Travel Tuesday: Pray for Hong Kong — My Favorite Things About the City
Quick note: in case you missed the previous entry, Travel Tuesday is a new feature here on Money@30 where I’ll be sharing travel-focused posts every other week — so stay tuned for more tips and tales from my various travel adventures!
The past few months have not been easy for Hong Kong. Not long after my wife and I visited last year, massive protests started becoming a regular occurrence. Originally, these demonstrations were meant to display opposition to a bill that some feared would allow mainland China to request extradition of Hong Kongers. Those protests later grew to address numerous other issues residents face. Additionally, many were upset with the way the police had responded to some of the protests, accusing them of undue brutality. Unfortunately, while most of these protests have been peaceful, there have been violent clashes that have made international news. Then, on top of all that, the outbreak of COVID-19 has been impacting the city from both a health and economic standpoint.
All of this bad news really breaks my heart as someone who’s been to Hong Kong and fallen in love with it. While my initial visit was primarily in pursuit of completing my “visit every Disney park on earth” goal, venturing outside of that (super charming, BTW) park showed me that there’s a lot that the city has going for it. So, instead of dwelling on the current negatives and hardships, I thought I’d share five of my favorite things about the great city of Hong Kong.
My Five Favorite Things About Hong Kong
Tian Tan Buddha
On our first trip to Hong Kong — which only lasted a couple of days as it was a last-minute addition to a larger trip — my wife and I really wanted to visit what we saw referred to as “Big Buddha.” Alas, with our flight scheduled for that same day, we decided isn’t wasn’t worth trying to rush the experience. Then, on my next solo visit to the city, I promised my wife I’d refrain from venturing up there so that we could eventually do it together. Thankfully, it seems the third time is a charm as we finally got to see the Tian Tan Buddha for ourselves on a trip last year.
As impressive as the statue itself is, getting to it is also an experience. While you can get there through a variety of transportation methods, we elected to take the gondolas that depart from Tung Chung (conveniently right next to where our hotel was located) and carry you all the way to Ngong Ping. This 15-or-so-minute ride provided some incredible views while also being efficient and, at times, a bit thrilling. Speaking of thrill, while we took a regular gondola, they also offer glass-bottomed cars that will grant you even more unique sights. By the way, it seems you can pre-purchase tickets for the gondolas on Klook to save you time in the queue.
Once at Ngong Ping, there are plenty of restaurants, shops, and other entertainment locations to enjoy. This worked well as, after climbing the numerous stairs up to the statue, we worked up quite an appetite. We also couldn’t resist purchasing a set of chopsticks from one of the shops in the area — complete with an edamame-shaped rest for them.
As for the actual Buddha statue, it definitely lived up to the hype. Not only does the statue seem to call to you as you ascend the steps but, once there, there are interior and exterior trails to explore, giving you no shortage of views of the huge and impressive feature. Keep in mind, however, that while this is a tourist attraction and definitely Instagram-worthy, it’s also a religious symbol — so be sure to be respectful to those who may be praying or otherwise paying respects.
The British Influences
If you’re not up on your history, you may be a little confused about this whole Hong Kong vs. The People’s Republic of China thing. Long story short: Hong Kong was a British territory until 1997, at which point it was returned to China. As part of the handover, China agreed to allow Hong Kong to retain its Western ways (and freedom) for 50 years. This led to what China calls a “one country, two systems” solution — which is why American citizens only need a passport to visit Hong Kong while mainland travel usually required a visa. Unfortunately, some Hong Kongers feel that China has been encroaching on their freedoms, hence the protests.
Anyway, back to happier topics, there’s something oddly delightful about how the influence of the English makes its way into Hong Kong life. For example, you’ll see and hear elevators being referred to as lifts and may even detect a slight British accent among some English speakers. One of my favorite mini-memories was when, upon being dropped off at Hong Kong Disneyland, we thanked our bus driver, only to have him reply “Cheers!” Oh, and then there’s the whole “driving on the left side of the road” thing (those in the mainland drive on the right). All of these small things make for an interesting experience that hints at an even more interesting history.
Victoria Peak and Victoria Harbour
Victoria Harbour is a body of water that separates Hong Kong Island and Kowloon. On that water, you’ll see all kinds of ships and ferries making their way across and through. Incidentally, the Star Ferries that carry passengers from one side to the other are extremely affordable so I’d definitely recommend taking a trip at least once. (You can also use your Octopus card — which we’ll talk about in a moment — to pay for your fare.)
However, as gorgeous as the Harbour is up close, seeing it from The Peak is even more breathtaking. Like with Tung Chung, there are several ways you can get up to Victoria Peak but the most touristy and unique is the Peak Tram. These cable cars travel at quite an angle to carry to you to the top of the peak, where you’ll find shopping, dining, and — most importantly — incredible views.
