The sprawling Buddhist temple of Kek Lok Si climbs up a hillside near the village of Air Itam, now really a suburb of Georgetown. The temple was begun in 1890 and, from all appearances, construction really hasn't ever stopped. The temple is supposedly the largest in Malaysia.
The rambling temple consists of many prayer halls, pagodas, bell towers and just about every other typical temple structure you can think of, in varying styles from Burmese to Chinese to Thai. However, two structures dominate the scenery, especially when the temple is seen from afar. One is the seven story pagoda which dates from the temple's founding. The other is a huge bronze statue of the Goddess of Mercy, Kuan Yin - a popular deity in Penang you'll note. The statue was newly completed in mid-2003 but construction of various surrounding structures is still under way.
Whether you arrive by taxi or on foot from Air Itam, you'll end up first at the 'old' prayer hall. This doesn't look that old, and is worth looking in to see the walls lined with thousands of little niches holding Buddha statues.
From the old prayer hall, you'll need to make your way through a sunken garden with a sort of gazebo covering a large plaster Buddha image. The 'new' prayer hall is high up behind the garden, but there's no direct route there. Instead, you'll need to make your way from the viewpoint of the next platform through a sequence of courtyards, alters and prayer halls.
If you want to get a closeup look of the Kuan Yin statue, then veer left as you get to the furthest hall, which is also the largest and look for the signs for the 'incline lift' to the goddess. The incline lift is more of a tram -- an elevator-sized glass box mounted on rails which goes up to the terrace above the existing temple where the goddess stands. Use of the lift costs RM 2 (US $ 0.50) each way.
The route up to the 'new' prayer hall and pagoda is on the other side of the large prayer hall. From the 'incline lift' you need to cross the hall and go through the souvenir stands to find the desk where you must pay a 'voluntary' donation of another RM 2 to go up to the new prayer hall.
Inside, the new prayer hall is quite opulent compared to the old hall. Intricately carved columns like those on the Hainan Temple support the roof. Opposite the entry doors the wall is lined with three large Buddha images.
Walk past the prayer hall to reach the large pagoda. The narrow stairway up is somewhat hidden behind the large Buddha image inside the base. Each level of the pagoda is slightly different, with various styles of Buddha images and other decor. Among the most interesting are the alabaster Buddha images, some of which are quite beautiful in their gracefulness.
As you would expect, you get quite a good view of the temple as well as much of Penang from the upper levels of the pagoda. You can only climb up to the sixth level. The further levels are blocked off.
Worth noting: We're sure some may find the extensive use of the bent cross at Kek Lok Si temple offensive. The bent cross was a symbol of Buddhism, and even Hindus, for thousands of years before it was appropriated by the Nazis. Please keep in mind that the symbol means something vastly different to Buddhists than it might to westerners.
There is no admission fee to the temple itself. However, fees do apply to the incline lift to the Kuan Yin statue and to enter the area of the new prayer hall and pagoda.
You can get a taxi from Georgetown for RM 15 to 20 to take you to the temple. You can also take the Rapid bus to Penang Hill and the temple.