Making The Most Of It

Mon. 8th July 2019

Thank you, Page 148 Hotel. A great base for exploring Hong KongAnd so, this is it. The last day of our Australia trip. Our flight, though, is not until late tonight and we are determined not to give in to end of trip-itis and to make best use of our time in Hong Kong. So far, whilst we have explored parts of both Hong Kong Island and the New Territories, we haven’t got to any of the other islands. The obvious candidate is Macau but that is a ferry ride away, is likely to be busy, and is focused on gambling – not really for us then. Instead, we decide to go to Lantau Island, which is explorable by bus and more conveniently, the airport is built on reclaimed land and connected to Lantau.

Cranes and containers at Hong Kong portOur first stop then is at the airport to put our bags into left luggage until our return this evening. When we arrived in HK, the bus took us over a bridge at the entrance to the giant container port which made for an incredible sight with lights on ships and cranes stretching back in the darkness. This time, the bus goes past the landside end of the port – not as spectacular a view, but another reminder of the scale of activity here. With our bags in storage, we can then get a bus to Tung Chung the town on the other end of the causeway linking the airport to Lantau.

Today's mode of transportAs you would expect, Janet has a plan for the day and the first step is to go visit the Po Lin monastery set high in the hills in the middle of the island. This was an important, if little visited Buddhist monastery until the building of the 34m tall Tian Tan buddha statue in 1993. Known (unsurprisingly) as “the Big Buddha” it is the largest statue of a seated buddha in the world, and has become so popular as a tourist attraction it has required the building of a 5.7km long cable car and the Ngong Ping village at the top of the hill. Our issues start when we get to the bottom cable car station.

Po Lin monastery in the cloudsNot only is the station busy with a long, slow moving queue for tickets but there are banners and screens shouting about ‘Ngong Ping 360’ and telling us that we can have a package with a virtual reality experience, or a package with an audio commentary or a package with a tour of some sort or upgrade to a ‘crystal cabin’ (whatever one of those is). How about two plain and simple return tickets. Even once we’ve got our tickets the queueing doesn’t stop and we inch forward in a zigzag cordon until an hour later we can get on a gondola. On a clear and sunny day, the views out over the airport and the new bridge / causeway and tunnel to Macau would be spectacular. Sadly, we don’t have a clear and sunny day and we climb up into the clouds.

The Big Buddha looking down on us allOnce up the top, the commercialisation is even worse. Ngong Ping village is as authentically Asian as Disneyland (which coincidentally is located elsewhere on Lantau island). The village is billed as a ‘retail and entertainment complex’ and it is as plastic and vile and commercial and horrible as that phrase makes it sound. Why on earth would you build this monstrosity next to a temple? How on earth can they claim that it ‘mirror[s] and uphold[s] the cultural and spiritual veracity’ of the area? Veracity my arse! (Though at least there was a Subway where I could get a sandwich for lunch!)

Devas with offerings for the buddhaThe buddha sits on a hill, facing north, overlooking not just the retail abomination but (supposedly) the whole of China. Whilst our legs don’t enjoy the 268 steps leading up to it, we have to admit that it makes an impressive sight sitting there on a multi-level stone plinth. On the bottom level are six smaller statues representing devas offering flowers and other gifts to the buddha. All the while the cloud swirls around and tourists preen for selfies amongst it all. My mood improved with the consumption of food, and we do what we can for photos and then go and visit the monastery which at least has retained some authenticity.

Very different from downtown KowloonBefore retracing our steps, Janet’s cunning plan has us hopping on a bus (still at the top of the hill) down to Tai O on the west coast of Lantau. The claims to fame of this fishing village are houses on stilts lining the estuary and viewpoints along the nearby peninsula with the potential to sight the local white dolphins. We can attest to the former if not the latter and the local speciality of dried fish is loudly proclaimed by the smell that permeates every street.

Another tourist tour departingWhilst we now truly have escaped from the skyscrapers and bustle of downtown Hong Kong into steep green hills and low rise buildings, we still haven’t got off the tourist trail. Judging by the number of boats lining jetty’s along the river, tourism is still a major source of revenue for the village with the brightly coloured boats offering trips around the peninsula which, in reality, is an island itself. Of course we resist these and are much happier with a walk out along the peninsula to the restored former police station which has now been converted to a luxury hotel.

Dried fish anyone?For our return journey, we have the option to take a bus that essentially drives most of the way around the island in order to get by to Tung Chung and hence the airport. However, as this takes longer than simply retracing our steps we go for the latter and hope that the queue for the cable car isn’t as long on the way down. In the cable car, we get talking with an American family who are just finishing off a trip to China with a few days in Hong Kong and we talk about the ways in which it differs from the big cities in mainland China. Like us they feel that the atmosphere is totally different, less oppressive and much more like Singapore.

Not the biggest market we've ever been to!Once ensconced in the airport lounge awaiting our flight, we reflect on our time in Hong Kong. The ache in our legs reminds us that we have done a lot of walking in our four days exploring here. We have succeeded in our objective of getting away from Kowloon and the facing waterfront on Hong Kong Island, and feel we truly have made the most of our time here. In Brisbane, we never quite shook off the end-of-trip feeling we had since handing back the Beast, but from the moment that we arrived here, the scale and the vibrancy of Hong Kong has re-energised us and we have loved our exploration. So, whilst on the face of it, it seems odd to end our Australia trip in Hong Kong, it has turned out to be an inspired decision and a memorable way to end an unforgettable trip.

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