After a forty minute train ride from our lousy guesthouse in Tsim Sha Tsui, our second morning in Hong Kong, J and I boarded a bus in Tung Chung, way out on Lantau Island. Another forty-odd minutes on a bus, and we’d be at our destination: Po Lin Monastery, and the Tian Tan Buddha.
The ride from Tung Chung merits its own mention. I had often read about bus rides in South East Asia and South America; harrowing experiences where the bus drivers would have their creaky old busses careening wildly around blind corners and alongside plunging drops. And while the bus we rode was fairly new, the ride was no less harrowing; the bus would be struggling mightily to crest a steep incline one minute, to bombing at speed down a narrow twisting downhill road the next. Since the road to the Ngong Ping was mostly uphill, those white-knuckle downhill sections were mercifully few.
When we arrived in Ngong Ping — and after a few minutes of me gawking, open-mouthed, at the statue and our surroundings — J and I both realized how hungry we were. Luckily, being this close to a Buddhist hotspot, the nearest restaurant had plenty of vegetarian and vegan options (for reasons I talked about here). We sat down to a lovely little lunch of hot noodle soup and sweet tofu, which cost next to nothing, before heading up to the monastery grounds.
High in the hills on Lantau Island, in the shadow of Lantau Peak — the second highest peak in Hong Kong — lies Po Lin Monastery. Founded in 1906, the Monastery is now one of the most important Buddhist centres in Hong Kong, aided in no small part by the colossal bronze Tian Tan Buddha. The 112 foot (34 metre) tall statue looks down over the monastery complex from atop a nearby hill. The name, Tian Tan, refers to the pedestal on which the statue sits, which was modeled after Beijing’s Tian Tan temple.
Completed in 1993, the Buddha is a huge draw for tourists in Hong Kong — both Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike. It’s easy to see why; seated in lotus position, at the top of a 268 step staircase, the 250 metric ton bronze statue is truly impressive.
Seriously, I can’t emphasize how impressive the statue was. There’s a large plaza at the base of the hill on which the statue sits; standing at the centre of it, you get a clear view straight up the staircase at the statue on its perch. The right hand is raised up, palm out, meant to protect supplicants and dispel fear. The eyes are downcast, watching pilgrims and tourists alike as they mount the long staircase towards him.
By this time, it was right around noon, and the sun beating straight down on us made the climb up the 268 steps from the plaza to the statue something of a slog. People were sitting on steps at irregular intervals the whole way up, either overheated or out of breath. The climb was worth it, however, as we were greeted at the top by some incredible views of the surrounding countryside.
Up close, the Buddha statue is even more impressive. J and I stared in awe at the scale of the statue, as tall as a ten story building. Around the base, six deva statues — representations of the six pāramitās of Mahayana Buddhism — hold gifts to the Buddha in their upraised arms. Even if you aren’t a Buddhist, the scene is pretty inspiring. If you are a Buddhist… well, suffice it to say there were more than a few awestruck individuals kowtowing at the top of the stairs.
After a while admiring the view, and admiring the statues up close, we headed back down the long staircase to the plaza (the walk back down was a lot easier). Near the entrance to the Po Lin Monastery, J took out her Tascam recorder to capture some of the ambient sounds while I bought some incense at a little kiosk by the gate. I bought it to bring home, but couldn’t resist burning a couple sticks at one of the massive censers near the gate. I said a little prayer, reflected for a minute on the trip so far, caught up with J again, and we headed into the Monastery.
While it lacks the epic scale of the temples we’d seen in Beijing and Hangzhou, and in spite of its relative newness (being hundreds of years newer than the Yonghegong Temple, the Confucian Temple, and Yue Fei’s mausoleum), the Po Lin Monastery was still magnificent. Per the posted signs, I didn’t take any pictures inside the buildings, so I can’t show you the intricate interior details, or the beautiful statues of the Buddha and the Bodhisattvas, but I did take some photos of the equally intricate sculpted dragon murals and the brightly covered eaves of the buildings’ roofs. Compared to the temples we’d visited on the Mainland, there were significantly fewer tourists here, which allowed us to really take our time and take in the architecture of the Monastery without feeling rushed or crowded in (and without as much worry of getting photobombed).
The Ride Back
By the time J and I were done in the Monastery, it was already around 4 PM. J caught a bit more audio with her Tascam while I burned a couple more sticks of incense, and then we headed back down to Ngong Ping village and queued up for the buses. Rather than ride back down to Tung Chung to board a metro train back to our hostel, we’d be bussing down to the village of Mui Wo, where we’d catch a ferry straight to Central, with the goal of catching yet another bus, this time up Victoria Peak (usually just referred to as “The Peak”) to catch the sun going down over Hong Kong.
As I said earlier, the ride up to Ngong Ping was mostly slow going, given all the altitude we had to gain from sea level; long stretches of uphill, interspersed with frantic blasts of downhill driving. The ride back down to the Mui Wo harbour was a harrowing affair, verging occasionally on outright terrifying. The driver clearly knew the limits of his vehicle, but it still often felt like the bus could fly off the road at any given switchback. We made great time, and J and I were grinning like idiots by the end of the ride, but I’m not exaggerating when I say that my hands hurt by the time we got into Mui Wo, from clutching the handle on the seatback in front of me.
At Mui Wo, we left the bus, shaky of leg, and boarded our ferry. As the boat pulled away from the dock, I said goodbye to Lantau Island. I am sure I’ll be back there some day.
- All around the plaza at the entrance to the Monastery, there were cows walking around, untethered. It was fun watching the hesitant tourists sidling up near them, tempted to pet them but unsure of the consequences.
- More dragons!
- We took the bus from Tung Chung up to Ngong Ping to see the monastery and the Buddha, but there’s also a cable car that runs right up to Ngong Ping from the Tung Chung MTR station. We opted against taking it because, while it does apparently offer a great scenic view, it costs way more than the bus, typically has a long line, and only knocks off about 10 minutes of travel time. Plus, the bus rides were exhilarating and plenty scenic. I regret nothing.
- I have a friend who calls the handle above the passenger door of a car’s interior the “oh-shit handle”. I made good use of the oh-shit handle on the bus ride down to Mui Wo.