Insider Tips for Traveling to Hong Kong
Hong Kong is a destination like nowhere else. It is an exciting, busy melting pot where you can rub shoulders with folks from all nations. As well as one where you will see the local Chinese work ethic. Hong Kong works because its population works. There is a ‘can do’ ethos. You will find few idle people in Hong Kong and it is truly a city which never sleeps. I have been to Hong Kong twice and I think I will never get tired of visiting the Pearl of the Orient. Here are my insider tips for traveling to Hong Kong, which will come in handy regardless of whether you visit it for one day or spending several days in Fragrant Harbour.
Calling Hong Kong a ‘city’ is a little misleading, for it is far more than that. The familiar photogenic landscape of high-rise buildings on a stunning natural harbor is just one facet of the territory. ‘ The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of China ‘ (HKSAR) includes Hong Kong Island and the Kowloon peninsula across the harbor. But there are also nearly 1000 square kilometers of the New Territories – the area which abuts the Chinese border. It includes New Towns, Fishing Villages, Country Parks, islands and even farmland. There are many opportunities for wandering off the beaten track and exploring the lesser known destinations. There is even a 100 kilometer moderate to strenuous walking track – the Maclehose Trail – which transverses the New Territories from East to West.
How to Reach Hong Kong
Hong Kong is within a twelve-hour flight of more than half of the world’s population and it has one of the busiest and most efficient airports in the world. Chek Lap Kok International airport was opened to great acclaim in 1998, the year following the historic handover of the territory from Britain to China. It regularly wins awards for efficiency and passenger care and is a regional hub for both traveler and freight.
Getting Around Hong Kong
Hong Kong has a dense population and its roads can get very congested. But fortunately, many residents prefer public transport as car ownership is prohibitively expensive. The territory is served by double-decker buses, minibuses, trams, ferries, taxis and by the famous metro system the MTR (Mass Transit Railway). The MTR is quick, efficient and cheap and will take you, via its twelve color-coded lines, all over the territory. Taxies in Hong Kong are plentiful and the standard of driving (on the left) is generally good.
Many drivers can communicate in Basic English but to be doubly sure, ask your hotel concierge to write your destination in Chinese if you intend to use them. For all public transport (except taxies where you will need cash) you can purchase an Octopus card (you can even buy food with your card). Surprisingly parts of the MTR are more than forty years old. The local population obeys the rules of no eating and drinking and the system is spotlessly clean, as well as having a very high standard of efficiency.
Hong Kong has the only double-decker electric tram system in the world. So for about three Hong Kong dollars (about 50 US cents), you can trundle at a leisurely 11kph along the lines which run parallel to the waterfront on the north side of HK Island. Sit upstairs, at the front for a bird’s eye view of some of the most densely populated streets on earth.
English is widely spoken and understood in the main tourist areas such as Central, Wanchai, Causeway Bay and Tsim Sha Tsui. However, the street language (understood by more than ninety percent of the population) is Cantonese. This is a different dialect from Mandarin which is the Chinese of Beijing and most of Mainland China. Cantonese is used in the major Southern city of Guangzhou (formerly Canton) and the rest of neighboring Guangdong Province. It is a difficult language to master with eight distinct tones, but many visitors can pick up a few phrases.
Hong Kong weather. What to expect
Hong Kong has a subtropical climate and the summers become very hot and humid. The months between May and September are the least comfortable and the temperatures can soar to 34 degrees with more than 90 percent humidity. Air conditioning is widely used in shopping malls and public buildings but beware as it can be a little too efficient. Visits to the theatre or cinema can be uncomfortable without a light sweater or shawl – despite the boiling outside temperatures. It is a busy tourist destination all year round but for the most comfortable temperatures, consider visiting during October and November.
Top Places to Visit in Hong Kong
Of course, there are many famous Hong Kong sights and it would be foolish not to cross the harbor on the famous ‘Star’ Ferry or ascend the Peak Tram for your panoramic photographs of one of the most photogenic landscapes in the world. But there are other less well-known delights. I enjoyed visiting Temple Street night market (near Yau Ma Tei MTR station) and was happy to see historic Cantonese Street Opera performances accompanied by traditional Chinese musical instruments. You can also watch fortune tellers in action – including palm and face readers, astrologers and if you are lucky the gentleman who owns a little bird who will pluck your destiny from an array of fortune cards.
If you are adventurous, you can go to the walled village of Kat Hing Wai. You can find it just a bus ride from Tai Po MTR station in the New Territories. Here you will find a five-hundred-year-old fortified village, in existence long before the British arrived. It is the place where all the residents have the same surname (Tang) and the old ladies still wear the traditional black fringed straw hats and will happily pose for your photographs (for a small consideration!).
Another less known destination is Tai O fishing village. You can find it on the far side of the outlying island of Lantau. Expect to use both a ferry and bus to reach it. Here you will find old stilt houses in a tranquil village which has a sinister history closely associated with smuggling and piracy. If you are interested in museums, Hong Kong has a great selection. But for those with a specific interest in military history and the occupation of Hong Kong by the Japanese in World War II, try the Museum of Coastal Defence at Lei Yu Mun. Here you can see some unique footage of the invading Japanese army from 1940.
Of course, no experience in Hong Kong would be complete without mentioning food. The Cantonese are great lovers of their own cuisine but in Hong Kong, you can try foods from all over the world. In Lan Kwai Fong or in the SoHo area of Mid-levels you will find a plethora of restaurants for all tastes.
Chinese eating establishments of all types are of course in abundance, from the local. Cantonese dim sum restaurants to Dai Pai Dong street food stalls, spicy Sichuan restaurants and of course the famous Pekingese. For an authentic local experience of one of the latter restaurants try the Spring Deer in Mody Road, Tsim Sha Tsui. Pekingese duck eaten in doughy pancakes with spring onion and plum sauce is the signature dish. The waiters can be grumpy but the place is always packed with locals – a sure sign of the excellence of the menu.
Hong Kong is truly a special place – it will not disappoint.