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My Big Buddha Trip (and a Cable Car)

Stepping off the bus onto a concrete plaza on Lantau Island, I followed the signs reading “Big Buddha.” A distance of about a city block down a paved walkway, very wide, and edged with neatly-kept landscaping, was another plaza: a big circle. Signs pointed the way toward the Po Lin Monastery, the cable car, and, to the right, toward the Big Buddha.

The Big Buddha

My husband visited the Big Buddha a few years ago and told me that I really should go, saying it was “impressive.” I didn’t really expect much, just a big Buddha statue. The real draw was the cable car ride, in my mind.

view up the stairs with the Big Buddha at the top

The Big Buddha, seen from the base of the stairs

Turning that corner and looking up toward the Buddha, however, I realized what he meant. A long and very steep staircase (268 steps, according to Wikipedia, the font of all knowledge) rose in front of me, topped by what must indeed be a very BIG Buddha.

The Big Buddha, whose real name is Tien Tan Buddha, is not old despite its traditional appearance; it was completed in 1993. While many people who visit it are, like me,  tourists, many are locals who go there to worship: the Big Buddha is revered and the climb up that long stairway is an act of devotion.

The Big Buddha sits in a lotus, his right hand raised

The Big Buddha, as seen from the base

My effort was rewarded by the view. Despite the rainy day, it was good to be outside of big city Hong Kong. The monastery below, the mountains, shrouded in cloud much of the time: it all made a pleasing impression.

The Buddha (34 meters tall or 112 feet) stands on a base three stories tall, and a terrace encircles it, holding six much smaller statues of Devas making offerings to Buddha. Visitors can walk all the way around the base.

Three of the Deva statues, making offerings to the Buddha above. It started pouring with rain while I was up there.

Three of the Deva statues, making offerings to the Buddha above. (It started pouring with rain while I was up there.)

You can also go inside, but only into the base, emerging just under the Buddha. The monastery charges HK$38 for the privilege, about US$5. There are some sacred texts inside, but almost all of the signage is in Chinese, so it didn’t mean much to me. I’d say it wasn’t worth paying to go inside, except that the fee also includes a “snack” down at the monastery’s vegetarian restaurant below. Later, when I went to get the snack, I expected something small, perhaps one of the sweet dim sum items they displayed. Instead, a “snack” involved a big pile of fried noodles, two of the sweets, and a cup of tea. It was more than enough for a whole meal.

Po Lin Monastery

The monastery—at least the part that outsiders may enter—seems to be a fairly typical Hong Kong shrine. Incense fragrance fills the air, and worshippers stop to pray and light more incense in front of the three Buddha statues displayed inside. Others, both local and foreigners like me, pose and snap pictures, then go have a snack at the vegetarian restaurant run by the Buddhist nuns.

Decorated in a traditional Chinese style, the Po Lin monastery temple contains three Buddha statues.

The Po Lin Monastery

The Cable Car

The way most visitors get to the Big Buddha is by taking the long Ngong Ping cable-car ride from Tung Chung, which is reachable by metro from Hong Kong. My plan was to do that on the way down, to save some money by paying one way instead of round trip. Besides, I wanted to visit Tai O first, then visit the Big Buddha.

I was nervous about the cable car though: the idea of hanging from a cable high off the ground scares me in any case, but, on top of that, there was a strong wind, with on and off rain and the occasional rumble of thunder. Is it safe in a cable car with that much wind?

view of the cable car line from the end near the Big Buddha

At this point they’d closed the ride, so the cabins going down were all empty, while some people were still on their way up.

The few hundred meters between the cable car terminal and the large plaza presented quite a contrast to the religious atmosphere I’d just left. Lined with restaurants, shops and “attractions,” it had an air of Disneyland: too clean, too planned, a whitewashed version of Hong Kong. I didn’t stop to sample anything: Italian, Turkish or a multitude of other foods; multimedia shows vaguely pertaining to Hong Kong; or shops selling high-end souvenirs.

I was greeted at the cable car ticket counter by a sign saying that the cable car was closed due to thunder. I don’t know if that meant that lightning is dangerous or if the real issue was wind but whoever wrote the sign didn’t know the word for wind. Either way, part of me was relieved: the cable cars passing by empty swayed alarmingly in the breeze. Instead, I walked back through Disneyland to the bus stop.

Passing some feral cattle (!), I settled into the queue to wait. A few moments later, a girl ran up to the people behind me in the line and declared something quite emphatically in Chinese. Guessing what she might be saying, I asked “Is it open?”

Feral cattle near the bus stop below the Big Buddha

Feral cattle near the bus stop.

“Yes, it’s open again,” she replied, and she, her friends and I headed back up to the ticket counter.

There are two types of cabins, the regular one and the premium “Crystal Cabin,” which has a transparent glass bottom. Even the thought of that made my stomach do flips. People actually pay extra for that?

Once I had my ticket, I was fortunate to end up in line with a group of Canadians, who were very reassuring about the cable car. They’d come up in it when the weather was far worse, and it helped my nerves to see that they were choosing to take it down again rather than switching to the bus. They told me they had heard that the bus is much scarier, since it twists and turns its way down the mountain.

a view over green hills from the cable car, with the Big Buddha on a hill in the distance

Despite the bad weather, you can make out the Big Buddha in the background.

The cable car trip really wasn’t so bad. It was still windy, with a smattering of rain, but there were eight of us in the cabin, which added enough weight to stop it swinging much. The views, meanwhile, are magnificent: in 25 minutes, it travels 5.7 kilometers, passing over lushly overgrown mountains and valleys, over Tung Cheng Bay, by the airport, at times quite high off the ground. Three times the car goes through a structure which changes its direction, so essentially it’s four different cable car rides strung together.

view down showing the cables stretching over the bay, on the way down from the Big Buddha

This was a very steep segment, and over water!

If you ever visit Hong Kong, my husband is right: this is worth doing. The Buddha is breathtaking, both literally as you climb the stairs and figuratively in terms of the beauty of the statue and the expanse of the view. So is the cable car, which offers such an array of beautiful views. Do it on a clear day, though, because then your views will reach even further.

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