As we descended in to Hong Kong, the iconic skyline immediately blew us away as we peered out of the plane window. Over 70% of Hong Kong is impressive mountains and sprawling countryside with colossal skyscrapers and tower blocks mingled in between the hills, making for a striking contrast of green space and urban living. Hong Kong is the world’s fourth most densely populated country in the world, and its concentration of people is evident immediately from the spread of the buildings that cover the islands. Hong Kong comprises of over 260 islands with Hong Kong Island and Kowloon being the most popular tourist destinations. We were headed for Kowloon.
Hong Kong claims to have one of the world’s smoothest transport systems so it wasn’t surprising how easy it was to hop on the MTR (confusingly, the Singapore transport system is called the MRT), reaching our hotel in a mere 30 minutes. It was only 4pm by this point so we decided to head out and explore the city immediately. Our room at the E-Logg Inn was pokey, (which is very normal for this highly populated city) but it had enough space to sleep comfortably, and the luxury of a private bathroom.
With fully charged cameras in hand, we proceeded to Kowloon Park. This green space offered some welcome tranquility from the hectic surroundings of Kowloon. The park was once an army fortress but was handed over by the military for public use in 1970. Today, Kowloon Park comprises of lotus ponds, rock cascades, terrapins basking in the sunshine and even flamingos!
It didn’t take long to spot the sheer variety of shopping centres in Hong Kong as we ambled along Canton Street. Wandering down the bustling streets and dodging shoppers was dizzying but added to our excitement at being in this new city. Every budget and need is catered for in Hong Kong, however designer shops definitely dominate. Glitzy boutiques are built in to the domineering sky rises, connected to one another by bridged walkways or underground tunnels making for convenient shopping sprees and ensuring members of the public aren’t far away from the quick relief of air conditioning.
We were surprised by how hot it was in the city, even as the sun began to set. We walked to Victoria Harbour, located between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon. The harbour’s deep, sheltered waters and strategical location on the South China Sea were instrumental in Hong Kong’s establishment as a British colony. Victoria Harbour still retains its founding role as port for thousands of international vessels each year and is a major tourist attraction. From here we observed the incredible skyline of Hong Kong Island across the water, the southern part of Hong Kong and the CBD. This region has over 7,000 high-rise buildings that sprout from the ground and into the sky to jaw dropping heights.
Just behind Victoria Harbour is the historical clock tower. This landmark is the only remnant from the original site of the former Kowloon Station on the railway. Built out of red bricks and granite, the Clock Tower peaks at 44-meters and it topped by a 7-meter lightning rod.
We reached Temple Street night market as the skies darkened and the neon lights of Hong Kong began burning brightly. This night market claims to be the liveliest in Hong Kong and spans across a never-ending pedestrianised street. There was certainly a bustling atmosphere with open air street stalls selling an array of delicious looking food and plenty of cheap clothes, watches, pirated DVDs and fake labels to purchase. It wasn’t our scene but the hive of activity was infectious.
Our stomachs quickly let us know that it was dinnertime and we were really spoilt for options so we made sure to consult TripAdvisor and choose wisely. Hong Kong has a broad culinary repertoire and you can find pretty much anything you want of a high quality. Hong Kong finds a way to sate every desire, from a humble bowl of noodles and beef brisket, to the latest celebrity chef creation. However one of its most infamous cuisines is dim sum, small bite-sized portions of food served in small steamer baskets. These steamed buns contain a range of ingredients including beef, chicken, pork, prawns and vegetarian options. We had a range of fillings in both fried and steamed dim sum at Dim Dim Sum Restaurant. The small size of the delicious morsels means you can try a wide variety of dim sums in one sitting, which is exactly what we did. The seafood stuffed aubergines were a highlight.
