Kek Lok Si in Air Itam, one of the largest Buddhist temple complexes in South East Asia and Penang’s best known, attracts thousands of pilgrims and tourists alike to see its abundance of magnificent images of Buddha, carvings, sculptures and murals ornamenting the temple halls, pagodas and archways, and to admire the 120 feet tall bronze statue of Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy.
But without doubt the most spectacular time of year to visit is during Chinese New Year, when the complex is illuminated by tens of thousands of lights. The temple itself dates back to 1891, and the lantern extravaganza, although less than a decade old, has become a central tradition in Penang’s Chinese Year celebrations each year; there was uproar when the temple management threatened not to go ahead this year, citing the expense (RM 800,000, funded by donations from the temple’s devotees) and the work and stress involved in hanging the lanterns. Just in case, make sure you visit in 2018 as it might be the last time….
It is a truly remarkable and magical sight, not one that my poor camera skills can do justice to. You will not regret undertaking the pilgrimage to witness the beauty of twenty thousand Chinese lanterns strung above gardens and between buildings, multi-coloured fairy lights twinkling across every surface, and gently backlit Buddhas in every niche. The lights go on for the first time on February 11th 2018 with a ceremony at 7pm. This is probably best avoided as the arrival of various VIPs will make already crowded streets virtually impassable. But any other day, and especially during the third and fourth weeks of the illumination (the first two weeks of March), the traffic is unlikely to be as bad. Take a Grab or an Uber as parking in Air Itam can be a challenge. Aim to reach the temple before dusk, to explore a little during daylight hours, and then to witness the transformation into a glowing wonderland as the lights gradually come on after sunset. From February 11th until March 2nd the temple is open to the public until midnight, and from March 3rd to 15th until 10pm.