A recent work trip took me to the vibrant city of Hong Kong. After attending to business for the first 3 days of the week, I took the opportunity to take a quick break and make a holiday of the rest (thanks to generous bosses). I also wanted to honour the promise I made to myself last year: One single holiday a year. I am glad I did.
No doubt HK is a very safe and convenient city for all travellers and more so for a single woman. But, what is really striking about the city is the contrast it presents of the old and new. The modern and the traditional. The west and the east. The busy and the relaxed.
One can enjoy the serenity of the many Buddhist, Chinese temples, nunneries, and gardens in the morning, get a semi-Ariel view of the city and Kowloon island from the peak or the IFC mall late afternoon/evening and then retire to one of the many restaurants and bars in Lan Kwai Fong, in the night, to take in the buzz and energy.
A perfect place for the gypsy in you.
So, map in hand, I headed off to the various places I had shortlisted: Many on the map and a few off it. Being my first time in the city, I wanted to see the usual recommendations and the not so usual ones. This post, I hope, will help the first or second time visitors to HK. After that, you are on your own.
Kowloon: A walk down the Tsim Sha Tsui promenade, the clock tower and the avenue of stars is enjoyable especially if the weather is nice and breezy. Unless you are a Chinese movie buff, you will probably not recognise half the stars, though. The symphony of sounds in my opinion is a let-down. It doesn't live up to its hype at all. For a city which is so glitzy and forever lit up (so much so you can never see a dark sky), the light show was below average. I have seen better light shows in India (Mysore, Brindavan gardens) and Singapore, Sentosa. When in Kowloon, don't miss the various local, authentic restaurants, like Tim Ho Wan, the Dim-Sum Specialists, Mong kok. They have a huge variety of dimsums and are teeming with patrons all the time. And get yourself a tailor-made suit from Raja tailors (again, something I have reserved for the next time), who is really popular and apparently does a great job with the cuts and fitting.
The peak: Offers great views of the busy, restless city, with its impressive port and lofty skyscrapers. Best to go 30 minutes before sunset and watch the city lights blink to life. Don't miss the funicular (120 year old tram), one of the ways to go up to the top. I got there only late at night, which was quite a pretty sight as well - - with the clouds floating low and the many lights sparkling all around. I would have liked to go earlier and spend more time, but, one has to leave some things for the next time too, right?
Ladies and Temple Street market in Kowloon: Which you can read a lot about online. If you are a shopaholic like me, this is a very, very dangerous place. The consequences for me were a sore back and hands, having had to carry all the shopping on my own (I really missed the husband here, for helping me carry the stuff and reigning me in) and excess baggage, which I had to pay for, even after I tried to be my charming best with the airline staff, who very generously waived off 2 kgs of the 8! I mean, come on, who gives a woman traveling from HK a baggage limit of 25 kgs - - delusional people!
Grab a drink at the IFC terrace: The IFC mall has this really nice, big terrace, which is free for people to use and lounge in. There is a lot of space and comfortable seating. You can either buy a drink at one of the many bars or carry your own food and drink, sit here and enjoy the view of Kowloon, uninterrupted.
Repulse Bay and Stanley Market: Pick a sunny day and a weekend if you really want to see this posh neighbourhood come alive (It can get a bit too crowded though. If crowds are not your thing, choose a weekday). The ride up here is in itself very pretty, with green hills, water bodies, pretty lanes and houses. Take a local bus and sit on the top deck, to get a good view and for a 'thrilling ride' as the locals call it (because the bus drivers take the curves a little fast). If you are from India you will not feel a thing. Our bus drivers make the bus drivers of HK seem like calm 60 year olds. The bay is nice to swim or sun bathe in and has a lot of cafes around. There is a quaint little temple at the end of the bay, which houses some really big deities. The market is pretty nice too and you can pick up some clothes, knickknacks, shoes, etc. It is a short bus ride away from the bay.
Lantau island: A must visit. The 111 feet Tian Tan Buddha sits beautifully perched, overlooking mainland China. This is the world's largest, outdoor, sitting, bronze Buddha (Hong Kong has quite a few of these, biggest, longest, largest things, with a lot of conditions before and after). The Po Lin monastery is very beautiful and peaceful and is within a few minutes' walk from the Buddha. You can spend a whole day here at the Ngong Ping village, where the Buddha, the monastery and many other attractions are housed. Take the crystal cable car one way at least. The views are breath-taking and you can see the Buddha while you are climbing up. It is better to book the ticket in advance, so you don't have to wait in the long queue, especially during peak season.Other usual recommendations are to take a ride on the star ferry at Victoria harbour and watch the light show from there, Causeway bay and Jardine's Crescent for shopping, a walk around Chungking mansions, an old, cramped building housing around 4000 immigrant Asians, Africans, cheap restaurants and shops (again, nothing noteworthy for people from Asia, who can see such buildings in their home countries), and Hong Kong park, a lush, well made urban park, right in the middle of the city.
Once done with this list, I moved on to the lesser visited/not so visited places. I had 4 days and a huge list, but I will write about the ones I like liked the most.
