The 71m (233 feet) high Leshan Giant Buddha, known as Dafo by the Chinese, is carved into the side of a hill overlooking the meeting of three rivers.
The three rivers coming together created turbulent water and strong currents, driving many of the local boats to capsize. A monk called Hai Tong started the carving 1,300 years ago to appease the water spirits, protect the waterways and watch over the fishermen.
As his followers finished it 90 years later, they found the number of accidents reduced noticably under the watchful eye of Dafo.
In an apparently unrelated story, around the same time a huge quantity of excavated stone was discarded into the river and completely changed the shape of the riverbed, calming the raging waters.
Leshan is now the tallest Buddha statue in the world. The shoulders span 28m and each eyebrow is 6m long.
The Boat Trip
It’s possible to see the Giant Buddha on foot. A two-hour walk takes you alongside the head, then down steep steps to the feet of the Buddha. We opted for an overview from the river.
As the boat arrives nearly alongside the Buddha it struggles against the rapid current. Once the front half of the boat is in prime position the crew demand extra cash to come up and take a photo. Surprisingly, about half the passengers see no problem with this and cough up the money. The rest hang at the back, waiting for the boat to move off.
Were I a crafty boat pilot trying to make money I’d have let the boat flow backwards with the current a short distance, so that those who didn’t pay couldn’t get a decent shot. Our pilot was less crafty, revving up the boat and heading straight past the Buddha, whilst all those at the back got their photo for free. Once again, those that had paid somehow didn’t feel cheated.
The boat slowly chugged to the other side of the river, and turned back against the current. Looking back from here towards the Buddha in its niche, the guide informed us that the surrounding three hills form the shape of a Buddha lying on its back. It was a bit of a stretch of the imagination.
And that was it. The boat ride lasts less than 20 minutes.
Leshan Visitor Tips
Leshan is about 2 hours from Chengdu by bus or taxi, and 90rmb to enter.
When the boat is alongside the Buddha everyone crowds up to the top deck. If you stay below you’ll have the space to relax and take in the view.
The mandatory lifejackets are small and very high on the body. If you’re an adult and can swim you’d probably be safer without wearing one as it would likely force the head into the water.
Tour groups tend to arrive in the morning and there can be multiple boats below the Buddha. We got there after lunch and were the only craft.
The Leshan Giant Buddha and the surrounding Mount Emei area have been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1996. Luckily they survived the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake undamaged, but the modern world is taking it’s toll.
According to a local saying, “The mountain is a Buddha and the Buddha is a mountain.” The idea of building the Buddha into the mountain was to protect it from the environment. They didn’t predict acid rain in 808AD, so the Buddha is showing some degradation. There are plans under discussion to build a shelter over the top, which won’t do much for the aesthetic.