Timothy Tye
Kek Lok Si Temple (極樂寺 )

Kek Lok Si Temple, Penang (28 January, 2006)

Kek Lok Si (GPS: 5.40022, 100.27384; Traditional Chinese: 極樂寺, Simplified Chinese: 极乐寺, Penang Hokkien: Kek1 Lok3 Si33 , Pinyin: Jí Lè Sì) is the largest and arguably the best known Chinese temple in Penang. Its name in Penang Hokkien means "Temple of the Supreme Bliss". Kek Lok Si straddles a hillside overlooking Air Itam Village on the central part of Penang Island. Kek Lok Si brings together a blend of Mahayana Buddhism with Taoist beliefs and other Chinese rituals and folk beliefs. Since the old days, the hills of Ayer Itam are regarded as important geomantically. Known as He San, or Crane Hill, they are recommended as a retreat for Taoist practitioners striving for immortality.

Kek Lok Si Temple on Google Street View

Construction of Kek Lok Si began in the late 19th century, and has continued unabated for over a hundred years. The initial project was mooted by the chief monk of the Kuan Yin Teng, Goddess of Mercy Temple of Pitt Street, the Venerable Beow Lean. Born in Fujian Province, China, in 1844, Beow Lean had arrived in Penang in 1885 with the purpose of raising funds for a monastery in Fuzhou. Instead he ended up being offered the position of chief monk-in-residence of the Kuan Yin Teng by its trustees.

With the support of the consular representative of China in Penang, the project received the sanction of the Manchu Emperor Guangxu (also called Jingdi, 1875-1908, of the Qing Dynasty) who bestowed a tablet and gift of 70,000 volumes of the Imperial Edition of the Buddhist Sutras.

Kek Lok Si Complex (28 January, 2006)

Funds to get the Kek Lok Si project realised came from the local Chinese people, in particular five wealthy benefactors namely Cheong Fatt Tze (of Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion), Zhang Yunan, Cheah Choon Seng, Chung Keng Kwee (the Kapitan Cina who owned Hai Kee Chan) and Tye Kee Yoon. In recognition of their contribution, the temple made them the Five Principal Directors of Kek Lok Si. Sculptures of these five main benefactors as well as other principal donors were kept in the Hall of Manuscripts to commemorate their generosity.

The original 10-acre site of Kek Lok Si was purchased in 1893. It encompasses the submit of a knoll known as He Shan. The original temple, built at a cost of $180,000 Straits Dollars, was completed in 1904. An official opening ceremony was conducted on 13 January, 1905. Although large during its time, the original complex was a shadow of greater things to come.

Pagoda of Ten Thousand Buddhas, Kek Lok Si (2 February, 2003)

For the first thirty-five years of its existence, Kek Lok Si Temple was without its iconic pagoda. Nevertheless it was already assuming a position as one of the most prestigious and renowned Mahayana Buddhist religious institution in Southeast Asia.

The iconic Pagoda of Ten Thousand Buddhas was only constructed in 1927. It became an icon of Kek Lok Si Temple, and remains today as one of the most recognisable landmarks of Penang.

Aerial view of Kek Lok Si Temple in 1975Aerial view of Kek Lok Si Temple in 1975
© Ivan Murray

The above photo, taken by Mr Ivan Murray from a helicopter in 1975, shows the Kek Lok Si Temple before the recent phase of constructions began.

Construction of the Pagoda of Ten Thousand Buddhas began in 1915 under the second abbot of Kek Lok Si, Ben Zhong, who was also instrumented in founding the Kuan Yin See. The official name of the pagoda is the Pagoda of Rama VI. This is because the Thai monarch laid the foundation stone. Generally, however, it is better known as the Pagoda of Ten Thousand Buddhas, or in Hokkien, Ban Po That. The unusual pagoda combines a Chinese octagonal base with a middle tier of Thai design, and a Burmese crown, effectively fusing Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism symbols into one structure.

The Kuan Yin Statue of Kek Lok Si, before the pavilion was built to shelter it (2 February, 2003)

Many decades would pass before another star attraction assumes its position at Kek Lok Si Temple, the giant statue of Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy. The 30.2m bronze statue of the Avalokitesvara, as the Kuan Yin is known in Sanskrit, stands on a hillside above the pagoda. It was completed and open to the public at the end of 2002. It is in fact the second giant Kuan Yin statue to be erected. A smaller version was unveiled in the early 1980s. Today only a bust of that first statue remains.

