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The second port of call on our Taste of Southeast Asia cruise was Penang. More specifically, the city of George Town on the island of Penang. We opted for one of the ten excursions offered, a trip to the Kek Lok Si Temple, sometimes known as the Temple of 10,000 Buddhas, which is the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia.
We assembled in the ship’s theatre in the morning and disembarked as a group to catch a bus for the half hour drive through narrow residential streets until we finally got there. Our first impression of the city was that it was not as wealthy as Kuala Lumpur. Our bus took a route through a poorer section of town. But the city is fairly modern with a bustling downtown as well.
We found a long row of Buddhas in the parking lot and looked up to see the temple rising high above us. They could have called it the Temple of 10,000 steps because we then started a long climb to the top and it sure seemed like it!
The walk took us through rows of market stalls at the beginning selling souvenirs and other goods. We then emerged at the turtle pond. Buddhists give turtles to their temples to ensure long life, but you have to feel sorry for the turtles. They appear vastly over-crowded. Sometimes they seemed to be crawling all over each other.
Another hallway with more shops took us past the restrooms. Okay – if you’re going to visit this temple (or any other older tourist site in Malaysia), you should know about the unsanitary washroom conditions. They don’t use toilet paper.
The toilets usually are squat toilets with maybe one or two western style toilets, but no toilet paper. In the temple washrooms, each stall had a tap on the floor with a hose attached. The idea is you turn on the tap and spray down your butt instead of using TP. We had a previous experience and my wife carried a roll of toilet paper in her purse – a very good idea. Also, the washrooms have no paper towels or anything to wipe your hands after washing them. Frankly, by western standards, the toilets are gross. Be forewarned and carry TP with you. Maybe even a paper towel or two.
This hallway finally took us out to the temple itself, which is a large number of buildings of various designs, some of them exquisite in their beauty. One of the main attractions is the beautiful Pagoda of Rama VI, a seven story structure which apparently has 10,000 alabaster Buddhas inside. We did not have access to this building but only saw its exterior, which is magnificent. Interestingly, the pagoda was built in stages and has three different architectural styles. The lower third is in Chinese style. The middle third is Thai, and the top third is Burmese.
Along the way we encountered something we thought a bit unusual – a very lovely elegantly dressed Chinese girl posing for photographers. Some magazine or ad agency was conducting a photo shoot and we came across a half dozen models throughout the temple, cameramen in tow. We thought it an odd location for a fashion shoot.
We wandered through some exterior hallways festooned with lanterns for Chinese new year and on to another building. All the while we passed through beautiful gardens, rich with blooms and greenery.
We entered a courtyard which featured another long row of Buddhas. Each had a swastika on its chest. The swastika (svastika in Sanscrit) is an ancient symbol of good luck that has been used since the Second Century. It is widely used in eastern religions. Unfortunately it fell into disrepute when it was adopted by the Nazis. The Buddhist swastikas at the temple has arms trailing to the left whereas the Nazi swastika’s arms trail right.
Past the garden we walked a round another open air temple and then back through some passages to another building with three large Buddhas and then another with one large Buddha and some figures of warriors, all in glass cases. Finally a long set of hallways through yet more shops took us to a funicular tram to take us to the top level.
We exited the tram through yet another gift shop out to a parking lot. So there must have been a road leading there. We noticed something unusual as we emerged, a row of small statues lining the parking lot that resembled, of all things, Disney and other cartoon characters. There was Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck and Porky Pig among others. Whether these characters are revered by Buddhists is a mystery to me. I tried to look it up on the Internet and found no explanation.
This upper level formed the base for a 99 foot high bronze statue of Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy. The pagoda surrounding it was built after the statue and there was some scaffolding on one side as work was still being done on it. On either side of the pagoda there were tall bronze statues of warriors.
Our guide told us the statue of the goddess cost around $8 million to build. My wife and I wondered why they couldn’t have sprung $100,000 out of that to build some decent washrooms!
We wandered around this top level for a while, taking in yet another temple and a large fish pond well stocked with goldfish or koi. And some interesting park benches, one in the shape of a weiner dog. My friend Squire Barnes as well as Gary Larson would love this!
Finally it was back through the gift shop and the maze of trails back to the bus. We had an enjoyable visit despite the crappy washrooms. The bus took us back to town where we had lunch at a food court (New World Park) specializing in Asian dishes. We weren’t particularly hungry and were pleased to find a Starbucks nearby. After a short stay, it was back to the ship.
While we enjoyed our visit to the temple, cruisers who opted to explore on their own would find an old fort near by – Fort Cornwallis – the largest standing fort in Malaysia and open to visitors. There are other attractions nearby including the Queen Victoria clock tower. And it is a short walk to the bustling city itself.
Links of Interest
- Photo Gallery – Additional Photos of the Temple
- Kuala Lumpur – Previous Stop on Our Cruise
- Kek Lok Si Temple (Wikipedia Article)
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