A word of warning here: these cable cars are quite popular and can get crowded. Apparently I didn’t exactly prepare my wife for this and was she a bit taken aback by the amount of pushing and shoving that occurred as we waited to board a car. On top of that (no pun intended), the shopping center can also be cramped, so be prepared for that.
In terms of buying tickets, you also have a few options. The first is that you can again buy tickets on Klook — although, when I was looking at tickets, it seemed as though most of these were bundled with other things. On that note, if you’re buying your ticket at the station, you’ll mostly see signs advertising the combo ticket, which gets you a round trip on the cable car as well as a ticket to the Sky Terrace 428 observation deck. Personally, I’ve just done the regular ticket and skipped the premium deck experience. Then again, on my first visit to The Peak, I was enjoying a free viewing deck attached to another shopping center across from where Sky Terrace 428 was located. Sadly, that center was being completely remodeled (it seems to be back open now, though), meaning our deck was no longer accessible. Still, you can always get some amazing views and photos from the ground.
A few more things about the Peak and the Harbour: if you can, be sure to catch the Symphony of Lights show that performs at 8 p.m. nightly. As part of this show, buildings on Hong Kong Island and Kowloon light up, change colors, and pulse in time to a score that can be heard from viewing areas on both sides of the Harbour or via an app you can download. Another tip is, regardless of what the weather may be, I’d be sure to bring a light jacket with you to the Peak as it can get quite blustery up there.
The MTR System and the Octopus card
In my opinion, Hong Kong has one of the best public transit systems I’ve encountered (with Tokyo also squarely in the running). For one, it’s extremely clean as eating or drinking on trains or in stations is forbidden. Additionally, I’ve found the system to be fairly easy to navigate, making it simple to get around. I’m also a big fan of the airport express that drops you off right at the departures decks — and the Mickey-themed cars along the Hong Kong Disney Resort line from Sunny Bay station also deserve a shout out.
Making this whole system even better is the Octopus card. Not only can these reloadable cards be used to quickly make your way through station turnstiles but are also accepted at numerous places throughout Hong Kong. Granted, we’d end up using our credit cards for most transactions in order to earn rewards, but it was always fun to bust out of Octopus cards for a quick purchase at 7-Eleven, vending machines, or fast food establishments.
In order to get a regular Octopus card, you’ll need to pay a $50 HKD (about $6.50 USD) deposit, which is apparently refunded if you return the card upon departure. The card will also come with $100 HKD loaded onto the card, meaning you’ll pay $150 HDK upfront. As mentioned, you can tap the card at the entrance and exit turnstiles to pay your fare — also saving you the trouble of calculating it ahead of time. Then, you can visit machines at numerous stations to check your balance or add value to your card. Note that these reload machines are typically cash-only and may not accept large bills ($100 or more). However the cashiers at the station may be able to assist as well.
With every intention of returning, my wife and I have held onto our Octopus cards, allowing us to just reload them when we land back in the city. I do believe there is a point where your card may be closed for inactivity but, if nothing else, it’s a pleasant reminder of our time there — living like locals and tapping our way around town.
Walking Around, Markets, and Food
I’ll admit that none of my picks are very original and are, for lack of a better term, “super touristy.” That’s a fair criticism to be sure…but sometimes things are popular for a reason and that’s certainly the case with Tian Tan Buddha, Victoria Peak, etc. At the same time, I do love to get off the beaten path and just get lost (not literally as Google Maps and my Octopus card can always get me back home) in whatever city I’m in. That’s why my final pick is a total cheat: walking around Hong Kong.
On past strolls, I’ve stumbled upon some delicious foods (dim sum, anyone?), intriguing markets, and all kinds of other fun. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m also a big fan of visiting shopping malls in other countries for some reason, so I often do a lot of that. Should you happen upon a Starbucks on your walk and need a pick-me-up, I’d also highly recommend the Hojicha Latte or the Espresso Macha Fusion. The latter is abbreviated on the cup as “EMF” — which is appropriate because it’s unbelievable (ohhhh!).
Something else I’ve noticed is that there are a lot of parks in Hong Kong, sometimes offering a pleasant and tranquil escape from the bustling streets just steps away. Meanwhile, some of the city’s sprawling train stations are sights to behold in their own right. Basically what I’m saying is, even if you don’t have a particular destination in mind, take a chance and just start walking — you never know what you might find.
While Hong Kong may be experiencing challenging times right now, I’m holding out hope that it will be able to come out the other side stronger than ever. Personally, I can’t wait until my travels take me back that way so that I can enjoy some of my old favorites and explore some new terrain. In the meantime, I’ll continue to pray for the city of Hong Kong and the resilient people that help make it special.
Also published on Medium.