Visiting the Big Buddha and Tai O in Hong Kong
Should you take a trip to visit the Tian Tan Buddha, aka the Big Buddha, while traveling alone to Hong Kong? Yes! It takes a little planning to get there and enjoy it without falling victim to lines and crowd fatigue, so let me walk you through my experience.
The trip from Wan Chai station (where I was staying) out to Tung Chung takes a little over an hour via MTR, using the Island Line and switching to the Tung Chung Line. The cost is 22.90 HKD one-way with an Octopus Card (more if you have an individual ticket). MTR trains are very easy to navigate. The stations will be crowded, but don’t let that fluster you. Check the maps to see which direction you want to go (you’ll need to know the terminus of the train line in the direction you’re going), and follow the signs towards that platform. So if I was taking the Island Line west, I’d be looking for the Island Line to Kennedy Town.
Exiting at Tung Chung, you’ll arrive into (yet another) shopping area. Look for signs to Ngong Ping 360 cable car, which will take you outside and down the street.
Riding the Ngong Ping 360 Cable Car
My travel buddy and I made our way out of the station and across the street, following the signs to Ngong Ping 360. Eventually, even before we saw the entrance, we saw the line. About 200 deep, snaking down the stairs and out to the street. Buy your tickets in advance!! You will have to choose a date and time for your cable car. However, if you arrive slightly later/earlier than your timed ticket, you won’t have to go to the back of the line. Be sure to ask around if you’re unsure, as the lines are not clearly marked and there will likely be a lot of people wandering around looking confused.
With our advance tickets, we still had to wait about 15-20 minutes in the boarding line to get on our glass-bottom cable car, which we opted for at 255 HDK round-trip. The view is insane. This is not for the vertigo-inclined. You watch as the water, and then the mountains, fall away below you as you travel up past the hiking trails to the top. The ride is about 20 minutes long. If you’re nervous, you can take a non-glass bottom cable car, which will give you the views but not quite the, uh… floating feeling. I also got to watch the people who were hiking up to the top, looking like small ants as we passed by them from above.
Tian Tan Buddha
At the top, we were let into (of course) yet another gift shop. Leaving there, we walked past several restaurants, shops, museums, and a lot of sleeping cows to find the steps to the Big Buddha.It’s fairly crowded, so go early if you want to avoid 100s of people in your photos. Climbing the 268 steps on a warm day definitely left me a bit winded! The views are amazing, both of the statue and the view of the mountains from the top.
The statue is newer than it looks. It was commissioned in 1990 and finished 3 years later. The Buddhist monastery on site (Po Lin) had already been on the site since the early 1900s. Needless to say, it quickly went from an isolated place to a huge tourist attraction.
After wandering around and inside the base of the statue (not a lot inside of it), we made our way back down the steps and followed signs along a short walk through the trees towards the ‘Wisdom Path.’ This path, in the shape of an infinity sign, has 38 slats etched with lines from the Heart Sutra - sacred to both Buddhists and Hindus. It was delightfully quiet after the crowds around the Buddha itself, and we enjoyed the peaceful nature surrounding us. From here, you have the option to go hiking through the surrounding mountains of Lantau, to even further loose the crowds and enjoy the views of the mountains and the South China Seas. For us, we wanted lunch.
Tai O Village
Heading up to the bus stop at the top of the stairs, we took the extremely crowded bus 21 down to Tai O fishing village (takes about 20 minutes). This traditional village is situated right on the water, with precariously-perched stilt houses going out into the waterways. It’s a popular place for urbanites to come and buy dried fish, as well as other local delicacies. Which means you’re going to be inundated with the smell of dried fish - be forewarned! The streets are very narrow and can get very, very crowded, especially on weekends. Boat tour operators will be very aggressive in trying to get you to take a tour of the harbor with them. There’s a handful of tourist-friendly restaurants that we opted to pass up, assuming they would be more bland and boring than a local place along the harbor. We wound our way through narrow alleyways, through crowds, and across bridges, finding that restaurants largely looked unappetizing. We eventually settled for what looked like a welcoming hole-in-the-wall also along the water. Only to find that it was potentially the only place in town not specializing in seafood - instead they did savory custards and bean curds. It was… a new tasting experience for me. I didn’t mind it, though can’t say I would try it again.
Tired and a little sensory-overloaded after our day, it was time to head back. We took bus 11 from the main station back to Tung Chung, saving the time it would take to get back up to Tian Tan and take the cable car, although losing the money from our round-trip cable car ticket. The ride itself was still about 50 minutes in length, but circled the whole island and gave us some great views of the forest, hiking trails, and the ocean. By the time we made it back to Tung Chung, we had another hour’s train ride ahead of us, and we were done for the day.
Was the trip worth it? The cable car, Buddha visit, and chance to walk around the nearby hiking trails were all highlights of my trip. I enjoyed Tai O, although I’d recommend going there on a weekday if at all possible, just to avoid some of the crowds and long lines.