really basic – they don’t even have WiFi or TV!

The beautiful views more than make up for that, however. Perched on a slope, the temple commands a wide view of the valley below, and the high elevation often makes the buildings seem like they are floating on clouds.

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The temple sits just next to the cable car line. In the distance, deep blue mountains stretch as far as the eye can see. This is the Titiwangsa range, also known as the ‘backbone’ of West Malaysia which has mountains running all the way from the tip right down to the bottom of our sweet potato-shaped peninsula.

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The pagoda structure glows with a fiery red light at night, like an ember.

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The temple grounds are pretty and peaceful in the daytime.

The place was built thanks to Tan Sri Lim Goh Tong, the same businessman who founded Resorts World Genting, who rallied friends and relatives from his native province in Fujian, China in order to establish the temple. The name, Chin Swee, actually refers to a Fujianese deity.

It was tricky to build on such a steep hillslope, but the spot had the best fengshui and Tan Sri Lim was determined to make it work. Being the project’s chief architect, planner, designer, contractor and supervisor, he employed workers who set to work using manual labour in order to dig the foundation for the temple, since modern machinery was useless in the rocky terrain.

Construction took a long and arduous 18 years. It was finally opened to the public in 1994.

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The hard work has definitely paid off! The temples are a popular tourist attraction as well as a place of pilgrimage for many devotees, who come to marvel at the views and beautiful structures. There is a multi-tiered pagoda at the bottom, and a large open courtyard which houses several shrines.

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One of the shrines, featuring ornate decorations and detailing. Golden lotus flower carvings on a backdrop of blue seem to represent the blossoms floating on a lake. These are accompanied by dancing dragons, as well as paintings of deities, flowers and animals on the shrine’s wooden doors.

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Deities.

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Buddhism/Taoism in Malaysia is an odd mix of culture, religion and philosophy. Many Chinese people,my relatives included, follow a blend of Buddhism/Taoism and Confucianism. The latter two has roots in China, and place strong emphasis on rituals. The Hungry Ghost Festival, for example, is a Chinese belief, but over time, these rituals have has blended into ‘Buddhist’ culture as well. Tibetan or Sri Lankan Buddhism is markedly different, and sometimes might even have different beliefs. I don’t really know how to explain it, but the best comparison I can give is probably how Christians have different sects, like Catholics and Protestants, etc.?

Correct me if I’m wrong. We’re all here to learn.

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GuanYin, or the Goddess of Mercy, is often depicted seated on a lotus flower with a bottle of holy water in her hand that has magical healing powers. She is the embodiment of compassion and kindness, hence the name. Often referred to as an ‘East Asian Bodhisattva’ (Bodhisattva being one who has achieved Buddhahood), she is revered in East Asian Buddhist cultures, including Chinese, Japanese, Burmese, Thai, Vietnamese and Korean cultures. She also appears as a male deity in Tibetan Buddhism.

When I was very young, my parents ‘baptized'(?) me to Guanyin for protection and blessings. I am supposed to be under this protection until a day comes when I choose to sever it, or if I don’t, for life. I use the word baptized in English, but in Chinese we call it ‘siong kai‘ or ‘to be adopted’ – so it’s like she becomes my godmother (literally).

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A large stone statue of Guan Yin looks down on the valley from above.

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Parents were tired, so bro and I continued exploring the temple grounds. Here are some scenes from a popular Chinese legend, Journey to the West. Can you recognize the characters?

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The story goes that the monk, XuanZuang, was decreed to travel to the West (hence Journey to the West) to collect sacred texts (sutras) on order of the Buddha. To aid him on his journey were three protectors: Sun Wukong the monkey, Zhu Bajie the pig and Sha Jing the sand demon, as well as a dragon prince who was to be the monk’s white steed.

Journey to the West was published in the 16th century and is considered one of the 4 Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature. While the story is fictional, it’s actually based on a real person, Tong XuanZuang. Born in China’s Tang Dynasty in the 600s, he was a monk and scholar who traveled all around China gathering sutras. He wanted to expand his knowledge to other places – and so began Xuan Zuang’s 17 year journey to Central Asia and India.

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Statues of deities line the courtyard. Each represents a different virtue.

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The centerpiece is a three-storey tall stone Buddha statue, which sits amidst a backdrop of forest and greenery. Behind the statue is a giant rock which holds it in place, and a natural stream that supposedly provides water with healing properties.

Everything seems really beautiful in this part of the temple, but there is a less pleasant ‘Path of Enlightenment’ section, which chronicles one’s journey through Taoist hell. I’ll cover that in another post though.

If you’re ever in Genting, pay a visit to these beautiful temple grounds and just soak in the fresh mountain air and peaceful environment. A word of warning though – Idk if this is pure superstitious belief, but this is what my mum told me – don’t go betting at the casino after visiting this temple. Apparently you’re bound to lose money lol.

Thean Hou Temple, Kuala Lumpur

 

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One of the most popular (and most beautiful!) Chinese temples in Kuala Lumpur is Thean Hou Temple, dedicated to the Heavenly Mother or Thean Hou Mo. Built in the 1980s, the sprawling complex is still well kept – with arching orange roofs topped with dragons and phoenixes, whitewashed walls and quaint side gardens.

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I’ve been here a couple of times, and the place is especially festive during Chinese New Year or religious festivities. At other times, it’s a great place to meditate in the prayer chambers or sit and admire the architecture, away from the hustle and bustle of the city. The editor and I were around the area for an assignment so I brought her for a quick visit.

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The ground floor is used for functions; the main shrine is accessed by stairs. Once up, visitors are greeted by a spacious courtyard that commands a scenic view of the Kuala Lumpur skyline. Pillars written with auspicious words and blessings line one side of the compound, accentuated by vividly coloured ceilings of blue, green and gold. Clouds, phoenixes, patterns, water and dragons are common decorative motifs.

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A sea of yellow lanterns.

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Prayer urn where devotees can place their joss sticks.

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Inside the hall, photography is allowed but visitors are required to be respectful when taking pictures. The prayer area houses three deities; namely the Heavenly Mother, Goddess of Mercy (Gwanyin) and Waterfront Goddess (Swei Mei) . Smaller deities sit at the bottom of the large golden statues, which are surrounded by prayer light towers. The walls are lined with pictures of small Bodhisattvas, donated by devotees to accumulate merits (or karma).

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What I really like about the space is the ceiling. Right in the middle is this beautiful dome inlaid with blue, red and gold patterns on top of each other, with a dragon on clouds in the middle. The craftsmanship is superb – rivalling those of European churches.

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Thean Hou Temple is definitely worth the visit if you’re ever in KL –  for the culture, architecture and beautiful sights. Entrance is free.

THEAN HOU TEMPLE 

65, Persiaran Endah, Taman Persiaran Desa, 50460 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Opening hours: 9am – 6pm

Getting There

Since the place is on top of a hill and at a dead end, buses or trains do not service the area. Best to take a taxi or Uber.