Five days in Asia’s world city
It was to be a short visit to Hong Kong wedged into my Easter break. I dashed there and back and will definitely have to go back next year to see the rest. Going via Amsterdam, the 11 hour leg was packed, a sign of things to come in this awesome metropolis.
Seventeen hours after leaving Dublin I scrambled off the A21 bus onto Kowloon’s hectic streets sleepy eyed and in awe of what lay before me. All around I saw greying skyscrapers, endless lines of traffic and waves of pedestrians. It was a wonderful chaos in sweltering heat.
The smells and sounds were striking and brought me back to my first adventure in Asia in 2003. Shops and their contents spilled out into the streets. Homeware on Shanghai Street, goldfish on Tung Choi Street. The Ladies Market offered all the necessary tourist gifts, from designer fakes to fridge magnets and even dung-shaped chargers.
On my first jet lagged day I spent two hours walking around the flower market and Yuen Po street bird market and then followed a trail all the way down to Tin Hau temple. Stepping into the main hall an incense-infused fragrance wrapped itself around me, a comfort in the humidity. Then it was down to Tsim Sha Tsui (TST) to see the Avenue of the Stars (closed for construction unfortunately) and the highly unusual light show. A tip: get an Octopus card while you’re in HK. It’s a travel card for public transport and you can use it in the convenience stores.
The HK skyline from TST is very impressive and the nightly light show definitely draws a crowd. Laser beams of green are shot out from the skyscrapers across the harbour on Hong Kong Island and music is blasted out to ‘enhance’ the activity. It’s free and quite unusual, but try to see it if you have the time.
Day Two – A Good Friday
My first day in Hong Kong was tiring and overwhelming, and the jet lag didn’t help. But I was determined to see as much as possible in the short time I had there. What I hadn’t realised was that Hong Kong’s inhabitants also recognise Easter, and Kowloon’s streets were heaving each evening as street performers, singers and protestors crammed into narrow shopping streets. Easter blessings were beamed from the side of buildings and across the subway. From Good Friday to Easter Monday every inch of valuable space was occupied so I had to summon great reserves of patience just walking down crowded streets. Another tip: don’t visit HK at Easter. It’s too humid and crowded.
I was up at 8am to get the subway (called the MTR and the best way to get around) to Tung Chung on Lantau Island where I caught the Ngong Ping 360 cable car to Tian Tan, better known as the Big Buddha. It was a clear day and the 30 minute journey revealed striking views of the bay. There are standard cable car carriages or glass-bottomed carriages for the brave. I opted for the standard carriage. You can queue to get your tickets for the cable car or book online, but if you are going to queue, go early. You are left out at Ngong Ping village, a tourist trap. Skip it and follow the crowds to the statue.
The Big Buddha is a must see in HK for all visitors. It’s the biggest of its kind in the world. It’s 268 steps to reach the 23m bronze Buddha and pay your respects. As with everything in HK, it was crowded and therefore, well ordered. You climbed up one side and down the other. The monastery next door, Po Lin, is a sprawling campus with richly decorated halls recently built. It is regarded as more of a tourist spot than a place of spirituality. However, in keeping with Buddhist customs, at the picnic area you are asked to consume only vegetarian food. It is noteworthy that Disneyland is also on Lantau Island.
The highlight of my trip was a visit to Tai O fishing village, a short bus ride from Ngong Ping village. You can use your Octopus card on the bus. The village too was crowded as it was a weekend. Houses and narrow walkways on stilts, delicious street food (try the fish dumplings and for desert the mango glutinous rice balls) and honking cyclists make this a very beautiful traditional village. There is also a ferry from here back to Kowloon if you want to avoid the bus and subway.
Back in Kowloon later that day, I ventured back out into chaotic streets for the Temple Street night market. It’s on my list of things to see, but I definitely wasn’t expecting fortune tellers and karaoke tents complete with strobe lights and middle aged singers belting out the hits, Cantonese songs you probably won’t be able to sing along to. Stay a while and watch the spectacle take shape; you won’t be disappointed. Temple Street market also has stalls and reasonably priced food but it’s the music that will keep you there.
