In the first installment of big-ass statues, we take a look at Hong Kong's Tian Tan Buddha on Lantau Island. The statue holds the distinction of being the largest Buddha statue that is seated, is outdoors and is made out of bronze. While the specificity of this distinction may seem to trivialize the Buddha, let me assure you of one thing: it is a big-ass statue.
Last winter, while I was bumming around China unemployed (and loving every minute of it), I made the requisite trip to Hong Kong to get a new Chinese visa. This kind of excursion has come to represent a sort of rite of passage for Mainland China expats; it seems like every fifth conversation over cocktails and dinner is at least tangentially related to the complexities of working and living in China legally.
The visa process itself isn't much of a hassle once you've got all your ducks in a row, so most people use this quick pop-in to the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong as an excuse to take a little time off and have a quick vacation while the bureaucrats reassess the legalities surrounding your rights to reside or travel in China. I arrived in Hong Kong from Shanghai and knew there was one thing I wanted to see: a big-ass statue. For more on Hong Kong travel, read on after the jump....
I also knew that I was looking for a respite from the concrete and bus fumes of the crowed metropolis of Shanghai, and the surrounding islands seemed like they would provide ample opportunity for some frolicking in nature. Thus, I did what any respectable person would do: I dropped my passport off at the consulate, ate dinner, got drunk and fell asleep with my shoes on.
So it goes without saying that I awoke the following morning with increased determination to see the Tian Tan Buddha. Thanks to Hong Kong's sleek, trilingual metro system, it's exceedingly easy to get out to scenic Lantau Island for a day trip. If you want to stay longer, there are some lodging options on Lantau itself, and hiking trails snake all around and over the mountainous island and offer well more than a day's entertainment. There are a number of hotels near the Hong Kong airport (which is built on a reclaimed island just off the coast of Lantau), the Country and Marine Parks Authority maintains nine facilities scattered around the island and you can even bunk up at the Ngong Ping SG Davis Hostel at the Po Lin Monastery.
The Ngong Ping Cable Car, which shuttles tourists to the Po Lin Monastery and to the foot of the staircase leading to the massive statue. The cable car to the top is pretty cool. It zips along over the grassy hillsides as the Lantau Trail zigs and zags back and forth many feet below. Some of the cars even have glass bottoms; I was skeptical that this wasn't going to be worth the extra fee, but I was happy to be proven wrong as I giddily took pictures of the ground whizzing by underneath my feet.
It almost goes without saying that this big-ass statue was a zoo of tourists. The weather on the day I visited was absolutely breathtaking, and I paid the price for my good fortune. The conglomeration of stalls and shops that surround the monastery were flooded with camera-wielding tourists and all the associated ills: raucous crowds, hellish lines and a general level of stress I don't enjoy experiencing when trying to take in the unfolding landscape before me—but I nonetheless trudged, undeterred, up the impressively-long staircase that leads you to the feet of the worlds largest outdoor, seated and bronze Buddha statue.
Once I got to the top the crowds were less oppressive (I wonder if it had to do with the 200-and-some-odd stairs required to get there?), and I was again glad I came. The 34 m (111 ft) statue is a sight to behold as it towers over you, and the museum that is built within the Buddha is interesting, though not spectacular.
But the real treat was the view afforded by the platform upon which the Buddha is built. I slunk away from the milling crowds and took a moment to take in the scenery. I distinctly remember gazing towards what looked like a luxury resort far off to the west, a group of buildings set at the confluence of two undulating ridges and just inland from the sea; I learned later that it was a prison. I have since learned that it is a women's correctional facility. Not my kind of luxury resort.
Following my trip back down the cable car, I grabbed a random bus that took me to the northwestern side of the island. I had a fantastic time watching the scenery go by as the bus wound around the twisting mountain roads. I was surprised to find that Lantau is sparsely populated, especially in comparison to Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, and with the exception of the smattering of high-rise apartment buildings that flank the Tung Chung Metro Station, I don't think I saw another building over three stories high. Much of the island is completely uninhabited, and the fishing villages at the water's edge are quaint and a refreshing change from the high-density living found in the rest of Hong Kong. I found that a day on Lantau Island was exactly what I needed, and when I picked up my passport from the consulate the next day and packed my bag before heading back to Shanghai, I decided that I'd have to come back again and stay longer—always a good way to end a vacation.