hong kong 2010
On Wednesday, we decided to take the trolley to the Jardine House building, where the Hong Kong Tourism Association has an office…or so they did in 1993. Only it appears that they moved out about six years ago (according to the bookstore now in it’s place). Oh, and it’s now also called the HKTB (Board, not Association) and it’s across the harbour on the Kowloon side at the Star Ferry pier. Oh well, this was a good chance to let Pili ride the Star Ferry which is another one of those “rights-of-passage” things that travelers just have to do when visiting Hong Kong. The Star Ferry runs just as often as it has since 1898, but these days you’re more likely to find tourists on it than commuters and this day was no exception.
After we got off the Star Ferry, we had an authentic Chinese breakfast at a very ethnic restaurant called McDonalds. Way to absorb the local culture, eh? We then made our way to the HKTB to book some tours for our short stay in HK. We booked the Symphony of Lights harbor cruise for that evening to see the light show and the Land Between Tour for the following day. I needed to get a phone number from my e-mail account and found an internet cafe across the street that wanted HK$20 (upfront) for a minimum of 15 minutes of internet access. Now, I’ve used internet cafes all around the world, and two things stuck me as odd: first – paying upfront, never had to do that; and second – the rate of HK$20 for15 mins is about $10 an hour, which is about 5-6x the going rate of most internet cafes in the world. Not that we can’t afford that, but I just didn’t like the place, so we left on principal alone – after all, all I needed was a phone number from an e-mail and I was sure that any of the hundreds of other internet cafes in Kowloon would be more than happy to accommodate us…
So we walked…and walked. And walked. Everyone in Hong Kong must be extremely well connected to the internet because I have never seen in my life such a big city with a complete and utter lack of internet cafes! Most touristy cities have two or three to a block. Kowloon? None. What they do have is an abundance of, however, is extremely pushy (bordering on the obnoxious) tailors wanting you to buy a suit from them and guys selling fake watches. After about a half hour of walking and asking, we finally found one on the second floor of a decrepit mall that looks like it’s slated for demolition sometime later this year. It was raining off and on all morning, so we decided to visit the Hong Kong History Museum, which has a permanent exhibit on the history of Hong Kong (which used to be a dessert once, bet you didn’t know that!).
We headed back to the hotel to rest and had dinner at their restaurant, the MoMo cafe. Before the harbor cruise, we met up at Pier 7 Cafe and Bar with a friend of a friend, Rod, an American who’s been living and working in Hong Kong for over a decade. He gave us some insight about what it’s like to live in Hong Kong, just in case we end up back here some day. At this point, it was still raining, but by the time the harbor cruise started, it looked like it was clearing up. We saw the light show and got some pictures of it, then the boat pressed on. Just about the time we turned around to head back there was some very loud thunder followed quickly by some very hard rain. The rain poured down for most of the trip back and most of the passengers huddled inside the bar area of the boat, with plenty of free liquor to keep us occupied. After the cruise, we took a taxi to the neighborhood of Wan Chai to go to Carnegies, a popular ex-pat bar, where we had a drink, then stopped at a donner kebab place across the street and had a late snack before hading back to the hotel.
We woke up early on Thursday morning to pouring rain in anticipation of our “Land Between Tour”. From the hotel, we grabbed a bus to the City Hall building, where the tour was supposed to meet, only we could not see any tour bus. After a few phone calls from a phone booth (really, who uses a phone booth anymore? me, apparently…) in the rain, we finally met up with the tour guide. We were the only ones from the island side on the tour. After piking up four Australians on the Kowloon side, we headed out. This tour stops at the following between downtown Hong Kong and the border with China: Yuen Yuen Institute, a large monastery complex housing the three predominant local religions – Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism; Tai Mo Shan, Hong Kong’s highest mountain peak; Fanling Walled Village; Luk Keng Road, which runs parallel with the coastline of Mainland China just across the bay; and a fish-farming zone at Sam Mun Tsai.
