Beyond visiting the Big Buddha, there is plenty to do on Lantau Island (大嶼山). It is well worth spending a day on the island when visiting Hong Kong. Surprisingly green and significantly quieter than the hustle and bustle of the rest of Hong Kong, this is where you go when it all becomes overwhelming.
Lantau Island is the largest of Hong Kong’s many islands, almost twice the size of Hong Kong Island, but at much lower population density. Originally a collection of small fishing villages, economic development has grown the island. Today it is home to the Hong Kong International Airport, Hong Kong Disneyland, and the previously mentioned Tian Tan Buddha.
Po Lin Monastery (寶蓮禪寺)
At the base of the Big Buddha, lies the Po Lin Monastery, a Buddhist temple that was founded in 1906 by three visiting monks from Jiangsu Province in China.
I was immediately drawn to the bright colours of the monastery. It was so colourful and the designer in me loved how they all worked together. At the same time, I wonder how they managed to keep it that bright and colourful. Does it get painted every year? Get touch ups every so often? For sure it can’t stay that clean and colourful without some help. Hong Kong goes through monsoon season every year, not to mention all the sunlight that is sure to make the colours fade. Welcome to the inner workings of my mind. Enjoy the ride.
The main temple of the monastery is home to three bronze statues of Buddha that represent his past, his present and his future. Every inch of this room is covered with colour, including the ceiling which are painted with figures. I loved all the attention to details like the lights shaped into what looks like lotus petals.
At the back is the Grand Hall of Ten Thousand Buddhas which houses ten thousand statues of Buddha as well as a Scripture Library and a Dharma Hall. In typical Adelina travel fashion, I did not do proper research and had no idea about this hall. For once, it worked out because I had no expectations and didn’t know what I was going to see. I literally said “wow” when I peeked in to the room. It was stunning. Floor to ceiling of gold, Buddha statues everywhere you looked.
Typically visitors are not allowed inside this hall, but while we were there a tour group was inside. It would have been amazing to look at all the Buddhas up close.
Good to Know
Outside the monastery there are stalls where you can purchase incense to worship if you so desire.
There is a vegetarian restaurant at the monastery if you’re feeling peckish. Purchase a meal ticket which supports the monastery.
Ngong Ping Cable Car and Village
To get up to where the Po Lin Monastery and Big Buddha are, most people elect to take the Ngong Ping Cable Car. This 25 minute ride takes you over mountains and offers great views of the surrounding areas.
At the top you’re greeted by the Ngong Ping Village which is anything but authentic. It’s not much more than a glorified outdoor shopping mall manufactured especially for all the tourists that flock to Lantau Island to see the Big Buddha and the Po Lin Monastery. Food options here include Subway and Starbucks which gives you a massive clue as to how touristy this place is. The village was built as a receiving point for the cable cars.
There really isn’t anything of note here except for cardboard cutouts perfect for cheesy photo ops. You have to walk through the village to get to anything from the cable cars though. The washrooms here are top notch – western and super clean. Would highly recommend.
Good to Know
When purchasing your ticket, you’re given a map with notable viewpoints from the cable car so you can have your camera ready.
You can select what kind of cabin you would like when riding the cable car. The only difference between the regular and crystal cabins are whether or not the bottom is made of glass. Definitely not for those who are afraid of heights!
Tai O (大澳)
Tai O is one of Hong Kong’s few surviving fishing village, located on the west coast of Lantau island. Once home to the Tanka people, it was an important trading and fishing port.
Today, the town is one step away from being a ghost town with much of the younger generation leaving for bigger opportunities in the city. Even though we arrived in Tai O on a bus full of tourist, once we started wandering around, it was like we were alone. We barely saw any people.
Tai O is famous for its stilt houses (pang uk 棚屋) on the waterfront. Most were destroyed in a fire in 2000, but a few original buildings remain. These houses were once found in many other fishing villages, but the ones in Tai O are the only large collection of them that have been preserved. Its harbour area has earned Tai O the nickname “the Venice of Hong Kong.”
The village is built partly on Lantau and partly on a smaller island which can be crossed via a narrow footbridge. Here locals shout offers of boat tours while others offer tempting hot food for your consumption. Nearby is the Kwan Ti Temple which dates back to the 1500s. When I think of temples, this is what I imagine. Not the too pretty ones that I’ve come across in the rest of Hong Kong. This one honours the god of war and righteousness.
We wandered far, walking along the water. In many ways, the scenery was very pretty, but then you get a glimpse of the pollution and you’re brought back to reality.
As you wander around, you see the tiny houses that people live in. Some no more than just shacks on stilts held together with rope. Some of these buildings, especially as we got further and further away from the main part of town, had their doors open and me being the super snoop that I am (I like to think of it as having a healthy dose of curiosity by the way), I stole quick peeks inside as I walked past. I was surprised to see that a lot of the houses had flat screen TVs on them. So it seems like technology and some wealth has come to the village, but the village hasn’t necessarily caught up yet.
The air is heavy with the smell of fermenting fish. The salty, almost rancid smell is everywhere. Tai O’s proximity to the water means its main commodity and commerce is in fish, making salt fish and shrimp paste. We saw blue barrels of shrimp paste everywhere, sitting out to ferment. I quickly peeked into a barrel as I passed by just to see what it looked like. No different than I typically see in a jar really. The village is a popular place to purchase seafood both the fresh and dried variety.
Tai O is very different from Hong Kong and surrounding areas. It’s like time has stopped here and you get a glimpse of a past way of life. Even though it does seem like it has been taken over by tourism, the further you get away from the centre of the village the more it becomes its true self. I almost felt like I had be transported back in time. It felt so weird to me that I could use my Octopus card here. I felt so far away from Hong Kong and yet, technically, I hadn’t left. It felt weirder yet that the whole time I was there I had 3G connection and could Instagram and tweet to my hearts content.
Good to Know
You can get to Tai O by taking a bus. From Ngong Ping it is approximately a 15 – 20 minute bus ride on bus 21. You can use your Octopus card. You can also take the bus no 11 from Tung Chung.
Other Things to Do
Not for the faint of heart, but if you love hiking, the Lantau Trail can take you from Tung Chung to Ngong Ping (and further if you like – the whole trail is 70 km long). The cable cars follow much of the route and from above it sure looked intimidating. Lots of steps, but from what I could see the trail is marked quite clearly. We saw one hiker on the way up to the Buddha. If you decide to go, be sure to pick up a map.
Another notable city to visit is Mui Wo on the south coast of Lantau which is famous for its beaches.
The waters of Lantau Island are home to an unusual species of dolphin. Despite its name, Chinese white dolphins, are not actually white. They’re pink. However, due to pollution, their numbers are slowly decreasing. There are ecological tours that allow you get a glimpse of these animals.
A recommended route would be to do a loop of the island. Take the cable car from Tung Chung to Ngong Ping. See the Big Buddha and Po Lin Monastery. Take bus no. 21 to Tai O for a bit of a wander. Then hop on bus 1 to go to Mui Wo before either taking the ferry back to central or going back to Tung Chung (bus 3M) for the MTR.
When people think of Hong Kong, they typically think of crowds of people, skyscrapers, modernity and lots of noise and pollution. No one thinks of greenery, scenic trails and quietness. Hong Kong has so much more to offer than that and a day on Lantau Island shows you a completely different side of the city.
Have you been to Lantau Island? Did it surprise you?
P.S. Have you entered my holiday giveaway?