Tripping Over Hong Kong
When planning a trip to Hong Kong, or as the native Chinese prefer to say…”HK”, one may be overwhelmed by all the delightful sights to see and all the dozens of things to do there. One may even find one self tripping over all the possibilities. For those of us who would prefer a more relaxed approach to navigating one of the busiest and most populated ports in the entire world, I have a few recommendations.
Before you go, it is wise to be aware of a few things. Flying to Hong Kong is a fairly easy enterprise. There are many direct flights to HK International Airport (HKG) from America daily and from around the world. To use as a point of reference, you can fly non-stop from Chicago O’hare during China’s busiest season, Chinese New Year for less than $700. Once you arrive, you need only a valid US passport. A visa is not needed unless you wish to go on to mainland China, which you can easily do via flight, ferry, or the Metra (MTR).
Obtaining a visa can be a bit arduous, but very doable, by visiting the Chinese Consulate in your area. It would be best to visit their website first to download and fill out the visa forms. Comparatively, as I say, visiting Hong Kong is a very low energy preperation.
Once there, you can easily exchange your currency for Hong Kong Dollars (HKD). I would suggest to do it at the HKG airport where you may expect about a 10 pct better return for your money than if you were to do it before you left home. Also at the airport, it is very simple to buy an Octopus Card which you will need to use for the MTR. When your travels are complete, you then can exchange back your Octopus Card at the MTR teller for a refund of unused rides. You should do this before exchanging your money back into your country’s currency.
There are thousands of possibilities when it comes to finding a room suited to your taste. I wanted to be fairly centrally located, so for my trip I chose to stay in Causeway Bay. There is a metra stop there and a few hotels are within walking distance. I lodged at one of the newer additions to the HK scene, a hotel named J. Plus by Yoo. It is an art deco affair which uses the tight Hong Kong skyline wisely, rising up between older, arched behemoths. The rooms also make use of tight spaces in a tasteful way. Another nice feature to the J. Plus was that they provided guests with a cell phone hooked up to local wi-fi and loaded with a useful GPS app and free texting. This eliminates the possibility of international roaming charges from your own carrier.
There is no restaurant in the hotel, but a classy continental breakfast is included for a paltry fee. The accommodations of a one bedroom suite can be had for around $150 US, which in Causeway Bay is very reasonable. And there are unlimited restaurants nearby: from local street-food stalls to 4 star restaurants with notable chefs. Delicious Kitchen and Dragon King Restaurant are two among quite a few. Seafood is of course notable in Hong Kong. But you should also search for your favorite Dim Sum spot…whether you find it in a greasy, dimly lit storefront or at a swanky eatery near The Times Square.
Many international flights arrive in Hong Kong late at night. But the very first thing you will notice is how midnight is as active with people as it is during midday. Like experiencing a visit to Las Vegas, people here don’t seem to sleep. The difference in Hong Kong is that most of the late night revelers and shoppers are locals or mainland Chinese. The streets are electric with their energy. And the energy is contagious…..
After checking in at the hotel around midnight and securing my gifted cell phone, my travelling companion and I walked the crowded thoroughfares and got some local food at an open-windowed restaurant. The weather of Hong Kong is tropical, so many local eateries have no doors or windows.
There are many must- do and must-see things in Hong Kong. Visiting Victoria Peak and taking The Star Ferry with their iconic green boats across the channel to Kowloon are among them. If you have the time and the inclination, these would be your obvious choices. But, if you want to feel less like a tourist and more like an adventurer…I have a couple of suggestions.
The first thing we did on our first full day in HK was to take the metra back toward Central Hong Kong Island where we changed trains to go north across the harbor to Kowloon. We disembarked at Yau MaTei and walked a block or two to Temple street. There, situated below the high rise apartment complexes and among the twisted, ancient banyan sat Tin Hau Temple….Goddess of the Sea. (In former times, before land reclamation projects, the sea lapped up to the temple steps)
The courtyard here is adorned with brightly- colored Chinese lanterns under which seekers pray upon knee or else prostrate in child posture. Soft music wafts from stereo speakers hidden in tree limbs. Golden carp and emerald coloured turtles rise to the surface of the moat-like pond to consume an insect or to receive a breath of air. Gargoyled dragons perch at the corners of the tiled temple roofs.
The temple’s ambiance may very well nudge you gently to your knees. The artist’s attention to detail in such a crowded corner of the planet, pauses your life momentarily….as you catch your own breath……..as a turtle …….whose only purpose is to come up for a taste of fresh air.
The afternoon was spent in the shops of Kowloon looking for an electronic learning device suited for my one-year-old grandson. There are many deals to be found in these shopping districts. After procuring a price from a vendor, I went to a hidden place to get some money from my money belt and went back to pay the gent gleefully.
