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Incense sticks at Ngong Ping temple

We had planned to spend today on the Kowloon side, seeing some museums and going round a couple of markets but neither of us really felt like doing that. We changed tack and instead got a ferry across to the island of Lantau, the largest island in the region at twice the size of Hong Kong Island and the last inhabited island west of Hong Kong Island before you reach Macau.

The ferry was clean and fast and whizzed us across to the island in about half an hour. Hong Kong’s waterways are almost as busy as its roads. There is a never ending stream of ferries and boats plying across the water either taking people between the Island and Kowloon or bringing cargo in from the container ships moored up outside the harbour.

We landed at Mui Wo and from here got the number 2 bus along the south of the island to Ngong Ping. This island is much quieter than Hong Kong and the villages we passed along the way were more reminiscent of South America or small seaside villages you see in Europe. Here the pace of life seems much slower, although somebody seems to have forgotten to tell the bus driver that! The road followed the shoreline for much of the way passing long, narrow sandy beaches that must be packed to capacity in the summer.

Lantau is home to three prisons and we passed one on the right, perched on top of the hills and with views that holiday home estate agents would pay a fortune for. Soon we were crossing over the dam of the Shek Pik Reservoir which supplies drinking water for Lantau and for Hong Kong Island. The sloping dam wall has been grassed over and cows were grazing contentedly. Beneath the dam is what at first sight seems to be a big holiday complex. I thought it was a strange location because of what would happen if the dam ever failed. Closer inspection revealed this to be another of the island’s prisons.

The road started to climb and wind its way up towards Ngong Ping home to a Bhuddist temple and monastery and, since 1993, the world’s largest outdoor, seated statue of a Buddha. Here too building work is underway. A new cable car will link Ngong Ping to the Tung Chung MTR station next year. It looks like a massive construction project.

Dominating the Temple setting is the Buddha. It is seated on a raised mound with 260 steps to climb up to get to the Buddha. I have now decided that people here are very astute and canny business people. The Buddha has three different levels inside it. The first is open to all but if you want to see the other two you have to buy a meal ticket for a meal in the temple’s vegetarian restaurant. Intrigued we bought our ticket but with hindsight I think it was worth it for the meal rather than the Buddha museum.

It felt like a long climb to the top and I suppose it was designed in that way to make it a mini act of pilgrimage. All the way up people were stopping to pray to Buddha. The Buddha is a pretty big guy and the first floor inside relates the tale of how Buddha came about and talks about the project that resulted in this statue. It was a massive undertaking and took about seven years to bring to fruition. The Buddha is made of 200 pieces of cast bronze, each of which was hauled up hill before being assembled. The design of the Buddha is full of symbolic meanings.

Going up to the second floor you pass a large bronze bell which is rung one hundred and eight times a day as a reminder of the hundred and eight troubles of mankind. The second and third floors house a museum but our lack of ability to decipher Chinese characters meant we came out none the wiser. Around the Buddha are viewing platforms with fantastic views out over the island and its tropical vegetation. It is a very tranquil spot (or must be without the construction work).

We resisted the (not very great) temptation to buy tourist souvenirs, even though they have been blessed by the monks, and went to see the rest of the Temple site. Now it is full of tourists coming for a look than people coming to the temple for religious reasons. On the path leading up to the Temple people have left burning incense sticks, some of which must have been a centimetre in diameter.

The first temple building was a small pavilion leading through into a bigger courtyard. Whereas incense filled the air outside, the pungent scent of lilies and orchids filled the air inside. Ornate decoration in red and yellow surrounded a central “altar” on which were large golden statues.  Behind this temple was the old and original temple building, a much more modest affair which looks destined for the demolition ball to make way for a big new multi storey building.

We went to get our lunch in the Temple’s vegetarian restaurant (no meat or alcohol is allowed on the premises). It was a very generous affair with soup, spring rolls, sweet corn and tofu, mushrooms and pak choi, stir fried vegetables and rice all washed down with a big pot of tea. The flavours were intense and the textures all different making for a very tasty and enjoyable meal. Unfortunately for me it brought the inevitable onset of traveller’s tummy and I was much relieved to find a proper toilet rather than just a hole in the floor!

Leaving the temple behind we made our way back to the ferry and up to the Prince Edward MTR stop in the north of Kowloon. As in the centre of Kowloon this whole area is full of shops with glaring neon signs and bright lights to attract your attention. A short walk from here is Flower Market Road, aptly named as every shop for two blocks is a retail florist. Most were selling pretty much the same things, orchids, lilies, chrysanthemums and roses but the difference here to the UK is that these flowers actually had scent and it became quite overwhelming.

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At Yuen Po bird garden

At the end of the flower market is a small area called the Yuen Po Street Bird Garden. Apparently Chinese men are very proud of their birds and this is a key area they come to to show them off. The area though is really a bird market. Anything you want from the birds themselves to beautifully made wooden/wicker cages to bird food (including live locusts) can be found here. It is an area with pungent smells of its own (ammonia from the bird’s droppings) and the cacophony of sound of hundreds of birds squawking at the same time was deafening. For me though I also found it a little sad and frustrating as some of the cages had so many birds in them they had little room to move around.

By this stage we had decided we had earned ourselves a little drink and as we are moving on to Macau tomorrow we decided to splash out and head for the bar at the top of the Peninsula hotel, one of Hong Kong’s finest. Still dressed in our travel gear (as its all we have) and sandals we fully expected to be turned away but we were actually more neat and tidy than many of the people who came in.

We had an (well, two in the end) aptly named Platinum Traveller cocktail (Absolut citron, Tio Pepe, Cointreau, Lime and soda) as we watched the world go by from the height of the eighteenth floor. Following a Lonely Planet recommendation Stef went to check out the Gents and came back with a very self satisfied look. The urinals, green marble bowls, are lined up by the window so that you can see the view while you take a pee! Intrigued I went to see if the Ladies could live up to standard but it failed miserably, although they had the heaviest marble doors I have ever come across.

We had planned to go and ride the Central Mid Levels escalator but both agreed we were by then too tired to do so. It is an intriguing idea. Most people live at the mid levels (part way up the hill) but work at sea level. The walk home uphill was pretty gutty so they have built a series of moving walkways and escalators to take away they pain. They come down in the morning rush hour but from a little after ten o’clock turn direction and take people back up hill. Neat!!