I won’t give details on every stop we made, but lets just say this wasn’t the best tour we had on our trip. Some of the stops were a little confusing and others, like Tai Mo Shan, were a little bit of a let down because the lookout was so overgrown, you couldn’t see Hong Kong Island, just parts of Lantau Island. I was certainly nice to see the “other” side of Hong Kong, but for us, the tour just seemed to kind of drag on. We skipped the optional lunch at the end of the tour and instead found a diner in Kowloon to grab a very quick lunch.
From there, we hopped on the MTR and made our way out to Tung Chung Station, on Lantau Island. Lantau Island is Hong Kong’s biggest island, and for most of it’s lifetime was also one of the least populated and quietest islands, home only to small farms and fishing villages. I had actually set foot on Lantau in 1993, and to get there, we had to take a ferry to Cheung Chau, then negotiate with a sampan to take us over to Lantau, where the then-locally famous Joe’s Frog and Toad bar was. Fast forward 17 years and Lantau is now home to Hong Kong International Airport, AsiaWorld Expo, Disneyland, five MTR staions, a cable car and is connected to the mainland by a two deck bridge.
Our reason for heading to Lantau today was to ride the Ngong Ping 360 Cable Car and to visit the Tian Tan Buddha, the one of the world’s largest bronze buddahs. We got to the cable car entrance, bought tickets and boarded the cable car in less than two minutes! (Some days, the wait can be several hours). The views from the cable car up the hill were spectacular, with an excellent view of the airport behind us as we ascended. About 25 minutes later, we had arrived at the top and made our way over to the base of the buddah. 268 steps later, we were at the base of Mr. Tian Tan! The view from the top was more impressive as the view earlier in the morning from Tai Mo Shan, and the weather was better. We took about 10 minutes to walk around the buddah, then quickly descended to make sure we made it to the cable car before it stopped running at 6 PM.
After we took the cable car back to Tung Chung, we stopped at City Gate Outlets and did some shopping, but there weren’t too many great deals to be had, so in the end, Pili just ended up getting some clothes. Tung Chung is a very modern town and was literally built from the ground up about 15 years ago as a “planned city“. We hopped on the MTR orange line and were back on Hong Kong Island about twenty five minutes later. After stopping buy three different restaurants, we finally found one that had some food that appealed to us both, had a quick dinner, then back to the hotel after a very long day.
Pili wanted to take a Feng Shui tour when we decided to go to Hong Kong, but it was not available the days we were there, so we instead signed up for a free Feng Shui class on Friday morning. It was on the 14th floor of a very non-descript office building in Mong Kok, and when we arrived we were two of only four people in the class! I wasn’t sure what to expect with it being free, but the teacher of the class turned out to be Mr. Alex Yu, who is one of the preeminent Feng Shui experts working today, teaching and consults for companies all over the world. The class was an hour long and gave a great introduction to Feng Shui, where we both learned a lot. (Later that night, we were watching TV in our hotel room and none other than Mr. Yu was in one of commercials for Hong Kong tourism!)
After some shopping in one of Hong Kong’s new “vertical malls”, Langham Place, we took the MTR back to Central and walked over to the base of the famous Peak Tram. A lot of people will tell you when going to Hong Kong, that “the first clear day you get, go to the top of the Peak!” Well, that was our plan, but the “clear day” never came, it was overcast or raining almost the entire time we were there, so today was the day. After standing in line for about 15 minutes, we found out that we didn’t need to as we could just use our trusty Octopus cards to get on. We had to wait for about three trams before we boarded and rode up the 400 vertical meters to the top. The Peak Tram was built in 1888 to carry wealthy locals who lived up the steep hills of Hong Kong Island, but is now largely a tourist attraction, though we did notice a separate line for monthly pass holders, so apparently some locals still use it as a mode of transportation.
