Self-Guided Lantau Island Tour: Big Buddha and Po Lin Monastery
Why I Loved and Hated Lantau Island?
Lantau Island (大嶼山)
Did you know Hong Kong consists of four main areas: Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, the New Territories and the Outlying Islands? Lantau Island is the largest island that belongs to Hong Kong. Besides the Hong Kong International Airport, it is the home to many popular tourist attractions such as the Hong Kong Disneyland, the Big Buddha (Tian Tan Buddha) and Po Lin Monastery.
How to get to Lantau Island
Getting to Lantau Island is super easy. Swipe the Octopus Card (transportation card), hop on Hong Kong’s MTR (subway system) and get off at Tung Chung station. It takes about 30 minutes from central Hong Kong, then a short five-minute walk from the station to get to the Tung Chung Cable Car Terminal. Just follow the signs (Once you get there, you’ll know what I mean).
Ride Ngong Ping Cable Car to the Big Buddha
While bus can take you up to the Ngong Ping village where Tian Tan Buddha (“Big Buddha”) is, the most popular way is to take a Ngong Ping 360 Gondola. But I have to warn you; there is an unavoidable long, long line whether you purchase tickets in advance or on site.
The cable car starts to operate at 10 a.m. To beat the crowd, I got there around 9:30 a.m., thinking I would bypass the line to simply pick up my ticket and go straight to the ride. Wrong! Despite “no-queuing” promises from online booking services, there was a long waiting line. Although advanced booking line seemed to be shorter at first, it didn’t matter in the end because they opened ONE designated counter for online purchases as opposed to six other counters for on-site purchases. My strategy failed! I was sweating in the Hong Kong’s sticky, humid air for one full hour to pick up my ticket. Ugh.
Wonder what if you get there much earlier to be the first one in line? Well, you still need to wait until the ticket office opens. It sounds like a lose, lose situation to me. Just suck it up, I guess. You will feel much better once you see the view from the cable car.
Is Cable Car Ride Worth it?
Yes! It is quite the experience. And the view along the 25-min cable car ride is spectacular.
So how is the view? What exactly can you see? A picture is worth a thousand words, they say. Perhaps not in this case, I say. After returning home, I was disappointed with my own photos as they don’t capture what I saw with my own eyes. Although I could easily blame my photography skill, I also think that human eyes capture the panoramic view way better than the camera viewfinder and the emotion that came along.
The view from the Lantau Island’s cable car was a completely different scene from Hong Kong’s crowded and cramped sight. I enjoyed the aerial view of high rises from afar, a few boats floating on the river, the lush green mountain, and airplanes landing and taking off from the nearby Hong Kong Airport. As the final destination approached, I also saw the Big Buddha on top of the hill and Po Lin Monastery from a distance. Picturesque? Yes, that’s the word.
But if you are afraid of heights or closed spaces, the cable car ride is not such a good idea. After all, it is a 25-min, 5.7 km journey. It goes up and makes a short stop at one point, then goes up again, then again. You get the picture how high the final destination is. I’m generally okay with the height as long as I don’t need to jump off. But I was glad I didn’t sit on the crystal cabin.
Speaking of the crystal cabin, the gondola lift comes in two options: standard and crystal. Crystal cabin lets you enjoy the view below your feet through the transparent glass floor. It is slightly more expensive than standard. If you are unsure, you can select 1+1 Standard & Crystal Round Trip, which you can experience both cabins.
The Big Buddha (Tian Tan Buddda；天壇大佛)
I quickly passed through the touristy Ngong Pong Village. As the name “Tian Tan (Temple of Heaven)” suggests, the famous Big Buddha sits on top of the hill. I climbed up like 100+ steep stairs in the blazing sun with millions of other tourists to get close to the Buddha. (Ok, I’m exaggerating just a tiny bit.)
To be honest, I didn’t have high expectation of the Big Buddha from the get-go. After a while in Asia, I got jaded by giant Buddhist statues. Been there, done that, you know? Yet, I did enjoy the environment where Tian Tan Buddha was. I liked the fact that visitors were allowed to get close to the statue. The view from the hill and the sight of Po Lin Monastery were beautiful. It was ironic that I felt peaceful looking down among hundreds of tourists taking selfies all around me.
By the way, as I was traveling solo, I had the most difficult time taking selfies. How do you capture such a giant statue on the background without awkwardly cutting off yourself while trying to eliminate others in the frame? Kudos to other travelers who capture an epic image of themselves alone in this kind of hectic environment.
