I kicked off my recent trip to China with two days in Hong Kong, but I have to admit, I wasn’t particularly excited about the stop. I pictured Hong Kong being nothing more than a crowded city full of skyscrapers with little of cultural interest to me. Indeed, many of the recommendations I got from fellow travelers focused on the foodie scene and nightlife, neither of which really matter to me when I’m traveling.
I am happy to admit that I was wrong. When I left Hong Kong after just 48 hours, I was wishing I had more time. So how did I spend the two days I did have?
I was up early on my first day due to jet lag, so I made the most of it. After a workout in the hotel fitness center and an early breakfast, I took advantage of the hotel shuttle to Hong Kong Central Station, where I took the superefficient, super clean MTR (Mass Transit Railway) to Tung Chung, a town on Lantau Island (the same island as the airport). My target was the Big Buddha and the Ngong Ping 360 Cable Car, which takes riders on an amazingly scenic 25-minute ride from Tung Chung to the Po Lin Monastery at the base of the Big Buddha. Unfortunately, I have to take others’ word for it because the cable car happened to be closed for maintenance the two days I was in Hong Kong!
Luckily, you can get up to the Big Buddha by bus instead. After a bit of poking around in the wrong bus terminal, I finally spotted signs for the right one and got the last seat on bus #23 that was about to leave. An hour later, I was climbing the 260+ steps up to the Big Buddha, which is one of the largest seated Buddha images in the world.
After climbing down from the Buddha, I spent a half hour exploring the Po Lin Monastery. It was nearly empty and quite peaceful – and gave me the opportunity to take one of my favorite pictures of the entire trip: a Chinese man using a powerful zoom lens to take a picture of the Hall of Ten Thousand Buddhas, right in front of a sign that says “no photos.”
When I was ready to leave, I decided to take a four-mile footpath back down to Tung Chung, which was recommended by my guidebook. It was easy to find the start of the path and the first hour of the walk was quite nice and relatively well-marked. On two occasions I hit forks in the path with no signage and had to backtrack slightly, but otherwise it was easy to follow.
That is, until I found myself on an open road with no signs in sight. I had passed a fork about 10 minutes earlier, but it was quite uphill and I really didn’t want to backtrack to see if I had taken a wrong turn. I lucked out when I turned and saw five women in running gear heading my way. I asked the first one if I was heading in the right direction and she confirmed I was. We ended up chatting and before long, I was joining the group of American, Canadian and Australian expats for Indian food! And as it turned out, two of them would be running the half marathon in connection with the Great Wall Marathon the next weekend – nice coincidence!
On the other hand, I definitely would not have found my way back to Tung Chung easily on my own, so I would not recommend taking the footpath down from Po Lin and the Big Buddha. Take the bus or cable car instead.
Back in central Hong Kong, I decided to take advantage of the fact that it was a sunny, clear afternoon and head up to Victoria Peak. I took the tram up, which had some long lines (that I think I could’ve avoided by just paying with my Octopus Card, but instead I got sucked into purchasing a whole tram and viewing platform package thing). I have to admit that, while the view from the viewing platform at the top of the peak was impressive, everything else was a bit of a letdown. It was just so commercialized! There was even a Bubba Gump Shrimp Company! Granted, my jet lag was also really starting to bring me down at that point, so that probably affected my impression as well. While I had planned to take a walk around the peak, I was pretty tired and hungry at this point so instead got some ridiculously expensive ice cream and then took the tram back down.
On my way back to my hotel (which was located a bit out of the way in an up and coming area called Kennedy Town), I stopped at a small Vietnamese restaurant called Noodle Mi. Several other gluten free travelers recommended it as a great gluten free option and it didn’t disappoint. I got lemongrass chicken with rice vermicelli and definitely left satisfied!
My second day in Hong Kong a completely different experience. I opted for a lazier day (i.e., less walking) and got tickets for the Big Bus hop-on hop-off tour – and hoped the rain would stay away as it was completely overcast. I did two tour routes: first to Stanley and Aberdeen on the south side of Hong Kong Island and second through Kowloon. The tours were definitely a great way to learn more about the history of Hong Kong and the different islands and neighborhoods within the islands.
I hopped off in Stanley to visit the market that I had heard so much about and was sorely disappointed. Seriously, I kept walking around wondering where the rest of it was, it felt so small. That said, it was nice to get away from the craziness of central Hong Kong for a bit and I think the area would have been nice to explore at a leisurely pace for half a day.
At the stop in Aberdeen, we had a chance to ride in a boat called a sampan to get a closer look at the dozens of wooden fishing boats that populate the harbor.
Back in central Hong Kong, I took the famous Star Ferry across the harbor to catch the tour around Kowloon. Because it was so dreary, the ferry ride was anticlimactic as the views were all gray and cloudy. I really should have done the ferry ride on my first night in Hong Kong, but I was just too tired.
I skipped out of the Kowloon tour a few stops early so I could catch the ferry back to central and check out of my hotel to go to the airport. Just as I did when I arrived, I took the Airport Express train back to the airport, with the added bonus that I was able to check in for my flight – and check my suitcase – at the Airport Express station in central before taking the train. So I was all set when I got to the airport 25 minutes later and didn’t have to drag my suitcase with me! Talk about efficient!
As I mentioned above, my time in Hong Kong exceeded my expectations. I loved how easy it was to get around and how clean and efficient the MTR was. I loved the energy of the area around my hotel, which was filled with small shops and restaurants and apartment buildings, as opposed to the skyscrapers in the business district and the neon signs, department stores and familiar chains in Kowloon.
But more than anything, I eyed the miles and miles of woodland all around Hong Kong with longing, wishing I had time to explore it all. I know, most people don’t think of Hong Kong as a place to connect with nature, but if I ever return to Hong Kong, that is exactly what I’d like to do.
Have you been to Hong Kong? What did you like the most?