When I mentioned to a friend that I was going to Hong Kong she exclaimed that there was nothing to see there except buildings. A family member echoed the same sentiments. I suppose if you are going to Hong Kong with the intention of glimpsing the remnants of an ancient civilization you might be sorely disappointed. Yet, there is no place on this earth that is devoid of history of some kind, and it becomes fairly obvious to any visitor, that from the colonial history of Hong Kong, rises a culture that is modern, fast paced and intense.
Hong Kong was once under China’s imperial rule and was conceded over to the British after the latter defeated China in the Opium war of 1942. In July 1997, following the completion of the 99 year lease, the British government handed over Hong Kong Island, Kowloon and the New Territories to China. According to the agreement between the two countries, Hong Kong would enjoy political freedom from Mainland China for a period of fifty years.
Hong Kong now finds itself reluctantly clubbed under the ‘SAR’ (Special Administrative Region) of China, but has visibly alienated itself from its communist watchdog in more ways than one. If you ask a Hong Kong resident what is going to happen after fifty years, the answer is usually noncommittal, vague and deliberately evasive.
For the time being though, Hong Kong remains a popular destination for tourists with the world’s largest collection of buildings over 500ft. Together with the ICC (International Commerce Centre) that stands at 118 stories, the Hong Kong Skyline is one of the most spectacular in the world.
General tips for first time travelers
- Before booking your flight tickets check online to see what are the events lined up for each month. Can be found here – http://www.hong-kong-traveller.com/hong-kong-festivals-and-events.html#.WMWLqG-GPIU
(For eg. this month they had the Tai Kok Sui Temple fair (I managed to get a bit of the parade) and the flower show (which I missed as it began on the day I left) and the Hong Kong Art Festival (which I missed due to lack of time.)
- To get the optimum experience out of your trip, it is best to go on a guided tour of the city on your first day and then explore out on your own on all the other days. That way you get a general idea about where everything is – from the MTR station stops, bus depots and taxi stands to the restaurants and touristy spots.
- Many times you will be taken aback by the rude behavior of the shop owners especially in street markets. One way of avoiding this is not to ask too many questions about a product if you’re not interested in eventually buying it. (I learnt to not expect the Thailand/Indonesia/Malaysia shopping experience here.)
- Not many people you meet on the streets will speak English. Learn a few phrases in Cantonese to make life easier for yourself, especially while shopping. Fortunately, there are English signs everywhere including at the MTR. We found the MTR staff not only spoke good English, they were helpful and considerate as well.
- Two things every tourist to Hong Kong should get on arrival (preferably at the airport.)
An Octopus Card which lets you travel multiple times through the MTR/bus/ferry and also use in restaurants like McDonalds (quite a number around) and in supermarkets. You can easily buy it at the airport or at the customer service desks at the station. Having this card will save you time and having to shell out exact change for trains/ferry and buses. More here – http://www.discoverhongkong.com/eng/plan-your-trip/traveller-info/transport/getting-around/octopus-card.jsp
A pre-paid sim (HK$ 88 will get you wifi on a 5 day pass. You have to keep google close if you don’t want to get lost on your first time visit.) On the plus side – all hotels, malls and select restaurants have free and fast wifi.
Even if you don’t have both of the above, you can still manage to have loads of fun (as I did) depending of course on your ability to make the most of all kinds of diverse situations. When you step out and run into the unexpected, magic always happens; and if it doesn’t, make your own magic. If you have friends around you, it’s a sure possibility:)
It is ideal to stay either in Kowloon or Hong Kong Island. There are high end hotels in both places but the majority of them are located in Hong Kong Island. Kowloon has many budget hotels along with the 5 star ones. Please read ample reviews from fellow travelers.
We stayed at the Kowloon Shangri la. It’s an excellent hotel that has smooth airport pick up and drop off. The location is on Mody Road, Tsim Shai Tsui Street East, which is the center for almost everything in Kowloon. We got an upgrade to full harbor view rooms while checking in. Nothing quite like waking up in the morning or going to bed after a tired day of sightseeing and having that beautiful view to enjoy.
