Hong Kong revisited - Temples, food, bars and a daytrip to Macau
Following the weather dramas suffered in Copenhagen (see my previous hub: http://tonyabacab.hubpages.com/hub/A-Danish-Delight to get the idea), I was really looking forward to Hong Kong’s hot, humid, and sticky weather.
After bidding farewell to my family at LHR following our return from Denmark, I proceeded to the transit area, while they went to baggage collection and back home.
A couple of years ago I wrote my first review on Hong Kong. Back then, I was left mesmerised by its energy, the clash of East and West colliding in a frantic kaleidoscope of colour, senses, scents, and noises. After four trips, I still get the same feeling when I visit the place. I felt as if I was returning to visit an old friend. Something I was certainly looking forward to.
Once I completed the security formalities, I proceeded to the T5 satellite to board my eleven-hour flight to Honkers *. A flight not short of its fair share of drama.
It seemed I was about to spend eleven hours with a stuck-up little character who believed he was God's gift to humanity and had a divine right to be pleased and obeyed. Hardly endeared himself with me, let alone the cabin crew. It was the typical petulant, rude, arrogant attitude that really makes you want to throw him out of a window. Without opening it.
When we were told that departure was delayed because of some malfunction with the cargo containers, he started throwing his toys out of his pram, claiming he had a connection to somewhere in China, and it seemed like a very tight one as well. Well, hells bells! Shame we all cried! Under normal circumstances, I would in no way be happy about his predicament, but I did issue with the rude and petulant way he was directing his frustration at the cabin crew. Fortunately, the cabin crew dealt with his tantrums in a most polite but firm manner, which of course infuriated him even more. Man, I hadn’t even left London and I was already enjoying the show.
Eventually, the flight departed, journey went by without much dramas and the late take off only meant we arrived 30 minutes later than scheduled. Nevertheless, I could not contain a mischievous smirk when I saw our diva friend doing the headless chicken dance trying to get off the plane to make his connection. Ah! Life sometimes offers these small moments of bliss...
Anyway, enough digressing and back to the original subject of this review.
We finally arrived at around 14.30 into Chep Lap Kok airport. As usual, a large queue welcomed me at immigration, but despite that, it moved swiftly and by the time I arrived at baggage collection, my faithful wheelie bag was getting dizzy going round the conveyor belt.
Chep Lap Kok is classed amongst the top five airports in the world, and it’s not hard to see why. Arriving into its huge expansive space is a fresh and welcoming experience after a gruelling long-haul flight. Ok, immigration is not as fast as Singapore-Changi or Seoul-Incheon for example, but that apart, facilities are excellent; both arriving and departing.
For a three or four day trip, I would always recommend purchasing an Octopus card, and one that includes a return Airport Express ticket. For HKD300.00 (GB £25.00/€31.00/US $39.00) you get unlimited travel on the MTR (metro) for 72 hours and a return ticket on the Airport Express (up to a month after your arrival), irrespective of if you’re getting off at Kowloon or Hong Kong Island; great value if you ask me. And the beauty is if you return the card on departure at the airport, you get HKD50.00 refunded, so in effect you are actually paying HKD250.00.
Once I spent all of three minutes queuing and purchasing my Octopus card I walked straight to the Airport Express platform, which is within the arrival area after baggage collection. These trains are quite frequent, there is one every five minutes or so. The next one was at the platform within a minute or two after I got there.
Carriages are modern, fully air-conditioned, and comfortable. The ride from the airport to Hong Kong Station is approximately 25 minutes and calls at Tsing Yi and Kowloon en route.
Once we arrived at Hong Kong Station, I had two options to get to the hotel. Either take the long walk (some 10 minutes, if you don’t make the wrong turn) to Central station which is interconnected via a long walkway, all within the same structure and catch the MTR, or struggle with the staff’s little grasp of English to find the area where the complementary hotel shuttle busses stop.
