A brief stopover spent exploring Lantau
On a recent layover in Hong Kong we decided to eschew the usual journey to the centre of the city in favour of a quick trip around Lantau Island.
The trip took about 7 hours and I would highly recommend it to anyone who has time at the airport but no inclination to travel all the way into Kowloon or Hong Kong Island. It is certainly a quick and easy way to see a different side of Hong Kong.
Lantau is the largest of Hong Kong’s 250+ islands and is the location of the territory’s main (Chep Lak Kok) airport and its associated hotels. Although Lantau is also home to Hong Kong Disneyland, it is actually relatively sparsely populated, features plenty of mountainous scenery and is covered with indigenous forests.
We decided to follow a circular route clockwise around the northwest part of the island taking in the Po Lin Monastery (A) and the fishing village at Tai O (B). We would travel out by cable car / road and return by ferry. This route is by no means original and the details needed to plan are relatively easy to find on the internet. I have also included the relevant links below.
Our own Hong Kong layover was 21 hours and we stayed overnight at one of the airport hotels, but the itinerary we followed could easily be used by anyone with about 6 or 7 hours to spare between flights. Leaving the airport between 9am and 3pm would work best. We travelled on a quiet weekday in mid-June. Transport is more frequent but much more overcrowded on weekends.
Airport Express (For Reference)
Hong Kong Airport is linked to the city centre by the Airport Express line of the MTR. Opened in 1998, the train takes less than 30 minutes to reach Kowloon and Hong Kong Central. The fares are relatively high though: they charge HK$115 for a single trip into town.
The (regular and cheaper) MTR Tung Chung line (coloured orange on the map below) runs parallel with the Airport Express for much of the way but terminates just short of the airport at Tung Chung (bottom left). There is a shuttle bus operating between Tung Chung and the airport: the S1. Using this bus and the MTR in combination offers a saving over the Airport Express.
The same bus also provides a useful link from airport to the cable car station located next to Tung Chung Station. We would be using this cable car to get up to Po Lin.
We landed in Hong Kong just before 11am.
The local newspapers were full of reports of the mass protests that had been taking place over the previous few days. The object of the protests: the proposed extradition law, came up in some of the conversations that we had during our visit. I have chosen not to mention any of the conversations here.
To the Cable Car Station
By noon we had already left the airport and were heading out on an S1 bus.
The S1, operated by Citybus using British-built double-deck buses, is basically a loop. It leaves the Tung Chung MTR transit terminal and then makes a few stops within the airport perimeter, including the terminals and both on-site airport hotels, before returning to Tung Chung. On the return trip it stops outside the cable car station.
The bus runs from 5:30am until midnight on a roughly 10 minute frequency. Any single trip on the bus costs 3.5 Hong Kong Dollars (exact fare in cash / payment by Hong Kong transit smart card)
Ngong Ping Cable Car
The cable car that links Tung Chung to Po Lin Monastery is one of the highlights of the whole trip and should not to be missed.
It operates from 10am until 6pm on weekdays and from 9am to 6:30pm on weekends. There are a variety of ticket deals including an extra charge for a cabin with a glass floor. A regular single ticket is HK $160. On weekends the wait times can be quite severe but it is possible to book in advance.
We were glad to be travelling on a weekday and walked straight up to ticket office. We got a ticket immediately and just a few minutes later we were “airborne” looking down at the planes taking off on the runway opposite us.
The ride, more than 5.5 km, takes about 25 minutes and is one of the longest in the world. As we climbed towards Ngong Ping we were rewarded with stunning views of northern Lantau and the sea beyond. Interestingly, the system is not constructed in the usual straight line and uses special “angle stations” to change direction a couple of times before reaching the top station.
Towards the end of the trip the Big Buddha at Po Lin came into clear view and we reached the upper terminus. We exited and found ourselves in Ngong Ping Village.
Ngong Ping Village has been created in the space between the cable car station and Po Lin itself. Although it is built in a traditional style, it is not in the least bit genuine. With its souvenir shops, tea houses and fast food outlets it actually resembles something out of a theme park. Although we didn’t linger, we were happy to use the clean toilet facilities provided there.
The monastery at Po Lin is genuine though and it dates from the early 20th century. It has vastly increased in popularity since the construction of the Big Buddha in 1993 and the opening of the cable car in 2006.
