A friend and I just returned from exploring South East Asia in June and I wanted to provide a just-back-report. It’s a bit long, but I wanted to share the great things we found.
What turned out to be the best tip I found on TA was using the Airport Express Tourist Card. There is a counter as you exit baggage claim in the airport where you can purchase the cards using cash or credit card. For $300HK / person, you get a roundtrip ticket on the Airport Express train, shuttle service from the main stations to several of the big hotels in Kowloon and on HK Island, ability to use in-town check-in (more on that later) and 3 days of unlimited MTR (subway) usage. The airport train is very clean, leaves frequently (every 12 min) and is accessed right from the terminal. The trip is about 25 minutes to HK station. Note – you will need your Oyster card pass to enter and exit most stations. $50HK of the ticket is refundable if you return the card when you leave.http://www.mtr.com.hk/eng/airport_express/aepass_index.html ATMs were available in the airport.
We used both Bank of China and HSBC during our stay and there were no surcharges from the local bank.
We stayed at the Renaissance Harbor View, but I've posted that review separately.
Our first day, we decided to explore Hong Kong Island. After braving the MTR during morning rush hour, we headed for the financial district to check out some of the big buildings. The banks seemed to have the best architecture -- Bank of China, HSBC, and Standard Charter were all favorites.
Couple of tips on the MTR: Each station has multiple exits. If you know what you are trying to get to and take 2 minutes to look at the maps in the station, you can select the exit that gets you closest to your destination! Stations were clean and fairly easy to navigate once you understand that there are 2 levels where there are train departures in most stations. Knowing which line you want and which direction you are going (indicated by the end point station on that line) helps find the right train. MTR maps are everywhere, and the stops are overlaid on most of the tourist maps. Trains were well air-conditioned, which was great on a hot day – especially when the train was crowded.
Once the haze / fog started to lift a bit, we headed up to Victoria Peak on the tram – trams have been in use there since 1888. Once we got to the general area, signs to the Tram Terminal were easy to find and follow. The tram goes up an incline so steep, the buildings look like they are leaning at a 45 degree angle! The trip up was much quicker than expected. This lookout point sits on the mountain overlooking the entire city (396 meters above sea level). When we got to the top, there was so much to take in -- although with the clouds, you really could only see the HK Island side. While we had lunch, the clouds began to clear and the view got even better! We picked the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co for lunch --- definitely not Chinese, but best view for less than the cost of some of the other places. Lunch locations were a little pricey, but the views were worth it! Prices in shops are on par with the other tourist destinations. There are ATMs at the top and western style restrooms available, although a bit of a walk from the shops / restaurants down some very long hallways. A second walk out to the observation deck after lunch brought breathtaking views of the skyline. It's really odd to look down on the skyscrapers from the Peak when you know from walking around them that they are huge. Compared to home, it's very odd to be in a city where everything is built up rather than spreading out to find more space. It’s a wonderful place to view both the HK and Kowloon sides --- when you get a clear day, take advantage of it before the opportunity disappears! Photo tip for the Peak Terrace: There is an outside railing and another level right above it. If the photographer in your group stands at the top of the steps and shoots down at you next to the railing, it’s a much better angle to see you above the city skyline! We took the tram up (one way) and paid to visit the Peak Terrace as well - $37HK per person. It was worth it! Since you can buy a one way ticket, we did that and then took the local bus (#15C) down $9.80HK. You’ll want to have something close to exact change, or put money on your oyster card – drivers don’t give change. Views along the way were awesome – especially from the left side of the bus. It seems to be straight down in many places! Bus will take you all the way to the Star Ferry Pier, or you can hop off sooner if you’d like!http://www.thepeak.com.hk/en/home.asp
We ended the day with a cruise on Victoria Harbor to watch the Symphony of Lights using the Star Ferry. It’s about an hour cruise that hits all the main ferry piers. After dark, when the skyline is lit, about 30 of the buildings do a light/laser show each night (8PM). There were buildings on both sides of the harbor to watch and it was quite a sight. If you aren’t taking a cruise, plan to be on the Kowloon side as the buildings on the HK side are much more impressive to watch across the Harbor. Star Ferry (which you can also take during the day) does an evening cruise that puts you out on the water during the show. It’s also used by many of the locals to get back and forth across the harbor. One tip --- if you have a tendency to get seasick – plan ahead. Once the light show starts, the ferry basically stays in one place, and with the amount of traffic in the harbor, there’s lots of bouncing up and down. Being prepared with whatever seasickness cure you use will help you enjoy the lightshow without worrying. Also, it is very difficult to take photos due to movement of the boat and low light. If the photos are what you are after, you might want to find a viewing spot on the Kowloon Side of Victoria Harbor or in front of the Convention Center on the HK side... Once again, the big banks – Bank of China, HSBC, Standard Charter and AIG had some of the best lighting effects. Apparently the show is better on weekends, and sometimes they add fireworks --- but the regular show is good too. Show lasts about 10 minutes or so. The single ride night ticket is $100 HK and includes a concession ticket good for a beverage and a cake.http://www.starferry.com.hk/http://www.discoverhongkong.com/eng/attractions/kln-symphony-lights.html