READ MORE: Are you awed by the Big Buddha? Taiwan also has a few. If you are curious, check them out here.
Vegetarian Meal at the Po Lin Monastery (寶蓮禪寺)
Po Lin Monastery sits facing the Big Buddha. Po Lin Monastery is a cute little temple. Because the photography was not allowed inside the temple, I ended up taking a few in front of it.
Even after hiking up and down the stairs to the Big Buddha, I wasn’t hungry. It was so hot that I lost appetite. I contemplated whether to eat the vegetarian lunch at the Po Lin Monastery or not. I realized that I barely drank a bottle of water that is weighing me down in my backpack. I didn’t want to faint from a heat stroke. Plus, when you go to a Buddhist temple, you gotta try a temple vegetarian meal. I decided to sit down at the restaurant inside the Monastery.
I picked Delux Meal for one person as opposed to General Meal. The ticket lady explained that I could sit in the air-conditioned room with the Delux Meal whereas I would have to sit at the picnic table outdoor with the other option. Yeah, I gladly paid extra for A/C.
I sat alone in a 10-person banquet table. The portion was pretty significant even for American standard. I got a huge bowl of pumpkin soup as the starter, followed by a whole kettle pot of tea. At first, I thought the servers might have been confused my order with the family in the next table because the portion was too generous. Soon, it was clear that this was all for me; another person was sat at my table, and he got the same portion.
In case you are wondering, it is common for strangers to share a table in Hong Kong. The servers don’t bother to ask if that’s okay with you. It’s understood. I feel awkward, but I try to shrug it off.
Pro Tip: You can purchase a set meal plan in two different spots – at the ticket office right below the stairs to the Big Buddha or at the restaurant inside the Monastery. If you are unsure, go to the restaurant to check out the food first. The restaurant also offers a la carte menu. Credit cards are accepted.
Wisdom Path (心經簡林)
I left the comfortably air-conditioned restaurant to walk the Wisdom Path. After a nice, brisk walk through the shaded pavement, I arrived at the Wisdom Path.
Wisdom Path is a short trail on top of the hill, featuring a series of tall wooden columns. The columns display Buddhist verses in Chinese that contain the profound wisdom from the Heart Sutra, the best-known Buddhist scripture. And all 38 of them stand in a sideways 8 formation, representing infinity.
Without understanding much about it, I didn’t gain an ounce of wisdom. Nevertheless, it was scenic and peaceful. The site was much less crowded than the Big Buddha, making it more enjoyable. I sat down on a rock, looked up the blue sky, and had a self-reflecting time.
Citygate Outlets Tung Chung Hong Kong
Many visitors to the Lantau Island opt for a visit to the Tai O Fish Village and pink dolphin boat tour. Because it sounded super touristy, I wasn’t interested. I was glad I didn’t purchase a package because I had a headache from the heat.
What I desperately needed was a cup of iced coffee and a comfortable chair in the air-conditioned cafe. I came down to the Citygate Outlets next to the Tung Chung MTR station. I settled down at Moccato Cafe on the third floor.
By the way, if you are coming from the U.S., this outlet mall would be overpriced and underwhelming for you. Don’t waste your time here (because I already scanned it for you).
READ MORE: Looking for things to do in Hong Kong? See why you should try afternoon tea at this place.
What I Loved & Hated about the Lantau Island
I hated the long waiting line and the crowd. (Who doesn’t?!) I went to the Lantau Island one day before the Labor Day. It wasn’t an official holiday yet, but it might have made the matter worse than usual although I heard it always gets crowded. So take it with a grain of salt.
I complained a lot about Hong Kong’s hot and humid weather. It didn’t help my cause. Unfortunately, there is nothing I can do about it. I might like Hong Kong much better when it cools down.
Despite all my complaints, I did enjoy my day at the Ngong Ping area. The cable car ride on Lantau Island was a memorable experience with thrill and excitement; the aerial view of the island was stunning. I also experienced a totally-unexpected, ironic moment of inner peace throughout my visit to the crowded Big Buddha, Po Lin Monastery, and Wisdom Path.
Would I go again? Probably not. But I’m glad I went.
I’m interested in hearing your opinion. Do you enjoy visiting popular tourist sites or avoid them like the plague? Do you have a strategy to beat the crowd? Or, do you power through it?
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