Day 8: Lantau Island

The entire Hong Kong Special Administrative Region actually consists of over hundreds of islands. Today, I opted to visit the largest among them, Lantau. Lantau Island is an incredibly popular tourist destination, due in no small part to Hong Kong Disneyland. However, despite being tempted by hearing Mickey Mouse spent Cantonese, I opted to visit a few of the more cultural sites.

Thus, I took an early morning metro ride to Ngong Ping, where there was already a large crowd queueing for the preferred mode of transport: Ngong Ping 360, a cable car the carries tourists to the famous Big Buddha and nearby Po Lin Monastery. I opted to splurge on the glass bottom cable car in order to truly take in a 360 view during the ride towards Lantau.1 Unfortunately, I got thrown into the solo riders line and rushed into a cable car with a group of middle-aged Chinese women who were less than thrilled to see a disheveled backpacker in their midst. Ah well, travel comes with its ups and downs. Overall, the ride itself was quite pleasant and offered really stunning views of all the surrounding islands.

Approximately twenty-five minutes later, I strode past the customary row of tourist shops to head to the highlight attraction: the Tian Tan Buddha, or the Big Buddha. One of the most iconic Hong Kong sites, the Bid Buddha sits atop a hill at Ngong Ping and is certainly worthy of its nickname at a height of 112 feet (34 meters.) Visitors are able to observe the statue up close as long as they are willing to climb the 268 steps to the top. Embarrassingly overestimating my level of fitness, I eagerly embarked on my ascent to Enlightenment. In over 80% humidity and 90 degree weather, 268 steps is no small feat. Feeling as if I had just finished a triathlon (compelte with a ruddy red face and sweat-drenched skin) I reached the top.

From seeing the intricate detailing of the statue up close to the breathtaking views of the surrounding area, I am happy to say the climb up is absolutely worth it. Primarily because it allowed me to take this selfie with my buddy Siddhartha.The Po Lin Monastery is located right nearby and is also worth the brief stopover, mostly to enjoy the wide array of vegetarian food set up for sale. I personally enjoyed grabbing a small sampling of monk-approved desserts consisting of various sweet fillings encased in surprisingly tasty gelatinous rice.

At this point, several tourists then opt to bid Lantau farewell and hop on the cable car back to civilization. However, I was advised by my hostel host that even more intriguing than the Big Buddha was Tai O, a small fishing village on the southwestern side of Lantau. Thus, I hopped on a bus and continued on my winding path onwards. Tai O is still reasonably frequented by visitors, so it is not exaclty off the beaten path, but it is a world away from anything else I have seen in Hong Kong. Even at first glance, it is obvious that the village dutifully keeps to its humble roots. (No plush shopping mall in sight.)

Unsure of what to expect, after admiring the harbor of quant fishing boats, I walked towards the direction of Tai O Market. I was then greeted by stall after stall of every imaginable variation of dried marine life imaginable. Unsurprisingly, Tai O is locally renowned for its seafood, but I did not realize they preferred their fish parched. Shops carried buckets of dried scallops, cuttlefish, and many unidentifiable mollusks that (predominantly) Chinese tourists lapped up at premium prices.

Interrupting the market is a small dock, that I obliviusly walked by, too busy still marveling at the variety of dried goods. “Miss, dolphin tour about to leave now. Only 25 dollars! Come see!” I look over and realize that I was the miss being addressed and then spotted a boat full of more Chinese tourists, save for one lonely seat at the very front. Hmm, at $3.22 US, why not?

For the second time that day, I managed to earn a lot of bewildered looks as I joined an unsuspecting crowd and soon found myself holding on for dear life while jetting out to sea. We actually did not spot any dolphins, but momentarily sitting out in the cerulean blue ocean surrounded by several tropically lush islands, I could not stop myself from grinning broadly. This is what travel is all about: spontaneously living on the edge of your comfort zone and being rewarded with surreal experiences in the process.

We darted back towards the harbor, and it turns out the tour was not over. Tai O is actually also famous for its living arrangements: rickety houses on stilts precariously jetting out over the water. Compared to the multistory apartments in Central Hong Kong, Tai O’s homes were a breathe of intriguingly fresh air. We slowly drifted by locals relaxing or hanging laundry out to dry on their verandas, all of which seemed about on the precipice of crashing into the water below. Completely unperturbed, the tenets simply ignored the gaping tourists and casually went about their business. How cool. Yes, this is definitely what travel is all about.*

Following my visit in Tai O, I continued my leisurely exploration of Lantau by hopping on a bus over the Mui Wo, a slightly larger village that has ferries back to Hong Kong Central.** Quite regrettably, I arrived just ten minutes before the next ferry was set to depart (with the next one not coming for three hours) and so I did not get a chance to explore Mui Wo. However, I sincerely enjoyed the languid, breezy ride all the way back to Hong Kong. Forget metros and overpriced cable cars, this is definitely the best way to travel to Lantau.

And so I gradually returned to the city central, taking a deep breath before stepping out into the streets and getting swallowed up by humanity while in search for a light dinner. From a small, sleepy fishing village to some of the most densely populated, commercial neighborhoods on Earth, Hong Kong truly is something else.

16 June 2015

*Although I am sure houses on stilts are common all around Southeast Asia, especially in my birth nation of the Philippines, they were substantially new to me and quite an unusual site to the uninitiated.
**My bus happened to be overrun by international preteen children who conversed in multi-accented English. All were aiming to be cooler than one another by boasting about the one time their Russian grandparents let them drink highly potent vodka, or how that is nothing because their French mother allows them to have a glass of wine every evening with dinner, and you will not believe how much better char siu bao tastes with rosé. Unwillingly recalling the dark ages that were middle school, I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. At least they were not teasing each other about being pimply and overweight.

Traveler Tip
1:The glass bottom cable car is substantially more expensive than the standard option. Personally, I would recommend saving your dollars as the thrill of the glass bottom disappears after about two minutes,and you spend the rest of your time gazing out the eye-level windows. For the highly budget-conscious, it seems as if it is also possible to hike up to the Big Buddha. There was a path going along the towers that supported the cable car, and I saw one elderly woman boldly trailblazing her way up. (Or I supposed you can just take a bus for a reasonable price, but where is the fun in that?)