When I had last visited Victoria Peak in 1993, the entire area was a construction zone, which would soon become the Peak Tower. The Peak Tower is probably the best example of a tourist trap that Hong Kong has to offer. The Peak Tram lets you off inside the second floor of the Peak Tower and the only way off the tram is through a series of gift shops. Then, besides the restaurants and other stores, there is the king of all tourist traps, a Ripley’s Believe it or Not meuseum. They Peak Tower also offers a viewing deck for about $3, which we didn’t do, because it was such a crappy day outside. Besides, there is a ground level viewing deck about 50 meters away, so we didn’t really see the point. We got some pictures of us with the skyline and harbor in the back, then grabbed a quick lunch in the tower.
We decided to check out Repulse Bay, on the other side of the island, so we took a bus down headed for Central, expecting to get off at Queens Road East. Instead, I noticed a number 6 bus about half way there, so we immediately hopped of our bus and crossed the street to wait for the next #6 bus, which came in about three minutes. Again, Hong Kong is impossibly easy to get around in, if you’re not afraid to use the buses. The #6 bus goes from Central to Stanley, with stops along the way, including Repulse Bay, but the ride itself is amazing and something that very few tourists get to do. Hong Kong almost exclusively uses double decker buses and the roads that these buses travel on this route are winding, often built over a hundred years ago and without much room on either side. The bus drivers are seasoned professionals and often take sharp turns at 25-30 MPH and typically leave about a foot of space between passing buses! If you ever go to Hong Kong, do yourself a favor and take the #6 bus, it is well worth the price of admission.
Repulse Bay is a town on Hong Kong island known as a place where a lot of ex-patriates live, mostly in beautiful high rises. I was fortunate to celebrate my 18th birthday here in 1993, in the apartment of one of my dad’s friends. I remember being really impressed by this beach town back when I first visited and wanted to take Pili there to show her yet another side of Hong Kong. When we arrived, she was amazed that Hong Kong had a beach, and an ocean beach none-the-less! We headed down to the beach, took off our shoes and walked the entire length of it along the water’s edge. The water was nice and cool and it felt great after a long day of walking!
We took the express 6X bus back to Central, then another bus back to the hotel for some down time. Dinner that night was to be in Lan Kwai Fong, which is one of the main hot spots for tourist and foreigners who live in Hong Kong. It’s about a three block stretch of nothing but bars and restaurants, each one vying for your business. We even had a guy tell us if we didn’t like his food, we didn’t have to pay! A tempting offer, but we weren’t in the mood for Indian food. At this point, I was sweating due to the heat, humidity and my choice of a button down shirt, so AC was a must on our list. We finally settled at a place called Post 97 (as in the post-1997 Hong Kong, when it was handed back to China from the British). I enjoyed my meal, but unfortunately, Pili hated hers so I guess it got mixed reviews. Oh well, the drinks were strong and the AC was cold. We were going to have another drink on the way home, but it was so hot and most of the bars are open-air, so we skipped it.
On the way back down to Des Veoux Rd. (where most of the east-west the buses run), however, Pili noticed a couple who had set up some clothes racks with women’s clothes in the middle of a pedestrian street. I’ve no idea if they had a permit or not, or were even supposed to be there, but there I sat about 20 feet away, watching woman after woman walking along the street taking an unplanned segway to start going through the clothes racks in the middle of a dark street like they were shopping at the Gap. A very odd scene to me, but apparently very natural to the 20 or so women who, like my wife, ended up buying something from them.
Our last day in Hong Kong and our last day of a very long journey… Saturday started off with another MTR trip to the Kowloon side of the harbor as the previous day, but this time to Tsim Tsa Tsui, where we made our way over to the Avenue of the Stars (“Stars” meaning Hong Kong and Chinese film stars, none of which we knew), which is a walk along the harbor with Hollywood Boulevard-type stars in the ground along the way. After that, it was back to Mong Kok, to visit the famous Ladies Market, which is a three block stretch of street vendors selling mostly women’s clothes and accessories, but also plenty of gifts and toys. We did two of the three blocks, ducking inside the vendor’s tents in between heavy rain storms, before we had had enough and decided to just head back to the hotel and rest.