Although my hotel offered such service, I thought I would take the MTR as after four previous visits I had already mastered the maze-like connection between Hong Kong Station and Central. In addition, Tin Hau station was just a stone throw from the hotel, and only five stops away.
Once I finally surfaced on Causeway Road, it finally slapped me on the face. 32° C of sticky, humid, and warm bliss! I was finally in Hong Kong; the welcome I had been yearning for.
*for information on the flight itself; you can see the review at http://tonyabacab.hubpages.com/hub/British-Airways-business-class-flight-review
I was booked to stay at the Metropark Causeway Bay hotel, and what a little gem it turned out to be!
Turn left from exit B at Tin Hau station to the corner, cross the wide Causeway road – be aware of the traffic light as it takes a lifetime to change – and walk towards Tung Lo Wan road where the hotel is located and there it is; The Metropark Hotel**.
A four star property, its rounded glassy figure reflecting the mid-afternoon sun stands imposingly among the other residential buildings that flank its sides awaited me.
The air-conditioned entrance was a refreshing welcome after the five minute walk from the MTR station under almost 80% humidity and 32˚ C. Walked up the escalator from the main entrance and arrived into the airy yet not too large reception area where a friendly young receptionist checked me in, immediately offering me a Harbour view room. Not one to take free unexpected upgrades at face value straight away, I requested to see the room first, in case I’d later discover the reason for the kind upgrade was a faulty mattress, a bottomless bath, or a wall-less room. The receptionist did warn me that it was on a smoking floor, but assured me the rooms are thoroughly ventilated once they are vacated.
After close inspection, and finding no faulty mattress, every wall in its rightful place, a solid floor under the shower, and just as crucially, no traces of cigarette smell in the room, I accepted the upgrade and in less than five minutes, my wheelie bag was reunited with yours truly.
For Hong Kong standards, the room was well sized, and very nicely appointed, but the winning point was the magnificent view over Hong Kong Island and Kowloon’s skyline.
Other than that, the rooftop pool and Jacuzzi are a great way to wind down at the end of a hot day. The service in general was friendly and courteous and the breakfast, although not included in my rate was still excellent value (around HKD110 if I remember correctly) and great quality and variety. After four trips, I finally found the ideal hotel. It will be definitely worth a repeat when I return to Hong Kong, providing of course, the rates don’t shoot up ridiculously after this positive review.
Friends, workshops to kill, nightlife to die for
After swiftly reorganising my belongings, I noticed the flashing light on my telephone. It was a message. My worst fears confirmed:
Dude, we are in room 301 and 312. Beers await us. Vlad & Jan read the message on the TV.
Vladimir and Jan were my counterparts from Moscow and Amsterdam. They had arrived that same morning and were already checked in and awaiting their partner in crime. Me.
I met these two guys the year before, when we attended the same workshop in Bangkok and Hong Kong and we immediately joined forces to find ways of surviving the wretched workshops without falling asleep or going mad with boredom.
Once showered and body realigned I called them and agreed to assemble at the hotel’s Vic Bar.
We immediately celebrated our reencounter with an ice-cold Tiger beer. It took us exactly a glass of beer to update our lives since we last saw almost a year ago. We decided to hit the road just to reacquaint ourselves with this fascinating city.
My plan was to go to one of PCCW outlets in Causeway Bay. PCCW is a mobile (cell phone) operator in Hong Kong and their pay-as-you-go allows free local calls to numbers within the same operator, ultra cheap calls to other networks and ridiculously cheap international calls to selected countries. All this for HKD68.00 (GB£5.50/US$8.60/€6.30), probably even better value than the Tigers at the Vic’s Bar; much better than roaming, if you are thinking of making many calls.
