We arrived in Hong Kong after flying to Tokyo from New York on a direct flight. That we had a three-hour layover in Tokyo before flying to Hong Kong, made us quite tired upon arrival, but time change and jetlag kept us on the edge, hungry to see and absorb, not really realizing how tired we were.
The next morning, early morning, we had our tickets for an excursion to Lantau Lan (Cantonese for “broken head”). The shape of the mountain, the highest one on the island, has that look, if you are told to look for it. Otherwise, one would not easily make that association.
Hong Kong has a total of 36 peaks. Lantau is 934 meters above sea level, around 3000 plus feet. Lantau is the second highest peak in Hong Kong. It is a popular spot for hiking, paragliding and rock climbing. Lantau island is the equivalent of the Hamptons for the locals. It is the escape from the city people of HK crave. The island of Lantau is 144 square kilometers. Twice the size of Hong Kong. Why do I remember these statistics? Do not ask me…I hope to forget them soon. Lantau is twice the size of the main island. Of the 266 islands that make Hong Kong, Lantau is the largest.
Once a fishing village, it now has only 2000 people, of which only around 150 fish actively. Many parts of the fishing areas have been converted to high-rise buildings. What was fascinating and yet also sad, were the wild cattle. We were told they are the leftover abandoned cattle from the old days of farming and fishing. Most cattle we saw were water buffaloes…and we were told there are also around two to three hundred cows roaming around. Wild boards, porcupines, tree frogs and spiders that can eat birds are other native animals. Bamboo snakes, pythons and cobras are native too. Once upon a time, tigers roamed this island, but they were last found in the 30s. Some even say as late as 50’s there were tigers around.
Pink Dolphins were the most celebrated animal that we heard about, but sadly, this is not the season that they are seen. Alas, we only saw photos in postcards.
Disney has arrived in Lantau and is changing the face of the island. The Government has vowed to make sure the island is kept green and says it will ensure 2/3 of the island will remain as parkland. Cheung Sha Beach has been restored. Not really a beach worth getting excited by for those that have enjoyed beaches in the Caribbean, US, India, Maldives and other places. What I was most surprised and amused by was the mini medical clinic they had on the beach.
While driving from beach to the monastery that we had heard so much about, we drove by the high security prison that is on the other side of the reservoir. The reservoir looked stunning, and what made it even more wonderful was the silhouette we could see of the Buddha on the mountaintop. The reservoir had the perfect contrast to the mountains… and the prison gave it an interesting look. Tennis Courts and swimming pools filled the prison campus. Hong Long has a population of 7 million. There are 17 thousand prisoners and of those, 700 are in Lantau. As a country, Hong Kong does not afford its private citizens access to firearms. What I was most impressed hearing was that Hong Kong abolished. The mist that covered the peaks of the mountains, gave the prison, reservoir and the Buddha this ethereal aura that was unreal. I was not expecting to be moved by an island and its setting in this way. The hour plus spent on a touristy junk from Hong Kong to Lantau did not seem promising, in fact it was quite boring, but all of a sudden, it changed and became a surprising discovery.
As we arrived at the fishing village of Tai O (Cantonese for “big bay”), new surprises and discoveries were instantly promised. Tai O was first settled by the Haka Chinese. The stilt houses that awed us, once were almost lost to the world. The British wanted them demolished since they had no sewers. The 200-plus year settlement, now a living heritage, saved extinction as the locals fought for their heritage to be preserved. Lucky for us, since this village and its stilt homes gave us yet another perspective into Lantau and the excitement that Hong Kong affords its visitors.
Tai O had shop after shop selling fish sauce, dried fish of all kinds, and any and everything related with fish. What was most striking was the lack of any smell that could be offensive. In Chinatown in NYC, often one smells odors that are challenging even to the least xenophobic amongst us. But here, no such challenge was presented. Shrimp paste was the most commonly sold item. Contrary to what one would expect, not all the shrimp paste found in the stalls is made locally. Most comes from China.
Driving to Tai O from the reservoir and from Tai O to the Buddha statue, we found many graves on the hill slopes. Even though our guide called the slopes “hills,” I could hardly come to accept that description, since from a young age, I had frequented the hill stations of India: much higher and more rugged. These slopes were quite accessible and doable to my eyes. That human scale also made them special in some ways. The graves in the Himalayas on the slopes had a majesty about them that was very different. Here, they seemed very human and mortal as graves most often are. The Chinese believe the Feng Shui around a grave is very important. No setting could be better than that on a slope, with expansive views and access to water, everything that these slopes had. Chinese believe that the departed soul and the generations to follow will each find prosperity if the grave has good Feng Shui. I could not argue with this belief. And hope my ashes could be afforded the same luxuries.
Not much a fan of seafood usually, I could have spent days and months or years here and never found anything too challenging. The pace of life, the beauty of the setting and the energy of the people all made for very inviting and exciting surroundings. I am haunted days later by the spirit that permeated the slopes, the water, and the stilted homes—even the dried seafoods being showcased in stands and stores. The dogs, too, seemed happy and healthy. Not always the case when traveling around the globe.
Next on our agenda in Lantau was a visit to the monastery at Po Lin and to the Buddha Statue. The statue kept getting more and more impressive as we got nearer. But I must say, even when it looked quite modest from the flat vantage point of the reservoir, it had this aura that was marvelous. In fact, to me the Buddha made greater impact from the distance. Seeing it up close, I also saw the many compromises that certainly were made since it was constructed at a large scale in modern times. Had this Buddha been made centuries ago, the details of it would be even more mesmerizing. But none of that mattered as we saw it from the reservoir.
The Buddha statue was based on a design made by a female artist in 1985. I hope I am remembering the date correctly. It was inspired by paintings of Buddha from the Northern Dessert of China, where cave paintings from 1300 years ago exist. The Buddha has classical features. The year that the artist took to render the image used to cast the Buddha seems like a perfect amount of time spent on something so wonderful. Our guide said it took two years to cast the 202 panels that make the exterior skin of the Buddha. The frame is made out of steel. The panels are made of bronze. The frame in steel is itself over 55 metric tons. The bronze outside weighs around 200 tons. The Buddha is the largest outdoor-seated statue in the world. It is 86.5 feet high. Shanghai now has the tallest Buddha statue.
Sakamuni is the Chinese name for Buddha. We were told the monastery and the Buddha statue shrine have two relics of the Buddha. I did see some color in the jar that houses one of the relics, a fragment of his neck bone. Surrounding the statue are six women. Each is offering the Buddha something little to get all of this wonderfully set for the next day. The six women signify each in their own merit, a path to enlightenment.
The monastery had very little appeal to me. It seemed rather commercial.
We ate a vegetarian meal at the monastery. The food was humble but as is often the case with meals eaten at such settings, ordinary dishes take on new flavors, becoming that much richer and more special. The fried rice, corn and tofu soup, donut-like fried dough served with condensed milk, the stir-fried vegetables and spring rolls all seemed the best of class. Were they? I am not sure I will ever know. But for that moment in history they tasted sensational and that will haunt my memory.
You can see all my photos in the Lantau Travels album.
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Here are images from Google Earth. You can see the coordinates in the lower left corner of each picture. Thank you for visiting.