Day Three – The Peak
I was up early again the following day, still battling jet lag, to grab breakfast in ‘Toast Box’ and then head for the Peak and Central district. If you’re a fan of Singapore coffee, Toast Box is a chain to sample.
The city is almost peaceful at 8am. Rubbish is collected and street hawkers start to set up their stalls for the day’s trade.
I reached Central, on the red MTR line, and was immediately struck by the difference. In comparison to Mong Kok, this is a more modern, business-like area, with shiny office towers, spotless streets, wide streets and plazas. It’s also clear it has a lively ex-pat community and hosts many of the embassies.
Victoria Peak is the highest point on HK island and usually on must see lists. To visit, you can take the 125-year old Peak Tram. By the time I reached the tram stop for this gravity-defying ride, an orderly but long queue had formed. You can use your Octopus card to pay in skipping the queue for tickets but joining the queue to board the tram (a frenzied free for all so stay alert!). The journey itself is short, about 5 minutes, and almost vertical in places. You are left off at a multilevel platform and after guessing your way outside, you can find sweeping views of the city below. The air seems a bit fresher and the humidity a little easier to cope with from the Peak.
I chose to walk back down to Central and Soho but it is poisisble to board the funicular for the short journey back down. As it was still early in the morning I opted for the 3.5km dappled morning trail back down to meet the Mid Level escalators where I was overtaken by committed runners and their canine companions. This seems like a popular place with residents trekking up or ambling down the path. The Mid Level escalators are the longest in the world; they only go in one direction, and if you’re heading to Man Mo temple (it’s probably on your list too), these covered escalators don’t go in that direction.
Man Mo temple is the busiest temple in HK. It’s famous for its spiralled incense hanging in the main hall. The air is thick with incense burning and the murmur of prayers offered to the gods of literature and war respectively. The devoted weave through the ripples of tourists and photographers to light coils of earth coloured incense suspended from the ceiling. What’s really special about this temple is its location. It’s surrounded by modern, gleaming skyscrapers. The smoke from all the incense rises to mingle with the noise and commercialism of Central. Red and gold are the dominant colours and a bell and drum stand at the entrance to be struck to attract the attention of the gods when prayers are offered. This is HK’s oldest temple and its busiest so go early if you’d like some time to see it in peace.
Later that day, I visited Chi Lin nunnery and Nan Lian garden. The nunnery had already closed but I wandered around the immaculately kept gardens as the evening cooled. Traditional wooden structures abounded, along with queues of people taking pictures of each other in front of the Golden Pagoda, and the bizarre collection of rocks and bondi trees. Only 6 subway stops from Mong Kok it is a calmer, quieter part of Kowloon. I sat in the garden for a while, as the evening sun sprinkled a dusting of gold, a peaceful end to another day in ‘Asia’s world city’.
Day Four – Breakfast of dim sum and then a ferry
A delicious breakfast is the best way to start any day, and in TST/Jordan I tucked into vegetable and fish dim sum, red bean sesame rice balls and egg tartlets with plenty of green tea. I was set up for the day. From Jordan I made my way to Kowloon Park to enjoy this sculptured park before the throngs of Sunday wanderers descended. Kowloon Park is worth a visit and has everything, including an aviary and a bird pond. So naturally I headed for the pink flamingos. From the park I headed for the pier to catch the Star ferry to Central and a tram (also known as a ding ding after the noise it makes) to Wan Chai to stroll through the streets of this old part of HK for a while.
The path I took can be found in the Lonely Planet guide, starting at Pak Tai temple and ending at Star Street neighboorhood. Pak Tai temple is a peaceful temple surrounded by a ring of greenery and highrise apartments. It hangs many incense coils in the main hall and adjacent rooms and had very few visitors that morning. Smoke wafted up through the ceiling and one or two worshippers waved their incense sticks and murmured prayers. Outside, the city kept up it cacophony. I could have stayed here all day.