The next day took us out to Lantau Island, near the airport where the tallest outdoor Buddha (Tian Tan Buddha) in China sits on a hill. As much as we enjoyed the destination, it was a day to enjoy the journey. After another trip on the MTR (to the Tung Chung station, exit B), we connected to the Ngong Ping 360 cable car (less than 5 min walk from the station). 25 minutes of soaring over the mountains (which were lined with hiking trails) in a glass bottom cable car were awesome! The views were great. Take a look at the pamphlet they hand you when you buy tickets – it gives you an idea of what you are seeing from many of the points along the ride such as Tung Chung Bay, the HK Airport, Lantau North County Park, and Ngong Ping Village, as well as the Buddha. Make sure the windows in your car are open, as that will provide better “air-conditioning”. We explored the village, and after hiking the 250+ steps up to the Buddha, we enjoyed a wonderfully authentic Chinese lunch at Ngong Ping Garden Restaurant. Why is it that German beer (Carlsburg) is cheaper in Hong Kong than Chinese beer? It turned out to be a great place to people watch. Staff was friendly and made good menu suggestions – although the menu has lots of photos to help as well. We spent about $250HK (~$32 US) for 2 entrees, 2 beers and 2 sodas including service charge and tip. They also brought a traditional hot tea after the meal. You can visit the museum inside the base of the Buddha for the cost of a “meal ticket”. For $23 HK/person, you get to enter the museum (which has AC), explore a bit, and then a drink and ice cream are included. Not a must, but on a hot day, it’s a nice break after the hike up. Also, this was the only place in Hong Kong that we pulled out our bug spray. There were lots of buzzing things in the area around the Buddha and some of them did bite! Afterward, we took the cable car back and enjoyed the views once again --- this time we had the car all to ourselves! It seems you have a much better chance of not being in a car with many other people in the Crystal Cabins. There are a couple of points where they photograph you in the cable car cabins. Photos can be purchased as prints, files emailed or other souvenirs purchased. We were a little disappointed with the print quality of the photo, but it’s fun nonetheless – next time I’d consider getting the file email. There are a couple of additional options in the tickets, but we didn’t add those. Shops in the village are a little expensive, but on par with the other tourist locations in Hong Kong. There’s also a 7-11 for drinks / snacks, and the western restrooms were clean. Roundtrip tickets for the Crystal Cabin (the one with the glass bottom) were $157HK / person vs. $96 HK for the regular one. About every 5th car has the glass bottom, so you might have to wait about 10 minutes for the next one. Cable cars start running at 10 AM and are fairly busy (they fill the cars with 8-10 people when busy) for a while after they first open. Coming back, everyone is at their own pace, so much less crowded, but that would depend on the time of day you leave. To us, it was worth taking both ways --- the tide went out while we were on the island. Going back at low tide, you could see the locals gathering seafood below you.http://www.np360.com.hk/html/eng/front/index.asp
After leaving Lantau Island, we explored some of the local markets accessible from the Prince Edward MTR station – Exit B1. It wasn't as much about the shopping as it was seeing how different things were. We stopped in a part of Kowloon where within a couple of hours we wandered through blocks of specialty markets. In the flower market, we saw flowers of all kinds and colors. Not sure I've ever seen a dozen roses under $10 US or real orchid plants for less than that. There were huge bunches of all kinds of things for just a couple of dollars and the smells were heavenly. From there, we hit the Yuen Po Street Bird Garden (market) --- where locals come to pick out new pets --- or all the things they need for their current pets. Lots of singing birds, and definitely something we don’t see at home! A little further, we wandered through the goldfish market along Tung Choi Street. Picture interior and exterior walls covered with little plastic bags --- each one filled with water and a different kind of fish --- waiting for someone to take them home! We hopped back on the MTR at Mong Kok Station, although there are other markets nearby to explore if you have the time / energy. Several of the tourist pamphlets at the airport have some good info on the markets as well as a great walking map with the MTR stops marked.http://www.discoverhongkong.com/eng/attractions/kln-bird-flower-goldfish-market.html
One of the things that was the most surprising was the extreme contrast between HK Island and Kowloon. The island is more visitor friendly for the non-Chinese speaking visitor. Everything seems to be in English first with Chinese translations --- odd in China! The people are friendly to everyone, and you hear lots of English. Kowloon was the opposite. When you looked down the street, most everything was in Chinese. People were very focused on what they were doing, there were more of them, and you heard more Chinese speakers than anything else. It was much more what we both expected.
It had to be one of our easiest travel experiences from a logistics perspective ever! We'd taken the MTR's airport express train into the city, so we figured we'd do the same for the return to the airport. We caught the shuttle from the hotel to HK station. What we didn't realize is that we'd be able to check-in at a Cathay Pacific counter in the train station before we even left town. We checked our bags there, and surprise, they made it with us to Singapore! They allow in-town check in from 24 hours to 90 minutes before departure, so it provides a good option if you have to check out of your hotel, but your flight is later in the day. Just check-in, drop the luggage, and enjoy the city for a few hours! Once you arrive back in the airport, you can stop by the customer service desk next to the train to return your card and get back the HK$50 deposit on the card. Regardless of how you paid, the refund is in HK cash.
Hong Kong turned out to be a great way to start the trip to Asia!