This is a holiday “rewind” post from this incredible World Heritage Site in Sichuan, back in the days where a holiday to China was feasible and the locals were welcoming. We stayed in Chengdu for a week, with day trips to surrounding parts of Sichuan province: a region that is a mainly known for being the homeland of panda bears and food that is laced with hot peppers. The Leshan Giant Buddha (乐山大佛) is about 120 kilometres south of Chengdu near the equally famous buddhist site of Mount Emei (峨眉山). It’s not hard to see why this is a World Heritage Site, although it’s not really on the radar for many foreigners who visit China.
Leshan Giant Buddha was built over a 90 year period during the Tang Dynasty, with completion taking place around the year 800. The seated buddha is carved into the mountainside next to the confluence of three large rivers in western China. It calmly peers towards the holy site of Mount Emei, rarely seen these days given that the air pollution in this part of China is relentlessly bad. Nevertheless, it’s a World Heritage site, set within parklands that stretch along a steep river bank, with numerous temples and courtyards. At 71 metres tall, it still remains at the largest buddha statue in total size in the world.
We self-arranged a day trip on the Chinese bullet train from Chengdu to Leshan and back. This could be tricky if you don’t have a basic level of Mandarin, as the bullet train stations are not convenient to the centre of each city. From downtown Chengdu, you need to negotiate long transfers from a subway station in Chengdu East, while local travel from Leshan railway station to the Giant Buddha involves navigating the local bus system. The buses are frequent, clean, but slow and local.
This inspiring landmark was built at a time when buddhism had made big inroads into everyday life in China during the Tang Dynasty. It was a long and relatively stable era that ran from the year 618 to 907 AD. China was technologically advanced, as they had invented gunpowder, introduced merit based scholarly systems to run the public service and woodblock carving was rolled out across society. Woodblocks allowed mass communication, as accurate printing could be done quickly and cheaply. Buddhist monasteries use this technology to spread their philosophy. Monasteries were important parts of society, providing schools, lodging for travellers and spaces for social gatherings. Buddhist monks also operated many businesses and acted as money lenders. The construction of the giant buddha was funded by a Hai Tong, a monk who lived in Lingyun monastery on the side of a mountain by the same name.
This site was an important trading post, given that so much trade passed along the river. In fact, waters that pass through here end up in the mighty Yangtze River – a journey of over 6,000 kilometres in the west of China to Shanghai on the Pacific Coast. The waters were treacherous at this point where the rivers met, leading to many boats being overcome with regular loss of life. The Buddhist monk, Hai Tong, decided to raise funds to build a huge buddha, who would calm the waters and protect travellers.
Funding the project was am immense undertaking, as Hai Tong relied on donations from across the country. To speed up fund raising, it is said that he gouged out his own two eyes, so people would feel more pity for him. He never got to see the completion of the buddha as it would take over 80 years to finish the project.
Upon completion, it seems that Hai Tong’s goal had been achieved. Either the buddha was providing divine intervention, or a more likely change in the river flow happened, due to the huge amount of excavation waste from the mountainside into the water. Ships no longer came to grief here as the water flows changed significantly.
The statue depicts Maitreya, or the future buddha, who is sitting down with an expression of loving kindness to human-kind. Buddhist philosophy speculates that Maitreya is sitting in the heavens waiting for a time when he will return to earth to assist mankind in a time of great need. This depiction is also the same as the fat laughing buddha that became popular in Chinese culture from the 10th century.
After entering from the main gate of the park that surrounds the buddha, the paved pathway leads to the top of the mountain. It is tree lined with good aesthetics, plenty of little courtyards and intricate doorways within traditional Chinese gardens. The large Lingyun Temple complex is still in use today, sitting above the buddha on the clifftop, now overlooking the city of Leshan on the other side of the river.
The buddha statue dwarfs the crowds, even on very busy days. Starting from the top, you can walk down a series of narrow steep stairways known as the Nine Bends Plank Road (九曲栈道). These 278 steps have been carved into the cliffside with some sections only being 60 centimetres wide. It’s quite chaotic if the crowds are large – you’ll be stopped by people in front who are posing for selfies while other people at your rear will be pushing into your back. It’s one of those situations you encounter in China where strict safety standards don’t get in the way of a fun day out, walking on the edge of dangerous cliffs with other excitable adventurers. Not for the feint hearted!
Upon reaching the bottom of the riverbank, you get to appreciate the huge dimensions of the statue and the engineering feat this must have been. Centuries of heavy rain have not weathered the statue as there are complex drainage channels protect the statue. As the base, the buddha’s toenails are almost large enough for a small picnic.
Lingyun Temple complex has a history that is longer than the giant buddha statue, but the current buildings where completed during the Qing Dynasty after a fire. As the gardens and walkways are quite extensive, there is plenty of space to relax and contemplate if the crowds around the buddha statue are overwhelming. We also walked a further kilometre through the park and along the river to the Wuyou Temple (乌尤寺). It’s even quieter still, with thick bamboo groves and large halls.
Although the World Heritage Site is clean and the walkways are well organised, it’s somewhat disturbing to see how pollution from modern day factories and power stations are taking a terrible toll on the status. Much of the stonework is covered in a dark layer of grime and soot, potentially from the coal fired power stations that electrify the huge cities in Sichuan. On our November visit, the air pollution was also bad around Leshan and on the entire 140 kilometre journey from Chengdu.
Although Leshan is a bustling city of about 700,000, there didn’t seem to be any international quality hotels, especially when compared to Chengdu. The whole city looked rather unremarkable, overdeveloped, noisy: typical of other fast growing provincial cities in China. We were quite glad to get back in the bullet train in the evening. Therefore, I’d recommend a day trip from Chengdu rather than overnight or longer in Leshan.
Getting there and away
Leshan by Bullet Train & Local Bus: Regular bullet train services depart from Chengdu East Railway Station to Leshan – travel time is slightly less than an hour each way. Check out trip.com for details. From Leshan Station the trip by bus K1 via Leshan City to the Giant Buddha (RMB 2) with stops along the way in the city takes 30 minutes. Departure for the bus K1 is in the bus station building, across the street to the right side of the train station on exiting. The bus K1 can be taken back to Leshan Station before 18:00 but afterwards bus 3 is available to go back, taking 45 minutes.
General information and more excellent photos from a tour company that operates at the Leshan Giant Buddha.