We began our first full day in Hong Kong bright and early. We beat the rush of crowds queuing to reach Victoria Peak, a mountain in the western half of Hong Kong Island. With an elevation of 552 meters, it is the highest mountain on the island and one of the top tourist attractions so we were prepared to elbow our way through the crowds. The summit is reached by the Peak Tram, a funicular railway, which brings passengers up to the top at a ridiculously steep gradient. We actually arrived too early to be allowed into the viewing gallery so hung around at the bottom until the gates opened. Finally, we were allowed through to the terrace where we could appreciate the spectacular views of the city and its waterfront below. It was a great start to our first proper day, enabling us to gather our bearings and grasp the sheer size and spread of the islands that make up Hong Kong. Our eyes stretched across sparkling skyscrapers, Victoria Harbour and all the way in to the green hills of the New Territories.
The Peak is also the summit of Hong Kong’s property market. Properties at the peak of The Peak are more expensive than anywhere else in the world. Afterwards, we headed to the opposite end of the property spectrum, in the form of Yick Cheong Housing Estate. People call it the ‘Monster Building’, which consists of five colossal connecting buildings. We best felt the density of the city when standing in the courtyard amid the buildings, craning our necks to catch a glimpse of the sky above. It’s not easy to imagine the living conditions inside the complex, as the claustrophobia of simply standing in the hemmed-in courtyard was enough for us. Saying that, the photographs we took made the Housing Estate look much more unpleasant than it was in reality. It’s not surprising that Hong Kong has more inhabitants living at the 15th floor or higher than any other city in the world.
We opted to take the charming double decker Ding Ding to lunch, a tram system and one of the earliest forms of transport in the metropolis. The tramway runs on Hong Kong Island and is one of the most environmentally friendly ways of getting round the city, for a very reasonable price. However it is much slower than the rapid MTR system but the open-air windows provide a great opportunity to sight see with the wind in your hair. It was clear from the number of banks that Hong Kong is one of the world’s most significant financial centres, known to be ‘Asia’s World City’. We spotted an HSBC every 3 seconds on the Ding Ding and soon became a game to be the first person to point out an HSBC.
We hopped off at Sister Wah for lunch, a Michelin guide recommended Cantonese noodle soup restaurant selling delicious beef brisket dan dan noodles. Beef brisket noodles are a must eat in Hong Kong and are undeniably an important aspect of the local culture. The super tender meat falls apart in your mouth and is full of flavour. We shared a round table with a handful of locals on their work lunch break, watching them intently as to how we should go about eating the dish and what condiments to add to the broth. We don’t think we embarrassed ourselves too much, as we’re now seasoned chop stick handlers.
After lunch we were back on the Ding Ding and on to Happy Valley racecourse. The venue was built in 1845 to provide horse racing for the British people of Hong Kong but over the years, racing has become popular among Chinese residents too. Races in Happy Valley normally take place on Wednesday nights and are open to the public as well as members of the club.
We retreated into the shade of Winston’s coffee shop for a break. We were in need of a caffeine fix in order to give us enough momentum to make it to the Hong Kong Museum of History. The museum, established in 1975, encompasses natural history, archaeology, ethnography and local history. We were interested in the Hong Kong Story, a permanent exhibit detailing the history and development of Hong Kong. We admit, we didn’t know much about Hong Kong before arriving and the museum was certainly eye opening. It outlined the natural environment, folk culture and historical development of the city vividly.
A former British colony, Hong Kong was briefly occupied by Japan during the second world war, until British control resumed in 1945. In 1984, Hong Kong became a special administrative region of the People’s Republic of China with a high degree of autonomy. Under the principle of ‘one country, two systems’, Hong Kong maintains a separate political and economic system from China.
The 8 galleries located over two floors were just too much for us to take in before the museum closed its doors to visitors. We were kicked out at 6pm, promising ourselves we’d come back before the trip was over to complete the exhibit.
We made it back to Kowloon in time to see the sun setting behind the tower studded city scape and concrete jungle that we are growing to love more and more by the minute. It was time to try another dim sum spot for dinner. Dim Sum literally translates to ‘touch your heart’ and it certainly tugged at our heartstrings. We vowed to have one dim sum meal a day while we were in Hong Kong as the market was so damn good! We had the most delicious pan-fried dumplings at Cheung Hing Kee Shanghai Pan Fried Buns on Lock Road. The only issue was that the glorious parcels of pork, shrimp and juicy gravy inside were boiling hot, making it impossible to eat at the speed that our rumbling tummies required. Instead we scolded our mouths and tongues on the juice that burst from the buns as our chopsticks pierced the doughy skin.
