*I visited Hong Kong in 2010 and wrote about it on the website Ciao. I’ve decided to edit and publish a version of my holiday diary here*
I spent a week in Hong Kong in March 2010. Why Hong Kong? Well, I decided that I wanted to go somewhere reasonably far-flung; it should be somewhere I could ‘do’ in a week; I knew I would be travelling alone, so it should be somewhere safe; and it should have a prospect of reasonable weather in March, which is when I wanted to go (i.e. no typhoons, rain or extreme heat!). Hong Kong ticked all of those boxes, and was within my price range.
I took the Lonely Planet City Guide to Hong Kong and Macau and found it to be an excellent, useful guide. The removable map was very handy for getting around.
***Description and History***
This is what I learned from Wikipedia:
Hong Kong is one of the two special administrative regions of the People’s Republic of China; the other is Macau. Situated on China’s south coast and enclosed by the Pearl River Delta and South China Sea, it is famous for its expansive skyline and deep natural harbour. Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated areas in the world, and has a population of 95% ethnic Chinese and 5% from other groups.
Hong Kong became a colony of the British Empire after the First Opium War (1839-42). Originally confined to Hong Kong Island, the colony’s boundaries were extended in stages to the Kowloon Peninsula and the New Territories by 1898. It was occupied by Japan during the Pacific War, after which the British resumed control until 1997, when China regained sovereignty.
***The Useful Stuff***
I haven’t put prices in my review as these are subject to change, but here is how I think Hong Kong prices compare to the UK’s (based on my understanding and not just my own experience):
Accommodation – Expensive (if not using hostels)
Transport – Cheap
Attractions – Cheap to average
Eating out – Cheap to expensive and everything in between
Normally when I go on holiday I book it online. However as this was my first time holidaying completely alone, I decided to go and speak to someone to make sure I was doing everything right. I decided to go with STA Travel as they are a large reputable company, and when I was searching for flights they came up cheaper on the STA website.
I made an appointment one afternoon in January at my local branch. The lady I spoke to was very friendly and helpful and with her assistance I booked flights, 7 nights’ accommodation and three tours. The total cost came to almost exactly £1000. I was actually shaking when I left the branch – I’ve never spent so much money on something ‘frivolous’ in my life! However I was also incredibly excited. My flights with Virgin Atlantic cost approximately £550, my insurance approx £40, hostel around £140 and the rest of the money was for the tours.
No visa is needed for British nationals to visit Hong Kong for up to 180 days. However, if you are visiting mainland China you will need a visa.
I flew to Hong Kong with Virgin Atlantic from Heathrow Terminal 3. I won’t say too much about my experience as I have already written a review, however I will say that I was really happy with my flights and I recommend Virgin Atlantic. I checked in online both in Britain and Hong Kong (by using a coffee shop terminal). In Hong Kong it is possible to check in for your return flight at Hong Kong or Kowloon Station and drop off your bags there, meaning that if your flight isn’t until the evening you can still get a full day in the city unencumbered by baggage. I have a particularly nervous temperament however and prefer to keep my bags with me as long as possible, so I didn’t take advantage of this service. It also means that you have to use the Airport Express trains, which are more expensive than other methods of reaching the airport.
I was able to prebook a cheap train ticket to London for the outbound flight. My flight wasn’t until the evening so I travelled down the same day. I flew out on the Monday and returned the following Wednesday in the early hours of the morning, just over a week later.
*Transferring from the Airport*
This is the part I always hate – you arrive in a strange country, tired and jetlagged, and have to navigate a brand new transport system. I had never done it alone before, so I was incredibly nervous. However it proved to be really easy. Some of the ways you can travel from the airport include:
Airport Express – this is the most heavily advertised and on the surface the most simple way to reach Hong Kong, however it is also the most expensive. It will drop you at Kowloon or Hong Kong Station, from which there are shuttle buses available to take you to your hotel.
Bus – There are plenty of buses from the airport. I chose to use a bus on my way to my hostel in Kowloon. They are well labelled and mine had an electronic screen which displayed the stations in Chinese and English, so it was easy to know which stop was mine.
Bus + MTR – This is how I got to the airport on the way back, but I wish I’d been savvy enough to know about it on the way there. Simply get a cheap shuttle bus to Tung Chung Station at the end of the Tung Chung line, and from there you can travel to any station on the MTR network. It follows almost exactly the same route as the Airport Express, but stops in more places and is much cheaper! Personally this is the method I’d recommend to travel to and from the airport.
