This place is one of the densest, most prosperous urban jungles on earth, and for decades has been a showcase of free enterprise. Few, if any, areas in the world have been able to replicate the stunning rate of which it grew from a simple coastal settlement to a global commercial and financial hub. Dubbed as one of the four tigers of Asia together with Taiwan, Korea and Singapore (Japan and China are in a different league), it has a distinction of being one of the few former colonies who has exceeded the wealth of its former master.
The place is called Hong Kong (HK), and yes the average Hong Konger is wealthier than the average Brit, or so they say.
After having been a colony of the British for over a century, the territory was handed back to China on 1997, and the former British Crown Colony became known as Hong Kong SAR (Special Administrative Region). It’s now formally part of the People’s Republic of China, but still economically independent.
Being one of the nearest destinations that requires a passport, I have long wanted to set foot in the shopping paradise of Hong Kong. It’s ironic how I’ve been to places half-way around the globe before I could get to a place just one-and-a-half hours away, but here I am.
It was 17 degrees celcius when we arrived…colder than what we expected for that day, but my kind of weather, the kind where you can walk for miles without breaking a sweat, and don’t freeze either. Our flight touched down at around 7:30 AM on that sunny but foggy morning, a few minutes ahead of the scheduled arrival. Though it’s my first visit to Hong Kong, it was already my second to its airport, the humongous Chek Lap Kok (my first was a stop for a connecting flight). This airport is huge, and on my previous stop-over I had a field day going through the duty free shops and walking from one end of the concourse to another. This time around though, we immediately hopped in the train to get to passport control (yes, you need a train to get around this place).
Our packaged trip was a mix of guided and self-guided tours. The tour agency would take us from and to the airport, and give us a brief half-day tour, but the rest of the time we’re left to explore on our own, which is the most exciting part …there’s no fun sitting inside a bus not knowing where you are until you get to the next stop in the tour.
As we passed through passport control and retrieved our luggage, we went straight to meet our guide at the designated pick-up point, and off we were to the hotel. As our half day tour was only scheduled for the 2nd day, we were on our own after we got dropped off at the hotel, and that’s where the fun began.
We stayed at the L’Hotel Nina, a surprisingly well appointed hotel, despite its distance from the center of action in Hong Kong (Tsim Sha Tsui, Mong Kok, Central, Causeway Bay, etc.). The hotel is located in a district called Tsuen Wan, a mostly residential and industrial area in the New Territories, close to the boundary with Kowloon. It’s a 30-minute train ride via the MTR (Hong Kong’s metro) from Tsim Sha Tsui, so it may not be for those who want non-stop shopping, but for those who want a bit of quiet after a whole day of going around, this hotel is worth it.
The room is one of the best I’ve had, and could hold its own against the Sheraton and Sofitel that I’ve been to. To add to that, the hotel has stunning views of the surroundings. Our room was on the 25th floor, and had a commanding view of Rambler Channel, and the buildings of Tsing Yi across it. The restaurants were quite expensive, but there’s a mall downstairs and two larger malls nearby, the Citywalk and the Tsuen Wan Plaza, so food was not a problem.
THE FIRST DESTINATION
The very first item in our self-made itinerary was to visit the Tian Tan Buddha near Ngong Ping Village in Lantau, via the Ngong Ping 360 cable car. I thought the place was a bit “off the beaten track”, but apparently not, as evidenced by the loooong line of people waiting to buy tickets. Lesson 1 – we should’ve bought tickets online.
To get to the cable car we took the MTR’s West Rail Line to Nam Cheong, then transferred to the Tung Tsung Line to get to Tung Tsung, a housing estate on Lantau Island, where the jump off for the cable car is also located.
We purchased Octopus Cards (pre-paid cards for the MTR) at the airport, which made MTR travel more convenient. For 150 HKD (Hong Kong Dollar), with 100 of it consumable and the rest refundable with a small 7 HKD fee, we were able to go in and out of MTR stations by just tapping our cards on the turnstiles (it’s also good as cash on many fast foods and convenience stores by the way). Just like most developed cities (except probably most cities in the U.S.), travel by public transport was fast and easy. There’s a saying “when in Rome, do as Romans do”. In this case, when in Hong Kong travel as Hong Kongers do, and in most cases, it means the MTR.
