The Reclining Buddha at Wat Chayamangkalaram stretches out for thirty-three metres, one hand behind his ear, the other by his side. Plated in shimmering gold, this icon is one of the largest of its kind to be found anywhere on the planet, and one of the most mystical attractions in Malaysia. The Buddha’s horizontal pose symbolizes the final step in the process of crossing over into nirvana, an idyllic state in which an individual transcends bodily suffering, desire, and the impact of karma.
A ‘Powerful Monk’ and a Passion for Laksa
Visitors looking for where to go in Penang to imbibe a little of the area’s history will find what they are seeking at Wat Chayamangkalaram (also spelt Wat Chaiya Mangkalaram). The Thai temple in which the Buddha sleeps began existence in 1845. Queen Victoria, earnest to promote trade with Thailand, donated five acres of land to Penang’s Thai community. Four women were appointed as trustees of this gift.
A Buddhist monk by the name of Phortan Kuat (also known as the ‘Powerful Monk’) organised the temple’s construction and became its very first leader. According to legend, laksa (spicy noodle soup of Chinese-Malay origin) was Kuat’s favorite meal. Today, followers of his teachings – both locals and those who travel to Malaysia – show respect by carrying servings of laksa to his shrine, which remains in the grounds.
Penang’s Biggest Buddhist Temple
Visiting Wat Chayamangkalaram is one of the essential things to do in Malaysia because it is the largest Buddhist temple in Penang. Painted with brightly contrasting yellows and blues, it is easily visible from the street. An unusual blend of Thai, Indian and Chinese flavors informs the architectural style.
Though many sightseers who travel to Malaysia visit only the main building, the outside areas are definitely worth investigating. Numerous magical creatures adorn the gardens and grounds. At the front of the meditation hall stand ‘naga’ statues. These enormous, cobra-like deities feature in a variety of Buddhist stories, as well as those belonging to other religions, and usually represent protection or enlightenment. It’s also worth pausing to admire the nine-storey high pagoda, which towers fifty metres into the air. A wander beyond the temple reveals another world, as visitors will discover when they stumble across a cemetery and a Thai village.
Rituals, Festivals and Acts of Devotion
For Buddhists seeking where to go in Penang to engage in worship and ritual, Wat Chayamangkalaram provides an important site. Many devotees have found their final resting place with the Reclining Buddha (also known as Pra Buddhachaiya Mongkul). In their desire to join the smiling deity after death, they have requested that their ashes be placed in urns behind his statue.
Furthermore, traditional Buddhist festivals are celebrated here. The Thai New Year, called Songkran (which translates to astrological passage), occurs between April 13 and 16. Symbolizing the process of cleansing and making way for the new, this event is one of the most exciting things to do in Malaysia, where around 20% of the population is Buddhist. Expect water throwing, praying and feasting.
Another significant festival is Loy Krathong, which means ‘floating boat’ or ‘floating crown’. Occurring on the full moon of the Thai calendar’s twelfth month, this event is so-called because celebrations involve creating ‘krathongs’ – special decorations comprised of candles, incense and banana foliage – and setting them afloat on ponds or streams.
Wat Chayamangkalaram is one of the attractions in Malaysia that is totally free of charge. To show respect for Buddhist culture, it is essential to remove footwear before going into the temple and its surrounding grounds. Also, to avoid disappointment, note that photography is prohibited indoors.
Wat Chayamangkalaram is located at 17 Lorong Burma, Pulau Tikus, Georgetown, 10250, Penang, and is open seven days a week, from six in the morning until five-thirty in the evening. It can be reached by public transport – go to Komtar or Weld Quay and catch the U101 bus (heading for Teluk-Bahang).