268 steps to enlightenment…!

It takes 268 steps to reach the Tian Tan Buddha, the largest outdoor Buddha in the world, and I was about to climb every single one of them. The 85ft high Buddha sits on a hilltop overlooking the Po Lin Monastery seated atop a beautiful throne of lotus leaves. Enshrined within the image is a sacred relic of the real Buddha, (a tooth in a crystal container).

But before all that you have to embark on a 4 mile cable car ride up into the mountains of Lantau island. This ride dangles you over the South China Sea before providing you with sweeping views across the country park on Lantau island and then further still into the distance beyond and the outlying islands of the archipelago. Real lunatics can trek up from sea-level to the Ngong Ping Village and then embark on the leg burning ascent to the Buddha perched up high beyond, but that was a one loony step too far for us in the 90 degree plus heat of a sweltering South Asian noon.

The Po Lin Monastery gateway.

Having swung precariously for a good 20 minutes in the cable car we disembarked at the “specially themed cultural village” which is tacky beyond belief and somewhat spoils an otherwise exciting journey up. Always one to avoid such tacky tourist traps we headed directly for the great seated Buddha.

Passing by various statutes depicting signs of the Chinese Zodiac we approached the stairway to enlightenment. It’s difficult to not be impressed by the whole grandeur of this place and its surroundings. Long before the building of the statue the tiny Po Lin Monastery was a peaceful and serene religious retreat sitting high up on the Ngong Ping plateaux nestling tidily beneath the imposing Lantau peak. Today however it was full of people all eager to see the Buddha statue, cast in bronze and brought over from Nanjing at a reputed cost of upwards of HK$60 million.

We struggled up the first few steps in the already oppressive heat of mid morning stopping every so often to wipe our sweating brows. Achieving Buddhist enlightenment always seems to involve climbing to very inaccessible places, usually in baking hot or freezing cold environments and nearly always involves pain of some kind! This was going to be no different.

The giant Buddha on Lantau Island.

At around 200 steps I had deteriorated into a stumbling sweaty middle aged wreck of a man. I had sweat marks that made me seem to have man-boobs and a serious case of under arm B.O. Maybe it was me but I was sure people were trying to avoid me. Slim young Chinese girls passed me at will, only glancing briefly to laugh at the overweight westerner far from home and very far outside his personal comfort zone.

After what seemed like an eternity I finally summited the steep stairway and stepped triumphantly onto the circular platform below the Buddha. A long pause for breath and I was off taking in the extraordinary views across to Lantau peak and out across the South China Sea as had been promised in the travel guides.

Six bronze bodhisattva offer gifts to the seated Buddha.

Six bronze bodhisattva statues sit on this platform all offering different gifts to the Buddha.They are (I am informed) venerated for deferring heaven to help mortals reach enlightenment, and boy was I in need of some enlightenment at this point! Whereas I am not a devotee of Buddhism I can clearly see its attraction to some people, and must admit that although enlightenment is only usually obtained it seems through some form of suffering, the whole feel of Buddhism is a lot more uplifting than some christian ideals I know or have learnt. Certainly the settings for worship of the Buddha are usually in spectacular surroundings here on earth and Po Lin is no exception.

Having seen the Buddha, the South China Sea vistas and the towering Lantau peak we headed back down the 200 plus steps which almost hurt as much in descent as they had an hour before while climbing them. Once at the bottom we headed toward the Po Lin Monastery deferring to take the Enlightenment Walk for another time.

The Po Lin Monastery.

Po Lin means ‘precious lotus‘, and monks had originally started arriving on Lantau in the early 20th century attracted by its peace and quiet coupled with its relative remoteness. Nowadays you can of course catch a bus to the monastery gates, but there is still a sense you get while wandering around the place that this was once probably a truly magical place to retreat to.

The main temple is riotously ornate with gilded statues of the historical Buddha and the healing Buddha seated inside. Full of colourful frescoes and hanging lanterns the place has a real energy to it. If you are also lucky you may well see some of the monks wandering around in the courtyard and striking the giant bell to announce it is their lunchtime. We however skipped lunch at the vegetarian restaurant due to the increasing crowds but I am told it is in fact rather moorish.

A golden Buddha in the main hall of the Po Lin Monastery.

We sat quietly for some time in the shade of the courtyard before deciding that for the afternoon we would venture outside the monastery and catch a bus headed down to the coastline and in the direction of Tai O. Tai O is a small fishing village of stilt houses perched over a tidal creek, its Tanka boat people make a living from fishing and trading salt with mainland China.

The bus lurched around a series of steep hairpin descents, down and down, until we were at the shoreline. Stepping off the packed bus and into the bus terminal was akin to putting your head in an oven, the heat down at sea level pummelled our faces remorselessly for the next few hours.

The stilt house of Tai O - Lantau Island.

The village has a ramshackle feel to it and an over powering smell of dried fish. Being allergic to fish this was going to be no walk in the park for me. The harbour is dotted with houseboats and the occasional junk all bobbing around together gently nudging one another for space. We crossed a small linking bridge to the tidal island and walked along the narrow alleyways that seem to have not changed much in centuries. Eventually losing the other crowds we headed out to the far end of the village onto a tiny peninsula and in time came by a small isolated temple built on out on the limb.

Dried fisk stalls in Tai O.

Inside the temple prayer papers were burning intensely in the furnace fires all attempting to reach the Buddha in the afterlife and incense hung heavy in the air. The only sign of habitation was a women sitting outside under a shady tree trying to sell some soft drinks. The lady seemed shocked to see two westerners in such a remote place, I guess not many venture this far out of the village. Unfortunately for her we were not going to make her rich as her wares consisted of bottled ice tea, not my first choice of beverage in the afternoon heat I am afraid.

Metal stilted house in Tai O.

By the by we started the trek back to the village walking past metal stilted houses of near hobbit sized proportions. The Tanka fishermen of this village must be a small and hardy race, their houses are small and resemble western style kids wendy houses, the shiny metal walls that they are built of must create a near oven like feel in summer and near fridge like conditions in the winter.

Riverfront fishermens stilt house in Tai O.

Back at the village square we headed for the sweltering bus terminal once again and our bus back up to the monastery. With signs indicating every bus number but the one we needed some confusion set in and every time I asked if there was a bus going back up to the monastery I was told the same story, – it would be the next one, and then the next one, and then the next one. Eventually after much confusion and repeated questioning we tracked down a monastery bound bus hidden in amongst the dozen or so buses parked randomly at the terminus and once boarded made the journey back up the twisting road to the cable car terminal ready for our descent back down to Tung Chung and the MTR back to Hong Kong island.

We may not have found enlightenment (at least not in the Buddhist sense of the word), but we were certainly enlightened by the sights, sounds and smells of the day we spent on Lantau island. The Tian Tan Buddha perched as it is up high towards the heavens and in the shadow of the brooding Lantau peak is a humbling experience for sure, not to mention a knee busting one, but an experience that I thoroughly recommend you try. You may not get enlightened but you will get sore knees.

 Check out more photos of our amazing trip to Hong Kong over at: http://www.fluidr.com/photos/jameshandlon/sets
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