When I landed at Hong Kong’s flashy airport in temple pants and a rip-off t-shirt I’d bought for about 100 baht back in Thailand, I immediately felt like I should have got changed before boarding the plane from Ho Chi Minh City. The people around me at Hong Kong International were bedecked in designer clothes and shoes, with the luggage to match, and there I was among them all, far from coiffed.
However, all sartorial worries were behind me after I’d slid into one of the vintage red cabs from the airport and was motoring towards central Hong Kong and surveying the absolutely breathtaking view. It’s an introduction to a city like no other with a panorama of skyscrapers and bridges set against mountains and the ocean. And this was before the sun went down and the city began to sparkle.
Visiting Hong Kong was a very different experience to the other countries I’d spent time in during the past six months. A playground for the wealthy, designer shops and haute cuisine line the streets. It was also the most Western place I’d been to by far. A visitor from the UK arriving in Hong Kong would likely be struck by the Chinese elements of the former British colony, but after so long in Asia, walking down the street in Kowloon felt like a homecoming. In fact, the first thing I did after checking into my hotel was rush to the nearest Marks and Spencer’s to buy some salt and vinegar crisps, Wensleydale cheese and some real shoes: clearly my flip flops and walking boots weren’t going to cut it in this uber-stylish city.
Admittedly, Hong Kong hadn’t been on my itinerary when I set off around the world – but as my mother was there on business and I was (sort of) in the neighbourhood, I thought it would be a great opportunity to visit a unique city. There’s plenty to see and I didn’t have too much time so I had to get stuck in.
Stanley: An oddly popular tourist trap
The much-hyped Stanley was first on my agenda, so we hopped in a taxi over to the seaside. Many tourists sing the praises of this part of Hong Kong, and it is a pretty setting: you can walk the small promenade or go sit on a rock and watch the rustic fishing boats go about their day.
We also took a walk through the famous Stanley market, which sells the usual fare: purses, bags, ornaments, lighters, jewellery and clothing. It was a lot more relaxing than many of the markets I’d visited thus far in Asia, with less shouting and haggling, but higher-priced goods.
Stanley also features a very modern shopping centre, with high-priced clothing and furniture, which felt just like the standard mall you’d find back home. After being away for so long this felt very strange to me. We treated ourselves to lunch at Stanley’s very own Pizza Express – another odd moment! – and set off on a small hike.
This area of Hong Kong very much mixes the East and the West, and the past and the present. As we set off along the walkway, amid the expansive plant life, we stumbled across a small temple looking over the sea, decorated with fluttering Chinese flags. Down more stairs to the sea was a large but deserted beach, which, on an overcast day, only added to the strange vibe of the place.
The Peak: A view of the world’s best cityscape
The Peak is a must for all sightseers in Hong Kong. Even if you don’t think you’re that into sweeping cityscapes, by the time you’re taking the tram down the mountain you certainly will be. This was, hands down, one of the best views I had seen on my trip – if not in my life.
While clearly different to the scenic mountains of Peru, the salt flats of Bolivia and the tropical vegetation of the Mekong Delta, looking down on this slick urban jungle was just as breathtaking. The skyscrapers reach up into the clouds and are set amid an enchanting backdrop of mountains and greenery.
Anyone wanting to go up The Peak is in for a bit of a wait for the train, but it’s very much worth it. Up the mountain there are places to eat, drink and shop – including, of course, the obligatory Starbucks – and you can head up to the top of the shopping centre for the highest viewpoint on the mountain.
The journey to Big Buddha
Another popular sightseeing option is a trip up to the Big Buddha – or Tian Tan Buddha, which is easily accessible via Hong Kong’s excellent metro system.
The second largest sitting Buddha in the world is located on Ngong Ping Lantau Island. Once you’ve disembarked the metro it is just a short walk across a square to the cable cars that will take you up the mountain. The ride itself is nothing short of spectacular, as you glide over the mountains which are blanketed in greenery, with the Big Buddha coming ever closer.
After jumping off the cable car you take a walk through the small village, which lies outside a Buddhist monastery. There is a distinct and slightly unsettling theme park vibe to this part of the trip, with lots of animated characters walking around, and shops selling souvenirs to tourists lining the streets. I purchased a badly translated Chinese proverb, embossed on a fridge magnet, which read:
“You are my love, my angel. Don’t treat me like potato.”
That’s just the sort of place it is! However, upon approaching the Big Buddha, you begin to understand why so many people flock to see it. Sitting atop a hill and surrounded by smaller statues, the majesty of the Buddha is in sharp contrast to the Disney-esque village we’d just walked through. As I ascended the many, many stairs, he only seemed to get larger. At the top you can go inside the Buddha to learn more about the monastery and the history of Hong Kong in general. Afterwards we took a quick tour around the public part of the monastery itself, which consists of a number of different buildings and it was really quite peaceful.
Nightlife: The highest drink of my life
After a long day of sightseeing, there are plenty of spectacular bars to relax with a hard-earned drink. As I only had a backpack full of market clothes, I had to make an emergency trip to HandM in order to up my sartorial game enough to be let in any of these places.
If you’re interested in a low key night and a couple of beers, there are many pubs off the side of the street that are definitely aimed at tourists: lots of them have strong American themes and jukeboxes.
When it comes to food, buffets and Chinese restaurants are predictably popular. Upon eating with a number of local business people, I learned just what an appetite they have! So as not to be rude, I went back to the buffet for three rounds of food – and they were all shocked I wouldn’t go back for more. Apparently three plates is only a starter in Hong Kong, with the main dishes and multiple deserts still to come. Drinking is also not massively encouraged by locals – although there are plenty of bars, it is much more common to see people drinking water with their meals.
However, Hong Kong is famous for its swanky bars so in the name of culture, we decided to visit a few of these too. The upmarket Intercontinental Hotel sits on the Kowloon Waterfront, and revellers visiting its bar can enjoy a cocktail while watching spectacular boats sail past against a backdrop of colourful lights from the buildings and adverts on the other side of the water.
However, the bar you really don’t want to miss is the Ozone Bar – “the highest bar in the world”, which sits atop the Ritz-Carlton. With delicious cocktails and an absolutely unforgettable view through the large glass windows of its balcony, it is well worth whizzing up to the 118th floor for.