May 28-29, 2009
After our detour to the Shunan Bamboo Sea, we headed back west to rejoin the typical tourist route, stopping at Leshan to see the largest Buddha statue in the world.
Most people stop in Leshan just long enough to see the Buddha (two hours?) and immediately continue along their way; few tourists actually stay there for the night. But Pnina and I had no choice; our bus arrived in the late afternoon, too late to see the Buddha that day. So, we checked into a basic hotel and started walking around town to see what else there is to Leshan besides the Buddha. It turned out to be a really good experience. That day (May 28) was a holiday – the Dragon Boat Festival. If we arrived earlier we might have caught the namesake dragon boat races on the river, which are the real highlight of the festival. Still, at night there was a fun atmosphere in the main town square. Families walked around and many of them launched these lantern-balloons into the sky, made of paper and powered by a tiny candle.
Families setting off balloons to celebrate dragon day; before launching the balloon, each person uses a marker to write a wish on the balloon:
We approached to get a better look, and we drew at least as much attention as the balloons themselves. One of the local families approached us to chat. There was a college-age girl, Lisa, who works as a private English tutor for the young girl in the family; Lisa acted as our translator. The mother, who was both friendly and stubborn, invited Pnina and I to join them for dinner. Pnina and I didn’t want to trouble them, but this lady was really strong-headed and refused to take “no” for an answer 🙂 In the end we compromised – Pnina and I agreed to be invited for drinks only. But this was just a ploy. When we reached the bar, this family ordered a bunch of food after all. And then we learned that they already had their dinner before, so all this food on the table was just for Pnina and I, and they were there to watch us eat. Holy cow, it was a lot of food! This seems to be a common thing in China; the host orders entirely too much food for the party. When Chinese people leave a restaurant, the dishes are always half full. There’s something cultural to this habit and Pnina and I don’t fully understand it; maybe the host looks bad if the plates are empty, like he’s neglecting to feed his guests. Anyhow, for us it’s totally backwords. We grew up hearing about starving kids in Ethiopia and how we should always finish the food on our plates. Well, cultural norms aside, it was incredibly generous of this family to invite us out. By this point Pnina and I were convinced that the Chinese are the friendliest people we met on our trip so far.
Me standing with Lisa (right) and mother/daughter (left). They were very excited for Pnina and I to speak English with the little girl, but she was pretty shy:
The next morning we went to see the big Buddha. Our hosts from dinner the night before decided that it wouldn’t be appropriate for us to take a bus or taxi, so they picked us up with their car early in the morning and dropped us off right at the entrance to Dafo Si – the temple complex that includes the big Buddha. Again – really nice of them.
Now, if Pnina and I were on our own, we probably would have skipped entering the actual big Buddha complex. We heard from other travelers that you can get a pretty good view of the statue from an island that sits about a hundred meters from the statue, in the middle of the river. To reach this island you just pay a small fee fee for the fairy; there’s no entrance ticket or anything like that. But our hosts dropped us off at the entrance to the Buddha park, so we paid the 70 yuan fee and entered. Was it worth it? I say “yes”, Pnina’s not so sure. What I liked was that we were able to get really close to the statue, especially to its head and feet, and up-close you really notice just how huge he is (by the way, he’s 71 meters tall). It was also fun to scramble up and down the steps on the edge of the cliff, and to visit the temple grounds. But I’m sure it would have been similarly impressive, and definitely cheaper, to see the Buddha from the island.
The big Buddha statue carved into the side of the cliff, looking out to the river:
Me standing by his left foot – yeah, he’s that big:
This is the view the Buddha has. This island in the middle of the river is where Pnina and I were thinking of going to see the Buddha on the cheap. There were a few tourists there:
From the top platform you can play all these dumb picture games – grabbing his ear, picking his nose, and so on:
There were various temples behind the Buddha, lots of places to sit and drink tea, lots of gardens to stroll through:
There was also an option to enter a separate complex with more statues and caves. The charge was a further 50 yuan (or so). We decided to pass.
All around China (and Nepal, and India, and other places) the locals tend to use squat-style toilets (basically a fancy hole in the ground). People say they’re more sanitary, I guess because with western toilets you sit on a surface that was sat upon by many other people. Well, bullocks. These squat toilets just don’t work for me. I neglected to develop my squatting muscles early in life, so now it’s plain torture. Squatting at these toilets for me is like an exhausting game of twister. When I stand up, my knees always crack.
So when Pnina and I checked into hotels in China, we always made sure to ask for western toilets where possible. More often than not, we found them. But outside the hotel it was often harder. In the big cities we kept our eyes peeled for KFC, or Starbucks, or other western-friendly chains. In smaller towns, chances were slim.
But here in Dafo Si I learned something – public restrooms in China usually have one western-style toilet “hidden” in the handicapped stall. Not only that, in some cases these handicapped toilets are some of the most modern I’ve ever seen. This one in Dafo Si had a remote mounted on the wall!
Sign on the door to the disabled stall in the Dafo Si restroom:
The very fancy western toilet behind that door. Notice the remote control on the wall:
From this point on I always looked for the handicapped stalls. Yeah, I have no shame. From my perspective, I’m freakin’ handicapped! 🙂