Hong Kong Hiking Escapes
Picturesque Lantau Island is the largest of Hong Kong's outer islands, home to Po Lin (Precious Lotus) Monastery and its Tiantau Buddha, the largest seated outdoor bronze Buddha in the world. Sitting on a lotus blossom, the 111-foot-high statue towers above the monastery precinct at the top of a giant stone staircase. Surrounded by six bronze Bodhisattva statues, it's worth climbing the 268 steps to absorb views of nearby Lantau Peak, whose 3,040-foot summit towers above the serene monastery.
We took the ferry from Central Station in Kowloon, disembarked on Lantau at Silver Mine Bay, hopped on a bus, and easily found the trailhead above the turquoise-blue waters of the Shek Pik reservoir. (You can follow the bus route along the road with a topographic map and recognize landmarks as you pass them.) We hiked the five miles over the course of three hours with many breaks to absorb the scenery.
The hike skirted along the contour lines of the hills, affording superb views of Shek Pik Reservoir and, in the distance, the Lantau Channel of the South China Sea. The path was broad, easy, and prettily wooded for the first hour. We ambled, stopping in the shaded ravines where brooks cascaded down the mountainside before disappearing into piles of boulders.
Talk about feng shui: Here, amid the orchestra of birdsong, cicadas, breeze in the trees, and gurgling streams (not to mention the views) we felt we'd dropped into a little bit of heaven. We sat down, pored over our topographic map, peered through our binoculars at birds, hunted lizards amid the rocks, and chatted amicably.
The last one-and-a-half hours were a gentle ascent, made slightly uncomfortable because of direct exposure to the blazing sun. Be sure to take a hat, use ample sunscreen, and have lots of water. The humidity and sun conspired to make us sweaty and thirsty. But so what? Eager to catch our first glimpse of the mighty Buddha, we were well motivated to continue.
In the Saddle
At the saddle of the ridge, our path joined the popular trail to Lantau Peak at the edge of the monastery grounds. The trail through densely shady woods offered welcome respite from the sun. Festoons of gaily colored flags dangled from the trees. All of a sudden loud cracking noises filled the air, joined by children's laughter: They were lighting firecrackers in the temple grounds.
To our left, the Buddha gazed benignly down upon us all, while the white, stone-paved precinct almost blinded us in the brilliant glare of sunshine. The monastery (and lunch) beckoned, so we explored its colorful sanctuary. Golden Buddhas, lotus blossoms, the sound of joss sticks being tossed, and the fragrance of incense enthralled us.
Vegetarian lunch was served in an open room cooled by fans. It was filling, and the tea was plentiful. The proceeds from purchasing the meals helps maintain the temple.
Returning to our hotel in Kowloon was simple: by bus to Tung Chung, then back to Kowloon via the airport branch of the superb subway system. As the bus pulled away from the Buddha, a cloud descended, obscuring his head. Already, Lantau Peak was hidden.
Although Lonely Planet's guide to Hong Kong advises against visiting Tai Po on weekends, we didn't experience crowds on Sunday. During the three-hour hike from Shek Pik to the Buddha, we only encountered three mountain bikers.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication