Kwun Yam Temple, Hong Kong

Visitors to Hong Kong are often surprised at how modern and somewhat westernised the city seems, and how much it doesn’t really ‘look’ or ‘feel’ like China. Perhaps they are expecting it to be a bit more like the movie scenes from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, with big beautiful temples and pagodas and traditional Chinese architecture. I admit, I too was disappointed the first time I came to Hong Kong, back in 2006, and saw a whole lot of concrete highrises, giant steel towers, skycrapers, McDonalds, Starbucks, Toys R Us, and H&M megastores.

Big beautiful temple complexes, like the ones I’ve seen in Japan and in China, are really hard to find in Hong Kong, largely due to the overall lack of space. Hong Kong is four times smaller than Trinidad and has 8 million people. On top of that, 75% of the land is mountainous, which means everything, and everyone, is really jammed up.

Excuse me… could you get your elbow out of my soup?

Thankfully, I live on Lantau, which is Hong Kong’s biggest and least developed island (at least for now, though this may not last for long if the property magnates like Swire have their way…)

Nestled in the deep, rugged mountains of South Lantau, there are actually lots of big temple complexes, pagodas, monasteries and nunneries hidden away in the bush. It’s just hard to get there, and kind of hard to find, especially if you don’t read Chinese.

The other day I went with my friend Marleen, who has a car, and we drove down the winding South Lantau road to explore Upper Keung Shan and Lower Keung Shan. Thanks to our smartphones and GPS, we were able to find what we were looking for: the Kwun Yam Temple.

‘Now this is more like it,’ we said, as we stood there on a huge pavilion, overlooking the valley, with the unmistakeable red and gold temples and monasteries dotting the mountains in the distance. We looked with wonder — this was right in our backyards, and neither of us had ever been there before.

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There was nobody there — not a soul. No visitors, no tourists, no nothing. We saw one person working in what looked like a kitchen. But other than that, it was total solitude. Which, I suppose is exactly what the nuns and monks want.

It isn’t easy to get to these places in Lantau. The South Lantau road is restricted, which means you can’t drive there without a special South Lantau permit, which only residents of this area can get. The buses are not that frequent, and they don’t announce any stops, so if you have no idea where you get off, you’re really screwed. There are a lot of other places I’d like to go check out on Lantau, and hopefully I’ll get the chance to.

In the meantime, there are a handful of big temples in Hong Kong that I really should go and check out, and they are easily accessed by the MTR (Hong Kong’s incredibly efficient Mass Transit System). Unfortunately, when you live somewhere for a long time, you get a bit complacent, and stop exploring like you used to, and like you should. So I’ll really have to make the effort to get up and go see these places.

A friend of mine in Trinidad writes an excellent blog about precisely that — getting off your lazy ass and going to explore the places around you that you’ve never been to. It’s called Must Be More To This Place and through it he’s seen all kinds of places that I haven’t seen in Trinidad either. Be sure to check it out.

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