Sunday, August 29, 2010

Bright Lights, Big City! Hong Kong, China


Destination:  Hong Kong, China

Number of Days Spent:  5 days 

Where we stayed:  New Garden (270HK/about $27).  Located inside the infamous Chungking Mansions – a fancy name for a not so fancy place.  There are dozens of hostels/hotels in the complex all competing for world’s smallest hotel room.  The bathroom is smaller than your average closet and the room is only slightly bigger than a full size bed.  If you want cheap in Hong Kong, this is the place, but if you can afford to move up to the $50+ bracket, there are much better places to be had.  We recommend to pick something in the third set of elevators – the lines for the first two reached ridiculous status a couple of times we walked in, but our elevator rarely had a line of more than a couple of people.  Tom’s Guesthouse, top floor of the 3rd elevator, was recommended by a fellow traveler and looked like a decent (but still ridiculously small) option however they do not take late arrivals.


Best restaurant:  In a World Class city like Hong Kong, there are no shortages of excellent dining choices.  From Chinese to Vietnamese, Steak and Burgers to Pasta and Fish and Chips nearly every cuisine can be found.

We had an excellent Sichuan Style meal at Mum Chao’s on the third floor above all the crazy bar noise below, this little restaurant felt more like eating in someone’s home than a restaurant.


While Food Safety nuts have pretty much ruined the street food scene in the city, there are a few places were Al Fresco dining can be had.  The ‘Spicy Crab’ corner near the night market is popular and deservedly so – cheap and delicious, even if it’s a little messy.  They also do several other seafood dishes that require far less work and are equally tasty.

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Of course the standard Chinese everything-goes-on-a-stick makes random appearances all over town and makes for a quick snack.


The quintessential food experience in Hong Kong however is Dim Sum.  We were fortunate enough to be taken out to a nice Dim Sum Meal at Man Ho, at the Marriott compliments of Patrick – some of the best food ever…but no where near our travel budget.  Maxim’s City Hall gets good reviews but make sure you go for lunch – there is no Dim Sum at night.

Best of:  Delicious variety of food everywhere, ultra clean and modern city, most attractions are free

Worst of:   Expensive city for food and lodging, “too” clean standards taking away street stalls, Chunking Mansions a bit of a dive place

Most Memorable:  The city lights of Hong Kong are stunning, a walk along the waterfront at dark is a must in our opinion!

Useful Tip:  The city’s Octopus card is an excellent time saver, even if your trip is a short one.  Not only can the card be used on all public transport options, but it can also be used at a lot of fast food and convenience stores.  Anything left over can be refunded minus the less than $1 deposit.  Also check out and then click on the Cultural Kaleidoscope for a list of free or small fee activities put on by the Hong Kong Tourism Bureau.   These classes are well organized and the couple we did were very informative.  Also, it’s easy to get your Chinese visa in Hong Kong, many firms offer next day service (for a premium) and you don’t even have to step foot in the embassy.  A huge time saver.  Email us for the name of the travel service in Chunking Mansions that handles the visas without any hassle at all. 

Welcome to China….well sort of.  Yes Hong Kong is part of China but not in the sense that New York is a part of America or London is to England.  They have their own border formalities separate from the Mainland.  They have their own dialect of language.  The largest differences are economically and socially.  Under the “One country, two systems” policy – Hong Kong enjoys a great deal more freedom than their mainland counterparts.  Websites like blogger and Facebook are not blocked and the general air of freedom is more pervasive here.  While it was a British colony for over 100 years and English is more widely spoken here than anywhere else in China, don’t expect to see Fish and Chips or Pubs on every corner – this is China after all.

Needing to get a visa for Mainland China, Hong Kong makes the perfect first stop into the Chinese Kingdom.  After getting settled in we hit the streets, Octopus Cards in hand.  The Public Transport is well connected and written in English making it a breeze to get anywhere in the city.   

One cannot sum up Hong Kong in a word.  Traditional tea houses rub elbows with towering financial institutions. Local medicinal shops still blend herbs and natural remedies as they have for centuries while across the Harbor another Prada or Gucci goes up as part of yet another massive upscale shopping center. 

