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Kek Lok Si Temple, Penang: visitor guide 2024

Kek Lok Si Temple, Penang: visitor guide 2024

The largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia, and an important pilgrimage site for devotees across Southeast Asia, Kek Lok Si Temple in Ait Itam, Penang, has been drawing visitors since its construction around the turn of the 20th century.

The complex contains a collection of prayer halls, pavilions, and pagodas, all in different sizes and styles, making for an engaging visit framed by rainforest covered hills.

Where to find Kek Lok Si Temple and how to get there

Kek Lok Si Temple is located in Air Itam, very close to the Penang Hill Funicular. If you’re short on time in Penang, it makes sense to combine both the temple and Penang Hill into one visit, but it will make for a long day.

Air Itam is an inland town on Penang Island, forming a triangle between George Town and Batu Ferringhi, both 8 or 9km away. From George Town, several buses including the 201, 204 and 502 travel to Air Itam in about 50 minutes, costing RM2. There’s no direct bus from Batu Ferringhi so you’d need to change on the outskirts of George Town.

It’s much easier and quicker to take a Grab car, fares should be approximately RM20-40 from both George Town (25 mins) and Batu Ferringhi (45 mins).

Arriving to Kek Lok Si Temple

If you’ve arrived in a Grab car, you’ll be dropped just outside the main gates. There’s also a paid car park (RM3-5) here if you’ve come in your own vehicle. On the left side of the car park, you’ll see a building housing the entrance to the cable car, or you can walk to the right and begin climbing up, just past the small pond area.

Don’t miss the tortoises

Before making your way to the temple, make sure you visit the tortoises, there are so many of them! They can be found in and around the pond, just to the right of the Lift Station. You’re asked not to feed them with outside food, although there’s a small stall nearby from where you can buy ‘tortoise food’ for a few ringgits.

Riding the cable car or walking

It’s quite a steep climb to the very top of the temple, especially in the heat. The complex is spread out over several levels, and it can be deceiving as to how high you need to climb. The famous statue at the summit is your ultimate target but keep in mind that some of the walk is along roads, so it’s not quite as scenic and picturesque as it might appear at the beginning.

If you want to save the ringgits and get some exercise, follow the signs uphill to ‘Kek Lok Si Temple’.

If sweating breathlessly uphill isn’t your thing, then follow signs to the ‘Inclined Lift Station’ for the much easier cable-car option. There are toilets just to the left of this building.

Head over to the ticket counter to pay for your tickets. Return fare is RM16 per adult or RM8 per child. One-way is RM8 per adult and RM4 per child. So, if you prefer, you can ride the cable car (they call it an ‘inclined lift’) to the top and then walk down, which is what we’d recommend if you’re relatively fit and active.

The opening times of the lift are 8:30am to 5:30pm and it’s cash only.

The ride to the top

We initially assumed the cable car only covered the first visible section, which runs for about fifty metres. In reality this is just stage one; once you reach the top, a ten-seater golf-cart is waiting to drive you the short distance to a shop, from where you board another cable car, which takes you higher up to the top station.

It definitely saves you the hot climb up the hill but the cable car isn’t especially exciting, and we imagine the queues could be severe during busy periods.

Start from the very top

Don’t spend any time at the intermediate stations as you’ll pass back through all of them during your descent. Instead, take the cable cars and golf-carts all the way to the top, where you’ll emerge underneath the 120ft tall statue of Guanyin.

The scale of the statue is astounding, as are the pillars of the pavilion standing alongside. It’s worth getting up close to check out the intricate details carved into the pillars, plus the vast collection of smaller statues behind, reminiscent of the Terracotta Warriors in Xian.

If you can pull yourself away from the statue, the balcony in front offers panoramic views of Air Itam, George Town, the Straits of Malacca, and rainforests covering Penang Hill. It’s a beautiful spot, either night or day.

Wander around to the side of pavilion and you’ll see a smaller pavilion standing on a small pond, filled with multi-coloured fish. The pavilion is a great place to escape the sun during the day.

Walking down to the main prayer room and pagoda

To the opposite side of the statue from the cable car is a road. Follow this downhill for a few minutes and round a few bends until you reach a grand, ornamental gateway.

Take a right and continue walking downhill to the next grand gate, which leads to the main collection of temples. Watch out for vehicles on this section as there isn’t a footpath and visibility isn’t great due to the bend in the road.

The main prayer hall and pagoda

If the highest level of the complex is focused on the statue of Guanyin and the surrounding pavilion, the middle section of Kek Lok Si is home to multiple prayer halls and a thee-tiered pavilion, which is unique in that each tier was built using different architectural styles (Chinese, Thai, and Burmese).

The enjoyment here is to simply stroll around the different areas and take in the majesty of the temple. There isn’t necessarily a set route to follow, with prayer halls, statues, gardens, views and pagodas appearing around each corner. As you enter each one, remember to look up at the ceilings which are, without fail, ornately crafted, and a joy to observe.

If you’re able to visit during one of the quieter periods, it’s best to take your time and enjoy the peace and quiet of the surroundings, whilst occasionally catching the benefits of the gentle breeze that trickles up the edge of the mountain.

Keep some energy in reserve for the climb up the pagoda (accessible via a separate RM2 fee) which overlooks the temple and beyond. Each level is beautifully designed and decorated, with a winding staircase taking you higher and higher. Watch your footing on the staircase as the steps are narrow and their edges have been smoothed by thousands of previous visitors.

The climb requires a decent amount of stamina but it’s very manageable, especially if you take a break on each level and enjoy the view and architecture. The walls at the very top level are fairly low by modern building standards, so don’t lean over too far!

As you ascend the pagoda, you’ll be passing through three different types of architecture; Chinese, Thai, and Burmese, which makes for a whirlwind architectural tour.

How much time do you need to explore?

We’d recommend setting aside two to three hours for your visit, perhaps longer if you’re especially interested in temple architecture.

Tips for your visit to Kek Lok Si Temple

  • Dress conservatively as this is a religious site. Many people do wear shorts during their visit but you may feel more appropriate in trousers and having your shoulders covered.
  • Take water with you, but there are also several kiosks selling water and soft drinks, plus some basic snacks.
  • Wear shoes that slip on and off easily as you’ll need to enter the prayer halls barefoot.
  • Bring some cash for entrance fees and drinks/snacks.

After your visit

Once you reach the bottom of the complex, either via the cable car or walking, you should retrace your steps in a Grab car or on the bus. Otherwise Penang Hill is one kilometre away and makes for a relaxing place to visit afterwards.

The immediate area around Kek Lok Si temple is bustling and interesting in its own right, with a very local Penang feel. Before you leave Air Itam, we’d recommend walking over to the Beng Chin Garden food court which offers tasty and affordable Penang favourites such as Char Kway Teow and Hakka Mee.

The food court is also a handy place to wait for a Grab with a cold drink, even if you’re not eating.

Final thoughts on visiting Kek Lok Si Temple

Regardless of how many temples you’ve visited in Southeast Asia, Kek Lok Si Temple is guaranteed to leave a lasting impression. The hundred-plus foot Guanyin statue stands proudly over the temple and is the starting point for a fascinating descent through intricate prayer halls, pavilions, and pagodas.

The climb up to the top of the pagoda might be hot, but the worn steps are testament to how many people have made the journey before you. Even in Penang, which is world-famous for its religious heritage, Kek Lok Si Temple stands out as a special place to visit, reflect, and to spend a few hours of your time.