LANTAU ISLAND, HONG KONG -This is known as Hong Kong’s treasured island – a place revered by local residents because of its religious importance to the community.
It’s home to Po Lin Monastery, whose most important resident is the giant golden Buddha which sits atop a lofty perch on one of Lantau’s two peeks, affording it magnificent views of the surrounding mountains and seascape.
Up until a few years ago, there were few people living on Lantau, one of Hong Kong's 235 outlying islands. Now, thanks to the city’s new airport being built nearby and Walt Disney’s newest theme park at Penney Bay; a new town, Tung Chung, which is surrounded by a forest of apartment complexes, has emerged on the southern tip.
However, the rest of the island remains fairly secluded, especially the part where the golden Buddha calls home.
You’ll need to take a bus along some narrow back roads to get to the monastery. It’s a fairly short trip in terms of distance but the road’s tight turns and oncoming traffic forces the bus to travel at a snail’s pace and the trip from Tung Chung to Po Lin takes over an hour.
Sit back and relax, because along the way you’ll be treated to some unusual sights. Like the wild cows that wander the roads and force traffic to stop while they saunter between pastures.
Many years ago farmers tried to settle this island but quickly discovered the land here is not fertile - the soil is a clay base. So they abandoned Lantau after a short period and left their livestock behind. The cows quickly multiplied and now have become a protected species and one of the island’s biggest attractions.
Another attraction are the pristine beaches found here, especially at Cheung Sha, a small community still favored as a cool summer retreat for overheated Hong Kong residents. Accommodation here can go for as little as $50 a week. The island is busiest in October, November and December, when thousands come here to escape Hong Kong's famed humidity.
Although Lantau is three times the size of Hong Kong Island, it remained uninhabited for centuries because it took over an hour to reach by ferry from overcrowded Kowloon. With the construction of new bridges and rail systems to accommodate the fascinating new airport and Disney’s theme park, the island has become more accessible and that has prompted the local government to introduce strict building codes that will limit development around the monastery.
Above: Stanley Market is where you'll find some great markets and restaurants.
The bus fare to the monastery is just $5 but the rollercoaster trip is a thrill of a lifetime. The bus takes you past lots of hiking trails that served as escape routes during the 18th century when Lantau was a favorite stop over for pirates.
The island is dominated by Fong Wong Shan, better known as Phoenix Mountain, which rises 934 metres. Many hikers climb to the top of Phoenix Mountain to observe the breathtaking sunrise each morning.
Half the island's 14,400 hectares have been designated as country parks and provide tourists with a welcome relief from the crowded streets of Hong Kong and Kowloon.
Lantau Island is also known as the Island of Prayer and Po Lin translates to Precious Lotus. It was built in 1924 and is just one of 135 Buddhist monasteries located on the island. However, because of the golden Buddha, it is the most revered. It takes a hiker’s skill to reach the top of the peak where the Buddha sits 700 metres above sea level. One is forced to climb over 100 stairs to reach the top but once you catch your breath, you are treated to one of the most spectacular views on Earth.
About 100 monks and nuns reside at the monastery and once every three years hundreds of novice monks come to Po Lin from all over the world to complete their training. They spend two months in prayer, mediation, fasting and reciting the sutras - the doctrine of the Lord Buddha Sakyamuni.
The monastery’s two main temples sit facing each other in a small square. They are crammed with statues and carvings, including one of the Laughing Buddha. The main temple is decorated in bright colors - orange, blue, yellow and gold - and the mountain backdrop makes it look like a painting resting on green canvas. The stone floor is inlaid with a pattern of lotus flowers and it’s all very beautiful.
A Buddha made of white jade – one of the few in the world – is another of the monastery’s attractions. Older Hong Kong residents make offerings at incense kettles scattered around the compound, which features a vegetarian restaurant known as one of the best in the territory. It also generates over $50,000 a month in business for the monastery.
The monastery can be a busy place at times – it averages over 2,000 visitors a day and over 10,000 arrive on Buddha’s birthday in mid-May.
The restaurant is also a main source of income for the monks, generating $50,000 a month in business.
The golden Buddha is made from 200 individually cast bronze plates and stands 26 meters high and weighs in at a hefty 200 tons. And while Disney may be here to stay, the Buddha and Lantau’s forested brilliance is what will always make this a fantasy island.