An ice cream did the trick cooling down our greedy mouths and we walked back to Victoria Harbout to watch the Symphony of Lights. Victoria Harbour is known for its panoramic night view and skyline, particularly in the direction towards Hong Kong Island where the skyline is superimposed over the ridges and mountains behind it. A Symphony of Lights is a daily light show and the largest permanent light fixture in the world. The nightly multimedia show involves more than 40 buildings on both sides of the harbour. Coloured lights and laser beams preform in an unforgettable spectacle synchronized to music and narration.
We headed to Lantau Island on day three, the largest of Hong Kong’s many islands. Located at the mouth of the Pearl River, Lantau Island is referred to as the lungs of Hong Kong because of its abundance of indigenous forest and relative scarcity of high-rise residential developments. We had made our way to the island for the Ngong Ping Plateau, featuring the Po Lin Monastery as well as the 85-foot high bronze Tian Tian Buddha statue. We reached these landmarks via the Ngong Ping 360, a scenic 5.7 km cable car journey. It felt much higher up than the cable car journey we took to Maokong from Taipei. Although the skies were hazy, views were spectacular.
The Buddha statue symbolises the harmonious relationship between nature, people and faith, and is a major symbol of Buddhism in Hong Kong. We wandered around the base of the Buddha, up to the top of the stairway and then made a brief stop at the less impressive Po Lin Monastery.
We strolled down to Wisdom Path, lined with 38 wooden monuments inscribed with the Heart Sutra prayer, offering bit of peace from the lively crowds beneath the Buddha statue.
Once we’d made it back down to Hong Kong Island via cable car, we had our eyes on one thing only for lunch: dim sum. We’d been eating a rather beige looking diet since arriving in Hong Kong, and although we love the food, knowing we’re here for five days only is reassuring as we couldn’t survive off it forever, without succumbing to heart failure.
After filling our stomachs with delightful steamed and fried buns once again, we walked to the Jockey Club Innovation Tower. This building was noted as an impressive architectural photo opportunity online, but we had no idea it was part of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. It happened to be freshers week when we arrived on campus so we did our best to act natural and blend in to the crowds. Sports clubs, societies and religious groups were all rallying around startled looking freshers in order to entice them to sign up. We slipped through the crowds and into the Innovation Tower where an airy atrium greeted us. We climbed up to the first floor but quickly retreated after realising students were actually in the middle of their lectures as we crept along the corridors.
We stopped off at Urban Coffee Roasters for our daily caffeine fix. We’re going to miss this ritual when we return home. Then, we finally succumbed to the many shopping centres (mainly because we needed the toilet and it was starting to rain) and wandered around the shops, eyeing up some of the designer brands. Unfortunately no purchases were made. We saved our money in favour of buying some booze from a local craft beer shop. Our book of beer labels still had a handful of pages free so we bought a selection of Hong Kong brewed beers to sample, which we would later peel the labels from and stick into the booklet.
Perhaps wanting a change from the Chinese cuisine, we opted for a Nepalese curry for dinner. Manakamana Nepalese restaurant was situated close to the Temple Street night market and reminded us of our days in Malaysia stuffing ourselves with buttery rotis.
It was another early start the following day as we made our way by bus to the Dragon’s Back walking trail. We’re big fans of the efficient MTR system and have found it very easy to navigate around the city, however the buses are a different kettle of fish. It was a long drive through grid lock traffic to reach our destination, making us appreciate how great Singapore’s bus and MRT combo is.
The 50km-hiking trail on Hong Kong Island is one of the most popular treks in the city. Our walk followed the rugged, undulating spinal ridge of the Dragon’s Back where the earth is regarded as a living being, with lines of force known as ‘dragon veins’. The breathtaking views encompassed dazzling seas, distant islands and the city of skyscrapers below. It made us eager to explore more of Hong Kong’s countryside if only we had more time.
