If there’s ever a travel destination I had the wrong idea about, it’s Hong Kong. I expected a typical South East Asian glass and chrome city with more plastic, less character and even less to see and do. And I couldn’t have been further from the truth. There’s a beautiful balance of the old and the new when it comes to experiencing Hong Kong, and no matter what you do, the local culture is sure to shine through! While I will be writing about many of these experiences in detail, I’ve just had a friend ask me for recommendations for an upcoming trip, and I thought I’d list them out for you as well!
If there ever was a traveller’s food, it’s the Dim Sum. Originating in the ancient teahouses on the old Silk Route, the tradition of yum cha has long prevailed in Hong Kong. Ranging from a quiet, reflective respite to a lively family gathering, from morning refreshments for the elders to a quick take-away for young professionals and students, the Dim Sum is now the quintessential modern Cantonese dish. For a name that literally means “touch your heart”, these mostly steamed Chinese buns have never really appealed to me. Until I went to Hong Kong. Right from the first Shanghainese Soup Dumpling I sampled at the Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong’s Michelin-starred Man Wah, I was a convert. Over the next few days, in restaurants across Hong Kong, I sampled a teeny tiny portion of a dish that runs into a variety of hundreds.
Hong Kong brings to mind well-heeled, impeccably dressed Asians swishing across the city. And that’s precisely what I saw, whether it was at the airport as I stepped off my Cathay Pacific flight or on the street outside the Mandarin Oriental where I was staying. Designer stores lined the streets before the Landmark shopping centre in Central where I was staying, while the staggering Harbour City mall (It seems almost just to call it a city) took away a good part of an entire day. From Lane Crawford to some of my favourite international brands, the shops here were inviting, well stocked and definitely had some of the most helpful and genuine sales staff I’ve encountered on my travels. There’s a whole lot of discount bargains to be had in the more local stores, and some incredibly creative offerings from local designers as we discovered in the hub of PMQ.
3. Junk Boats
Even though I had a fantastic view of Victoria Harbour from my hotel room at the Mandarin Oriental (binoculars in the room et al), I was certainly looking forward to the waterfront perspective. Bobbing up and down in the harbour, I spotted these beautiful red sailed boats that I couldn’t wait to board. The classic “junk” boat refers to the wooden sailboats that were used by traders arriving into the harbour during the Han dynasty. AquaLuna, operates a beautiful 45 minute cruise that sets out from the Tsim Sha Tsui across to Central. The stunning and quintessential view of Hong Kong’s skyscrapers is best seen after dark, when the neon lights on the buildings vie with one another for your camera’s attention. Accompanied by a glass of wine, it’s among my favourite sundowners in the city.
4. The Peak
There’s another quintessential view of Hong Kong’s skyscrapers that can’t be missed. The hill was a spot I’d read a fair bit about in Paul Theroux’s Kownloon Tong. It was where all the rich expats of colonial Hong Kong lived, and looked down on the city from their pretty perch. A rather steep tram operates the line, taking you all the way to the top, which after an exhilarating ride, is most rewarding. Located above a small shopping centre, this lookout platform offers sweeping views of the picture-postcard Hong Kong towers ascending the various ground levels. Watch out for the weather and visibility though, these sweeping views aren’t guaranteed to be clear.
5. Tai Chi
I’d long heard about Tai Chi in the park being a wonderfully relaxing morning activity to watch or even partake of while in Hong Kong. What I experienced though, was an entirely different story. There’s several different schools of Tai Chi, and the one I decided to learn in a quick morning class was closer to the martial arts. Quite the exhausting workout, my morning with Master Chow of the Chen Style Tai Chi Institute left me sweaty and rubber-kneed for the rest of the day. I now look at the calm quiet oldies who seem to be gliding and swaying their limbs in slo-mo with a lot more respect. It’s a wonderful way to understand not only an ancient art, but gives a quick dive into understanding the way of life here too.
Tea time isn’t taken lightly here in Hong Kong. An essential part of Chinese culture since it was discovered by the Emperor Shennong in 2737 BC, it went on to cementing its position in Hong Kong especially as a British pastime in the colonial era. While I discovered contemporary trends having found their way into tea shops in Hong Kong, the respect this ritual garners remains unchanged. There’s so many different herbs and ingredients available in so many different forms. There’s also a right temperature and brewing time for each of these. Naturally, each of these teas are consumed for so many different reasons, from simply relaxing to stomach ailments and more. I had a wonderful time discovering some of them, from Rose Oolong to Ginseng at a tea shop in PMQ.
7. Lantau Island
Landing into Hong Kong airport, I caught the most wondrous early morning first glimpse of Lantau Island. With so much to do on this off-shoot, it should ideally be a couple of points on this list. For starters, I caught the cable car up to Ngong Ping village. A gut-wrenching journey in a glass bottom cabin, swaying ever so gently over hiking trails as we made our way up over lush slopes, into the clouds that capped the Po Lin Monastery. The beautifully serene monastery sits at the very end of the man-made village, has a picture perfect exterior in bright colours, serves up some reportedly delicious vegetarian fare from their kitchens and allows for a walk through a haze of larger than life size sticks of incense. And then there’s the giant Buddha that sits atop a long flight of stairs, a towering icon of the island that can be spotted from far far away.
I wouldn’t imagine a day at the races being something I do on a trip to a distant (or in this case, not so distant) land. But what awaited us at Shatin was unlike anything I’d experienced at the Mumbai Racecourse back home. A popular pastime that dates past the colonial heydays, watching and betting on the horse races is an exhilarating experience on its own. Coupled with the massive track, gigantic screens, incredibly hi-tech betting counters, media arenas, a beautiful bar with iPads and an impressive betting app, a museum, restaurants and gift shop all come together to create a fantastic day out (even if you end up losing $10 like I did).
9. Man Mo Temple
For all the gleaming glass and steel landscapes of Hong Kong that populate the internet, there’s a surprisingly rich cultural heritage that lies strewn across the island too. Among them, is the Man Mo Temple. Dedicated to the Gods of the War and Literature, it is a reminder of the priorities of Imperial China. Students would flock here for blessings before embarking on their careers, and even today, touching the quill of the statue is believed to bring luck. There’s several other rituals, with similar significance, which if you stay a while, you will be sure to witness locals performing. Kau Cim sticks, Jiaobei blocks and more are a fascinating look into the various tools they use to tell fortunes. The incense laden atmosphere, the hanging lanterns, the coils suspended from the ceiling all come together to create a beautiful experience, one that reminded me of the Taoist temples I stumbled upon in our Chinatown Walk in Kuala Lumpur.
Unlike Bangkok’s Khan San road filled with cheap buckets of alcohol and stir-crazy backpackers, the nightlife in even the most budget areas of Hong Kong is far more swish. There’s a dress code, there’s expats, there’s live music, there’s innovative cocktails and it’s all open till the wee hours. Definitely something to experience as I realised on my quick night out in Lan Kwai Fong or LKF as it’s more commonly known.
This post was made possible by Cathay Pacific and Mandarin Oriental. Opinions as always, are our own.