It didn’t take much to convince my colleagues. Now, we were all connected locally if we needed to split and keep in touch. That night we decided to paint the town red and what better than WanChai. The rest of the attendees had arrived by drips and drabs during the course of the day, but only the Aussie and Canadian counterparts decided to join us. Jan, an avid music fan, had done his bit of research, discovering this bar where live bands played from Wednesday to Saturday. We immediately agreed to his plan. Vlad, Jan, Ivona, Becky, and yours truly agreed that listening to a Chinese Southern Tribute Rock band was the best way to end our first night in Hong Kong.
So, at around ten or so about, these five westerners arrived at this particular bar on Lockhart Road. The exterior as most that ply this road was nothing spectacular. Apart from a board displaying its name, a name that for the life of Pete, I fail to remember, the façade was plain, with stained windows and polished beams around them. Entrance was free, and the ambience inside was heaving. We managed by sheer luck to secure a tall table with two stools. Like many bars in Hong Kong, they had a generous happy hour, from six pm to midnight.
We arrived just as the tribute band, Far Eastern Comfort started to perform their second set. Far Eastern Comfort was the Southern Rock tribute band and boy, did they tribute good!
Pieces included hits from 38 Special, Blackfoot, Lynryrd Skynyrd, Molly Hatchet amongst some of the songs I recognised. Fronted by a lanky, longhaired Chinese singer, they belted out song after song and if you had closed your eyes, you could swear you were in some kickin’, stompin’ joint in Jacksonville or thereabouts. What really impressed on me was their rendition of Molly Hatchet’s Flirtin’ with Disaster. Lanky, longhaired Chinese singer got the joint jumping with his gravelled voice and commanding attitude. The way he sang, I’m sure would have made the late Danny Joe Brown stomp his foots in gleeful approval. He definitely got us stompin’ for sure! And the band was watertight; a bunch of excellent musicians. Surreal in appearance but spectacular in performance.
But the comedy of the surreal didn’t end there. Next band to hit the stage was a bit more pop orientated.
First song up was a cover of Mika’s Love today, followed by Queen’s Radio Gaga. The singer was a cross between Boy George and Idi Amin, with campiness to match. He turned those songs as good as the original performers. There is definitely something about Hong Kong and imitations...
We stayed until Boy George Amin and company performed their last song of the set. We then headed off to our provisional residence at close to two am, knowing we had a now painful rise at six for an eight am start.
Despite the little sleep, I still managed to wake up fairly unscathed, despite the late night. Probably it helped the fact that I didn’t overdo it in the booze department. I have to admit though that the room’s bedding played a good part in my restful night.
The next test of fire for the hotel would be the breakfast. It passed with flying colours. The choices of Oriental, full Western and continental fare were outstanding.
A few hours later and boring workshop over, I was free to discover new hidden gems of this fast-paced city.
After a freshen-up at the hotel, the first thing on my ‘to do’ list was to ride on the ding-ding trams. Comprising the largest fleet of double-decker trams in the world, this service runs from West (Kennedy Town) to East (Shau Kei Wan) on Hong Kong Island.
These colourful trams are old, hot, noisy, but a great way to travel if you are prepared to withstand the sweltering heat and share sometimes cramped conditions with other commuters. The fare is paid on disembarkation through the front door next to the driver (you enter through the back – of the tram, that is...). The fare is HKD2.30 for adults and HKD1.20 for children 3 to 12 years old. Please be aware you have to pay with exact fare, no change is given.
My plan was to get off at Central Star Ferry Pier at Central to board a Star Ferry to get to Kowloon on the other side of Victoria Harbour. Having done this routine on every previous visit, it still gave me great excitement to do it all over again. No visit to Hong Kong is complete unless you ride on a Ding-Ding or cross the Harbour on a Star Ferry.
The ferry took me to the other side of the Harbour in the five to seven minutes it takes to make the crossing. During this crossing, one can only marvel at the sheer sight of this exciting metropolis. To one side you see the impressive skyline of Hong Kong Island with the Peak guarding the line of impressive skyscrapers that line the silhouette of this side of the city.
