View Hong Kong Island in a larger map (Note: blue markers indicate locations, pink lines/markers indicate transport routes)
Hotel and “Airport Shuttle”: We left Cambodia with a little trepidation; Hong Kong is expensive, everyone says it, and since we were on a tight budget, we weren’t sure how wise it was for us to have chosen a 2-day layover in the city. But the night before we left Siem Reap, we searched Orbitz and found a fantastic deal at the Ramada Hong Kong Hotel (Central Western area of Hong Kong Island) for … brace yourself … 60 USD a night!!! We even got an upgrade to the double-bed suite, which was still a pretty small room by most standards (except maybe Luxemburg, but that’s another story altogether) but it came with a fridge, free wifi, satellite tv and a hot water kettle — all a body needs!
We think we might have scored such a fantastic deal because Ramada’s ratings had taken a dive due to negative reviews about their tiny rooms and a dispute over what qualifies as a “free airport shuttle.” For future reference, the airport is on an entirely different island than Hong Kong Island (and Kowloon, for that matter) and most hotels refer to a “free airport shuttle” as transport that picks one up at the Hong Kong MTR Station (after you’ve already taken the Airport Express train from the airport to Hong Kong Island) and transports to/from the hotel itself. All that to say, we took the Airport Express train to the Hong Kong MTR ($180 HK for 2 people), but since it was already late-ish, we just hailed a taxi from the station rather than sort out where and if a shuttle may exist for us. The cab was cheap anyway — around 53 HK — which is just under 7 USD! (Conversion is a little over $7 HK to $1 USD.) Cheap hotel and cheap public transport. Hong Kong rocks so far.
Friendly Cabs: Our cab driver didn’t really speak English, but we showed him the address and pointed to our map. He nodded and headed off as we stared in bewilderment at the mass of traffic and lights everywhere. Even the busy throngs of Siem Reap and the Angkor Archaeological Park could not compete with this! And as for our idyllic little home in the South Pacific, well, we were definitely not in Tonga anymore.
The driver slowed down outside by a curb, and we thought it was due to the traffic. I looked to my right and commented, “Oh, I saw that building on Orbitz, too. Which one was it?”
Well, it was our hotel. Geez. The driver was so sweet; he even ran out of the taxi to double check and make sure it was the right place! So far, prices and the people of Hong Kong are awesome.
Timeless Hong Kong: We checked in and then took to the streets in search of dinner. It was a week night — probably around eight o’clock –, but people were everywhere, shops and little Chinese kiosks lining every space of the street, and that cool combination of modern, bustling city meets traditional Chinese shops meets vestiges of British colonialism was definitely still there and very much as I remembered it from around 20 years ago!
The only difference I noted, other than the obvious addition of international buildings of every kind and nature, was the plethora of western business people wandering about in shiny shoes and suits. Oh, and everyone was either talking on cell phones or playing a game on one.
In any case, we both loved it immediately, and after walking around for about 20 minutes just for the fun of it, wandered into a stall-like restaurant at the corner of an intersection that was crammed with locals. We were immediately bustled to a table and presented with an English menu. The prices were fantastic! I ordered a combination noodle dish with shrimp and veggies and Sam ordered some kind of sizzling beef and potatoes platter. Hot tea with free refills was included with the meal. I think we spent about 10 USD on the whole thing!
A Day in the City: Next day, we started a bit late, but hey, we’re on vacation! Plus, heading out at around 11 a.m. saves money on breakfast. We grabbed a couple of free maps with super handy guides — one even had various, detailed walking tours.
Now, HK is an overwhelming place — so much to see! We didn’t know where to start, and I had zero helpful information to contribute other than the fact that I remembered how much fun the night market had been all those years ago. And since we didn’t have a lot of time or money to spend, we didn’t want to invest in a tour that, from our past experiences with group tours, usually just end up being annoying anyway. Our solution? Hop on the cool, vintage double-decker trollies that rattle all the way from the west side to the east side of north Hong Kong Island.
Terrific Trollies: As fate would have it, there was a stop just outside our hotel, so we jumped on one right away, paying the ridiculously low flat rate up front as we entered — $2.30 HK per person — which collectively is less than one dollar US. I highly recommend taking the trolley if you’re new in town and only have a day or so to spend. It gives a fantastic overview of Central Hong Kong Island, without feeling like herded cattle on a tour bus. It’s so cheap, you can hop off anywhere and get back on for the paltry flat-rate-fee that it’s still a much better deal than the hop-on-hop-off tours, and you get to interact a little more with locals, whom, as we already discovered, are for the most part amazingly nice.