*Getting Around Hong Kong*
Octopus Card – I cannot stress this enough, if you are going to Hong Kong pick up one of these. It saves so much time and hassle. They are available from customer service points in various MTR stations (including the one at the airport). You pay HKD (Hong Kong Dollars) 150, of which 100 is credit and 50 is a refundable deposit. Simply go to a customer service point when you leave to have the deposit and any remaining credit (minus a small admin charge) refunded to you. The cards can be used at/in/on:
-The MTR (journeys are cheaper this way)
-The Peak Tram
-The Star Ferry
-7-11s and a variety of other stores and bakeries (no more rummaging around for loose change)
The cards can be topped up at MTR stations at add-value machines: simply insert the card, feed in a HKD note and you’re done.
MTR – Hong Kong’s underground system. Growing up near the Tyne and Wear Metro means I’m really used to these kinds of trains and they’re always my first choice when travelling abroad – mainly because it’s near-impossible to get lost on them. The MTR is clean, efficient and always on time. One line runs along the north of Hong Kong Island; others run under the harbour to reach Kowloon, the New Territories and Lantau Island. Journeys are cheap. Get an Octopus card for even cheaper trips and to avoid the queues for the ticket machines, and always remember to scan the card when entering and exiting the station.
Buses – Buses always make me nervous, especially when travelling on a new route, because it’s often hard to know where you are. However, Hong Kong buses are really easy to use and well signposted. They are particularly useful for getting around in the south of Hong Kong Island where the MTR does not reach.
Trams – These run along the north of Hong Kong Island and have been around for almost 100 years! Believe it or not they used to run along the coastline – some serious land reclamation has taken place. They are fairly slow but provide a scenic way to get about the north of the island. Try and get to the front of the top deck for the best view. I found that many people, when they saw I was a tourist, would move to let me sit there which was really nice of them. Please note: you get on the tram at the back entrance and pay – and leave – at the front when you get off. This confused me somewhat at first as it is the opposite to British buses where you pay when you get on and get off at the back (if there is a rear exit).
Star Ferry – These have been running across Victoria Harbour for around 100 years, and are so named because they all have star-themed names: North Star, Solar Star etc. I loved travelling on the ferry – the breeze from the water is lovely on a hot day and you get a great view. It’s dirt cheap too.
Taxis – Apparently taxis in Hong Kong are excellent value for money, but I never used one so I won’t say anything more about them.
As it’s such a densely-populated, high-rise, businesslike city, accommodation in Hong Kong is expensive. I’m a bit of a cheapskate when it comes to accommodation – I resent paying good money for somewhere to sleep when I would rather spend it on sightseeing. I booked a ‘hostel’ style hotel in Kowloon, on Nathan Road, for £20 a night – I thought this was a bargain considering it was a single ensuite room. I was staying in the optimistically-named Lucky Hotel in Chungking Mansions.
It was only after I’d booked my holiday that I found out Chungking Mansions has a bit of a reputation, and I wasn’t sure if I should just cut my losses and go somewhere else. However I stuck with it and I’m pleased to say everything was absolutely fine. My room was very small and basic, but very clean and quiet and I felt completely safe the whole time I was there. My bathroom was absolutely tiny, little more than a toilet with a shower head, but from previous experience in Asia I know that this is quite usual in densely-populated cities. Also, this was a single room – the two, three and four-bed rooms had proportionally larger bathrooms. The lifts in the block, which I’d heard were ‘coffin-sized’ and always crowded, weren’t as bad as I’d been led to expect and had CCTV. I also saw a lot of security guards inside the block, and there were quite a few families with young children staying at various guesthouses in the block – I’m sure no parent would want their child staying somewhere unsafe.
One warning I’d read about was justified – namely, that people will loiter outside the block and try to get you to come and stay at their guesthouse; if you tell them you already have somewhere booked they will lie and try and get you to go with them, saying that they know the way, but when you get there they will charge you. Someone tried it on with me and it was a bit scary but if you make sure you know which block you’re going to and which floor (there is a board next to each block’s lifts listing all the guesthouses and which floors they are on) you will be fine. They will not force you and are not physically dangerous. Also, once you’re settled in your guesthouse they won’t bother you going in and out as they can see you’ve no luggage with you!
Although my experience was good, I met another girl on one of my tours who was also staying in a hostel at Chungking Mansions (don’t know which one, sorry) and she left after one night because she thought it was dodgy. If you want a basic, cheap place to stay I do recommend the Lucky Hotel but if you’re after any kind of luxury then go elsewhere!
