Thursday, July 31, 2014

Penang's Temple of the Reclining Buddha

Golden chedi and a brilliant hued Naga statue

I have many fond memories of the Temple of the Reclining Buddha in Penang. This Thai temple's curvy, golden chedi tower looms over Kelawai Road, one of the main thoroughfares up to where I lived on the island. When we first moved to Malaysia, I would tell myself, "I don't think we're in Kansas Texas, anymore," each time I drove past it.
The fitness center I joined overlooked the temple, and I would pinch myself just to make sure I wasn't dreaming as I gazed at it while running on the treadmill. I've chaperoned not just one but two elementary school field trips here.

Officially named Wat Chaiyamangkalaram, this is the center of two prominent Thai festivals in Penang. Songkran which marks the Thai New Year in April is one massive water fight. If you stereotypically think of Buddhist temples as quiet places full of reverence and prayers, you will change your mind after witnessing Songkran. Loud music throbs around you as people shoot water blasters and dump buckets of ice cold water over your head. As my friend discovered, even babies are considered fair game as a target. 

Loy Krathong occurs sometime in November and is marked by a nighttime procession to the nearby shoreline where hundreds of candlelit, floating lotus blossoms are released onto the water. It's an experience which is both magical and mystical. 

Releasing the krathong so all their troubles will float away

While I've covered both of these celebrations in this blog, I realize that I haven't told you much about the temple itself. Queen Victoria granted five acres to the Thai community in 1845 for the establishment of this temple in hopes of promoting trade with what was then Siam. Its most defining feature is the 33 meter long reclining Buddha that takes up most of the interior of the main building. Completed in 1958, it marks Buddha's 2500th birthday. 

A Buddha in repose

I especially liked the Buddha's decorative toenails which look like they are covered in mother-of-pearl. In the background of both of these photos, notice the diamond Buddha motif which covers the upper walls of the temple. 

Buddha's toes

The large Buddha is hollow, and if you go around it, you'll find the entrance to a columbarium housed in a room within the base and on the wall behind it. Urns holding the ashes of the deceased sit in recesses covered with inscribed panes of glass. In a nod to the multicultural community, the words are in Thai, Chinese, and sometimes English. Some have photos, and surprisingly, I saw Christian crosses marking a few of the vessels. Other spaces were empty and waiting.

Columbarium holding the ashes of the deceased.

What I assume is a story of Buddha adorns one of the walls. Pictures are clearly telling a tale, but I cannot begin to figure out the plot or decipher the writing.

Pictures along one wall of the temple and the base of the Buddha.

Numerous statues of monks and dogs with bared fangs are placed in front of the Buddha. I was surprised to see a warning sign next to this statue. 

... until I saw this statue where it had perhaps been problematic.

Covered in flaking gold leaf

Note that visitors should dress respectfully and remove their shoes before entering the temple. You should also BEWARE OF SHOE THIEVES according to the sign above the shelves.

Trying to corral the shoes of 35 children on a field trip.

The temple complex is small and can be explored in half an hour. The last time that I visited, the exterior was being spruced up. The naga serpent deity statues were getting a fresh coat of vivid paint and then covered with brilliant hued mirrors. 

Entrance to the temple before the makeover

Pagoda and freshly painted naga serpent on the left, mirrored one on the right

While this isn't the biggest or most golden Thai temple I've ever visited, it's the one that most definitely holds a special place in my heart because of all the memories that I've made here while here.


This post is part of the following link-ups. Check them out for more around the world travel inspiration.


  1. This looks quite spectacular, Michelle! I can't imagine looking at this from my fitness center!

  2. What beautiful photos. I think you will be missing Penang. I know I will be :)

  3. Reclining Buddhas, giant Buddhas, golden Buddhas - hmm I think you're going to miss the spectacle, but it's great you have such precious memories and an awesome pictorial record too :)

  4. Beautiful photos and amazing temple, I like the fact that Buddhist temples exist and thrive in (I assume) a majority muslim country.

    1. Malaysia is predominantly Muslim, but Penang itself is only about 43% Malay with an equal number Chinese. As long as people don't try to convert the Muslims, the government is tolerant of the religious diversity.

  5. A lot of detail here, Michele. I didn't realize gold leaf was so popular in Penang but I guess I shouldn't be surprised. Love the color. I agree with Jan, you're missing Penang.

  6. Michele, When I was traveling through Malaysia I never came upon a Thai temple but many Chinese temples. I haven't been to Penang trip. I'll keep my eyes open for the Reclining Buddha. I have to the toenails!

  7. What a beautiful temple! I haven't been to a Thai temple yet but I've always admired their vivid colors and attention to detail. Love the toenails on this one. I can certainly see why this one holds a special place for you.

  8. I was always so worried about shoes thieves at temples, but never ended up having a problem (thankfully). I think every Buddha statue I've seen has decorated feet - interesting!

  9. The water fight sounds like fun sans spraying babies :) That is so cool about the krathong and casting your troubles away...I could use that on some days, Michele! I take it you guys didn't lose your shoes? :)

  10. This really reminds me of the reclining Buddha in Bangkok. Love this ones toe nails! We were in Bangkok during Songkran this year, and it was crazy! So much fun! Got soaked every time we stepped out of the front door. :)

  11. Lovely story, I think I did visit this temple when I was touring Penang and remember that huge buddha

  12. I can't begin to imagine seeing such an impressive temple. What really intrigues me is the evening photo of hundreds of lit lotus blossoms. I would love to have my troubles float away in this peaceful setting.

  13. Hey, on behalf of Christa, Host of The Sunday Traveler, I was stopping by to check out your article. I would love to get a picture of all those candlelit floating Lotus Blossoms after they have set sail. The colors inside and outside the Temple are so vibrant. Good pictures, I especially liked that first one.

  14. I love the attention to detail! Down to the very last toenail. That Buddha has a better pedicure that I ever had. Why do they not want the gold leaf on the statue? I wonder why that tradition started in the first place. Seems strange. I would think people would rather steal the gold leaf rather than leave it on the statue (especially if people are stealing shoes!)

  15. Lovely details, especially the details on the Buddha's toenails. Why are people adding the gold leaf and where do they get it from? Yes, I agree with Adelina that in most places people want to steal the gold not add it to an existing statue when visitors are also stealing shoes!

  16. What a temple! I have to say, I do love the budda's toes... a lot! Thanks for linking up with us for #SundayTraveler again my dear.


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