We watched out the window, peering into the little alleyways tucked between the modern streets that bustled with stalls of every kind, Victoria Harbor looming beyond the infrastructure to our left and all of Hong Kong Island to our right. We passed sports fields and enormous banks and sleek, designer window displays. We passed shop clerks cleaning their signs overhead with mops while straddling ladders, we passed construction bins filled with debris and women sorting through the rubble for what, we do not know, we passed push-carts and BMW’s and suicidal bicyclists.
A man sitting in front of us started practicing his English, pointing at our map and then out the window, and even though I could barely understand what he was saying, it just kind of made my day. This guy wasn’t selling anything or trying to make us go to his cousin’s nephew’s shop or waiting for that right opportunity to snag my wallet, he was just being friendly. It’s weird how surprising it is when you come across that. Well, it made both of us happy.
Lost in the City: Our new friend bid us adieu several stops later and we stayed on, thinking we were taking the trolley all the way to the east side, near Shau Kei Wan, when our ride took a sudden turn to the right and eventually stopped at a station. It was the end of the line, so we stumbled out, still looking at our map until we located the side trolley route on it that evidently we’d taken (we were now in an area called Happy Valley). We realized at that moment that we should have looked at the sign clearly posted in the front window, but being new in town and having only glanced at the map that morning, we didn’t realize there was more than one route. We also realized our trolley friend had tried to communicate that to us when he’d gotten off at the changeover station. Ha! Oh well. We were a far distance from Shau Kei Wan, but since it was around 1 pm and we were somewhere south of Victoria park, we decided to scrap the Shau Kei Wan plan and find a place for lunch instead.
Amazing “Cooked Food Markets”: Now, there are places to eat everywhere in Hong Kong — restaurants comprise every other building, it seems, but we wanted to keep it cheap and local (as in, where street sweepers eat, not bankers), so we wandered around until we found a cement, mall-like building that brandished a sign for a food court.
We walked in and noticed that it was a market, similar to the one we viewed in Kowloon. We took the escalator to the first floor, where produce of every kind was being sold, and saw another sign for “cooked food market” on the second floor, looming above a rather narrow elevator door.
We got in, followed quickly by three other men, and as the elevator rattled slowly up, we wondered where exactly we’d placed ourselves. And then, as soon as the door open, we were greeted with a perfectly synchronized chorus of “Hello!” from four or five different vendors, all smiling and eagerly waiving us to various tables! Sam burst out laughing, and we settled in to a round table big enough for five or six people, and took a menu from the first vendor who reached us. His stall was several feet in front, while other stalls lined the entire floor from left to right. The whole floor was an open plan, filled with nothing but tables, chairs, food stalls and a whole lot of people. We’d found our place!
I had no idea what to get, but our very friendly cook pointed to a three-dish combo, which was, in retrospect, the most expensive thing on the menu and waaaaay too much food, but that said, a better deal could not exist. So, for around another $5 USD each, Sam and I dined on delicious ice coffee, free refills of hot tea, bowls of vegetable soup, and then — and this took me a while to realize this, because I thought at first we were supposed to wait for our cook — I wandered up to the cook’s stall and chose three different items for each of us, together with a huge plate of rice. It was crazy how much food they piled on: a whole fried fish, probably three cups of green beans cooked with ham, and some kind of simmered, whole chicken breast! That was for one person! My plate, after I realized what was going on, consisted of a huge swath of bok choy, another kind of fish in some spicy, red sauce and … I can’t even remember what else, but it was all delicious.
We couldn’t eat it all, but we had a lot of fun just people watching and figuring out where to go next. Our cook came by, all smiles, asking how we liked it, and it wasn’t until that moment that I realized he had on a Habitat for Humanity shirt! I laughed and told him I work some with a couple affiliates (mostly one), and asked were he got it. He laughed back and told me he got it for twelve dollars!
A Walking Tour: Bellies full, we wandered back to the street and decided to check out Victoria Park. On the way, we passed rows of construction sites like the one featured below. You can’t really tell from the picture, but behind that green mesh lies Asia’s favorite construction material: bamboo. Hmmm. Wonder if LEED gives extra points for renewable resource scaffolding?
Victoria Park is huge, with really interesting “soccer fields” made of what appeared to be green painted concrete. Practical for soccer and roller-blading! We paid homage to Her Majesty of my favorite literary era and then turned toward Hong Kong’s most famous temple: Tin Hau.