I am a vegetarian so I admit to being a bit of a wuss when it came to eating out in Hong Kong. According to my guidebook, there are quite a few vegetarian restaurants if I’d bothered to look for them. However I’m not fond of eating in restaurants alone so I mainly bought food from the 7-11 stores, the numerous bakeries (which sell some interesting rolls) and (I’m ashamed to say it) Starbucks. I did eat in the veggie Buddhist restaurant near the Big Buddha on Lantau Island, which involved a very tasty Chinese meal. The day trips I went on also included meals and as they are designed for tourists there was a veggie option. Again these consisted of Chinese food: assorted sauteed vegetables, fried tofu and boiled or fried rice. The food was very tasty. If you’re not a veggie there are plenty of restaurants around serving all kinds of food. There are McDonald’s and Starbucks everywhere and I even saw a couple of Pizza Express outlets, including one in Stanley!
My first full day in Hong Kong was a Wednesday so I decided to take advantage of the fact that many museums are free on this day. I first visited the Hong Kong Museum of Art, which has a lovely view of the harbour and some fascinating galleries, especially the Chinese Fine Art gallery. I especially liked a temporary exhibition on the history of Canton (now Guangzhou) which used to be an important trading port in China. It was designed to be like a ‘travel guide’ to 19th century Canton and I found it really interesting and imaginatively put together.
Secondly I walked north through Kowloon to the Hong Kong Museum of History. I love this kind of thing: I studied history at uni so I really enjoy finding out about the past of the places I visit. I really enjoyed this museum: it covered the history of Hong Kong from prehistoric times to the recent handover to China, and although there was a lot to see it was never boring or dull. I definitely recommend both of these museums.
After this I took the Star Ferry to Hong Kong Island. It was really exciting to be going on the ferry and it was lovely being on the water and feeling the fresh breeze, especially as it was such a hot day. Once on Hong Kong Island I made my way to the Peak Tram. This took some time as I managed to get lost – there are lots of covered walkways above the traffic as you get off the ferry, and once you’re on the ground you can’t just walk in a straight line – you have to find somewhere to cross the road! I did manage to find the tram eventually and took a trip up.
The Peak Tram was initially designed to carry rich Westerners up Victoria Peak, where many used to live to make the most of the cooler temperatures at the top. Now it is chiefly a tourist attraction. It is a decidedly strange feeling travelling on a tram which is going up an almost 90-degree hill! You get a great view too.
At the top there are a number of gift shops and restaurants but the main attraction is the viewing deck (which you unfortunately have to pay extra for). The views are amazing and you can get some fantastic photos. I ended up going back on Saturday night to look at the skyline in the dark.
The second day in Hong Kong was actually spent in Macau, which like HK is a Special Administrative Region of China. It was formerly under Portuguese rule and the Portuguese influence is still visible. I went on a tour which I booked back in the UK, but some of the other people I met had booked it at the Holiday Inn Golden Mile (on Nathan Road) or at other locations. The company was called Gray Tours. To be honest if you have a little time you could easily plan a trip here yourself, but booking a trip does take some of the hassle out of it.
We took a ferry to Macau which was fun. Don’t forget your passport as it will need to be checked.
In Macau we saw a good number of interesting things, including a temple, the Macau Museum and the ruins of the Church of St Paul. The church burned down many years ago but the front end stayed standing: this was deemed a miracle at the time and remains pretty impressive now! At one point during the trip we visited a bakery. The cynical part of me thinks that this was a way for the tour guide to get commission, but to be fair the biscuits were delicious (you are allowed free nibbles from the boxes in the front) and the Portuguese egg custard tarts were yummy.
The Macau Tower was another item on our itinerary: this offered some pretty impressive views over Macau and also beneath us owing to the glass ceiling. You can go bungee jumping from it but I declined!
Macau is famous for gambling as it is the only place in China where it is actually permitted. It is known as the ‘Las Vegas of the East’. Personally I wasn’t bothered about gambling so didn’t try it.
I really enjoyed Macau and would have been happy to spend at least a couple of days there instead of a one-day whistle-stop tour!
I decided to spend the Friday visiting the Big Buddha on Lantau Island. Despite being on an island the place is really easy to get to – just get off at Tung Chung Station (at the end of the Tung Chung line, the same station you would use if you were getting the shuttle bus to the airport). Across the square you will see the lower station for the cable car that takes you to the top.
The cable car must be a relatively new introduction – a friend of mine visited Hong Kong a few years ago and said that it wasn’t yet built and they had to get a bus there. The cable car is certainly an easier and more scenic route. I arrived at 10am which is opening time and there were still quite a few people in the queue, so I definitely recommend going early.
There are different options for the cable cars: standard and crystal. The crystal car comes with a see-through glass bottom so it’s not for the fainthearted! I chose the ordinary one as it was a bit cheaper. The ride took about twenty minutes and there were some fantastic views of the sea, the airport and, as you approach it, of the big Buddha itself.
