Exploring the Po Lin Monastery and the Big Buddha and seeking the Pink Dolphins of Tai O
Living in Central Oregon, 150 miles from a larger city, Portland (which is not that big), we do enjoy the occasional dip into city living. As large cities go Hong Kong is crazier than most, but having been to Delhi in recent times it does have, relatively, an organized and serene ambiance. Although only having spent a day in the city as we were setting out to see the Big Buddha it did feel good to be heading out to explore somewhere more rural and peaceful.
From Hong Kong central station we headed out on the Hong Kong MRT towards Tung Chung, a newly developed city on Lantau Island. Lantau is where the International Airport, which sits on a man-made island, is situated and is also where Disneyland Hong Kong is found. As it was 8 a.m. in the morning there were plenty of commuters heading out to their places of work, like a swarm of army ants with a common purpose. That said commuting has always been a solitary (and some would say soul-destroying) activity, but with the advent of mobile phones, people are even more disconnected with the world directly around them. No longer is “people watching” a major pastime of the commuter. They stand, sit and walk, like zombies, their complete focus given to the blue light devil, which continually sucks at their attention like some electromagnetic leech.
Anyway, the journey out to Tung Chung took around 50 minutes and we found ourselves at the station concourse just before 9 a.m. weighing up our transport options for the next stage of our journey to the Big Buddha. Luckily for us, the sun was shining, which was remarkable as the weather had been really horrible in South-East China for some time as a series of typhoons and tropical storms had plagued the region. Before we left our hotel we checked out how to get from the station at Tung Chung to Ngong Ping, the village next to the Po Lin Monastery where the Big Buddha is located. Close to the Tung Chung station is a cable car terminal which provides a 20-minute spectacular journey over the mountains. A return journey costs about $40. We may well have opted for this but we arrived an hour and a half before operations started. Instead, we decided to hop on a bus. The buses to Ngong Ping, we discovered, don’t leave from the main bus terminal – which seems to be the home of the double-decker buses. Instead, we had to walk to the “poor mans” terminal behind and hop on the no.23 single deck bus.
Earlier, I mentioned that the airport was built on a man-made island. This is because aeroplanes generally don’t do very well landing on the side of the mountains! Lantau Island is very, very hilly and whilst a bus is not an aeroplane even these struggle up roads with a 1 in 6 gradients. As the crow flies it is around 8km from Tung Chung to the Big Buddha, but our bus was not a crow, so we took the steep, long and very curvy road. The bus trip had a rollercoaster quality to it; the bus crept and creaked up the hills, crested the tops and thundered down the other side as we gripped on to our seats with white knuckles. 50 minutes later, we rolled into the terminus at Ngong Ping.
The Big Buddha, officially known as Tian Tan Buddha, was completed as recently as December 1993 (it took some 12 years to construct). It is constructed out of bronze and is 34m (112 ft tall). When the statue was completed, monks from around the world were invited to the opening ceremony. Distinguished visitors from mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, India, Japan, Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, and the United States all took part in the proceedings.
Lined up along the path to the Po Lin Monastery & the Big Buddha in Ngong Ping are the statues of the Twelve Divine Generals of the Twelve Heavenly Generals. They are the protective deities of the Buddha of Healing or the Medicine Buddha, Yakishi Nyurai. They originated in India, but in other countries, they are believed to be the attendants of an Armor-clad God or Warrior that protects the righteous.
In Chinese, these twelve Generals represent the animals in their Zodiac. They are also considered as the common guards of the gates in Buddhist Temple.
To reach the base of the Big Buddha you have to climb 268 steps. The stairs open at 10.00 am and we are the 2nd people to enter, so we got some great pictures free of other tourists. On the lower tier is surrounded by six Bodhisattva statues making offerings to the Buddha and there are beautiful views of Lantau Island on all sides, including Lantau Peak (the second highest mountain in Hong Kong) and Shek Pik reservoir.
Within the Buddha, itself are three stories of exhibition halls: the halls of the Universe, of Benevolent Merit and of Remembrance. One of the most renowned features inside is a relic of Gautama Buddha, consisting of some of his alleged cremated remains. Only visitors who purchase an offering for the Buddha are allowed to see the relic, entering to leave it there. There is a huge carved bell inscribed with images of Buddhas in the showroom. It was designed to ring every seven minutes, 108 times a day, symbolising the release of 108 kinds of human vexations.
After spending some time exploring the Buddha and the exhibition halls we headed across to the Po Lin Monastery. It was still relatively early, also it was a Monday (weekends are best avoided), so there were few tourists around, so we pretty much had the run of the public areas of the monastery.
Po Lin Monastery is a Buddhist monastery, located on Ngong Ping Plateau, on Lantau Island, Hong Kong. The monastery was founded in 1906 by three monks visiting from Jiangsu Province on the Chinese mainland and was initially known simply as “The Big Hut”. It was renamed to its present name in 1924. We were lucky to enter the monastery during one of the ceremonies and it was magical to hear the chanting – we found a shady spot in the main courtyard to sit and simply soak in the sounds and smells of the ceremony.
The monastery is surrounded by steep mountains, dense jungle and scrubland and offers some fabulous hiking trails. We had some time to kill before lunch, so we decided to head out along a trail leading from the monastery. We were tempted by signs for a tea room which unfortunately had fallen into disrepair has started to be reclaimed by the jungle. As we were approaching the noon hour the temperature was rising and we soon had a sweat going. Along the way, we got to see some incredible butterflies and views of the mountains and a lot of jungle. Soon we turned around and headed back to the monastery to have lunch in the temple. We had paid 150HKD ($20) for the deluxe meal (this had included our entry to the museum inside the Big Buddha) – which was vegan (we are vegan so this was a bonus!) The food was hot, delicious and plentiful.
After lunch, we left the monastery and wandered into Ngong Ping village, which is essentially a tourist shopping village. Not too much caught our eye so we quickly made our way to the bus stop and jumped onto the number 21 bus to the fishing village of Tai O, a 20-minute bus journey away.
Tai O is the oldest fishing village on Lantau Island and as far back as the 16th century, the small village has been the smuggling centre for anything from drugs, illegal activity, guns and even illegal immigrants.
We arrived at the bus station in Tai O and ambled towards the main jetty where we were tempted by a man offering a 20-minute tourist boat ride with the promise of seeing pink dolphins. This sounded like an opportunity not to be missed. The first part of the tour took us along the river into Tai O village, which is lined with the stilted houses of the fishermen. Unfortunately, Tai O is extremely low lying and prone to flooding during storm surges from passing typhoons, and therefore often get inundated with water. Even the stilts are not adequate protection! Some of these houses are simple metal structures, probably no bigger than a shipping container – but they look like they would be strong enough to survive a powerful storm. Tai O itself is not huge so this part of the boat trip was only 5 minutes or so, so we were soon heading out into the harbour itself and beyond the seawall.
Once out in the open waters of the bay, we were busy looking out for the rare pink dolphins.
There are believed to be only 100 to 140 of these dolphins around the waters of Hong Kong – their survival is threatened by pollution, fishing and the busy shipping lanes. The adults can be white or pink. The pink colour is believed to result from the blood vessels that are close to the skin used for regulating their temperature. After 5 minutes of hunting a single pink dolphin swam close by our boat, passing us a couple of times before disappearing. We also saw another swimming further out. It was an amazing experience.
Departing our boat, we decided to walk around Tai O, which is not huge. As you might expect there were a lot of shops selling produce from the sea – most of which was dried and fried. Still, it was interesting to explore the streets, which were relatively free of tourists.
From Tai O we caught the number 11 bus back to Tung Chung.