Hong Kong is for three things: Fashion, Food and Fun. If you want to have four Fs, you could very easily add Friends to the list as well. I used to live in Hong Kong when I was younger. My dad got a job there in 1994, three years before the territory returned to China, and I spent all of my high school years there. In the process I gained permanent residency there, and to keep it I have to go back every three years. This year, two of my friends, Kris and Jared, came with me, and well, we spent a week blowing our budgets on really good food, clothes, shoes, Monster Hunter action figures, and the theme parks. Well, okay, one theme park and Disneyland.
Of course, you don’t care about any of that, so if you don’t want to read the rest of my ramblings and just get the travel goodies, feel free to jump straight to the food, shopping, or travel tips posts.
Hong Kong, for me, has always been this vibrant place that’s sort of home, but sort of not. I grew up on the south end of the island, because my mother refused to live in a high rise apartment, and spent my days playing computer games, Warhammer (Fantasy and Elves for preference), and role playing with a select bunch of geeks. It isn’t really until I left, grew up a bit, and went back that I felt comfortable enough to seek out the things I missed while I was there—the tiny shopping malls with the best of Hong Kong’s urban fashion. The best places to get electronics because Australia was so much more expensive—something I didn’t realize at the time. Where was the best food, given that my teenage palate was more inclined towards burgers and steak than the joy that is Michelin starred dim sum at outrageously affordable prices. So without further ado, please check out my top tips for an amazing holiday in Hong Kong.
1) Decide what you want to do.
It seems silly, but the basic fact of the matter is that there’s far too much to do in Hong Kong, and unless you’re planning on staying there for a few months, you’re not going to have time to do it all. So work out what you want to do, bearing in mind that if you go in the hot season you’ll be sweating buckets and if you’re there in the wet season you’ll be facing days of rain. I also recommend allowing for a rest day or two. You’re going to need it. To be honest, draw up a list of things to do and then use it as a reference of things you might do, and then look out the window to see what you should be doing on any given day, weather permitting. Just don’t expect to do things all at once.
2) Exploit your local friends.
If you’re lucky enough to know someone from Hong Kong—preferably someone who lives there—ask them where all the cool places are. All the things that I know here are pretty much things that I learned from my local friends—some are still valid now three, six or more years since I first discovered them, others have gone away, sadly, but I won’t tell you about those. I do recommend checking to see if the places I talk about are still there, and I apologise in advance if they’re not. Things change quickly in Hong Kong. So if you do know someone who lives there—talk to them. Also, if you can convince them to hang out with you moderately incessantly, they’re also very handy when it comes to language and bartering. Some of the places my friends directed me to are very much off the tourist trail and sometimes the shopkeepers won’t speak English. I speak English amazingly well, have very bad Mandarin that wouldn’t get me out of primary school, and even worse Cantonese. It gets better when I’m there, but if there’s someone there who knows the language fluently, you’ll not only find places you wouldn’t or couldn’t go to, but you’ll also have someone fun to chat to while you’re there. I’ve been trying to talk my friend Amy into starting a travel business where she charges, oh I don’t know, HKD $2000 a day to take people around. Trust me, that’s a bargain. Kris, Jared and I simply bought her lots of food and refused to let her pay for anything.
3) Set a budget and expect to go over it.
This is possibly a bit counter intuitive, but after you work out point 1: i.e. what you want to do, work out how much you want to spend on what you want to do. If you’re going to buy a computer, work out what it costs locally and how much you’re willing to spend in Hong Kong. If you’re shopping for clothes, work out what you want to buy and how much you have to spend in total. Ditto for food. Hong Kong has everything from the ultra-high end to the ultra-low end, but the best bargains for me are finding the one off pieces you’re not going to get back home that everyone’s going to want but can’t get—or find—and getting them at a fraction of the designer good prices you’d normally expect to pay. Now unless you’re extremely rich—and in which case, why are you reading this—you can’t afford everything. But trust me when I say you’re going to eat up your budget, find something amazing, and think ‘I’m not back here for a very long time—if at all—so I want to buy this now’. So put some money aside for those situations. You’ll be glad you did and not hate yourself when you get back. I pre-loaded some money onto a prepaid MasterCard (Qantas Cash—frequent flyer card with real world applications, awesome). This let me lock in an exchange rate, but it also meant that I didn’t have to worry about my budget until I’d used up the money I’d pre-loaded onto the card.
