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HOMAGE TO BIG BUDDHA
©2006 Hendson Quan
I turned my head to face the window and immediately sensed something overhead. My eyes instinctively glanced out and slightly upward. There it was, the Big Buddha towering over me as the #2 bus I was riding in swirled around the narrow and winding road on its way to Po Lin Monastery on Hong Kong's Lantau Island. The guidebook was right, telling me to be sure to get a window seat on the right side of the bus. For that, I was rewarded for the last ten minutes of the ride with a sight of "Tian Tan," as the Big Buddha is called, from underneath looking up, enabling me to appreciate all of its splendor from bottom to top, front to back.
It's Friday morning and I start out at Pier 6 in Hong Kong's Central District, paying $21HK for the ferry boat ride to Lantau. Just before boarding, I buy some snacks and drinks from the pier vendors. The boat is less than one-half full, and most of the riders appear to be locals. I munch on the snacks, quite delicious by the way, during the fifty-minute boat ride. I follow the crowd after alighting the boat at Mui Wo Pier (Silvermine Bay). A walk of about 100 yards to the bus stop where I get into a line of waiting passengers. No more than five minutes later, the bus comes, the #2 Po Lin Monastery. The group of four ahead of me quickly learns from the bus driver that they need to have the exact fare, and since they don't have that they are denied entry onto the bus. Luckily, I have an Octopus card, good for bus, subway and ferry transportation in Hong Kong, Kowloon, and surrounding areas. The fare? $16HK today but is $25HK on Sundays and Holidays.
Soon the bus slowly climbs a small hill, and within minutes it goes downhill, and around, and then up another hill, and still another, repeating the process not unlike that of a merry-go-around ride. Although the speed is not fast by any means, only about 20 miles per hour, the narrow two-way lane makes me imagine the ride Cary Grant and Grace Kelly took in the south of France in the movie It Takes A Thief. Actually, there are stops along the way as the road gets so narrow that either the bus I am riding in or the one coming in the opposite way has to pull over the side to allow the other to pass. Surely the next guidebook to be published on Hong Kong should include this bus ride, lasting forty minutes of fun and anticipation, as one not to be missed.
They say most urban Hongkongers have never visited Lantau. And I can see why.On the ride I pass little villages and hamlets that seem never to have come of age since the 1950's. Very tiny and short buildings, some used both residentially and commercially, date back some fifty years, when Hong Kong and Kowloon had just begun to be the primary destination for Chinese mainlanders wishing to leave the regime that had come to power. Little has changed, except the young have gone to the city for schooling and jobs. One can find this island a peaceful retreat, to read, to write, to reflect, to simply let time and the rest of the world pass.
At the ticket purchase office for Buddha, I opt for the admission fee with meal, $23HK and am given two tickets, one for admission and one for the meal. Ah, Big Buddha! Never mind the exact measurements of its height or weight. It is huge, billed as "the biggest outdoor and seated Buddha in the world." A sight to behold. There are about 300 steps to walk up to get nearer to Buddha but don't bother to count. Just make the trip up at your own pace, stop when you feel a need to catch your breath, and turn around to take in the panoramic view of the surrounding forested areas interpersed with the monastery and other structures, and then continue up. Young kids and elderly folks alike make the trip up. Some of the elderly even have to use walking canes. Nothing, not even 300 uphill steps, is going to stop them from getting closer to Big Buddha. Babies, some seated comfortably in strollers, are carried by their parents.
Standing next to Buddha, I get a very solemn feeling. I reflect on what I know about Buddhism. Even if you are not a Buddhist, as long as you have respect for religion and traditional philosophy, you will get that same feeling. Others near me marvel at the structure, it with its right hand raised up from the elbow, palm fanning outward and its left hand with its opened palm facing up. Its facial gesture seems to convey the message to all who will pay heed, "Do not worry. Everything will be alright."
The walk down is much easier and quicker. Po Lin Monastery ("Precious Lotus") is directly opposite a group of gold, green and red structures. I go into the courtyard and give the meal ticket to one of the many women servers behind the counter. She quickly fills a plate with generous portions of a variety of vegetarian food ("jai") and cakes. My plate contains both bland and sweet varieties and there is more than enough to eat that I can forgo dinner tonight.
On the return trip, I take the #23 bus (fare $16HK) to the Tung Chung MTR Station, from which subway connections can be made to points in Hong Kong or Kowloon.
After a refreshing shower in my room at the Royal Pacific Hotel and Towers in Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon, I make my way downstairs to the Safari Lounge to enjoy happy hour where, with the exception of a few premium brands and drinks, it's all you can drink at just $88HK and snacks are free. They even throw in a fantastic view of the harbor and Hong Kong skyline through the window at no extra charge.
If You Go .....
The consensus on the best time to visit Hong Kong seems to be late September through the end of December, with the exception of certain dates in February, when you can partake in very traditional and elaborate Chinese New Year celebrations throughout the city and surrounding areas that run for a full ten days. If you go at any other times, expect to be ready for rainy and very discomforting hot and humid weather that inevitably occurs the rest of the year.
Getting There .....
There are so many ways. The first time traveler to Hong Kong might consider buying a tour package, inclusive of airfare, hotel room, some meals with a couple of popular local tours thrown in.
Where To Stay .....
The range of available accomodations is endless. You will expect to pay the most if you stay in "Central" on the Kong Kong side or "Tsim Sha Tsui" on the Kowloon side, but both locations are ideal as a base to do your shopping, sightseeing and dining. As for the Royal Pacific Hotel and Towers in Tsim Sha Tsui mentioned earlier, I would certainly stay there again.
What To Do ........
Guidebooks and the local tourism office will give you more things to do and places to go than you will have time for. However, if you happen to be in Hong Kong in February during the time of the annual Hong Kong Salsa Festival, try to make at least one or two events. This is an extravaganza not to be missed, even for the non-dance enthusiast. The promoters put on a 6-day and night affair that is replete with over thirty teams of international performers in salsa and other Latin dances, high level competitions among the best dancers in the world. Guests are treated to the exotic and rhythmic sounds of the Latin beat put out by disc jockeys and bands who are famous in Asia, Europe, and North America. For the tourist, the festival's Duk Ling Ride on a junk gives a panoramic view of Victoria Harbor and Hong Kong's skyline.
For more information ....
Visit the Hong Kong Tourism Board, www.discoverhongkong.com
The Royal Pacific Hotel & Towers, www.royalpacific.com.hk
Hong Kong Salsa Festival, www.hksalsafestival.com
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