Not to be confused with the nearby MTR station bearing the same name, Tin Hau Temple is truly a thing of mystical beauty, and she should be, since Tin Hau is the Goddess of the Sea. Enormous pyramids of incense uncurl from the ceilings, wafting pleasant, jasmine aromas and the place is equally infused with a sense of serenity, utterly removed from the chaos just outside. An informational plaque at the entrance explains that the temple was built after an incense burner was found floating on the sea, which also resulted in one of Hong Kong’s pre-British-rule names: Red Incense Burner Island. Has a certain ring to it, no?
From Tin Hau, we meandered down the streets, poking into various shops selling everything from Revlon products to dried squid to packaged, unidentified organic particles that may or may not be something to blush at.
We decided to hitch the Victoria Peak tramway to the summit of said peak, and headed toward the central district, stopping at the Old Supreme Court Building and St. John’s Cathedral (the oldest ecclesiastical building in Hong Kong) along the way.
The tram up Victoria Peak was the most expensive thing we paid for, aside from the hotel and MTR from the airport to Hong Kong Island. Even so, it was still only $40 HK per person for a return trip (around $5.50 USD)! The railway is steep, and before the tram was installed back in 1888 — as the first funicular rail (which basically means cable rail) in Asia, no less — the hoity-toity rich Brits who lived on the peak had to ascend to their homes via sedan chair. Poor things.
The station in which you disembark at the Peak is more or less a mall, lined with souvenir shops on either side until you are eventually faced with the decision of entering Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum currently featuring Obama and some actress lady I’ve no idea about, or wander down and up escalators until you can find your way out.
Sam bought a magnet from one of the shops on our way through this maze, and I have to say, it was the first time since being in Hong Kong that we were treated somewhat rudely. The woman from whom he bought the magnet only sneered at him as he gave her the money, and then scolded me roundly for taking a picture of the cool Chinese chop stamps (“You go! No pictures!”) that I was otherwise planning to purchase. So this one’s for you, lady.
The view is quiet something, and I imagine amazing at night, with all of Hong Kong at your feet. Walking paths curl about the peak, edged by verdant hills gushing with all sorts of interesting foliage.
Back in town, we walked over to the famous Duddell Street Gas Lamps (the only four gas-powered lamps still used in Hong Kong) and then rode on the world’s longest covered escalator, just to say we did.
We didn’t have time to take the escalator all the way into SoHo, though, because we still had to hit the Temple Street Night Market in Kowloon, which is on the other side of Victoria Harbour. And since we’re on that subject, is it just me, or did these colonialists have some serious issues with creativity? I mean, so long as you’re going to impose imperialism by naming everything after British Royalty, at least give poor Prince Albert a chance every now and then.
Temple Street Night Market: To save time, we took the underground (MTR) over to Kowloon, got off at Jordan Street and then walked to Temple Street Market. It was fun — and big, it runs down several blocks — although I was a little disappointed by the dearth of actual arts and crafts.
Almost everything was leather goods and gadgets, a few nick-knacky things, and lots of stuff I wouldn’t expect to see, if only because I didn’t know it existed … like this! Who doesn’t want a giant hot pink, radiation-deflecting phone piece?
There were some cool textiles at the very end of the market, but that was about it in terms of mystical, far-east-vibe kind of wares. We had a great time stopping for supper at one of the plethora of outdoor stalls, though. The vendors were so nice and polite, everyone was having a great time, and the food was delicious, not to mention fascinating to look at. Temple Street was worth a visit just for that!
Star Ferry: But we finally arrive at the Creme de la Creme of our day: the famous Star Ferry ride back to Hong Kong Island. At night, it is nothing short of magical, with lights reflecting over the harbor and stretching into the velvet beyond. Plus, it’s an incredible steal: $5 HK per person! (But we paid for the “Deluxe” ticket on the upper deck — it’s even cheaper if you choose the lower.) Highly recommended.
Even the walk to the ferry was fun. If I thought Hong Kong was busy during the bay, it is positively bursting with activity at night. People are everywhere, shops pay no heed to ideas like “Close of Business” hours, and life in general seems to just now be starting. And this, at around nine o’clock on a Wednesday night!
By the time we reached Hong Kong Island by ferry (around a 20 minute ride), we decided nothing sounded better than acting like a boring married couple and returning to our hotel . The good citizens of Hong Kong might scoff at our endurance, but we know when we’re beat. We’re tired, a little grungy, and at that moment, the idea of a hot shower and a view of the city from our clean, AC-cooled room bordered on genius. Tomorrow, we’d be leaving this fabulous town, not even having scratched the surface of all the wonders it contains.
Thus concludes our super fun day in Hong Kong, leaving us with the resolution that we have got to come back some day. For sure. If for no other reason, to buy that cliche t-shirt attesting to what I now truly feel: