The Tian Tan Buddha (colloquially known as the Big Buddha) is “the world’s largest outdoor seated bronze Buddha” – and yes, that is indeed a lot of qualifiers. It is not the world’s largest Buddha. Not by a long shot.
Yet, looming 112 feet above the misty mountains of Lantau Island, the Big Buddha is inarguably immense and impressive and one of Hong Kong’s most famous sights.
It is also notoriously touristy, and so when we divulged our plans to visit the site to our fellow exchange student friends (every one of them card carrying members of the sometimes-admirable “we’re Travelers, not Tourists” club) it was met with near-universal scorn.
“Ugh, I hate the Big Buddha!” I was resoundingly told by a Californian who was insisting on his near-native status a mere three weeks into his stay here.
But we were here in Hong Kong to make the most of it, so we shrugged our shoulders and decided to go and see for ourselves, and I am so glad that we did.
The Big Buddha is on Lantau Island and can be accessed on the Tung Chung line from the Hong Kong MTR station in Central. We went early on a Monday morning to avoid the worst of the crowds, and this was a successful strategy. There were plenty of visitors there to share the experience with us, but it was a small enough group that strolling around the sprawling monastery was still quiet and serene.
A cable car to the top of Lantau Peak where both the Big Buddha and the Po Lin Monastery are located adjoins the MTR station. A round-trip on the cable car is 180 HKD (26 USD).
The ride is a nearly six kilometer breathtaking journey over awe-inspiring misty mountains and valleys and brilliant green sea. It was so stunningly beautiful I was nearly moved to tears – NO JOKE! Ya girl had feelings.
After alighting the cable car you will walk through Ngong Ping Village. There is a Starbucks, a Subway, and a novelty chopsticks store here, but have no fear. You have not yet reached your destination.
Through a gate and around a corner you find the 250-odd steps up to the towering Big Buddha himself. He sits, he stares, he takes up space. He was only constructed a few decades ago, but he exists so resolutely it is hard to imagine him ever not having sat there.
These mountains would have been lonely without him.
He is kept company not only by the legions of visitors he attracts, many of whom are genuine worshippers, but by a circle of statues and spiritual relics, each impressive in their own right, rendered especially so by the beautiful panorama behind them.
You can also pay a visit to the Po Lin Monastery, right next door. It is a gorgeous feat of design – chiseled and painted and tiled with exquisite detail. One cavernous room is tiled entirely with small Buddhas (it is called the Hall of Ten Thousand Buddhas, naturally). As this is a sacred space and there are visitors engaged in active prayer, you cannot take photos inside the monastery. Just as well. I don’t think we could have captured their majesty.
Afterwards, we stopped for lunch at the Vegetarian Deli stand beside the monastery and ate $3 (USD) noodles and tried a strange corn-shaped-and-colored dessert. It had a paste-like texture unlike anything I’ve tried except for at a dentist’s office.
We then strolled down the Wisdom Trail, hoping against hope that there we would find the wisdom we needed to navigate Hong Kong (at this point we will try anything.)
Instead, we saw spiders the size of our hands dangling between the trees, as still as the Buddha himself.
Each time my brain registered one of these monstrosities in my peripheral vision, my entire body had a kanipshin – we’re talking stomach falling out, every hair on end, and, of course, an actual, embarrassing yelp.
These things were so big you could see their heads.
But they didn’t care about me. They didn’t care about any of us, as long as we stayed out of their way. We stuck to the trail, the very middle, out of reach of creeping branches.
This was a bizarre experience because both of us love hiking, and both of us can handle spiders on the trail back home. Back home, they are usually brown and hairy and, most importantly, small. These things were black and skeletal and menacing and HORRIFYING IN EVERY WAY.
But we pushed through, and each successive time I spotted one my reaction toned down a little as I grew desensitized to them, in the same way I am desensitized to the spiders back home, and the same way we grow desensitized to everything that was once unfamiliar here.
The view at the end was amazing. The Wisdom Path culminates in a clearing filled with immense wooden markers with Chinese characters inscribed on them that I can only imagine say very wise things. Whatever they were trying to get across, all I could appreciate was how cool they looked with the mist rolling by in the background.
In the end, after a full day’s worth of beauty, we got to take the cable car back across the valley and admire yet more mountain views and grazing cows, and we reflected that our excursion to Big Buddha had given more to us than we asked of it, and definitely more than we expected.
Sometimes, you don’t need to “outsmart the crowds.” Sometimes you should go where everyone else goes because they just may go there for a reason.