From the temple I walked by the Blue and Yellow houses and down onto Queen’s Road East. The one site I had really looked forward to visiting was the Ghost House, but sadly Ship Street was blocked off and the house inaccessible. The Ghost House was used by the Japanese military after taking over the city to house the comfort women.
Wan Chai is one of the oldest areas in Hong Kong island but it doesn’t retain many old buildings and signs of its history. In fact there is little ‘old’ about it or the rest of HK. Everything is new and contemporary.
From Wan Chai and Central station I took the Star Ferry back to TST to watch the wealthy shop for even wealthier goods. Anxious shoppers clutching the latest Vuitton bag formed tidy queues outside luxury brand shops. This part of HK is a good reminder of the affluence of Hong Kong.
After a dinner of Vietnamese food and a little rest, I headed down Tung Choi Street to see the Goldfish market. Vendors up and down this street sell fish of all sizes in plastic bags. Other pets are on offer here too, with kittens garnering a lot of attention from passersby. Tung Choi street is a very lively street in the evenings, with slow moving crowds beckoned by food stalls with neon signs to light the way. Mini buses fill the road and people make themselves comfortable on cement blocks to enjoy their snacks.
Day Five – The Postcard Hunt
My final day. The heat didn’t let up. But I slept peacefully for the first time since I arrived. The room itself was half empty now as the New Yorker and the Malay had left. I abandoned a plan to visit Lamma Island and instead walked and walked and walked.
I finally visited Sik Sik Yuen Wong Tai Sin temple at Wong Tai Sin MTR which had been on my itinerary from the start. After a leisurely breakfast of Nanyang coffee I meandered over to the temple to be met with hordes of self stick welding tourists. The guides and security guards were busy shepherding visitors through the temple and shouting at anyone who wandered out of the well defined path. At the temple entrance, the feet of the lions on guard are rubbed for good luck. They are rubbed so much the colour is slowly being removed from the toes and are as smooth as they are colourless.
This is, as other temples are, an important place of worship for devotees, and yet equally present are selfie-seekers equipped with the latest phone and filters. This beautifully maintained Taoist temple is not to be missed on any trip to HK, but maybe avoid it on a bank holiday.
One subway stop away is Chi Lin nunnery. Having visited the gardens a few evenings before I thought it would be a good opportunity to see inside. The serene music was playing in the gardens and inside the nunnery the rhythmic chanting was being played from loud speakers in the main complex. This is an immaculately kept site, the wooden structures gleam. It is best seen at sunset as the golden light bounces off the dark wood. I sat in the garden for a while, resting from the morning heat, taking in the darting birds, calming music and mumbling of tourists in the distance. The garden has a lovely way of filtering out the noise of traffic all around.
Reinvigorated I went back to Central to try to photograph the junk boats. Piers 9 and 10 are for public viewing and so less crowded than the rest of the harbour. On the pier I came upon a temporary monument to the HK comfort women. A series of bronze seated women were placed against the railing and information in both Cantonese and English told passersby about their demands. Nobody stopped.
The previous day I had picked up a copy of The Best of Hong Kong from the tourist office and found a great self-guided walking tour of the old town centre, starting at Possession Street and taking in Man Mo temple, Cat Street and Pak Isz Lane park. This is a truly hipster part of HK, and queues from outside tiny hole in the way cafés, galleries and boutiques. This also seems like a much more foreigner-centric area.
Then it was back to the pier for one last look at the red-sailed junk boats and to people watch. I don’t know how many photos I’ve taken for strangers, or how many images I’ve accidentally walked into but the smartphone is king here. I don’t know if that’s good or bad.
For more images of Hong Kong from a far better camera, have a look at the album from my trip here.