To the other side the approaching and just as impressive skyline of the more localised and possibly traditional Kowloon. Now graced by the 484 m ICC Tower; Hong Kong’s tallest building, Kowloon’s skyline is just as impressive as Hong Kong Island’s.
On this occasion, I slowly walked through Harbour City Mall, and then strolled lazily across Tsim Sha Tsui’s Avenue of Star’s promenade to take in the views. It’s one of my favourite views and one that never ceases to amaze me.
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Food, sights and more bands
Later that evening, I met up with one of my colleagues for dinner at Ramen; a Japanese restaurant chain in Hong Kong that specialises in, well, ramen. We were supposed to meet up in Central and go to one of their outlets near by.
It was my first taste of this typical Japanese dish and I immediately got hooked! My choice was an unpronounceable (by Western standards of course) concoction of seafood fare as a main, with spicy dumplings as starter. Having opted for the special menu for two we paid a total HKD160 and that included soft drinks as well. Of course, the meal was washed down with green jasmine tea, which is included anyway.
Back at the hotel, and it was into Vic’s Bar to wind down the night with their happy hour, to justify the ridiculously inflated price of the booze, HKD55.00. Well, I suppose it is a hotel after all, and they are not known for their reasonable pricing now when it comes to food and booze, are they.
Nevertheless, the atmosphere was pleasant, there was a decent gathering, the service was friendly, and there was a resident band. Belting out Abba, Bee Gees, and Barbara Streisand hits amongst others left, right, and centre, they weren’t, I must admit, as hot and vibrant as the bands we saw last night at the bar which name I am still unable to remember – they didn’t even have a name, as far as I can remember. Nevertheless, their two singers that alternated each set were incredibly lovely, which might explain why the male contingency of five in our group inexplicably stayed on listening (more or less) to the band and contributing to the bar’s finance with our custom. Men... even so, during their break, both the two singers as well as their band mates – it seemed a family of Filipino musicians – met the punters and took the time to chat and mingle.
On this particular trip, I ignored The Peak as I had already gone up on my previous three trips and decided I had seen enough of Hong Kong from the top.
During my free time after the workshop, apart from trying out different food outlets and indulging in every possible excuse to savour SE Asia’s rich and diverse cuisine, I did my fair share of sightseeing.
Mongkok night market, with its cacophony of noise, stalls, wares, smells was one of those places where I practiced my haggling skills on a Lego set for my son bringing it down from HKD50 to HKD40! After spending the best part of an hour going through the different stalls and making up my mind was I was not going to buy, I did, however make up my mind where I was going to eat. With much difficulty, I must say. We decided on a very basic looking Thai restaurant at the side of the market where a bowl of sticky rice, a fierce green curry prawns washed down with a celestial coconut milk shake (actually it was so good I ended up drinking three of them!) set me aside HKD68.
In complete contrast with Mongkok, next free afternoon, I visited Po Lin Monastery on Lantau Island. Perched on Ngong Ping plateau, this monastery was founded in 1906. Its current name dates from 1924 and the main temple houses three bronze statues of the Buddha – representing his past, present and future lives – as well as many Buddhist scriptures.
The giant Buddha statue (Tian Tan Buddha) which is an extension of the monastery was completed in 1993. From the top viewing area at the base of the statue, you can see out into the sea and cover a bird’s eye view of great parts of Lantau Island.
For a glimpse of Buddhism philosophy as well as souvenirs, there is Ngong Ping 360, which comprises Ngong Ping Village and is connected by an impressive and breathtaking cable car ride to Tung Chung, which is linked to central Hong Kong via the MTR rail line. This was a peaceful, soothing, and humbling experience, which I would not hesitate to recommend to anyone visiting Hong Kong.
On my final day, having an early flight back to London next morning, I decided to stretch my frontiers and add another visa stamp to my passport.
I rose early and made my way – this time on the quicker MTR – to Shun Tak Centre in Sheung Wan, where the ferry terminal is located.
