The Temple of 10,000 Buddhas – Penang, Malaysia

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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.

The Kek Lok Si Temple has many buildings and sits at the base of Air Itam Mountain on the outskirts of George Town.
The Kek Lok Si Temple has many buildings and sits on the lower slope of Air Itam Mountain on the outskirts of George Town.

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!

Parking lot Buddhas at the Temple of 10,000 Buddhas.

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.

Tunnel of market stalls on the way to the temple grounds.

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.

The Pagoda of Rama VI with its three different architectural styles.

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.

A fashion model poses for photographers. There were around a half dozen spread around the complex.
A fashion model poses for photographers. There were around a half dozen spread around the complex.

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.

Janis along a lush garden path at the temple complex.
Janis along a lush garden path at the temple complex.

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.

Buddhas with swastikas on their chests. The swastika is an ancient religious symbol.
Buddhas with swastikas on their chests. The swastika is an ancient religious symbol.

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.

Three large Buddhas.
Three large Buddhas.

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.

Statues of Disney and other cartoon characters. Revered by Buddhists?
Statues of Disney and other cartoon characters. Revered by Buddhists?

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.

The bronze statue of Guanyin, Goddess of Mercy.
The bronze statue of Guanyin, Goddess of Mercy.

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!

Looking down on the monastery buildings, the funicular tram and the city in the distance.

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!

Yours truly and the weiner dog bench!
Yours truly and the weiner dog bench!

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.

Fort Cornwallis is the largest fort in Malaysia.
Fort Cornwallis is the largest fort in Malaysia.

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.

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Port of Call: Kuala Lumpur

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My wife and I are currently on a seven day Southeast Asia Cruise aboard the Mariner of the Seas, a Royal Caribbean cruise ship. On Jan. 23rd we docked at Port Klang, the port city that serves much of the province of Selangor in Malaysia including the capital city of Kuala Lumpur.

As is usually the case with cruises and their ports of call, various excursions were offered and we took one that took us to Kuala Lumpur itself, an hour and a half drive by bus. Here’s how our day went.

All those taking shore excursions met in the theatre at 8:15 and were assigned to various buses. We boarded and set off on our journey. Our guide was a chatty Malay fellow, not always easy to understand with his heavily accented English, but we could pick up most of it.

We passed development after development of relatively new row housing. Our guide told us that many of these developments were designed to provide housing for poorer people. They all were a minimum of three bedrooms and could be bought for 42,000 ringgits, the Malaysian currency. A ringgit is about a third of a Canadian dollar. So if you’re below a certain income level in Malaysia, you can buy a modern three bedroom apartment for around CDN$14,000. These developments went on for mile after mile.

We also passed a large plant manufacturing the Proton car, a Malaysian built car. The Proton company was a government operation at first but was later privatized. Cars, in fact, are plentiful in the country.

The highways are all tolled and our bus passed several on our trip. We also saw many motorbikes on the road and our guide told us that motorbikes under 100 cc are exempt from the tolls, so those small motorbikes are very popular there.

We finally arrived at Kuala Lumpur, a vibrant, modern city, lush with greenery at every turn. Its main industry, according to our guide, is computer parts. It is a high tech hub.

Part of vibrant Kuala Lumpur seen from the Observation Deck of the KL Tower

Our first stop was a Chinese buddhist temple in the middle of the city. Its up on a hill and our bus navigated some windy roads getting there.

The temple itself was gorgeous. Because Chinese New Year is coming up on Feb. 8, red paper lanterns were everywhere. In fact, our cruise ship has also been decorated for Chinese New Year.

Beautiful Chinese Buddhist Temple in Kuala Lumpur

The temple, in pagoda style, is colorful and elaborate. We had to take our shoes off to enter the worship area and we were impressed by the ornate ceiling as well as the three large buddha icons.

One of three giant buddhas at the temple
Some of the ornate ceiling in the temple

After visiting the temple, Janis and I wandered around a bit and came across a lovely garden with waterfalls and two ponds filled with turtles. Buddhists release turtles into these ponds for good luck and long life.