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Since we were in the area we had to ride the World’s longest escalator – the Mid-level escalator.  With Hong Kong Islands topography being more of less the slope of a hill, these series of escalators transport folks from their homes along the side of the hill to the skyscraper businesses at the base.  To ride the entire length takes over 30 minutes, we took the first couple and called it good – it is after all, just an escalator.


Hong Kong is a major player in Global Finances as well.  Ranking with the likes of New York, Tokyo and London, Hong Kong is filled with suits as well.

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Traditionally Birds and Fish are the pets of choice for Hong Kongers.  Considered good luck, the always superstitious Chinese keep birds and fish in their homes to ward off the evil spirits, and I suppose to a degree – good company.


Tea houses traditionally were the places where Hong Kongers would congregate, catch up on the news, gossip with friends and play games of Mahjong and Chess.  Today, they are somewhat of a dying breed but don’t let that fool you – they are serious about their tea.  We attended one of the free classes through the HKTB where the master tea maker passionately talked about the types of tea, how long to steep each one, etc.  Prices range anywhere from just a couple of dollars to hundreds for a gram.

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Something of a rarity for the mainland, Hong Kong almost seems to go overboard on trying to provide you with a sterile environment.  Signs abound everywhere, but to be honest – I didn’t see that much cleaning going on for the amount they claim on their signs.  I equate it to the sign on the door in the truck stop bathroom – sure there’s a sign and some Joe signed it a couple of times over the past couple of weeks…but does it look clean?!?  At least the intentions are there which is more than I can say for the rest of China.

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It’s not all about fancy tea, business suits and ultra clean environs.  There are millions of everyday Chinese that enjoy daily trips to the local markets.  Blessed with the ocean lapping on it’s shores and a semi-tropical climate, Hong Kong enjoys an abundance of fresh seafood and produce.  When we say fresh we mean fresh – nearly all seafood is sold live with the water aerated and changed frequently.  Sure the displays have little to be desired, but you know it’s fresh when they are crawling all over one another.

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If your not in the mood for something fresh, you don’t have to walk long before you find something of the dried variety.  If it crawls, swims or flies it can be dried and sold for medicinal purposes or simply as a snack.  Who needs popcorn when dried bats on a stick are available?

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Continuing on our segregated shopping tour of Hong Kong, we headed out to the Flower Street.  Two full blocks lined with decadent Orchids, fresh cut flowers and other ornamental shrubbery.  Ok, so there wasn’t that many shrubs, I just like saying ‘Shrubbery.’

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Normally I see caged birds and wonder what’s the point.  The squawk loudly at all times, stink and frankly I just think birds need be allowed to fly!  And then I see these little old men and women sitting in the Bird Park; so complacent and content with their lot in life.  They make a living selling sometimes just a one bird in a day.  There must be some magic in between those beaks after all.   

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The cities not all about shopping and eating however.  One little known fact is that Hong Kong has lots of green space. 

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Dominating and Iconic, Victoria Peak looms over the entire main island soaring even higher than the highest skyscrapers – man has a ways to go before conquering nature.  Half the fun is getting there.  The tram travels in a near vertical position, clicking and clacking up to the base of the summit.  The views are truly stunning.  There is a reason why the real estate on this hill is ridiculously expensive.  The greatest challenge of Victoria Peak is finding a clear day.  All those buildings below and the natural climate of the area are not conducive to bright and sunny days.  Of the 6 days we spent here, we say the direct sun just a couple of times for minutes.

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No matter about the sun – the real highlight of Hong Kong’s skyline happens at night.  Billed as the World’s largest outdoor Laser Light Show – the Symphony of Lights is shown nightly along the harbor.  High atop many of the numerous skyscrapers are laser lights.  Accompanied with music, they dance and gyrate around for about half an hour.  Get there early for a good spot as the entire walkway gets filled.  For a closer look, the HKTB also runs a boat, but we thought the view from the shore was nice enough. 


One could argue that the city lights are even more beautiful without all the flashing and gyrating laser lights.  On a calm night in the harbor, when the water is calm and clear – the reflection is magical.