Flag staff museum in HK Park: If you are a tea lover like me, this is a must visit. Housed in a pretty, 1840s colonial building, this museum has a delightful collection of teapots and cups from across the ages and dynasties. They have a lot of information on teas, tea making, origins of tea, and the significance of tea making and drinking across Chinese culture and Asian culture. Once can easily spend a couple of hours here. One of the best parts of this place is that you are walking around a metropolitan park, with all these chic skyscrapers bordering it and then, you walk into this museum and get sucked right into history. The contrast is fantastic. And, it is free!
Tai O village: This quaint little fishing village with its stilt houses and miniature markets, can take you back in time. It seems like the modernisation of HK city, which is a few miles away has not touched this village as yet. An erstwhile fishing and trading port, the village today is left with its old inhabitants, while the youth have moved out in search of opportunities. A 20-25 minutes bus ride away from the Tian Tan Buddha, this picturesque village, surrounded by green mountains is a great place to experience the rural life in HK and also to eat some great, absolutely fresh sea food. The markets are very lively and sell all kinds of sea food, Shrimp past (the smell if very strong and free) and souvenirs, if you look carefully. Go here only if you enjoy seeing/eating sea food or can take the smell.
The village houses two tiny but interesting temples. They are worth visiting because they are so old and steeped in history. Don't miss the Kwan Tai temple, built during the Ming Dynasty in 1488-1505, honouring the God of war and righteousness. The island also houses a former jail for pirates, turned into a heritage hotel, overlooking the pier. The view and food here is worth the long walk.
Gold fish market: Of the many markets around Mong Kok, this has to be one of the most colourful and charming ones. The Chinese believe a lot in good luck charms and gold fish is meant to bring a lot of luck. This street has rows of shops selling different types of gold fish and the paraphernalia that go with it. Walking around here, watching people choose and buy packets of gold fish, is very fascinating.
Lin Heung (Fragrant Lotus) Tea House: If you can't speak Chinese, better practice sign language or muster the courage to point to something randomly on the menu and eat it. The old waiters here can't speak a word of English and nor can the menu. Most people enjoying their Yum Cha here seemed as old as the place itself (more than half a decade). It was filled mostly with locals and the food looked as authentic as the place. Old ceiling fans, a wall clock, rickety tables and dated, slightly chipped crockery added to the charisma of the place. I could muster up the courage only to have some Chinese tea here as most items on the menu looked like beef, which I don't eat (I could be terrible wrong). I missed the husband here again, as he would have pushed me to try something for sure. I hear that the dim sums here are the most genuine. One more thing to go back to, the next time.
Chi Lin nunnery and Nan Lian Garden: If you have had your fill of the noise and business of HK, then spend atleast half a day, if not more, at these two places, which are next to each other. Calming Buddhist chanting, greenery, the smell of incense and the peace at the Chi Lin nunnery will immediately make you loosen you shoulder, drop you bag and sit down for a bit. You know that the busy city exits just outside the gates and you can see it all around you in the background, but you feel safe and guarded inside. From here, walk over to the other calming place - the Nan Lian Garden. The lack of many people, some water bodies and the many flora around will make you want to spend the day here. Both these places offer free entry too.
Some of the other things you can try: Ride the mid-level escalators (the world's longest outdoor escalator) right to the top and walk around the botanical garden or visit the Jamai Mosque, enroute. Visit the Victoria Park on the weekend when all the Filipinos and locals are out with families and there is a lot of singing, dancing and laughter. Have a meal at cha chan teng, one of the few surviving old style restaurants, which have now become a cult thing. Walk around Nathan Road if you like high street brands. Visit the Marine Police HQ, which has now been turned into a hip commercial plaza, thankfully with the appeal intact. Pay a visit to the Sik Sik Yuen Wong Tai Sin Temple. And lastly, stop over at the Man Mo temple, after walking up the street and looking at some of the oldest surviving housing structures - - blue house, green house and orange house.A few things I still have to do the next time in HK: Visit the West Kowloon Waterfront Promenade for some great view of the sunset. Get a suit tailored for myself. Visit the peak in the evening, before sunset. Visit the temple of the 1000 Buddhas. And attend free Tai Chi classes on the Tsim Sha Tsui promenade in the mornings.
Hong Kong does not have a lot of history left as they were all broken down to make fancy buildings and infrastructure. But, the efforts are on from the past few years, to save the few that are standing. While the modern, glitzy parts are great and is a model for a lot of countries to learn from, history is what makes a city attractive. While you can see the love for fashion, glamour and many things Korean and Western, the old traditional places, markets and people is what make the city striking. For me atleast.
If you want to see the old and the new interspersed beautifully, get ready to sweat (in the humidity) and walk around a lot, to explore this fascinating city. The fact that I could do the walking, exploring, carrying, eating and drinking on my own, without being harassed or leered at or disturbed in any way, added to the excitement.
And remember ladies, no heels or chappals. Yes, it is a glamorous city, but if you love your feet and back, wear those traditional sports shoes!