The streets of the Kowloon neighborhood of Hong Kong are even more crowded than those of HK Island. We were accosted by a woman with ties to a massage parlor nearby and she lead us to a stairway. We went up to the 4th floor, passing open-doored apartments where people ate lunch and returned our glimpses. We were greeted at the parlor by happy faces and then were provided a one hour foot massage for approximately $15 apiece. My masseuse even worked on my shoulders for a while kneading my blades with her elbows.
After returning to Causeway Bay and a quick dinner at Din Tai Fung which makes legendary Taiwanese Dim Sum, we spent the evening at Happy Valley Racecourse. Happy Valley is about a 15 minute bus ride from The J. Plus. Horse races only occur once a week, on Wednesday nights…but it is a very popular local entertainment. We also found ourselves befriending other tourists in the grandstands, young folks from Denmark and other European confederacies.
The next day was spent journeying to Hong Kong’s more rural island, Lantau. This was the primary reason for my visit. For at the top of this mountainous isle, sits one of the world’s treasures, the Tian Tan Buddha. More commonly and superficially known as Big Buddha, this statue rises 112 feet from its Altar of Heaven and is home to one of the very few remaining relics of Gautama Buddha.
From Causeway bay we exited the MTR at Tung Chung Station. (There is a Starbucks here and this might be a useful recommendation, for the Ngong Ping cable car ride to Lantau Island hosts a lengthy queue and a refreshment while standing in line may be advisable.) In securing our cable car, we upgraded to a glass bottomed gondola. This was so neat because the cars rise up above the cobalt seas of Hong Kong Harbor and into the verdant inclines of Lantau. Far below the windowed floor of our gondola, we could spy a marked footpath in the forests, a path for those seeking merit by climbing the steep mountain all the way to Buddha’s shrine in the sky. All this green scenery floats below your feet. The gondola ride is a Sagittarian experience, 25 minutes in time.
Upon exiting the cable car you enter a village with storefronts and there wander cattle, tourists and monks alike. The monks live in the nearby, Po-Lin Monastery. The monastery is best viewed from above the forest after climbing the 268 steps to The Buddha. But before the climb, I suggest a visit to the devotional area and light some incense or make a floral offering. For to really get into the proper frame of harmony, it is always best to set a devotion. Bhakti yoga.
The steps leading to the Buddha, who is enshrined on a lotus, may seem daunting. But the energy of the other pilgrims and the scenery along the way may propel you to new heights. Near the top you will encounter six bronze statues, The Offerings of The Six Devas: flowers, incense, a lamp…ointment, fruit, and music. These, in turn, symbolize the six qualities for enlightenment: generosity, morality…patience, zeal, meditation….and wisdom.
Inside the shrine, winding your way to its zenith, you will follow drawings of the stages of Buddha’s life. Then you will come to a roped off area ….where his relics lay entombed.
After such a pilgrimage, one might even feel a bit closer to one’s own enlightenment.
Outside once again, the air seems mystical and the Sun shines ever brightly. There is a walkway adorned with stone vases. The mountains form a backdrop to the veil which separates the real from the unreal. A veil which dimly cloaks what is important, from that which is not important…….self from maya.
There is a wonderful vegetarian restaurant near the bottom of the staircase, across from the incensed arena. We ate under the trees of the picnic area. The sustenance was inexpensive, but tasted exquisite. I do believe our senses were heightened by our encounter with the Love and detail poured into the building of this sacred place.
We then walked to a bus depot on the other side of the mountain. Rather than take the cable car back to HK Island, we opted for a bus ride which featured a stop at Tai O Fishing Village. This is not an incidental or even anti-climactic journey. After a jaunting, but mercifully short- lived drive, we entered the enchanting village of Tai O. It is one of the very few places in Hong Kong that will remind you of those ancient Chinese communities which you may have seen in textbooks from your school days. There is a bridge over the river there, where on one side you can see the vastness of the South China Sea and her golden red sunset. And on the inward side, the river winds slowly through the stilted houses and shops of the village. Fisherman have boats bobbing below the bridge. For a fee they will take you inward through the village’s waters, or outward onto the sea.
We opted for both, for by this time we were no longer tourists…but something subtler. And after our sunset cruise, which we enjoyed as the only passengers aboard, we entered by foot the village at twilight. We saw the vendors’ live seafood tanks and took colorful pictures of the dried vegetables and sea creatures hanging above the individual kiosks. We bought baked goods….bread and cookies, whose flavour melted in your mouth.
And then we walked the inward, narrow alleys where we came upon open-windowed homes where the locals silently peered out to meet the gaze of our eyes. And we heard the quiet of a village settling down with the Sun. Every narrow street seemed to have its own Buddhist shrine. Each a quiet place, set between the house rows and adorned with tiles…. and each with Chinese characters written upon silken embroideries…..and each with the heart of the Artist. The Artist who calls us to His table, whether it be through a journey to a sacred place or the ultimate journey to the sacred place within.
We took the bus back to our MTR station. We went to our rooms in Causeway Bay. We went to sleep our sleep…..not knowing what the morrow would bring.
– John Syron, Writer and Traveler
Travel dates: October 12 – October 17, 2015