Turtle ponds are found at many Buddhist temples in Asia.

Next stop was a short one at the King’s Palace. Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy and the king is the nominal head of state.

The King’s Palace

After that, it was back on the tour bus for a meandering ride through a working class district of town. Lots of row housing here too, but older and not as pristine as the newer ones we passed on the drive in. What’s interesting is that almost every home has an air conditoner (it is very hot and muggy in this area), most homes have satellite dishes or antennas, and everyone hangs their laundry out to dry on the balconies. Some buildings were awash with laundry.

The trail ended at the Royal Selangor Pewter Company where we stopped for a tour. It is a large modern plant and displays a bit of the history of pewter making in Malaysia. Tin is widely mined in the area and it is the main ingredient of pewter, along with smidgens of copper and antimony.

Inside the Royal Selangor Pewter Company

One wall near the beginning of the tour showed colour slides of notables who have visited the factory, including the Prince of Wales, Bill Clinton and Martha Stewart.

Along the way we saw various artisans at work handcrafting artifacts. One woman spent all her time hammering dimples into the surface of a container shaped like a tin can revolving on a lathe. Bang! Bang! Bang! Just hammering away.

Artisan at work

The tour ended at the gift shop, of course, as many such tours do. Many beautiful handicrafts were on display including a Star Wars collection – Princess Leia, Han Solo or Darth Vader stauettes in pewter. They were good sized pieces – six to eight inches long, polished to a nice shine, and going for 1200 ringgits each or about CDN$400.

Star Wars figures in pewter
Star Wars figures in pewter

Outside was the world’s largest pewter tankard according to the Guinness Records Book.

Standing beside the world’s largest pewter beer tankard

We left this district for the center of the city, stopping for a short visit to the Petronas Towers. These world famous 88 story towers were the world’s tallest buildings from 1998 to 2004. They remain the tallest twin towers. (Are there any others?) The towers formed an integral part of the 1999 movie Entrapment starring Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones.

The mighty Petronas Towers
The mighty Petronas Towers

We had hoped to go up the towers but the tours are booked at least a month in advance so it was a no go. But after a tasty buffet lunch at the Commodore Hotel, we went up the KL Tower, the fourth tallest communications tower in the world. It looks much like the CN Tower in Toronto but is a bit shorter. The observation level offers a terrific panoramic view of the city, including the Petronas Towers.

The tour ended, we took the bus back to our cruise ship for the next leg on our exciting holiday.

A few notes for tourists. Although the city is modern, some older places like the temple often have squat toilets and no toilet paper or paper towels for drying your hands after washing them. Ladies should wear skirts or dresses for this eventuality as pants are awkward. You should also pack a roll of toilet paper. Later in our trip we visited Penang and some of the washrooms had a faucet on the floor attached to a rubber hose beside the squat toilet, the hose be used in place of toilet paper. Ewwww! Be forewarned! Modern buildings have modern bathroom facilities and will usually have at least some western style toilets.

Also, while Malaysia is a multicultural society, it predominant religion is Islam, with large Hindu and Buddhist minorities as well as some Christianity from British colonial days. Our tour guide was, by Western standards, quite politically incorrect, making snide cracks about both the Chinese and the Indians in their society.

There is a strong animosity towards Singapore, which interestingly enough, used to be part of Malaysia. But unlike Quebec separatists in Canada and the Basques in Spain and France who want to secede from their countries, Singapore didn’t secede but was expelled by Malaysia over political differences. The largely ethnic Chinese Singaporeans have been disdained by many Malaysians ever since.

Finally, Malaysia, like Singapore, has very strict drug laws and the death penalty for many drug offences. While there are movements to decriminalize marijuana in Canada and the United States, bringing some into Malaysia could see you at the end of a rope.

But all in all, we loved Kuala Lumpur and would love to visit again for a longer period. It is relatively inexpensive and although we didn’t do any shopping, I’ve heard it is a shopper’s paradise.

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