Penang: Kek Lok Si

For Chinese New Year, Kek Lok Si temple is all dressed up in her finest and the crowds come to admire her.

Since we had not seen Kek Lok Si yet, we wanted to explore Malaysia’s largest Buddhist temple in the daylight as well as at night. We chose the first official night of lights, Chinese New Year’s Eve, for our visit. We knew that the temple, completed in 1905, would be very busy over the next week, and that many of the area’s Chinese would be enjoying their traditional family reunion dinners, so hoped that the crowds would be reasonable.

The temple is on three levels. When you arrive by bus, you begin your trip at the lower level near the turtle pond. You can walk up or take the incline lift to the middle level. There is another incline lift that goes between the middle and the upper level. Each ride on the lift is 3RM ($1 CAD).

We chose to hire a Grab taxi, and our driver dropped us at the middle level. Since we didn’t walk down until dark, we didn’t see the Liberation Pond filled with turtles on the lower level. We also avoided the many souvenir stalls and tables that line the path. As for the rest of the site, we just wandered and explored, up and down staircases and pathways, experiencing the colours, gardens, architecture, and lights as they presented themselves to us.

There are stacks of roof tiles here and there as well as many other signs of renovation and maintenance activity. Later we saw tables where people can donate or purchase items including piles of blank tiles. We guessed (and could be completely wrong) that the tiles with writing on them have been purchased or acquired through donation and eventually these will be used to upgrade the rooves of the ornate buildings.

Around the grounds, there are huge boulders with structures built to accommodate them. Sometimes the rocks bear a written message.

One of the many sculpted panels on giant doors

We followed the signs to the pagoda. Though there was a turnstile and we had read of a small charge to go to the pagoda, there were no fees the day we were there.

The pagoda is nestled in a garden, which includes a large overhead trellis dripping with bottle gourds or calabashes. We have seen much smaller versions at the markets of late and found out that they are used symbolically for Chinese New Year. These ones were huge, and I was sure they were just tied up onto the supporting grid as part of the decoration or for a bit of fun. A closer look disabused me of that theory–they were tied, but only to help support their weight. These were still attached to their vines.

We climbed to the top of the pagoda, stopping on each level’s balcony to admire the views. The pagoda was completed in 1930, and combines 3 different styles: Chinese base, Thai middle, and Burmese top.

Rear entrance gate nestled in the mountain jungle

While we were up in the pagoda, we kept hearing bells and found out why on our descent. Near the base is a giant bronze bell that anyone can bong with the large sliding pin (a donation box is conveniently built into the device).

Finding one of the previously closed buildings open, we checked it out before heading to the incline lift to the third level to see if it was open as well.

The lift had reopened so we purchased our tickets and headed up. The top level contains a water feature, garden, and the all-important 30m (99 feet) statue, the Goddess of Mercy. The bronze statue was completed in 2002 (it replaced a plaster one damaged by fire some years before), and the surrounding pavilion in 2009.

Year of the pig decorations provide a photo op if the statue isn’t a grand enough background

The base of the statue is completely surrounded by bowls. Rhythmic pinging sounds were created as believers walked the circumference dropping a coin into each one.

Donation bowls at the base of the statue

The garden around the statue is decorated with cute granite benches bookended with animal figures (or, in one case, by one animal).

Behind the Goddess of Mercy pavilion are row upon row of smaller likenesses.

One of these things is not like the others …

As we finished our wander about the pavilion, we could see that the crowds were gathering and just waiting. We asked when the lights would be turned on and learned we had only 5 minutes to wait until 7:30. We decided to hang out at the top so we could see the lights from all levels.

An example of the ribbon lights attached to bollards, columns and doorframes
Waiting for the lights to be switched on
The lights are on and the crowds keep coming
Lanterns zigzag along the street leading up to the base of Kek Lok Si
The statue aglow viewed from the upper-level parking area
We came across these little dreamers as we came down from the pavilion
Middle level
From the lower-level parking area


  • Transportation: From Miami Green, Google Maps showed that the trip to the temple would be about 40 minutes by car or 1 1/2 hours by bus with a couple of transfers. We opted for Grab at 21 RM ($7 CAD) for the 17km trip up. On our way back, Grab was in high demand time, and the trip cost 42 RM ($14 CAD). Both ways, we had great drivers and good conversation. On the way up, we asked the driver to stop at a bank machine for us (we tipped him for this and he tried to get us to reduce the tip of 10 RM or $3.33 CAD as it was too much). Though the return trip was our most expensive Grab ride to date, knowing what the bus trip would have been like the Grab trip was still a bargain as far as we were concerned.
  • Hours: When we arrived at the temple at about 5:00, the middle-to-top lift was closed as were a couple of main buildings. A little later, though, everything was reopened.
  • Parking: There was plenty of available parking on the lower level when we left at about 9:00. There are also parking areas on the middle and top levels and these were quite busy.

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