How we got around
- MTR (Mass Transit Railway) was our number one choice for getting around. We asked the location of the stations at the hotel reception (and on the streets), bought tickets at the MTR customer service and simply followed the English signs to our destinations. The MTR network is color coded and connectivity is fast, efficient and hassle free.
- Bus – rode a double decker in Hong Kong Island. Takes longer as it stops at designated areas.
- Ferry – Star ferry operates between Kowloon and Hong Kong Island – 10 mins to cross Victoria Harbour.
- Taxis – are safe, cheap and metered (meter and driver ID is displayed on the dashboard). They can be hired at hotels, taxi stands and on the streets.
Red Taxis – operate throughout Hong Kong except Lantau Island. (First 2 kms basic rate = HK$22. Every 200 metres after 2 kms $1.60 is added.) We used the red taxi twice.
Green Taxis – operate in the New Territories (First 2 kms basic rate = HK$18.50)
Blue Taxis – operate on Lantau Island (First 2 kms basic rate = HK$17)
- Walking – March is the beginning of springtime so the weather was perfect for walking. So yeah we walked. A LOT. Overhead walkways connect major roads and shopping malls so crossing over is safe.
And finally, the Itinerary
Day 1 – Arrival/Explored Tsim Shai Sui/Dinner
We flew Qatar Airways from Oman to Hong Kong with a brief stopover in Doha. We reached the Hong Kong International airport around 5.30 pm and were transported by the hotel staff to the Kowloon Shangrila Hotel without any hassle. After freshening up, we explored the area around Tsim Shai Tsui street. The area has a great number of restaurants and after a bit of exploring, we zeroed in on the ‘The Dog House.’ It was a good choice (Review posted on Tripadvisor.)
In case your hotel does not provide transport, you can take the Airport Express MTR service. It operates on 5 stops including Kowloon and Hong Kong Island. Also has promotional offers like discounts for group tickets. Check here – http://www.mtr.com.hk/en/customer/tickets/promotions_4persons.html
Day 2 – Full day tour of Ocean Park
Went for an early morning walk along the Harbor and got a few pictures of the Hong Kong sunrise. Returned to the hotel for an extravagant breakfast spread (Haagen dazs ice cream no less) and set off with my friends on our full day trip to Ocean Park, a marine theme park on the south of Hong Kong Island. (12 mins By MTR: Take the Tsuen wan line from Tsim Sha Tsui East station (on Mody Road) to Admiralty station. From Admiralty take the South Island Line directly to the MTR Ocean Park Station Exit B.)
Ocean Park has two areas – the Waterfront and the Summit and there is lot’s to do in both areas depending on your interest. Get a map of the park (in English) and then pick and choose.
Cable cars or the Ocean Express Tram can take you from the waterfront to the summit and back. The views are worth capturing so go at least one way by cable car.
We checked out the Shark Mystic, Polar Adventure, the Rainforest, Aqua City, Asian Animals and some of the brave ones tried a couple of hair raising rides too. It was a day well spent. One day ticket cost = HK$ 450 (pre-booked tickets are discounted.)
Day 3 – Rosary Church/Wong Tai Sin Temple/Bauhinia Dinner Cruise
After breakfast we went to the Rosary Church for mass as it was just a 10 minute walk from our hotel.
Then we took the MTR to the Wong Tai Sin Temple, which is home to three religions – Buddism, Taoism and Confucianism.
Later I learnt that this temple is famous for its belief that ‘every wish made on its premises comes true’ which is probably why it was so crowded. If I had that sim card, google would have also told me there was a beautiful garden of wishes and a waterfall at the back of the temple.
The courtyard of this temple has impressive bronze statues that depict the twelve signs of the Chinese zodiac, and a golden statue of Yue Lao the Chinese God of marriage.
Amidst the crowds of tourists and local visitors, we found a great number of zealous believers offering prayers and incense at the inner shrine. An extremely colorful and must visit place, this is as local as it gets.
We returned back by MTR to Mong Kok street and managed to witness the street parade from the annual Tai Kok Tsui Temple Fair. Later we did a bit of browsing and buying at the Ladies Market.
