Come on Adelina, you can do it. One foot after the other.
Remember to breathe. Huff puff whatever you want to call it.
You can do it! Mind over matter. Your body can handle it.
You run all the time at home. This is what it’s for. Don’t crap out now. Go go go.
Maybe I’m a total wimp but those were the thoughts running through my head as I methodically climbed the 268 steps up to the Tian Tan on Lantau Island, Hong Kong. From the bottom, it looked like a daunting, but feasible task. Pace myself for the long haul and don’t rush the beginning, every runner knows that. Clearly, I need to work on my cardio, because about ¾ of the way up I couldn’t handle it anymore.
Faking a desire to snap photos, I paused for a much needed break as one of my friends scrambled his way up to the top. All I needed was a couple minutes breather. Plus, some awesome photos like this one.
Tian Tan Buddha (天壇大佛), more affectionately known as the Big Buddha, is a large bronze statue of a Buddha Amoghasiddhi, one of the Five Wisdom Buddhas of the Vajrayana tradition of Buddhism (don’t understand? Me neither – I need to brush up on my Buddhism knowledge). The statue gets its name from its base, which is a model of Tian Tan, the Temple of Heaven in Beijing. Once the world’s tallest outdoor seated Buddha (that honour now belongs to the Great Buddha in Thailand which is 92m tall), the statue is 34 metres tall and weighs 250 metric tons. Far from being one of the largest Buddhas in the world, you definitely don’t feel that way as you get closer to it and it looms larger and larger above you.
I had visited the Big Buddha before at the impressionable age of 5 when the final touches were being put onto the statue. While I don’t really remember much of the Buddha other than through photos, I definitely remember the walk up to it. No, not the stairs (5 year old me was probably in much better shape), but more the sights and smells around me.
Today, the area leading up the Buddha is pristine. Well marked paths with statues depicting the twelve animals of the zodiac lined the way. These are the 12 Divine Generals that guard the statue. Colourful flags decorate the stairs heading up to the Buddha.
But it wasn’t always that way. Most people don’t have many strong memories from your childhood, especially from the age of 5, but I have such a strong sense from my time here. I remember the heavy smell of incense, thick in the air. Clouds of smoke seemed to hang in the air. Lots of vendors with wooden brown stalls set up on either side of the pathway hawking their wares. Various types of incense were available. Above my head, I remember flashes of red. Lantern-like items dangled above. It was dirty, it was hectic, it was loud and the smell of incense was everywhere. This was what I expected.
In the 20+ years since I was last here, the Big Buddha and surrounding areas have turned much more into a tourist attraction than anything else. I equate it to a Disneyland effect. Everything is picture perfect, placed there for tourist to snap photos. Of course, naturally as a tourist, I did the same. Perhaps I remembered incorrectly? But no, conversations with my parents upon my return have determined that my vague memories are correct.
The whole area lacked the authentic quality that I remember. All you needed to do was look around you. Not a single local among the massive crowds of tourists. Unless they worked there of course. Prior to my trip, everyone had been telling me Hong Kong has changed and here, right in that moment, I completely believed them. It could not have been more different.
Regardless of how much the area surrounding the Buddha has changed, its impressive size is overwhelming. The Buddha sits on a wreath of lotus leaves, a symbol of purity in Buddhism. Its right hand is raised, delivering a blessing to remove afflictions from all who visit.
The podium on which the Buddha sits is divided into three levels inside: The Hall of Universe, The Hall of Benevolent Merit, and The Hall of Remembrance, of which only the bottom floor is free. Admittance to the higher levels is gained by making an offering to the Buddha. Within the Buddha is also a large bell which rings 108 times a day (or every 7 minutes) to symbolize the release of the ‘108 troubles of mankind’. I don’t know if maybe I wasn’t paying attention or the bell ring was really quiet, but I don’t remember hearing it at all.
At its base, Buddhist statues praise and make offerings to the Buddha.These are the six statues of Bodhisattvas who are Buddhist deities who help mortals achieve enlightenment.
From the top you can get a view of the surrounding mountains and waters. On the day we visited, the weather was hit and miss, like most of our trip. If I squinted, I could make out the water below. On a clear day, it is said that people in Macau can see the Buddha from more than 25 miles across the South China Sea.
Surprisingly, this Buddha is relatively new. It was completed in 1989, and its grand opening was only in 1993, a year after I first visited it. Perhaps that explains why so much has changed. The surrounding area wasn’t complete during my first visit.
I visited the Buddha looking for the past and what I found was nothing like I remember. Life had come in and switched things up. It’s shocking to think how different it is, and yet, also how similar it is. Such is life. As the saying goes, “change is the only constant.” It has given me two very unique, very different memories of the same place.
Have you gone back to a place you visited once as a child? Did it change?
Good To Know
- The Tian Tan Buddha is located on Lantau Island (more to come). It can easily be reached via the MTR to Tung Chung Station (exit B) and then taking the Ngong Ping Cable Car (approximately 25 minutes). Instead of the cable car, you can also reach the base of the Buddha by taking bus 23 from the MTR station (approximately 45 minutes).
- Access to the Buddha is free, but if you want to go inside, there is an admission fee.
- There is a vegetarian restaurant in the Buddha. You can purchase meal tickets on the first level of the Buddha or at the ticket counter at the very bottom of the stairs.
- Try to go on a clear day. You really can’t see much in the fog unless you’re really close up.
- The Buddha is open from 10 am to 5:30 pm, everyday including public holidays.
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