Hong Kong is one of those places that will increase your heart rate within minutes of arriving. It is a bustling city with skyscrapers, neon lights and crowds of people at every turn; it even holds the record for the most densely populated place on earth. One of its neighborhoods, Mongkok, houses more than 130,000 people in one square kilometer! What many people don’t realize is that Hong Kong is more than a city; the region also boasts hundreds of islands and large expanses of sparsely populated coastal jungles.
Not only are Hong Kong’s diverse landscapes intriguing, but its socio-political situation also leaves you wanting to learn more. Long held by the British and returned to Chinese control in 1997, the city is still in its infancy as a Special Administrative Region (SAR). Its western style is prevalent, while its Chinese roots are unavoidable. During our week visit, we often found ourselves teetering between two different continents. Although technically part of China, Hong Kong feels like its own small country. It has its own immigration and customs controls, currency and flag. At the moment, only Hong Kong and Macau are designated as SARs in China, but the model is seen as a possible solution for future reunification of contested islands, such as Taiwan.
Hong Kong’s mainland neighbor, Shenzhen, provides an interesting parallel to Hong Kong. Shenzhen was China’s first experiment with Special Economic Zones (SEZs), which are pockets of “capitalism,” for lack of a better word, within this Communist country. In just under 60 years, Shenzhen went from a small fishing town to a bustling, skyscraper-laden mega-city of over 10 million in the greater metro area. We stopped in Shenzhen for a few days before entering Hong Kong; it was an interesting place to visit to gain a brief education on how Deng Xiaoping’s policies reformed China and how Shenzhen shaped the future of the nation’s SEZs.
Politics aside, Hong Kong is a playground for travelers from all walks of life (although budget backpackers be warned, it is not a cheap destination). Both the cuisine and shopping run the gamut from the finest international establishments to the most budget options around. As long as you can handle the heat and humidity, outdoors enthusiasts could spend weeks in Hong Kong jumping from island to island.
We made our home base on Hong Kong Island in the area known as Causeway Bay. Although one of the more expensive hostels we’ve stayed at thus far, the view from our room on the 14th floor could not be beat! The building boarders Victoria Park, one of the largest green spaces on Hong Kong Island, and the views spanned all the way across the harbor to Kowloon, the mainland part of Hong Kong.
Since many HongKongese work in Causeway Bay, it is home to some of the best and most affordable local lunch spots in town. You can eat until your stomach is bursting at one of Hong Kong’s famous dim sum restaurants, or choose from a variety places that serve up everything from Cantonese cuisine to hot Szechuan dishes. The prosperity of the city has made it a melting pot for immigrants from all over the world. If there is a particular type of cuisine that you are looking for, it can certainly be found in Hong Kong.
Before arriving in Hong Kong, one of our friends suggested that we absolutely not miss the Peak Tram. He was spot on with this recommendation. The tram itself feels like riding a roller coaster up the side of a mountain, and once at the top, the views of Hong Kong are incredible. We quickly skipped through the horde of tourists at the top and headed straight towards the network of trails that meander through the hills. The canopy of trees and ferns are not only beautiful, but help to lower the temperature which is a welcomed change from the heat beating down on the concrete jungle below.
We like to think of ourselves as smart and seasoned travelers, but from time to time, we do fall into a tourist trap. Although it pains us to admit it, one such incidence happened in Hong Kong. We had heard about a Big Buddha on the island of Lantau, and having not been in Asia for more than a few weeks, it sounded pretty cool. So, we hopped on the metro, and then a bus, and after about two hours, we had arrived. To our disappointment, said “Big Buddha” was situated in the middle of a fake village, all of which had only been built in the 1990s. The town even included a 7-11; Slurpee while you see the Buddha, anyone? To make matters worse, the statue (albeit big) was nearly completely hidden by a thick mist. We will include a photo for you all to see; this way we won’t feel like our trek to Lantau was a complete waste of an afternoon.
No visit to Hong Kong is complete without a little beach time. After all, how can you visit an archipelago of islands in the South China Sea without getting a little R&R? To get away from the city, we took a ferry to the Island of Cheung Chau. Mainly a fishing harbor, the island also offers some fantastic beaches and hiking. Our time at the beach was, well, time at the beach…plenty of sun, sand, and cold beer.
In the afternoon, we set out for a hike around the exterior of the island. The views were great and the ocean breeze was so refreshing after baking in the sun.
We hadn’t expected too much excitement, just a leisurely hike, but all that changed when found ourselves face to face with a four foot Chinese Cobra. The whole encounter lasted only a few seconds, as the snake made a wise choice and quickly fled up the mountain, but just seeing a snake like that is enough for a hefty shot of adrenaline.
Exotic yet familiar, Hong Kong is truly one of those places that you have to see to believe. It has so many moving parts, but somehow everything still seems to gel. If the travel bug inside of you is yearning for the excitement that the Far East offers, but you are a little unsure about taking the plunge, Hong Kong is the place for you.