The Ngong Ping 360 cable car was just a very short walk away from the Tung Tsung station, through an outlet mall that would delight those who can’t stop shopping regardless where they are. As we got past the mall though, we were taken by surprise by the long queue of people waiting to go up the ticket counters. We lined up for over an hour, throwing our self-imposed schedule off. Good thing the weather was cool, otherwise it would have been a very agonizing wait.
When our turn at the ticket counters came, we chose roundtrip tickets on the “crystal cabin”…cable cars with glass floors. A bit more expensive than the regular car, but where else in the world can you ride a cable car where you can see what’s directly below you?
The cable car goes up the steep slopes of a mountain, reminiscent of the Swiss cars that go up the Alps, before making its way to Ngong Ping, where the gigantic Tian Tan Buddha silently sits. As I looked through the windows I was amazed how Hong Kong, with a total land area just the size of Metro Manila, can have lush green mountains inspite of having 7 million residents, plus lots of frequent visitors. I guess it’s time to move the residents of Manila to high rise buildings, to clear some living space (kidding).
The ride to Ngong Ping took a bit more than a quarter of an hour, after which we alighted at the station on the other end, and took a few snaps of the giant Buddha in the distance. We were at one of the most densely populated cities on earth, yet all around us on that mountain was just green foliage and the rest of mother nature. Truly amazing.
We slowly queued back at the station, for the ride back to Tung Tsung, and to the hotel in Tsuen Wan. We had planned to go to Tsim Sha Tsui and the Avenue of Stars that evening, to see the Symphony of Light, the nightly laser-light display by the harborside. Our schedule was thrown off though by the unexpectedly long queue for Ngong Ping, and as we got back to the hotel we were exhausted, and decided to take a rest instead, and explore the neighborhood.
As evening fell, so did the contents in our stomach, and so we went out to hunt for food. We crossed the street to the neighboring Citywalk mall (where we had lunch earlier on its KFC outlet) and decided to walk around. As we were doing so, we came across a corner of a brightly lit and narrow street that resembled the streets of Binondo in Manila. Deciding to see the Hong Kong that most locals see, we strode out of the mall and went straight through the street, where we found a few local restaurants with signages all in Chinese.
We chose one that looked like it came out of an old Hong Kong movie, basic-looking, nothing fancy, with the meat and poultry hanging by the window, and the cook behind working on the soups and noodles. There wasn’t a single character of English alphabet anywhere on the resto, but we went in nonetheless, hoping there would be pictures on their menu. As we sat down and took the menu laying on the table, we found all Chinese characters and no pictures…big problem. We stared at each other, looking for ideas on what to do next, then we found a few pictures on the wall of some rice and noodles, so I stood up and started pointing the pictures for the waiter. I couldn’t ask him what was in it, so everything was based on gut feel. I caught the attention of some local customers as I waved my arms around, pointing at pictures on wall…but who cares, they’ll never know my name anyway.
We never knew the name of the food we got, we just know we had one type of noodle soup, one type of fried rice, and a type of sauteed noodles. All of it was really, really good though and for just around 100 HKD including drinks, I think it was worth it. Salty, oily, tasty…that’s what Cantonese food should be. If you happen to stray into Tsuen Wan, and are quite adventurous gastronomically, then I suggest you visit this place in San Tsuen St, close to Citywalk. It’s got red signage on a yellow background…that’s the best direction I can give, unfortunately.
We left the “unnamed” restaurant with our stomachs full, and headed back to the hotel to call it a night, and prepare for the next day.
For day 2 of this trip, click here.
* Hotel L’Nina is right off the Tsuen Wan West MTR station on the West Rail Line. For more info on the HK MTR system, you may visit the MTR website: http://www.mtr.com.hk/eng/homepage/cust_index.html
* The Ngong Ping 360 Cable Car is right across the Tung Chung Outlet Mall, from the Tung Chung MTR station on the Tung Chung Line.
* I would highly recommend getting an Octopus Card (http://www.octopus.com.hk/home/en/index.html), even if you are only in HK for a few days, for convenience’s sake. The cards can be used for trains, buses, and even convenience and fast food stores.
* This trip was taken November 2010. All photos taken with Olympus E-420 and Zuiko 14-42mm f3.5-5.6