Tian Tan Buddha is, so they say, one of the highlights of the curiously unique autonomous territory in Southeast China that is Hong Kong. It sits majestically on the Ngong Ping Plateau overlooking the city, and is undoubtedly one of Hong Kong’s big-ticket attractions. It’s visually striking, no doubt about that, but it has to be said that it’s not just about the Buddha any more.
My friend had been there ten years previously, and he informed me that it’s been heavily commercialised since. When he went it was literally the statue of the Buddha and the nearby Po Lin Monastery; nowadays it is considerably more besides. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s almost a resort in its own right.
The Buddha itself is a relatively recent construct, having been completed in 1993, purportedly to symbolise the strengthening ties between Hong Kong and mainland China, if the information signs are to be believed. Even more recent is Ngong Ping Village, which is straight out of your worst tacky theme park nightmares.
Of course, the scenic cable car ride up to the Ngong Ping terminal is an impressive experience. Here you get sweeping views of the foliage-clad hillsides of Lantau Country Park, the turquoise-hued coastal inlet of Tung Chang Bay and – for those who appreciate urban scenery – Hong Kong International Airport in the foreground and the skyscraper Forest of Hong Kong Island in the distance. The view of the Giant Buddha itself as you approach isn’t bad either.
But the moment you alight at the terminal sees you accosted by people offering you a cheesy photo of you sat in the cable car back at Tung Chang station. Then you have to navigate an assault course of souvenir shops, chain restaurants and places like ‘Stage 360’, a child-oriented, behind-the-scenes experience of Hong Kong Kung Fu movies. To make it clear that the ‘movies’ are what this place is all about, garishly toy town popcorn statues strategically line the streets. And the attempts to create a ‘themed, Chinese-style village’, meanwhile, come across as phoney, overly slick, and overly touristy.
If you want any evidence that this is mass tourism at its worst, look no further than the coachloads of mainland tourists, led by bellowing, flag-waving tour guides, who clog up the walkways and stop at every conceivable moment to block your path and take pictures. Swarms of crowds at sights such as this are becoming increasingly par for the course these days, but the crowds here are something else…
The Giant Buddha itself is impressive enough, as indeed are the surrounding six ‘devas’ surrounding the Buddha offering up the ‘six perfections’ necessary for enlightenment. The views are great too, and Po Lin Monastery, with its opulent hallways and detailed architecture (interior photography is prohibited) is arguably even more interesting, although it’s far from being the best Buddhist temple I’ve come across.
Ultimately, what’s happened to Tian Tan Buddha in recent years is a classic example of excessively adding on too many ‘value added’ attractions in a bid to extract as much tourist dollar as possible. I get that it’s a big tourist draw, but with all the other bells and whistles the Buddha gets rather lost in the mix; I personally would have preferred to have just experienced the Buddha, the temple and the scenic views, thanks.