When I planned my recent trip to Hong Kong, I intended to eat well. I booked a culinary tour in advance, I hired a guide to introduce me to local markets and I researched the popular restaurant scene. But, as is often the case when I travel, one of my favorite Hong Kong food experiences turned out to be a spontaneous meal in an extraordinary setting. Lunch at the Po Lin Monastery on Lantau Island was a highlight of my trip.
I didn’t go to the Po Lin Monastery to eat. Visiting the monastery on Lantau Island was on my wish list because it’s home to one of the largest outdoor seated Buddha statues in the world, the bronze Tian Tan Buddha – known simply as the “Big Buddha.” At 34 meters (112 feet) tall, the Big Buddha would be impressive in any setting. But the colossal figure sits crossed-legged on a lotus throne atop the peak of Mount Muk Yue, 268 steps above the grounds of the monastery, so it positively dominates the landscape from every direction.
The climb to the top is well worth the effort. Six graceful, smaller statues share a platform near the top of the steps. Each of these female figures, known as Devas, makes an offering to the Buddha.
For a while, I shared a quiet morning on the platform with the Six Devas. I walked all around the base of the Buddha, enjoying sweeping views of the surrounding valley and the monastery below.
But before long, the crowds started to make their way up to my perch, so I headed back down. When I paused at the base of the steps, I noticed a window advertising “meal tickets” for the monastery’s vegetarian restaurant. I bought a ticket for the first luncheon seating of the day, then I set off toward the monastery.
Compared to the bronze and gray color-scheme of the Mount Muk Yue peak, the monastery complex was surprisingly colorful. I walked under elaborately decorated eaves.
And I marveled at the vibrant and beautiful details of the carved woodwork overhead.
In a wide, plain building on the far edge of the temple complex opposite the Big Buddha, I found the Po Lin Monastery Vegetarian Kitchen. When I presented my ticket, a host ushered me briskly through a series of no-frills, windowless dining rooms.
An efficient and silent waiter delivered hot tea to my table, followed by a huge serving bowl of winter melon soup. Then three more colorful dishes arrived: baby bok choy with mushrooms, fried vegetarian spring rolls and a mixed dish of celery, cucumber, tofu, red and yellow peppers.
The dishes were fresh, fragrant, healthy and hearty. Although no meats or sweets were served, the flavors were perfectly balanced and delicious.
If You Go
The Tian Tan Buddha and Po Lin Vegetarian Kitchen are within the Po Lin Monastery complex on Lantau Island, which is an easy day trip from Hong Kong. To get there, take the MTR to Tung Chung Station, then catch either the Ngong Ping 360 Cable Car or New Lantau Bus 23 to Ngong Ping Village and follow the signs for a short walk to the monastery. Alternatively, take the ferry from Hong Kong Central Pier 6 to Mui Wo, then catch New Lantau Bus 2 to Ngong Ping Village.
A version of this post was previously published on March 22, 2016 in The Culinary Travel Guide as “Memorable Meals from Monastery and Nunnery Kitchens in Hong Kong.”