The prime mover in getting the Kuan Yin statue built was the late abbot of Kek Lok Si, the Most Venerable Bai Sheng, who had wanted to build a 120-meter tall statue, but scaled it down to a height limit imposed by the state government under Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon. Funds from throngs of donors and wealthy benefactors has helped the Kek Lok Si Temple to continue expanding. One of its latest projects is the construction of a pavilion to shelter the giant Kuan Yin statue. The 20-storey pavilion was consecrated on 6 December, 2009, in a ceremony attended by Dr Koh and his successor Lim Guan Eng.

Kuan Yin Pavilion, Kek Lok Si (25 January, 2012)

How to go to Kek Lok Si Temple

By Car
There are several parking lots to leave your car within Air Itam Village as well as within the Kek Lok Si Temple complex itself. Locations of car parks are shown on the map below.

By Bus
Rapid Penang Bus 201, 203, 204, 306 and 502 goes to Air Itam Village. The most convenient bus stop is located along Jalan Pasar, at the foothills of the temple. Jalan Pasar is a one-way street. Walk following the traffic flow until you reach a T-junction. You can see Kek Lok Si towering to the left side. Turn left and walk in its direction.

Kek Lok Si Temple Visitor Guide

Kek Lok Si Temple is a massive, sprawling complex with numerous shrines and pavilions. I created this visitor guide to ensure that you do not miss out on any of the sights. All the sights are numbered beginning with those at the base and culminating with the sight at the top.

Exploring Kek Lok Si Temple

There are several entrances to enter Kek Lok Si. To cover it completely, start from the bottom and work your way to the top. A small river, Sungai Air Itam, with a bridge across it, marks the entrance into Kek Lok Si. On the other side of the river is an ascending pathway towards the temple. On both sides are stalls selling tourist items, souvenirs and trinkets. If any item catches your interest, be sure to bargain vigorously.

Along the way up, you pass through the archway of the Kong Min School First Branch. Construction of the school building was funded by the philanthropist brothers Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par of Tiger Balm fame. Together, they were instrumental in the building of many schools and temples all across Peninsular Malaya.

Kong Min School First Branch (25 January, 2012)

Kong Min School pavilion, in the midst of the souvenir stalls passageway (25 January, 2012)

The souvenir passageway leads to the Liberation Pond, also called the Tortoise Pond. One of the highlights of Kek Lok Si Temple, the pond holds hundreds of tortoise, many over fifty years old. Vendors sell kangkung (water convolvulus) which you can buy to feed the tortoise. The pond appears murky and unkempt.

Liberation Pond (Tortoise Pond), Kek Lok Si (25 January, 2012)

Tortoises in the Liberation Pond at Kek Lok Si (25 January, 2012)

Tortoises at Kek Lok Si (1 February, 2003)

The pathway continues up to Middle Station, the mid way point in the temple complex. On this level is a large air-conditioned souvenir store, a basement parking lot and an open parking lot. The souvenir store, run by the temple, sells religious paraphernalia. Located right above these is the Middle Station Shrine Hall. This is the first of many major halls within the temple complex. It has a double-tier roof with roof ridges that curve upwards. The orange tiles bear the names of donors who contributed to its building fund.

Middle Station Shrine Hall, Kek Lok Si (25 January, 2012)

Entrance to the Middle Station Shrine Hall, Kek Lok Si (1 February, 2003)

You can drive directly to the Middle Station of Kek Lok Si, entering via the Grand Arch. This ornate arch is the main entrance to the Kek Lok Si complex, discounting the lower section with the souvenir stalls.

Stone stairs leads from the car park to the Kek Lok Si Central Court. This is a courtyard that appears like a quadrangle with the other attractions looming up around it. The two main features of the Central Court is the Seven-Tier Pagoda and the Circular Pavilion. Due to the height of the surrounding sights, the Central Court is usually in shadow except during noon time.

Circular Pavilion, Kek Lok Si (25 January, 2012)

Seven-Tier Pagoda, Kek Lok Si (25 January, 2012)

A covered walkway wraps around the side of the Central Court, with steps leading gradually to the Viewpoint. This is a good location to get a good view of the Kek Lok Si complex, with the Pagoda of Ten Thousand Buddhas on the left, the Middle Station Shrine Hall on the right and the Central Court down below.

The Pagoda of Ten Thousand Buddhas, as seen from the Viewpoint (25 January, 2012)

From the Viewpoint, enter a gateway. In front of you is a row of stelae (stone tablets) inscribed with details of construction and donors. The path leads to the left, continuing to Three Tier Pagoda and the Hall of the Laughing Buddha.

