Big Buddha draws the crowds

Lantau Island is the biggest of Hong Kong’s islands, larger than mainland Hong Kong itself. Once a tranquil backwater with few residents, things changed dramatically halfway through the century.

In 1905, three Buddhist monks founded the Po Lin Monastery as a sanctuary of retreat and reflection (Po Lin means “Precious Lotus”, the floral emblem of the Buddhist faith).

But Lantau Island was forever altered in the late 1960s when the growing colony of monks decided to build themselves a Buddha — and not just any Buddha.

Ten years of hard work and millions of dollars later, the monks had built the largest outdoor, seated, bronze Buddha the world had ever seen. Standing atop a large hill, the Buddha, resting on a large concrete platform, measures some 98 feet high, weighs 220 tons and is constructed entirely of metal, from its steel framework with its “skin” of 500 tons of steel and bronze, plus over a ton of gold alloy amalgam. The casting of 202 numbered plates took two years and involved 110 engineers, 600 technical staff and 23 sculptors.

It’s an awesome sight. The huge statue, framed against the sky, seems to gaze down benevolently at the mortals clambering arou its base far below. A large and ornate staircase of 268 steps allows visitors to climb from the valley to the bottom of the statue, where they’ll find a Di Tan or Temple of Earth, a place of homage for those unable to make the long, steep stair climb.

The podium contains the Ancestral, Dharmadhatu and Memorial Halls, places so sacred visitors are requested not to take pictures. In the Memorial Hall are relics of Buddha the religious leader, and another hall contains a magnificent seven-inch by one-inch wooden painting consisting of 87 pieces of white ash that took two painters and three engravers eight years to complete.

The largest Buddhist Monastery in Hong Kong, Po Lin is no longer tranquil as it has become a tourist mecca.

Just a few valleys away on Lantau Island is Hong’s new international airport, Chek Lap Kok. The airport, cited as one of the top 10 construction achievements of the 20th century, is the largest in the world with a terminal building measuring 1.3 kilometres long. After a multitude of teething problems last summer, the airport is finally operating efficiently and to capacity, handling an average of more than 80,000 passengers and 450 flights daily.

As if the airport wasn’t enough to spoil Lantau’s peacefulness, there’s talk of adding a Disney theme park on north Lantau.

There are numerous tours from Hong Kong Island to Lantau, and a pleasant ferry ride and a short jaunt on a bus takes you to the Po Lin Monastery and the Big Buddha — a sight not to miss.