We wanted to make the most of our last day in Chengdu, China. So we decided to squeeze the best of Chengdu in one day. This city is known for two things: the Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding and the forest Leshan Giant Buddha. Nicknamed the two giants of Chengdu, because both are the largest of their kind. The giant panda and the world’s biggest sitting Buddha. In this blog post, I am sharing my experience and tips for these two Chengdu sights.
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Watching the panda breakfast ritual
Chengdu = pandas. The black and white teddy bear that melts everyone’s heart. The real name of this animal is actually Giant Panda. There’s also a ‘small panda’, but that one is red and looks more like a raccoon. The panda is the national pride of China and is regularly used as a diplomatic present for loyal and trusted state partners in the world. Pandas mostly live in southern China and were in fact up until July 2021 an endangered species. There are only around 2,000 pandas left in the wild. Pandas live off bamboo forests, but they were often cut down for wood or the use of the land. So it became more difficult for pandas to find food in the wild. Although the lumber has since stopped, the panda is still threatened.
Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding
Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in Chengdu is a unique place in China where experts in the field are doing extensive panda research. This facility is the home of a dozen of pandas. Everything is done here to create a natural and safe environment. The paths are surrounded by bamboo and the pandas have a lot of space to move around and nap. Yes, nap, because they do that a lot! Pandas sleep for most part of the day. Out of the 24 hours, they sleep for 8 to 14 hours. The rest of the day they spend eating. If you want to see some active pandas you have to get up early. Pandas eat breakfast between 7 and 9 am. That’s the best time of the day to see the animals moving around.
Is a visit to the Chengdu Panda research center ethical?
I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, the place looks and feels like a zoo. It is a commercial business with a gift shop, multiple restaurants, a cinema, and a museum. Moreover, just like every zoo animal, the pandas are kept in captivity. On the other hand, the Panda Base is actively working on the preservation of the panda species and they also release pandas into the wild when possible. Furthermore, the pandas are not kept in cages. They stay outside in a bamboo-like forest. So yes, mixed feelings. By going you are supporting the research, but it also feels like taking part in some form of animal entertainment. To make it even worse: up to 2018, the center was selling Panda Holding/Hugging Experiences to visitors. Luckily these are suspended because there is nothing natural about holding a panda for a photo.
Seeing the biggest Buddha in the world
From the Research Base, it was a long way to get to our second highlight of the day. The panda research center is in the north of Chengdu and the city of Leshan is 180 kilometers south of Chengdu.
When we arrived in Leshan we immediately saw the giant statue. Carved out of a cliff we saw the Buddha sitting on his throne at the exact point where the Dadu, Min, and Qinyi rivers join. A heavy water confluence where the tide is strong. The Buddha statue is actually built as a symbol for protection against shipwrecks. I’m sure the Buddha would have made a huge impression back in the days, and it still does today. It is more than 70 meters high and still in good shape.
From head to toe
At the entrance gate, we were met with a long queue of people. In China queues are everywhere, the crowds are just something you have to deal with. After waiting in the first line there was a second queue at the Buddha descent. A sign with the waiting time said 45 minutes. It almost felt like an amusement park where you have to wait for the rides. Luckily, it all went a bit faster and within 30 minutes we were on the first steps down. With the speed of a snail, we descended along the Buddha’s face and arms. The whole thing kept on impressing us. At the bottom of the Buddha, we clearly left the ‘amusement park trail’ and we were once again reminded that this is a holy place for a lot of tourists. One by one people lighted incenses and prayed.
Tips for visiting the panda research center & Leshan Buddha
- Visit the Panda Breeding Centre early in the morning between 7 and 9. That’s the only time the pandas are active. After 9 am they just sleep and lie around for the day. Entrance fee for the Panda Breeding Centre is 52 CNY.
- It is possible to visit the Panda Breeding Centre with public transport: take metro line 3 and get out at Panda Avenue. Look for exit A and then search for bus number 198 or 198A. After a 15 minute ride get out at bus stop Xiongmao Jidi. Cross the road and you are there.
- The entrance of the Leshan Buddha is at the backside of the cliff. If you’re still a student, show your university card at the counter and you’ll get a discount. Normal entrance fee is 80 CNY, for students it’s 45 CNY.
- You can also take boat tour to the front side of the Buddha. My advice: don’t do this. Though it looks like fun, it actually is a lot of money for not a lot of fun. The boat ride is only ten minutes of which you’ll stay two minutes at the front side of the Buddha to take pictures while the boat rocks on the waves. Also, those 10 minutes aren’t cheap: 70 CNY per person.
- You can also visit the Leshan Giant Buddha by public transport. There is a bus from Xinnanmen Bus Station in Chengdu (a stop on metro line 3) that departs every 30 minutes to Leshan Giant Buddha Scenic Area. A bus ticket is 35 CNY and the ride takes 2 hours.
Which one would you like to see: the giant panda or the Leshan Giant Buddha?