Po Lin, literally “precious lotus”, is actually one of Hong Kong’s most important Buddhist sites and is full of colourful icons and decorations.
There are several buildings in the complex. The newer ones, including the impressive “Hall of the Ten Thousand Buddhas are at the front, the older ones at the back.
We took our time walking around the monastery before enjoying snacks from the excellent vegetarian restaurant. There were a variety of wonderful Chinese baked goods on sale including, the highlight for me, a delicious turnip cake.
The big Buddha sits opposite Po Lin and was erected in 1993 and is 34 metres high. It sits facing towards China. It is the largest sitting Buddha statue in the world.
We climbed up the 268 steps to the base and we were rewarded not only with a close up view of the statue but also with views across the mountains of Lantau and out to sea.
Taxi to Tai O
There is a regular bus from Ngong Ping Village down to Tai O (Number 21). The buses take about 20 minutes to complete the trip and run hourly until about 6pm. It is a good idea to check the schedule before entering Po Lin; something we forgot to do!
We finished our visit to Po Lin with about 35 minutes to spare before the next bus, so we decided to save a bit of time and look for a cab. We had heard that it might be difficult to get a taxi from Po Lin but as it happened there were two taxis there waiting outside the monastery gate.
The driver of the first one was asleep. We woke him up and 15 minutes later we were standing on the quayside at Tai O. The journey, a series of interesting zigzags down the mountain roads, cost us about HK$50.
Tai O is a traditional community of fishermen who have built their houses on stilts in an estuary. Many of the dwellings are interconnected and the whole village is, not surprisingly, quite picturesque.
We arrived late in the afternoon on a weekday and found the place to be quite deserted. The little market seemed to be the liveliest part of the village with some of the locals buying fresh fish.
There were plenty of stalls selling the shrimp paste and dried sea foods for which the area is famous but only a few tourists were wandering around them. We bought some dried fish and rice crackers.
We walked around the whole village enjoying the enchanting atmosphere. We went out on to the wooden decks past some of the older houses on their stilts and peered into them. The people seemed to be laid back and friendly. Fishing has declined in recent years and the place has become a little more of a tourist destination, but it is possible to get the sense that this is a real community.
We finished up in the excellent Crossing Boat restaurant (33 Kat Hing St) and enjoyed a fabulous meal that featured locally caught fish and rice with shrimp paste.
Ferry back to Tung Chung
At 6pm we boarded the last ferry of the day from Tai O. We found the boat to be filled with a mixture of locals and tourists. We managed to get the last pair of seats on the open upper deck.
Travelling back to Tung Chung by ferry is certainly a great way to finish the trip, but it is necessary to get the timing right. This is particularly important on weekdays when there are only three boats a day and only two useful departures: 2pm and 6pm. There are more boats on weekends.
Tickets are HK $20 and (except on Sundays when they can be purchased in advance) can only be purchased on board. Hong Kong’s transit smart card is also accepted.
If the timing doesn’t work for the ferry, there is a bus service to Tung Chung (Number 11) which offers up to 3 departures an hour and takes around 60 minutes for the entire trip. It runs until late in the evening making a later dinner in Tai O possible.
The ferry journey took about 30 minutes and the boat skirted along the coastline of Lantau passing beautiful cliffs and rock formations. It also passed under the awe-inspiring Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge which has literally just opened to traffic. It is actually a system of 3 bridges and 2 tunnels which form the longest open-sea fixed link in the world. The 34 mile-long structure connects Hong Kong with Macau and with Zhuhai in China.
Return to the Airport
We got off the ferry and then paused for a while on the adjacent Tung Chung promenade watching the evening scene. There were planes landing and taking off, trains heading over the bridge into the airport, joggers running circuits, commuters heading home and quite a few people just relaxing like us.
We then walked the short distance back to the MTR / bus terminal. It wasn’t so clearly signposted but it was relatively straightforward: basically we turned right at the ferry entrance and walked along the coastline until we saw a footbridge over the busy road on the left. We crossed the bridge and kept walking until we reached the Tung Chung MTR station.
We had a quick look around the large modern shopping mall attached to the station, then jumped on a waiting S1 bus and within about 15 minutes we were back at the airport again.
Making a little trip around a place during an long airport layover always feels strangely rewarding to me. Our trip around Lantau was certainly no exception.