That evening we went on the Bauhinia dinner cruise. The Bauhinia is an old boat with outdated décor. If it wasn’t for the lively band that belted out some pretty popular numbers, it would have a boring affair indeed. The Symphony light show consists of a few laser lights flashing on and off over the buildings.
The Hong Kong skyline is beautiful enough as it is and the sparse light show did nothing to enhance its beauty. Since it is held every evening at 8 pm, a sensible alternative would be to watch it from the harbor and then proceed to have dinner at any restaurant of your choice (In other words you will save a lot of money by skipping this cruise.) (Review posted on Tripadvisor.)
Day 4 – Full Day trip to Lantau Island
The tour guide picked us up from the hotel for our day tour to Lantau Island which covered the Tai O Fishing Village that has boat houses on stilts, the Po Lin Monastery with the grand hall of the ten thousand Buddhas (photography is not permitted inside) and of course the famous Giant Buddha or Tian Tan Buddha sitting 34 meters high opposite the monastery. 260 steps lead to the top.
Lunch was at the vegetarian restaurant where the food was different but pretty good. If you are keen on hiking the Wisdom path and the Heart Sutra, then I suggest you go here on your own without a tour guide as you can explore at your own pace without having to rush back. It takes about 30 mins to walk from the base of the Giant Buddha and back.
On the way back, we got dropped off at the Harbour City Shopping Mall and explored the shopping in and around this area, including the Temple Street Night Market.
Day 5 – Full Day trip to Hong Kong Island (Aberdeen Village/Jewelryfactory visit/Stanley Market/Victoria Peak)
We had a tour bus pick us up from the hotel and take us to Aberdeen village on Hong Kong Island. At the fishing village we got on a Sampan boat that was manned by a tiny old woman who took us around the harbor for about 15 minutes.
The Aberdeen harbor is a hub of fishing boats, trawlers, ferries and floating restaurants, the biggest of which is aptly called the ‘Jumbo.’ The seafood market is adjacent to the pier.
The Dynasty Jewelry Factory at Aberdeen was next on the list and it all started innocuously enough with a brief history lesson on the power of gemstones. Though we went in with the intention of not buying anything, that was not how it ended when we walked out. Did the jades and the diamonds put a spell on us? Still working that one out.
Our next stop was the Stanley market which we discovered had much better merchandise than the ladies market and the temple street night market in Kowloon. Bargaining here is accepted but only to a certain extent.
Our tour guide then took us to the top of the Victoria Peak and gave us a measly 45 minutes to report back to the bus. Annoyed with the constant ‘tick tock’ warnings, we parted ways with her and opted to return on our own. It was a wise choice as we got to explore Victoria Peak to the maximum.
With an elevation of 1811 ft, the peak easily has the best view of Hong Kong Island and the waterfront. It also has the most expensive property market prices in the world and some very wealthy people have their homes in this area. Access to the peak tower and the restaurants/shops up to the fourth floor is free but it costs HK$ 48 to go up one more floor to the open sky terrace and observation deck.
The panoramic view from this deck however is simply spectacular and not to be missed. The peak also has many restaurants, curio chops and Madam Tussauds (Entrance fee: HK$225)
We took the peak tram back to the bottom of the peak and hailed a taxi back to Stanley market so we could continue our shopping. YES, we liked the Stanley market enough to come back:) The market closes at 6 pm. From here we boarded a double decker bus to Central and then took the MTR from there to Kowloon.
So that was the end of our 5 day tour of Hong Kong. As you can see we packed in quite a bit of activities into each day and for first time visitors, I think we did a pretty good job getting around on the local transport. Regrettably due to lack of time, we were not able to explore Hong Kong Island’s famous party spots – the Lan Kwai Fong street and the Hollywood style SoHo street. Perhaps this is reason enough to make a second trip to Hong Kong again some day:)
On Day 6 we traveled onward to Macau (Travelogue coming up soon.)
- The Avenue of Stars on the Victoria Harbor waterfront is closed for renovation and will open only in late 2018.
- On Lantau Island, the cable car with the 360 degree view is closed until June 2017.