The Three Tier Pagoda is a three-storey building. It is within a courtyard surrounded by the Cloister of Standing Buddhas, an uninterrupted row of standing Buddha images with the right hand pointing down and the left hand bent at elbow.

Cloister of Standing Buddhas, Kek Lok Si (9 February, 2009)

Only the first two levels of the Three Tier Pagoda are open to the public. The three seated Buddha images are installed on the second level while on the ground floor is a Thai-style seated Buddha in the earth-touching posture, or Bhumisparsha mudra. It is surrounded by a verandah which offers good views of Kek Lok Si Temple and the cityscape of George Town.

Three Tier Pagoda, Kek Lok Si (25 January, 2012)

The Three-Tier Pagoda of Kek Lok Si (25 January, 2012)

Earth-touching Buddha, ground level of the Three Tier Pagoda, Kek Lok Si (2 February, 2003)

The Three Seated Buddhas, Kek Lok Si (25 January, 2012)

George Town, as seen from the Three Tier Pagoda at Kek Lok Si (28 January, 2006)

Within the courtyard of the Pagoda of the Three Seated Buddhas is a small Shrine to the Four-Faced Buddha, a representation of the Hindu deity Brahma. Beyond it is the Hall of the Laughing Buddha, but just before you enter it, you will see on your left the Shrine of the Horse-headed Kuan Yin (馬頭観音).

Shrine of the Horse-headed Kuan Yin, Kek Lok Si (25 January, 2012)

Through an ornate wooden gate you enter the Hall of the Laughing Buddha. The Laughing Buddha, known in Chinese as Budai (布袋) is identified as an incarnation of the Maitreya, the future Buddha in Buddhist eschatology. A gargantuan statue of the Laughing Buddha is flanked by guardian sentinels, two on each side. These are known in Chinese as Jīngāng shǒu púsà (金剛手菩薩), Héyíluóhuányuèchā (和夷羅洹閱叉) or Báshéluóbōnì (跋闍羅波膩).

Courtyard in front of the Hall of the Laughing Buddha, with the Shrine of the Horse-headed Kuan Yin to the left (25 January, 2012)

The Maitreya and Guardian Sentinels in the Hall of the Laughing Buddha, Kek Lok Si (25 January, 2012)

Guardian Sentinels in the Hall of the Laughing Buddha, Kek Lok Si (25 January, 2012)

A courtyard separates the Hall of the Laughing Buddha from the Main Prayer Hall. The Main Prayer Hall, called Dàxíongbǎo Diàn (大雄宝殿) in Mandarin, is the most important part of the temple complex.

At the Main Prayer Hall you find a plethora of shrines. The place is usually crowded with worshippers, some hanging their prayers on prayer trees. Ribbons of various colours are used for different types of prayers. There are donation box as well as another souvenir kiosk by the side. Devotees making a donation may collect a golden bullion at the base of another Laughing Buddha statue.

Courtyard between the Hall of the Laughing Buddha and the Main Prayer Hall (25 January, 2012)

Devotees hanging prayers on the prayer trees (25 January, 2012)

Donation box, Kek Lok Si (25 January, 2012)

Daxiongbao Dian, the Main Prayer Hall of Kek Lok Si (9 February, 2009)

From the Main Prayer Hall, you have the option of taking a right turn, to reach the Pagoda of Ten Thousand Buddhas, or a left turn, to reach the Kuan Yin Pavilion. Let's visit the Pagoda followed by the Pavilion.

On our way to the Pagoda of Ten Thousand Buddhas, we pass by the Grand Hall of Kek Lok Si. This is a large assembly hall where Buddhist religious seminars, ordinations and examinations are held.

Yard in front of the Grand Hall of Kek Lok Si (25 January, 2012)

Inside the Grand Hall of Kek Lok Si (9 February, 2009)

From the Grand Hall, we proceed to the Pagoda of Ten Thousand Buddhas. This is the most famous landmark of Kek Lok Si Temple and one of the most recognizable icons of Penang Island. The pagoda has graced countless tourism literature for decades, though lately its position has been challenged (but not entirely eclipsed) by the Kuan Yin Pavilion. Click here to read more about the Pagoda of Ten Thousand Buddhas.

You can climb up the pagoda to view the various architectural styles. The English name of the pagoda is derived from the tiles on the walls depicting Buddha images. Statues of various Buddhas and bodhisattvas grace various levels of the structure.

