With romantic notions of its British Colonial heritage and the exotic South China Sea setting, Hong Kong had been on my must-visit list for a long time. During an impulse trip earlier in the year I finally discovered this world-famous city was everything I hoped it would be: colourful, exciting, fascinating and exhausting in equal measure.
There was great food, amazing street scenes, incense-filled temples, impressive skyscrapers and impossibly vast apartment buildings. I enjoyed the contrast of the old against the new. As a woman travelling solo I loved how safe and easy it felt to navigate my way across the city, but after three days running around Central and Tsim Sha Tsui (despite hiking the Dragon’s Back) I was ready for a little serenity and heard that Lantau Island was a good place to find it.
Hong Kong is made up of over 260 outlying islands and Lantau is the largest and greenest of them all. Easily accessed by ferry, bus and cable car, people come for picnics, day trips and weekend escapes. Arriving in the sleepy town of Mui Wo by boat from Hong Kong’s Central Business District felt like a long-held exhale. It’s quiet here, despite being considered one of South Lantau’s busiest neighbourhoods. The water buffalo lounging just outside of town, and along with many stretches of the island’s roads, add to the idyllic rural ambience.
Tai O Fishing Village
Hovering somewhere between a working community and tourist attraction, there’s beauty in the patina and ramshackle nature of Tai O. Framed by mountains on Lantau’s northwest coast, it’s home to the Tanka people; a tightly-knit group of fisherfolk and one of the oldest communities in Hong Kong. Once living on junks along parts of China’s coastal provinces, today their homes are a series of unique, interconnected stilt houses (Pang Uk) above the tidal flats of Lantau. It’s a far cry from the ultra-modern skyscrapers, nightly laser light show, and frenetic energy of Central just kilometres away.
The sporadic tinkling of bicycle bells punctuates the air around Tai O’s Wing On Street and serve as a gentle reminder from passing locals for visitors to keep right while they walk through the village. The main thoroughfare is narrow, pedestrian-only (save for the bikes) and packed with storefronts selling all manner of goods from the sea: garlands of fish maw (swim bladders), baskets of dried sea cucumbers, salted fish, and pots of shrimp paste, the local speciality. There are knick-knacks too, lacquered puffer fish and paper fans, plus handmade snacks like rice balls and freshly roasted chestnuts.
Wing On becomes Market Street; a woman prepares fish and displays them in well-worn polystyrene boxes. Glancing up occasionally she shoos photographers away with a stern finger and some choice words in Cantonese. Another woman sells directly from her boat just beneath the bridge near the mouth of the harbour, executing the transaction with the aid of a bait net. Despite an ebb and flow of visitors the pace still seems unhurried, the locals quietly content to go about their day–tourist intrusions notwithstanding. Many of the younger Tankas have moved onshore to nearby apartment buildings with Wi-Fi or Kowloon for better work prospects, but for now, at least, the older generation continue to preserve their culture, sense of community and heritage of Tai O.
Majestic Tian Tan Buddha
Lantau’s northern tip might be home to Disneyland and highly-developed Tung Chung but thankfully much of the island has retained its rural beauty, boasting sandy coastlines at Pui O and Cheung Sha Beaches, lush green peaks and miles of secluded hiking trails. It’s in those aforementioned hills atop the peak of Mount Muk Yue that I found the island’s most famous resident sitting peacefully on a lotus flower, looking north towards China.
Right palm up to deliver humble blessings, left hand resting on his knee in a gesture that symbolizes happiness, Lantau’s majestic bronze Tian Tan Buddha was a sight to behold. One of the largest in the world and five years in the fabrication, its 202 pieces were shipped and then transported to this final hilltop resting place before being assembled and opened to the public 25 years ago.
Named Tian Tan after the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, the Buddha is said to be at his most beautiful at 8 o’clock in the morning. Rolling up around noon the merits of arriving first thing, perhaps even at sunrise, became apparent. Despite the crowds, it was impossible not to get a sense of the Buddha’s aura of serenity or marvel at the panoramic views across Lantau and the South China Sea.
Peaceful Po Lin Monastery
A total of 268 steps lead from the Buddha’s feet to the grounds of the adjacent Po Lin Monastery below. Known as The Sacred Place of the Buddha in the South and rich with colourful manifestations of Buddhist iconography, Po Lin is considered one of Hong Kong’s most important Buddhist sites. Founded over 100 years ago there are multiple buildings and structures throughout the complex to explore, perhaps the most impressive of which is The Grand Hall of Ten Thousand Buddhas.
Well-frequented by locals, Po Lin feels to have maintained its authentic essence and traditions. Flanked by Chinese-style entrance gates there are bundles of incense sticks for sale at booths in the Temple’s front courtyard where many come to pay their respects and make secret wishes, lighting and leaving these giant offerings in honour of loved ones. Strolling the grounds is a delight for the senses: Po Lin’s flower garden was filled with rich scents and birdsong; I learn that Po Lin means Precious Lotus, and the lotus flower is a special symbol in Buddhism, meaning purity.
I also discover the monastery’s attached vegetarian kitchen does a tasty and affordable, communal style set lunch and that a short, well sign-posted walk away is the famous Wisdom Path. Comprising 28 wooden monuments engraved with a verse from the centuries-old Heart Sutra it advocates the practice of meditation as a path to wisdom and enlightenment. A sentiment I reflect on while floating through the sky on my way back to Hong Kong in the decidedly touristy, but enjoyable nonetheless, Ngong Ping Cable Car.
Photographs by Annapurna Mellor expect cover photo by Annie Spratt via Unsplash, big Buddha by Andrew Yang via Unsplash and the Ngong Ping Cable Car by Adam Morse via Unsplash.
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Keri Bridgwater is a freelance writer living in San Diego covering travel, lifestyle and related stories for various publications and websites. A native Brit, she lived and worked in Sweden and New Zealand (between adventures through Asia and South America) before moving to the U.S. 13 years ago. An avid traveller and photo taker, her future ‘must-visits’ include Namibia, Oman, and travelling from London to Istanbul by train.