Burmese and Thai Buddhist Temples
Published/Last edited or updated: 2nd October, 2017
Occupying opposing sides of Lorong Burma in Pulau Tikus, these two temples serve Penang’s Thai and Burmese Buddhist communities.
Dhammakarama Burmese Temple dates from the early nineteenth century when the area was settled by Burmese fishermen and farmers, and is Penang’s first Buddhist temple. The Thais followed not long after, but the large reclining Buddha for which their temple, Wat Chaiyamangalaram is renowned wasn’t constructed until much later. Both offer the visitor a gamut of Buddhist art and architecture spanning the sublime to the rather kitsch and colourful.
Graded by two white elephants, Dhammakarama Temple welcomes worshippers with a beautiful filigree red and golden archway. Within, peaceful leafy grounds offer a pleasant respite to wander among the pavilions, pagodas and ponds and enjoy a little serenity. At the sublime end of the spectrum, the Sima Shrine Hall at the centre of the complex houses a number of impressive large standing Buddhas, the main one, carved of marble and cloaked in gold towering over the prayer hall, and in an annex behind, a row of smaller standing figures represent the various countries within the region who practice Buddhism.
Moving towards the back of the complex, a pond embodies colourful and kitsch. A brightly painted relief wall mural faces onto a cement lotus sitting in the centre of the pool sprouting spinning alms bowls and looking rather like a fairground game. This is in fact a depiction of Prince Siddhartha Gotama’s renunciation of worldly desires and his search for enlightenment. At the back of the temple you can climb the modern multi-storey pagoda for views over the complex and the Thai temple opposite.
Across the road, Wat Chaiyamangalaram is typically Thai in style with multi-tiered roofs with curling pointed finials. The grounds here are entirely paved with little shade, giving the impression of a more stark, modern complex than its neighbour.
Glimmering coloured glass encrusted nagas guard the main pavilion, with signs warning not to touch the sharp surfaces, and although you are required to remove your footwear to enter, another sign warns of shoe thieves! Take a plastic bag if you’re concerned about losing your favourite Havaianas and pop them in your bag.
The main prayer hall of football-stadium proportions, houses a colossal 33-metre long reclining shiny-pink-skinned Buddha with a rather unnatural elongated face and features, draped in gold robes and edged with a pastel blue aura. Despite his somewhat unsophisticated appearance, he seems quite serene. In contrast, a number of smaller (well proportioned) bronze and gold-leaf encrusted Buddha statues line the foreground and the beautiful pink and green lotus patterned floor tiles are artworks unto themselves.
A coin-in-the-slot fortune telling machine piqued our interest and surprisingly didn’t seem so out of place in the hodgepodge of styles. The riot of colour continues with murals and statuary adorning the surrounding walls. Behind the main Buddha, a row of twelve smaller Buddhas represent the Chinese zodiac and a mausoleum with hundreds of ceramic urns set into niches lines the walls and the back of the Buddha.
Smaller pagodas and shrines dot the complex and legend tells that temple’s first monk was rather fond of Penang’s asam laksa, and it’s said that bowls of the delicious soup are still offered at a shrine dedicated to him.
If you’ve not visited Thailand or Burma, these two temples are a good introduction to the contrasting styles of Buddhist architecture, and offers an insight into Penang’s multicultural heritage. Half and hour at each temple will gives you ample time to have a good look around.
The temples are about three-and-a -half kilometres from the centre of Georgetown’s heritage area. Although it’s easily walkable, its not such a pleasant stroll as it’s along busy Jalan Burma. Rapid Buses 10, 101, 103, 104, 304 pass nearby. Also visit Kek Lok Si Temple to compare with the Chinese Buddhist style.
Sally spent twelve years leading tourists around Indonesia and Malaysia where she collected a lot of stuff. She once carried a 40kg rug overland across Java. Her house has been described as a cross between a museum and a library. Fuelled by coffee, she can often be found riding her bike or petting stray cats. Sally believes travel is the key to world peace.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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