The village next to the cable car stop is incredibly touristy and obviously fake – it consisted almost entirely of souvenir shops and a small cinema showing some sort of film which I avoided because the guidebook said it was rubbish. It took about twenty minutes to walk to the Buddha itself. At the foot of the steps to the Buddha you are asked if you want to buy a meal ticket for the nearby monastery’s vegetarian restaurant – only with a ticket can you get into some of the rooms at the top including the ‘relic’. It’s probably not worth buying this just to see the rooms, as they’re really nothing special, but I decided to go ahead as I was looking forward to a proper vegetarian meal!
Climbing up the steps was hard but not impossible if you’re reasonably fit. There are some good views from the top and the Buddha looks pretty impressive close up. After that I was dying for my lunch so I headed towards the restaurant for a very tasty meal!
I spent the afternoon travelling back to Hong Kong Island and going about on the tram – this was a fun way to pass some time. I spent the evening just sitting in some coffee shops as I was really tired.
Today I went on the ‘Land Between’ tour. This is another tour I booked while in the UK but apparently it is very popular and can be booked in Hong Kong. The tour takes you up through Kowloon and into the New Territories, starting at the Yuen Yuen Institute (a modern, impressive temple complex) and going on to a traditional village, a waterfall and a fishing point.
I booked the full-day tour so I had a Chinese lunch included which was very tasty. I really enjoyed the trip as I thought it showed a different side to Hong Kong and was a real eye-opener.
After the tour I had time to go on the Big Bus Company’s tour bus around Hong Kong Island. This is a good way to see a lot of the city, but it is rather expensive – I was tired by this time though and welcomed the chance to relax for a bit! Later that evening I went back up Victoria Peak for amazing views of the city.
I began my relaxing Sunday by sightseeing on the tour bus’s other route (included in the ticket price) in Kowloon. After that I got a bus from beside the Star Ferry Pier in Hong Kong Island to the south side of the island. Aberdeen, a cute fishing village, was my first stop, but I didn’t stay there long as I wanted to get to Stanley.
Stanley really is a lovely little village, that has a pier and nearby beaches. There are bars and restaurants dotted along the front – there was even a Pizza Express! I visited the Maritime Museum which was surprisingly interesting and cheap to get in. I also walked along the front to visit the Military Cemetery (I have a thing about cemeteries, I visit one every time I go on holiday), where there were loads of graves from the 19th century and World War II, including lots of children’s graves which was really sad.
I really liked Stanley and could have easily spent a couple of days there relaxing, there isn’t a great deal to do but once you’ve ticked the sightseeing boxes I think it would be lovely just sitting by the sea.
My final full day in Hong Kong involved my trip to Shekou and Guangzhou (formerly Canton). I had to get up ridiculously early so the tour group could catch the early ferry, which took about an hour.
Our first stop was a Chinese kindergarten in Shekou, which is a fast-growing shoppers’ city – I thought it was a rather odd place to take a tour group, but the kids were cute! We also stopped at a zoo to see a panda (who was dozing in a teddy-bear like way), a museum which had on display a couple of the terracotta warriors, and a temple. We took the train back to Kowloon which was interesting – the seats had far more legroom than trains in the UK and we each got a bottle of mineral water free!
I really enjoyed my trip to mainland China but I was a bit disappointed it wasn’t more ‘historical’. I would have liked to have seen more old buildings from both ancient China and colonial times but instead there were lots of skyscrapers, without the iconic buildings you get in places like Beijing. I guess this was more ‘authentic’ though and closer to the way people in China actually live.
The biggest differences between mainland China and Hong Kong was that in the latter city most of the signs are in both Chinese and English – in China most signs are just in Chinese. Also, in China all the toilets were ‘squatter-style’ whereas in Hong Kong I only saw a couple like that – the vast majority were Western-style.
This was my last day in Hong Kong so I spent the day hopping about from MTR station to MTR station visiting odd sites that I hadn’t had time to go to before, such as the tomb of a Han emperor and the Noonday Gun (made famous by a song of Noel Coward’s). After I’d exhausted these random places I caught the MTR to Tung Chung Station and took the shuttle bus to the airport, where I returned my Octopus card and got my deposit back, and checked in for a straightforward flight back to the UK.
Well, as you can probably tell I loved Hong Kong and had a great time! I really recommend it as a holiday destination in its own right or a stopover on the way to Australasia. I feel there is something there for everyone – it’s safe and child-friendly enough for families (especially considering theme parks like Ocean Park and Disneyworld, which I didn’t go to myself), exciting enough for backpackers, safe enough for solo travellers like me and varied enough for everyone. If you want to go somewhere on your own but are a bit nervous then I definitely recommend Hong Kong – it’s really easy to navigate and I found that my confidence has definitely increased having been there.
I hope my review hasn’t bored you: if you have found it interesting or you have been inspired to perhaps visit Hong Kong then it has been worth it!