Air Itam, Kek Lok Si and Penang Hill Day Trip

Turns out the legendary food stalls of Air Itam, the sprawling Kek Lok Si Temple and scenic Penang Hill fit nicely in a day trip from the city center of George Town. A little for the stomach, for the soul, and for a sight to behold, all in a day in Penang.

Air Itam

Air Itam (Ayer Itam) is just a couple of minutes drive out of George Town’s city center. Pretty quick and cheap by Grab, and soon out of the densely developed city center, though still surrounded by lots of cars and people.

Air Itam.
Air Itam, first impressions.

Air Itam Sister Curry Mee

The famous curry mee stall closes at 1pm, so it’s best to have this before heading up Kek Lok Si. The elderly sisters have been serving up mouth watering bowls of curry mee for over 80 years, and it’s great that their grand niece will be taking over from them to literally keep the fire burning. Each bowl of noodles come with an intense, flavorful curry, topped with bean curd, pig’s blood and cuttlefish strips. Some bean sprouts for an additional crunch and a scoop of chili that packs a punch. Everything came together beautifully.

Getting to Kek Lok Si Temple

From Air Itam Sister Curry Mee, head north along Jalan Paya Terubung. Turn left at the market on to Jalan Pasar, head to the end and turn left on to Jalan Balik Pulau. If you prefer to walk up, take the small alley to the left of Cheong Nutmeg Trading. The distance up to here is about 400m. Cross the bridge and navigate through the narrow maze of shops that have little to do with the temple, but have become a part of it. Finally you’ll reach where the old turtle pond used to be.

As of July 2019 it was mostly under renovations/ reconstruction. There are a few more flight of stairs to climb through a building and from there the signage should be able to guide you to various parts of Kek Lok Si.

If you’d prefer to take the lift up continue along Jalan Balik Pulau until you reach the carpark (not far ahead). The lift station is there.

Kek Lok Si Temple

Kek Lok Si Temple was established in 1890. It is the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia and one of the important Buddhist centers in the region. Different Buddhism branches and cultural influences blend into a colorful whole, reflecting Buddhism in the region. Being situated on a hill, there are also numerous vantage points throughout the temple that offer views over George Town, Air Itam and the surrounding hills. Entrance to the temple is free, but the inclined elevators to get up and down the different levels is RM 3 per trip (return trip paid separately). There are 2 elevators – 1 to get from street level to the main compound level, and another to get to the giant Guanyin statue level (total 4 possible trips). The other area that requires payment is to the pagoda (RM 2)

Statue of Guanyin (Goddess of Mercy)

Had to weave through a couple of prayer halls and more souvenir shops (this time slightly more Buddhism oriented souvenirs) before reaching the elevator station, conveniently located within a larger souvenir shop. Reminds me of duty free shops at the airport. From the top, there were expansive views of the city, and in my opinion better views than from the top of Penang Hill, as there were no obstructions all the way to the city. The Guanyin (Goddess of Mercy) statue was spectacular. Couldn’t quite capture it in pictures but it was huge. At over 30m, it is the largest Guanyin statue in the world. There were also a couple of larger than life statues at that level.

Kek Lok Si Pagoda (Pagoda of Ten Thousand Buddhas)

Heading back to the main level, the next highlight was Kek Lok Si Pagoda. This 30m high pagoda, completed in 1930, is famous for incorporating Chinese, Thai and Burmese elements. Chinese at the base, Thai in the middle and Burmese at the top. Just outside the pagoda is an arch way with two familiar names: Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par – the two brothers who started what is today known as Haw Par Villa in Singapore. More on Haw Par Villa and attractions along Singapore’s southern ridges here.

Inside Kek Lok Si Pagoda

There are 7 levels in the pagoda, and you can climb all the way up. The steps are quite steep and narrow. At each level the designs of the arches and walls changes, along with the main Buddha on display. Again, another great place for views over Air Itam and George Town.

Stairway between the main prayer hall and Pagoda of Ten Thousand Buddhas, Kek Lok Si Temple.
Stairway between the main prayer hall and Pagoda of Ten Thousand Buddhas

Kek Lok Si Main Prayer Hall

Our final stop at Kek Lok Si was the main prayer hall, a huge hall with an intricately decorated roof. The lift station to get back to street level is located somewhere at the level below that hall. The area was under construction and not clearly visible so we had to ask for directions.

Kek Lok Si Tortoise Pond

Next to the inclined lift station at street level is the tortoise pond. I suppose this is the new tortoise pond as the old one seemed to have been emptied out (pictured earlier). There seems to be hundreds of them in the pond. You can buy some bread from the stall next to the pond and start a feeding frenzy, which mostly involves larger tortoises pushing smaller tortoises into the depths of the pond to get over them. It’s pretty chaotic so probably a good thing the temple discourages releasing more animals here.

Pasar Air Itam Laksa

Here’s the other place most people visiting Air Itam will make a stop at. On the way to Kek Lok Si you’d have passed the stall actually, so you can either have it on the way up, or after Kek Lok Si. It was a perfect blend of flavors and textures. Rice noodles were drenched in the sourish savory gravy with a tinge of spiciness The texture of the noodles was accentuated with the crunch of cucumber strips and flakiness of shredded fish. And many other flavors and emotions that words fill every bite where words will never suffice.

Penang Hill

We actually did this on a separate day, not knowing that both can easily be done together. Penang Hill Lower Station is about 1.5km (1 mile) from the street level elevator station of Kek Lok Si Temple. From from Pasar Air Itam it is 1.2km. Either a Grab ride or a walk over shouldn’t take long. Most people come to watch sunset. It’s a beautiful time, but also incredibly crowded. Queuing for the funicular in either direction can take an hour or 2. When purchasing tickets (RM 30 for a round-trip of the funicular) we were told that it will take an hour before our number was called, but our number came up not long after. Our joy was short lived though. The call was just to enter the queuing area, which would then take over an hour to clear. Glad for the good company that day!

Views from Penang Hill

After that ordeal through the funicular queue, you’ll be rewarded of views stretching from the mainland to George Town to Kek Lok Si.

At the top of Penang Hill

The area was developed by the British in the 18th century and became a retreat for them to escape the heat. There are a couple of museums and adventure activities at the top which seemed like the usual stuff you’d find in major attractions – sub-attractions that are poorly maintained and solely exist to leech off the main attraction’s visitors. Those aside the top of the hill is nice to hang around for awhile though. There are some religious sites as well as a couple of remaining colonial buildings.

We got in the queue before sunset, and it was dark by the time we got in. On hindsight staying awhile later at the top to catch the night view over George Town might be a good idea. On the other hand we were getting hungry and the food options at the top didn’t look good.

Penang Hill funicular, Lower Station
Penang Hill funicular, Lower Station

Air Itam, Kek Lok Si Temple and Penang Hill Day Trip

That completes a full day to Air Itam and its biggest attractions. For more on things to do in George Town check out this one day itinerary. Or here for an overview of the awesome food in Penang. Looking forward to the next trip!

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