4) Take some friends with you
I know some people love travelling alone, but I love travelling with friends. I suggest more than two people, as it gives you someone extra to bounce off complain to and share giggles with. Going with friends also mean you’ll have people to hold bags when someone wants to go to the bathroom, change into a million clothes, and dance crazy with you when you do go check out the nightclubs. Or enjoy the thrills of a rollercoaster with. And if one of you needs to bail because—for example—the music is shithouse, the other two of you can keep going. I took two good friends with me, and a week in Hong Kong felt like somewhere between two weeks and a month after all we’d been through. Of course, on the way home it felt like a week, but then, that’s the best kind of holiday, isn’t it?
5) Get an Octopus card and learn how to use it.
If you’re in Australia, like me, and struggling with the clunkiness that is Myki in Victoria (I haven’t used Sydney’s smart card, so I don’t know how good it is/is going to be), you will love the Hong Kong Octopus card. Modelled—I think—on London’s Oyster card, the Octopus is another mollusc with its tentacles everywhere in everyday Hong Kong life. Once you’ve used it and the Hong Kong train system (Mass Transit Railway, or MTR), you’ll also understand why I was so confused by Australia’s train time tables. Time table? What’s this time table? Don’t trains just run every five minutes? What do you mean no?
The Octopus card is your public transport, convenience store and some fast food purchase key. You buy a card (Adult cards cost about HKD $50, or less than AUD $10), and add money to it—I probably used about HKD$400 or $500 on the trip, but that includes two trips on the airport express and some rather pricey deluxe ferry fares. You then touch the smartcard reader at the MTR station to get on or off, or on the bus meter when you get on, or on the tram meter when you get off. You’re charged on trains based on the distance you travel, and on buses on the distance to the final destination. Trams charge a flat fair. The great thing about the Octopus card is that when it rolled out (and I was in school), it worked seamlessly on the train and bus system. It was then introduced on the minibus system and while you could top up at places like 7-11 and Circle K, convenience store owners soon realised that people could pay on their Octopus cards, and started using it like a debit card. You can now use it in a range of fast food places and convenience stores, and more importantly it gets you onto the Airport express, a 20 minute trip on a high speed train from Central, the heart of Hong Kong Island’s CBD, to the airport. Again, that’s slightly over $10 for a trip to the fricking airport, plus the ability to check your bags in at Central on most airlines. If you’re on a select few (Qantas being one of them), you can check your bags in up to 48 hours in advance, which would probably only be useful if you carry your toiletries and a few changes of clothing in your carry on. Given the restrictions on liquids on international travel, that might not be practical, but it’s kinda cool. If you’re like me and book a late flight out it does mean that you can check your bags and enjoy the afternoon without lugging a suitcase around though, so I highly recommend using it. And Melbourne, wake up and get that airport link done.
6) Check your bills
One of things the locals will do when shopping or dining is checking the bill/receipt. This makes sure that you’re charged for only what you ordered/ate or intended to buy, and could be important if you discover you need to swap a purchase over. Now depending on how long you’re in town for, the latter may not be a big deal, but it’s worth not getting ripped off. Granted, it never happened to me while I was there, but it is socially acceptable to take your time and check your bill before paying for a meal, or your receipt before leaving a shop when shopping.
7) Go to Ocean Park
If you only have time to go to one theme park in Hong Kong, forget Disneyland, and go to Ocean Park. It’s an amazing mix of conservation, rides and exhibits, and it’s much less fake than Disneyland (where the animals are plastic and Tarzan’s waterfall smells noticeably chlorinated). If you go on a weekday, you’ll also be able to avoid waiting more than 20 minutes for a ride, if indeed, there’s any wait at all. Just watch out for mainland Chinese people trying to cut in front of you in the big lines (like to the big aquarium), taking flash photography of the animals despite the ‘no flash photography’ signs, and if you’re tall and white, they just may decide that you’re a tourist attraction and all take photos with you for no apparent reason. It’s probably the closest a white guy will get to understanding racial tokenism, so enjoy it if that happens (as it did to my friend Kris).