Temple Time

George Town gives me tile-envy.

George Town gives me tile-envy.

After one month in Penang, I can see why so many expats from around the world make the island their home. Take away the issue of the defunct beaches (for swimming), and this place would be truly outstanding. If you are looking for all the best that Southeast Asian culture has to offer–tropical climate, friendly people, great food, colorful festivals, interesting architecture, and varied spiritual beliefs–Penang is it. After dabbling in the expat life of Saigon years ago, my interest in living in this part of the world has waned, but it sure has been great to visit, especially as a family.


The wealth and strong sense of spirituality of the Chinese Buddhist community in Penang combine to make George Town one of the best places to admire their places of worship. A distinct sense of cultural identity, historic reverence and preservation pervades. One could spend days just exploring Penang’s temples alone.

This is my kind of altar. Kek Lok Si Temple, Penang.

This is my kind of altar.
Kek Lok Si Temple, Penang.

Said to be the largest Buddhist temple in Southeast Asia, Kek Lok Si is a must for anyone visiting Penang. The wealthy, well-established Chinese community here has been pouring merit making money into this complex for decades, making it quite a site to behold. Kek Lok Si’s location perched high above George Town, surrounded by jungle-clad hills, seems to be the perfect place to go crazy about Buddha.

At Kek Lok Si, I appreciated that not only Chinese aesthetics were honored, but also Thai and Burmese.

At Kek Lok Si, I appreciated that not only Chinese aesthetics were honored, but also Thai and Burmese.

Merle analyzes a wall mural that depicts the life of Buddha.

Merle analyzes a wall mural that depicts the life of Buddha.


Our visit to the Burmese and Thai Temples, across the street from each other in George Town, was another chance to soak up some Buddhist vibes and make a little merit.

A fun way to make merit: try to get the coin in the rotating bowls.

A fun way to make merit: try to get the coin in the rotating bowls.

Getting blessed at the Burmese temple in George Town.

Getting blessed at the Burmese temple in George Town.

Mathilda continues to pray everywhere we go!


The whimsical features of the Burmese Temple definitely spoke to the kids.

 


The Thai Temple was lovely to see as well, with its sparkly mosaic dragons at the entrance, large reclining Buddha, and beautiful floor tiles.
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One of Penang’s most famous historic buildings is the Khoo Kongsi temple, located in the heart of the charming old quarter of George Town. Built by the wealthy Khoo clan of Chinese traders who settled in Malaysia in the 17th century, Khoo Kongsi is the most elaborate clanhouse in the entire country. While we were there, Merle had the chance to volunteer in front of a crowd, this time to sing happy birthday. There was also a cool looking guy in costume lurking around. Mathilda loved the traditional Chinese dance performances in the open-air, 19th century theater.


Part of the charm of wandering through the oldest section of George Town is discovering the numerous, larger than life wall paintings by Lithuanian artist, Ernest Zacharevic. In conjuction with an arts festival festival in 2012, his continued work is just another reason why Penang is such an intriguing place to visit.


Art for and by the public in outdoor spaces seems to be a theme in Penang. At the fantastic Youth Park, design students were granted huge concrete canvases to display their work.

 


One of our last visits was to a restored Chinese Peranakan mansion, decked out with antiques and photographs of the wealthy Chinese family who lived there before they fled Penang during WWII. The Peranakans, also known as Babas and Nyonyas, were a prominent community of acculturated Chinese unique to this part of the world, namely Malacca and Penang. Though the house may be a little over the top for most tastes, for Mathilda, it was perfect. She asked a few times if the house could be ours. Well, it at least gave me some ideas. The tantalizing color schemes and patterns of the tile work definitely spun my interior design wheels.


We barely scratched the surface of what Penang has to offer culturally, since we missed visiting any mosques or museums and only one Hindu temple. Honestly, with the climate being what I would consider extreme, meaning extremely hot, I had to limit our plans for one site per outing. Since we are winding down, we feel satisfied, nonetheless.

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