The hike wasn’t as strenuous as we expected, although some Asian trekkers were geared up as though they were about to climb Everest. We’d conquered the ridge in an hour or so and were ready to catch the bus back down to the city.
Every day spent in Hong Kong involved leaving our hotel room no later than 9am and returning no earlier than 9pm. On top of this we’d been averaging around 22,000 steps a day, hungry to explore as much of this metropolis as possible in our short stay. So we felt pretty exhausted by day five, especially as our dilapidating energy levels had been fuelled by dim sum alone.
We grabbed some lunch and coffee at Brew Bros after our walk to gather some strength to tackle the rest of the day. After replenishing our bodies, we caught the Star Ferry over to Kowloon. This ferry service regularly carries passengers between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon and is an inexpensive way of crossing the harbour while enjoying the skyline that we never tire of gazing at.
In the afternoon we explored Chi Lin Nunnery and Nan Lian Garden. The gardens have been designed in the style of the Tang dynasty, meticulously landscaped over an area of 3.5 hectares. The grounds incorporate all four elements of a classical Chinese garden including rocks, water, plans and architecture. We were educated about one of the permanent rock exhibitions by a very friendly local working in the gardens.
Next door is the nunnery, a large temple complex of elegant wooden architecture, Buddhist relics and lotus ponds.
Just round the corner from the garden and nunnery was another housing estate we’d read about for it’s photogenic qualities. Choi Hung Estate is one of the oldest public housing estates in Hong Kong comprising of eleven residential blocks, one car park, five schools and various shops and restaurants. It’s aptly named ‘Rainbow Estate’ as the buildings are painted in a spectacular palette of hues. There were plenty of instagrammers lingering around to capture the best angle, but in the case of Choi Hung, no filter is needed. As well as appreciating the aesthetics of the estate, it was also fun to watch the hive of activity on the top of the car park. Swarms of kids playing basketball after school and toddlers navigating scooters through tangles of legs were enjoying the last of the afternoon sun. There was a real community atmosphere and friendly vibe from all of the residents. Living in on a Housing Estate, both in Singapore and Hong Kong, does not seem to carry the same stigma as it does back in the UK. The British government could take a few tips from Hong Kong on how to spruce up our estates and make them more welcoming.
As it was our last evening in Hong Kong we had to scoff a selection of dim sum for the final dinner. We ate them on Victoria Harbour as the sky darkened and night fell. We were in pole position to watch the Symphony of Lights at 8pm for the second time, and there were just as many crowds of people gathering to watch along side us.
On our final morning, we packed our bags and headed out in search of some breakfast. Mammy’s Pancakes hit the spot and we filled ourselves on green tea and red bean waffles.
We headed back to the Hong Kong Museum of History to finish off the exhibition. It will be interesting to see how Hong Kong’s history develops as it marks the 20th anniversary of the handover of the territory from the UK to China.
We hopped on the Star Ferry once again to grab a coffee and cake at Barista Jam. There have been some wonderful coffee shop options in Hong Kong but some of our favourites seem to have all been located on the same street on Hong Kong Island. Perhaps this is due to the large number of office workers in the area who hunt out conveniently close and delicious coffee in their breaks.
We ate at Maks Noodles for lunch, lapping up the tasty wonton and beef brisket noodle soup. Finally, it was time to get the MTR to airport where we would return to Singapore that evening.
We were so glad we decided to book this last minute trip, making the most of our final couple of weeks in South East Asia. We aren’t sure what we would have done with ourselves in Singapore if we hadn’t come to Hong Kong. No doubt the panic of returning home and the looming prospect of job applications would have dampened our moods. Whereas our time in Hong Kong, although very busy and exhausting (in a good way), kept our positive energies up, and we certainly left on a high. We reckon five days in Hong Kong is the minimum travellers should spend exploring, and we’d actually like to come back again to see more! One day.