Article: Visit to the Kek Lok Si Temple in Penang and Display of Lights
The Kek Lok Si Temple is located on a hillside outside of town and it is known as the Temple of Surpreme Bliss.
Every year, as apart of the Chinese New Year’s celebration, the temple is featuring a special lighting display known as the “Display of Lights”. In 2017, the lighting display will be placed there between 24th of January 2017 and 11th of Feb 2017.
We visited the temple in the late afternoon. After several hours of exploring Georgetown we went to the bus terminal Pengkalan Weld (Weld Quay). It is one of the main bus terminals on the island.
In Penang, there are 4 Rapid Penang buses (the public transportation network), going to the Kek Lok Si Temple.
The numbers are 201, 203, 204 and 502. Additionally, you can take the Hop on Hop off bus to the temple. The Hop on Hop off bus is probably a good idea if you want to visit various sites around the island. It does cost substantially more but is far easier to navigate as a novice. The downside is it only operates until 8pm which wasn’t good enough as the Display of Lights only starts after sunset which was 7.30pm. The public network runs until much later.
Unfortunately there wasn’t much information available at the Rapid Penang bus terminal. The staff were disinterested so much so that the man behind the information counter would not even lean forward from his slumped reclined position in his chair to begin to attempt to communicate clearly through the small hole in the glass. There weren’t any maps, schedules, information on stops, simply nothing. If we had not been prepared in advance we would have been left purely at the mercy of fellow passengers.
The only map of the Rapid Penang network that we found (both from asking the hotel and from their website) was one that looked a bit like a route map of airlines. This was useless as buses do not fly from one location to another and no information was contained on the route or individual stops. As we already learned from KL, the information on Google Maps, is also not yet sophisticated enough. The duration of the journeys Google suggests is completely wrong. The Maps and information on the bus numbers, however, is correct on Google Maps.
Eventually someone helpful directed us to the bus number 204.
Fortunately, and in contrast to the customer service personnel, the buses are pleasant, modern and air-conditioned which felt great after the high humidity and temperatures of over 32 C or 90 F. The bus fare was RM 2 per person and it had to be paid in cash on the bus. You have to have the exact money available because they don’t give change.
The temple is the last station on the route which is good to know as there are no announcements of the bus stops and of the three buses we rode only one featured a route map on-board.
Tip: Ask the driver to tell you when the bus is at your stop.
After about an hour we reached the stop for the temple in the village called Ayer Itam. It sits on a small hilltop and you can actually see it before the bus stop.
We were there just after 5pm and headed straight up to the Temple via the main road.
On our way, we passed a large parking lot on our left, from where you can also walk up a footpath to the temple. We chose to carry on up the side of the road. As you start your walk, the temple area seems to be higher than it actually is. We were at the entrance to the temple within ten minutes. The entrance to the temple is free.
After the entrance we worked our way through the temple area. It is the largest Buddhist temple in Southeast Asia and inside you can find several temples, gardens, a seven-tier pagoda and the giant bronze statue of Kuan Yin.
It was built in the late 19th century and founded by Abbot Beow Lean. The temple also houses Malaysia’s first hillslope lift that takes visitors up to the giant Kuan Yin statue. The lift costs 10Rm return per person. Apparently, you can also walk up to it but unfortunately it was already closed on our visit. From up there you can have a good view of penang. The normal opening hours of the temple are from 9am until 6pm.
According to a rather unhelpful monk, the Kuan Yin statue opening hours vary during the Chinese New Year celebration.
Our visit to the temple felt completely different compared to our visit to the mosque Masjid Melayu Lebuh Aceh some days before. This mosque is located in Georgetown and we found the people there most welcoming and even got invited to lunch by the mosque centre as they celebrated a small get together after a wedding.
The visit to the mosque was wonderful and the people were so much friendlier. You could actually learn something about their religion from them. By contrast we did not find anyone volunteering information on the spiritual aspects of the Kek Lok Si temple. Instead we encountered some uncommunicative monks, donation boxes left right and centre and shop stalls throughout selling various trinkets and the usual tourist souvenir items. It felt more like a shopping market than a spiritual place.
We also thought that the temple would be open longer during the Display of Lights so that visitors can actually walk around the temple when the lights are lit up.
Visitors can only enjoy the Display of Lights from the bottom of the hill in the village.
It was a real nuisance for us and many others as we had to wait over an hour after the Temple closed until sunset which was 7.30pm. A lot of the nearby restaurants/cafes were shut and there was no place to sit down. Not one bench.
We opted to wait in the parking lot at the bottom of the hill from where you can have a good view of the temple. Eventually we were joined not by the “flocks of devotees” that the article promised but by a selection of backpackers and other Western tourists plus two cars of people more local to the region.
We were quite ready for the display by the time sunset came. Bit by bit thousands of red and yellow lanterns as well as multi-coloured bulbs were lit up. They stay lit up until midnight.
After all those negative points, we have to admit that it was quite beautiful.
Our return bus journey to our hotel (into Georgetown to connect to another bus off along the north coast) took 2.5hours and the latter bus was packed. We somehow ended up again at Weld Quay instead of the Komtar bus station where we would have changed earlier to get to the north. As we sat on the bus we thought to ourselves, how lucky we have been normally when we had a taxi. Such an experience makes you really appreciate this.
In hindsight, the only thing that we would have done differently is either to go there in the morning to see the actual temple without a time limit or to just go there at 7.45pm with a taxi and then back to our hotel by taxi. The reason we opted out of the taxi option was due to fatigue at playing the game in negotiating with them as it really can be tiresome having to point out that we are not off the last boat (literally as Georgetown now features on a few cruise ship itineraries).
In any case, adventure also meant overcoming challenges and we certainly felt good to have overcome ours.