After we packed, we took a bus back into Central to do some last minute gift shopping, but mostly just to kill some time. We walked around for an hour or so, bought nothing and headed back to the hotel again. Because our flight was not until midnight, we got a very late checkout time of 8 PM so we could shower one last time before the day-long trip home. We had dinner right at the hotel, then caught the A12 bus back to the airport.
The Hong Kong airport was equally as beautiful and impressive as Bangkok’s airport (which we didn’t really get a good view of when we arrived), with as many stores, if not more. We were in Terminal 1, and saw that Terminal 2 boasted over 100 retail stores. Check in was extremely quick and easy, so we had a few hours to kill at the gate. I watched a British Airways 747 being towed to the gate next to ours in preparation for the trip back to Heathrow. I talked to the waiting captain briefly who said that the plane has to sit empty on the tarmac for about four hours in between flights, because the gate space in Hong Kong is so valuable. We were also entertained by a drunken Korean woman who was with a group of about 15 people and was going from person to person, forcing them to drink cap fulls of what I presumed to be Soju.
The Korean Air flight was on an 777, but the older version, without the on demand video this time, which was just as well, because I think we both slept the entire way. Here’s something I’ve always thought fascinating about modern aviation: the flight took off at 12:30 AM and landed at about 5:00 AM, and yet they feel it necessary to serve dinner. Why? Do a lot of people normally eat dinner at 1:30 AM? Is it illegal to have a flight without a meal? Drinks, yea, I can see that, but really, who feels it necessary to eat just because they are on a plane? Red eye flights should immediately darken the cabin after take off with the flight attendants making an announcement along the lines of ”We’ll be sitting in the back. If you need a drink, come on back or use your call button. Other than that, enjoy the flight and try to get some sleep”.
We had about a five hour layover in Seoul, which we spent much like a bunch of other travelers: trying to get as comfortable as we could on two cushioned seats facing each other. Our fourth and final flight on Korean Air took off like all the others, exactly on time. We pushed back from the gate and off to DC for the 13 hour flight home, again all in daylight. I could be wrong here, but I’ve got to think that the 27 hours of combined flying time from DC to Korea and back all in day time has to be somewhat of a rarity. We took off at about 10:30 local time and landed at 11:30 local time the same day, and because of the northern route, never passed through the dark of the night that we “skipped over”. The flight to DC was pretty much the same as the flight two weeks prior, with one notable exception: the guy sitting next to us never said a single word to us. Though he was Korean, we heard him speak English to the flight attendants, so I know that wasn’t the issue. Now, I can see if you’re on a quick domestic flight not saying “hi” to your seat mate if you’ve got work to do or just aren’t in the mood for chit-chat, but 13 hours…really? I just think it’s an interesting comment on our society that one can sit six inches away from another human being for 13 hours and barely even acknowledge them. Maybe we smelled bad from two weeks on the road?
It was just as rainy at Dulles airport as it was when we took off from Hong Kong about 24 hours prior. After the beautiful airports of Bangkok, Hong Kong and Seoul, it was a little embarrassing to compare them to Dulles, which was built in the early 60′s and was once a beacon of jet aviation airports, but now just shows her age. Though the immigration area is brand new, in order to get to it, arriving international passengers are still forced to take the decrepit mobile lounges from the gate to immigration, as there is no secure passage from the outer concourses back to the main building. As we were riding the mobile lounge, all I could think of were all the people who arrive in the US for their first time through Dulles. There is not even an explanation anywhere of what these lounges are or why you’re being herded on to them. Oh, well…
All in all, we both had an excelent trip. I was very happy to see Hong Kong again and we both loved Thailand and would like to return someday with a little cooler weather! Thailand was a lot more beautiful than I ever expected, and while the country is largely poor, the people we met there are some of the happiest and friendiest we’ve ever met, which is a theme we’ve seen before in other countries.
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…or click here to see more pictures from Hong Kong!