After spending nearly a week here, we had no choice but to add Hong Kong to our list of favorites, and to the slightly more elevated list – we could live here.  It’s collection of art, shopping, culture and food can keep even the pickiest of people busy for their stay.

Visas in hand and an itch to drop a few Hong Kong Dollars in a machine – we head across the Harbor to the other ‘one country, two systems’ city/state of Macau!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Our last days in India: Trivandrum & Kovalam, India

Destination:  Trivandrum one day, Kovalam one day

Number of days spent:  2 

Where we stayed:  Trivandrum – Greenland lodge (495RP/$11; just behind the bus station) – mark this down as one of the weirdest places we stayed.  Your payment was for 24 hours – so checking in at 8pm allowed you to stay in the room until 8pm the following night.  They required two nights deposit – unheard of anywhere in the world.  But the best part was the list of ‘rules’.  “Don’t wash your clothes in the room”  followed by, “Hotel will not be responsible for clothes damaged by hanging wet clothes on curtains.”  “Power Outlets are for charging mobile phones only”…umm sure.  Kovalam – Jeevan Ayurvedic Beach Resort (1200RP/$26).  We wanted a little “affordable” luxury for our last night in India so we moved to the beach and checked into a hotel with a pool.  Of course the clouds rolled in the moment we got checked in, but we still hopped in the pool anyways.

Best Restaurant:  The branch of the Indian Coffee House by the bus/train station is set in a tower.  The food is ehh, but the seating is set on a spiraling ramp that continues around and round for four floors.    

Best of:  Great sunset photos, our last days in India (by this point we were ready to get out of the heat, dirt, and craziness)

Worst of:  Looking back on my notes I wrote “Another crap day in India where nothing went right”

Most memorable:  We both wanted to leave India so bad by this point that our celebratory last night beer went down nice and smooth (shhhh, don’t tell anyone we had a beer).  But absence makes the heart grow fonder and we have since had a change of heart about India – we have learned to love to hate it so much that we want more of it.


Useful Tip:  Don’t bother staying in Trivandrum.  Even if you have an early morning flight (we did) you can still get there no problem from Kovalam and the atmosphere is much nicer (but Patnem in Goa is way nicer still). 

After getting off our relaxing boat cruise, nothing seemed to go right.  We had a difficult time booking our flight to Hong Kong through Air Asia with our credit card, tried to go through a travel agent – which the guy who booked our boat ‘helped’ set up (read:  commission).  We knew exactly how much it should be for the flight and after I noticed that the people at the agency were doing exactly the same thing as we did – same online website and everything we figured they would just charge us a small fee.  After coming back with a price that was nearly double we got up and walked out.  Spent the next two hours in an internet cafe where we finally got it to go through – Yeah!  A way out of this God-forsaken country!  Excited, we headed over to Blufia where we had had imagined one of those amazing milkshakes only to discover it closed.  We grabbed a not so great lunch elsewhere and caught the public bus to Trivandrum – where I had to sit on my backpack for the three hour drive and when the rain started in the heat the tin can of a bus pulled down the metal windows so we could all steam to death.

Trivandrum is a work-a-day town with a population hovering around 1 million.  Not really much to see or do here other than catch onward transport so the choices in hotels and restaurants are equally disappointing.  When arriving, the first place we checked out was full, couldn’t find the second so settled for the afore mentioned Greenland.  Once we got checked in, we headed out only to find a disappointing supper.  Like I said, “another crap day in India where nothing went right.”

The next morning, we decided that our last night in India should not be spent in a crummy hotel in the middle of another dirty big city.  With Kovalam just a few miles away we opted to head there.  Once considered a gem of a beach destination, Kovalam now wears the moniker as the most commercialized beach in India.  Perhaps it was the time of the year, or perhaps because of the tag the tourists have been staying away, but Kovalam wasn’t as busy as we expected it to be.  The infrastructure is there for plenty of holiday makers but what we found was mostly domestic tourists. 




The best part about Indian beaches is that they all face west so spectacular sunsets are always a possibility.  Our last moments in India were spent sipping one last beer and toasting to the end of days in the heat, dirt and craziness that is India.  Next stop – Hong Kong, China!