The Pagoda of Ten Thousand Buddhas (25 January, 2012)

Statues of bodhisattvas within the Pagoda of Ten Thousand Buddhas (9 February, 2009)

Seated bodhisattva, Pagoda of Ten Thousand Buddhas (9 February, 2009)

At the base of the pagoda is a garden planted with various flowering plants and vegetables.

Kek Lok Si Garden (9 February, 2009)

Next to the garden is a small memorial shrine.

Memorial shrine, Kek Lok Si (9 February, 2009)

Having covered this side of Kek Lok Si Temple, we now return to the Main Prayer Hall and proceed to visit the rest of the temple complex. The left side of the Main Prayer Hall leads to Lower Station of the Inclined Lift. At the station there is another big souvenir outlet selling various Buddhist-inspired items.

You need to purchase the ticket before joining the queue to take the Inclined Lift. The fare is RM4 per adult for a return trip.

Corridor towards the Inclined Lift Lower Station (25 January, 2012)

Kek Lok Si Inclined Lift rail (25 January, 2012)

The Inclined Lift Upper Station has a bust of the old Kuan Yin Statue. From here, you enter the Zodiac Garden , where you find statues of animals from the Chinese Zodiac.

The Inclined Lift Upper Station incorporating the bust of the old Kuan Yin Statue (7 December, 2009)

Zodiac Garden, Kek Lok Si Temple (7 December, 2009)

Pavilion and pond at the Zodiac Garden (7 December, 2009)

The next attraction is none other than the Kuan Yin Pavilion., which I describe it more detail in its own page.

Kuan Yin Pavilion (25 January, 2012)

Memorial Tablet at the Kuan Yin Pavilion (25 January, 2012)

Alms bowls encircle the base of the Kuan Yin pedestal (25 January, 2012)

Spire of the Kuan Yin Pavilion (4 June, 2011)

The last sight to visit is the Kek Lok Si Columbarium. Four-storey structure to house the remains of the departed. It is located a short distance from the Kuan Yin Statue, on the road towards the Cheng Kon Sze Temple.

Kek Lok Si Columbarium (11 October, 2008)

Kek Lok Si FAQ

How long does it take to walk from the foot of the hill to the temple proper?
If you intend to stop at the shops, coffee shops, tortoise ponds, you may take 40 minutes or so. A relatively fit person can climb straight to the top in 10 minutes. You can also drive to the parking lot at the temple entrance, bypassing the shops.

Above the souvenir shop, the temple proper begins. There is a round pond with a seven-tier ornamental pagoda. It is located in a square above the main Pagoda of 10,000 Buddhas. A sheltered passageway leads up a flight of steps to the Chamber of Seated Buddhas. This two-storey pavilion is cloistered by rows of standing Buddha images. The seated Buddhas are surrounded by lit candles in the form of open lotus.

Pumpkin garden at Kek Lok SiPumpkin garden at Kek Lok Si (25 January, 2012)

When's the best time to visit Kek Lok Si Temple?

The best season to visit Kek Lok Si is during the Chinese New Year season, when the temple complex is lit up with thousands of lanterns. It is also the best time to visit the temple complex during the day, as the chances of viewing it against a blue sky is higher. The complex is particularly impressive during dusk, as the lanterns are lit up over a darkening sky. You will see throngs of photography buffs jostling with devotees and worshippers to get the best angle and view, particularly during the blue hour.

Kek Lok Si Temple is on the map of Air Itam

Kek Lok Si Temple is on the map of Air Itam Village

Related Pages

  1. Beautiful Kek Lok Si Temple
    Photos of Kek Lok Si Temple taken during Chinese New Year 2012.

  2. Kuan Yin Pavilion
    The latest addition to the Kek Lok Si temple complex.


3 June, 2011: The murky Liberation Pond of Kek Lok Si Temple has been criticised by the Penang Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), saying "the tortoises are living in horrendous conditions," according to honorary sectetary Dr. G.S. Gill. Temple trustee Datuk Steven Ooi said they were aware of the overcrowding, and that some tortoises would be relocated to a bigger pond when it is completed in 2012.

6 December, 2009
The latest attraction at the Kek Lok Si Temple complex is the Goddess of Mercy Pavilion, consecrated on 6 December, 2009, in the presence of the Chief Minister of Penang, Rt. Hon. Lim Guan Eng, and former Chief Minister of Penang, Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon.

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