Bought my ticket (HKD151) at the Turbojet ticket counter and waited for the next service. These run every 30 minutes and the journey takes approximately one hour. Bar the baggage restrictions one gets at airports before boarding an aircraft, every other aspect of the trip is similar to that of an airport; passport control, duty free, seat allocation before boarding, etc.
These comfortable services are operated by catamarans or jetfoils. As I mentioned, the trip takes about an hour and again the arriving process is like that of an airport. It took us 35 minutes to clear immigration, but I finally got my additional visa stamp on my passport. Part one of this side trip successfully completed.
Macau, together with Hong Kong is the other SAR (Special Administrative Region) of the People’s Republic of China. This ex-Portuguese colony is the oldest colonial outpost of Europe, and remained so until 1999 when China took over sovereignty under the “one country, two systems” policy like it has with Hong Kong.
So, how can one, who is not big on gambling, spend just a few hours in Macau? Easy, visit its casinos.
From the Macau Ferry Terminal, it is possible to catch any of the free hotel shuttles that collect passengers, whether they are guests or not.
So that is basically what I did. My first stop was the Sands hotel & Casino. After alighting from the air-conditioned coach, I perused around the magnificent facilities of the hotel, including its casinos. Well, I’ve never been in Las Vegas, but I imagine this is what Las Vegas – inside the casinos – must look like. From there, after sightseeing the expansive casino where I was not planning to leave a single petaca – that is the local currency, by the way, pegged to the HK Dollar – I left the hotel and crossed the Avda. Dr Sun Yat-Sen and went into the Macau’s Fisherman’s Wharf. This is Macau’s first theme park, which consists of stores, restaurants built in the style of many famous world seaports as well as a casino and a hotel.
After lunch at a small friendly looking restaurant that offered a delicious fusion of Portuguese and Cantonese cuisine, I returned to the Sands hotel to catch the next shuttle back to the ferry terminal.
Not that I had any intention to return to Hong Kong just yet, but with the sweltering heat and the great distances between hotels meant it made more sense to return to the terminal and grab another shuttle to other hotels. My next stop would be the MGM/Mandarin Oriental Shuttle.
After a swift inspection at the impressive MGM, I decided to venture out and brave the heat. I took a walk along Avda. Dr Sun Yat-Sen towards the Kum Lan statue and ecumenical centre, then up the Alameda Dr Carlos D’Assumpcao into any side street to finally come out to Av. 24 de Junho, admiring on my way the L’arc hotel as well as walking around the oversized Wynn Macau hotel, a feat that took almost 15 minutes to complete.
After a few photo opportunities this amazing outpost offers – mainly its grand and impressive casino/hotel complexes, the Macau Tower, and other lesser but just as interesting sights, I thought I had seen enough for one day. At least I had another stamp to grace the pages of my passport.
Caught the shuttle from the MGM hotel and once arrived at the ferry terminal went through the same process of buying my return ticket to Hong Kong.
Having done the same process but in reverse, I finally got to the hotel and decided to try out the rooftop pool for a refreshing splash and at the same time admire the spectacular view.
My two partners in crime had already left for their respective countries and quite honestly the ones that remained were not that great company. I bid farewell to my last night with a couple of Tiger beers at Vic’s bar, serenaded by the nameless band with the two lovely singers belting out hit after cheesy hit of Abba, Bee Gees and Barbara Streisand amongst others...
That was my last night in this exhilarating city. Next morning, too early for my own liking but with no other choice, I took the complementary shuttle to Central where I checked in my bag and took the Airport Express to the airport for my flight home, bidding farewell and a promise of a prompt return to visit this old friend. As on previous visits, Hong Kong greeted and hosted me in its usual brash, loud, and no nonsense manner and I embraced it shamelessly and wholeheartedly.
Again, this is a city I cannot seem to recommend enough. A more dramatic introduction to Asia than the likes of Singapore perhaps but with the right balance, to immediately fall for its charms.
And my stay at the Metropark hotel couldn’t have been any pleasanter.