Thean Hou Temple sits on Robson Hill just off Jalan Syed Putra in Kuala Lumpur. One of the largest Chinese temples in Southeast Asia, it is also one of the most elaborately decorated and commands stunning views of the KL skyline.
With four levels, there’s a whole lot to be discovered on Thean Hou’s beautiful grounds. Dedicated to the Sea Goddess Mazu, the temple boasts a large sculpture of her in the prayer hall on the third floor, where she sits in between the Goddess of Mercy, Guan Yin, and the Goddess of the Waterfront, Swei Mei. Despite the dedication to Mazu, note the recurrent appearance of Guan Yin throughout Thean Hou.
In the middle of the prayer hall, you’ll probably see people waving sticks around before dropping them into a cylindrical shaped container. These are Chinese fortune sticks, or kau chim oracles, used to predict what the year ahead holds. If you’d like to participate, try to empty your mind while shuffling the sticks around. Get hold of the bundle, hold them up, then drop them back into the cylinder. Look for the single stick that juts out but if there are a number of sticks protruding, repeat the process again. Once you’ve found that single stick, look for the number on it and find the corresponding drawer, which holds your fortune on a slip of paper.
On the balcony of the same floor, look for an old man sitting on a fish… This is Jiang Tai Kung, a respected military strategist who, as the story goes, would hold a bamboo stick with a hook above the water rather than letting it sink. He believed that the fish would come when they were ready, leading to the saying that good things come to those who wait.
An interesting aspect of Thean Hou is its architecture, which draws from Buddhist, Confucian and Taoist inspirations. The result is a grandoise temple where red decorative beams are merely the least eye-catching, with symmetrical flared out roofs, ornate murals and domed ceilings as well. Not only does the temple represent a coming together of the three major Chinese philosophies but it’s a successful combination of traditional design and modern architecture as well. Red is dominant in the temple’s appearance, as it symbolises prosperity and good fortune.
Since opening in 1989, Thean Hou has not only served as a temple but also as the official site representing the Malaysian Chinese identity, as well as being a major tourist spot. It also plays host to more than 100 traditional events throughout the year, including Chinese New Year, Vesak, dharma prayers, the birthday of the three deities and mid-autumn festivals. The birthday commemoration of Mazu is considered to be one of the largest held outside of China, and the celebration is now recognised by UNESCO as an “intangible cultural heritage of humanity”. With a marriage registration bureau on the bottom floor, an average of 5,000 couples visit Thean Hou to get married each year.
With constant festivities and celebrations taking place on its grounds, you’re most likely to visit while an event takes place and it’s a great location to experience Chinese cultural activities. At the very least, you’ll witness a bride and groom doing their wedding shots here.
The grounds are interesting, with statues of the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac filling the garden. The Chinese believe that each person takes on the personality similar to the animal representing the year they were born; find out your zodiac animal if you don’t already know by referring to the dates inscribed below the statues.
If you head towards the back of the temple, you’ll find a staircase leading to the tortoise pond. Tortoises are one of the four celestial emblems (the other three are the phoenix, dragon and white tiger) who guard the constellations; there’s a population of hundreds here.
There is no admission fee to the temple or any part of its grounds, although you can make a donation. If you’re interested in culture or religious sites, particularly Buddhist ones, then this is a must among the many things to do in KL. Otherwise, you’ll still likely find something to interest you here, with a herb garden worth a peek along with the tortoise pond, brides posing in their wedding dresses and that fantastic KL view.
To get to Thean Hou by public transport, take the LRT to Tun Sambanthan, which is located across the river. You can access the temple by the overhead bridge. Alternatively, stop at MidValley Station after jumping on the KTM Komuter train and take a taxi for the remaining two kilometres. If you’re visiting during Chinese New Year, there are free shuttles every half-hour from KL Sentral or Hotel Midah in Kampung Attap.
By Sarah Hishan
Last updated on 1st September, 2014.