Remember the harrowing descent into Hong Kong’s old Kai Tak airport? A strong gust of wind would have the plane wobbling from side to side as passengers peered out in alarm straight into the living rooms of equally alarmed residents whose apartments lined the approach. Arriving in Hong Kong from Chiang Mai used to involve a lengthy layover in Bangkok and by the time you stepped foot on the island city you were exhausted from a full day’s travel as well as being traumatised by the infamous Kai Tak Heart Attack, as the airport’s runway 13 was colloquially called.
Since the new airport opened in 1998, travel has, and continues to be, easier and much more pleasurable. This month I took the only direct flight from Chiang Mai on HK Express. A mere two and a half hours on the plane had me landing at the swank and efficient airport with transport systems to whisk me speedily into Hong Kong, Kowloon or any other island or New Territory destination I desired. I left my home in Chiang Mai at 6pm and was sipping a merlot in the bathtub in my room overlooking the harbour by midnight. Marvellous.
Hong Kong, if you have never been, is guaranteed to fascinate. It is rich in contradictions and fueled by the collective energy of its ambitious and active masses. Over 250 islands as well as the New Territories and Kowloon attached to mainland China, cover just over a thousand square kilometres and is home to over seven million people. To put that into perspective, and context of this month’s cover story, that is about four times the size of the Doi Suthep-Pui National Park, which houses a population in the lower tens of thousands. If you have enochlophobia, or fear of crowds, then you would think that Hong Kong, with one of the highest population densities in the world wouldn’t appeal (One district in Kowloon alone packs a skin-crawling 55,000 people into each square kilometre!) But yet, nearly half of Hong Kong’s territory is in fact country parks and nature reserves with fabulous hiking trails offering breathtaking vistas of islands, harbours and mountains, within easy escape from the city.
Typhoons and Tycoons
Hong Kong embraces its unabashed commercialism and is one of the shopping Meccas of the world, with reports consistently showing that the people of Hong Kong have some of the highest addictions to consumerism and shopping on the planet. You can easily lose yourself in a labyrinth of malls, shops, restaurants, hotels and cafes for days on end as the administration has facilitated the connectivity of shops and other businesses so that you never even have to leave the air-conditioned comfort as you spend your days spending your money. With one of the most billionaires per capita, Hong Kong’s raison d’être seems to be the making — and spending — of money, whether it is shopping, trading or gambling, wealth is to be flaunted and brands adulated.
However, there is a core strength and resiliency to Hong Kong which belies this seemingly shallow economic idolatry. As typhoons bash its shores and 8,000 plus skyscrapers, its engineers have built a fort-like city to withhold any storm. Following the 1997 handover from Britain there have been regular mass protests and predictions of economic gloom, yet Hong Kong continues to grow from strength to strength. Limited land and resources are overcome by reclaiming land from the sea and investment in smart energy. The island city is thriving and its energy palpable.
Chowing it Down
Consistently topping most rankings as one of the world’s greatest food destinations, Hong Kong boasts a whopping 61 Michelin starred restaurants, including one of the first two awarded to a food stall! While classic southern Chinese Cantonese dishes such as dim sums are well known, other Chinese cuisines from Hokkian to Zhejiang are also popular and it is the cultural influences of its expats, both western and eastern, over the past century which have added to its rich and incredibly diverse foodscape. From the cheapest of roadside stalls to the most sophisticated of restaurants, Hong Kong is the place to go for those who enjoy treating their taste buds to a special holiday. Its distinctive districts, from Kowloon’s Tsim Sha Tsui with its fabulous skyscraper restaurants opening up to splendid views across Victoria Harbour to Hong Kong’s nightly display of lights to the trendy and swanky pubs of Lan Kwai Fong and SoHo Hollywood, each have their own unique character and vibe. If you want to get away from it all, pop over to Lamma Island’s old fishing village of Sok Kwu Wan for some fresh and tasty seafood, or hang out in Aberdeen, discovering its newly gentrified hip little boutique and artisanal restaurants or for a bit of naughty fun, wander the infamous streets of Wan Chai where you will find a melting pot of eclectic restaurants.
Old and New
While Hong Kong is a modern city in all senses; its infrastructure, transportation, facilities and architecture standing shoulder to shoulder with any world city, it also boasts a very unique history, of which its people take great pride. Two of its most popular activities and attractions both date to 1888 — the Star Ferry which shuttles over 70,000 people across the harbour each day and the charming five minute Peak Tram which also allows its many daily passengers to gape at the vista that is Hong Kong. Nearly one hundred years to the year, a proposal was made for another engineering feat, the Central–Mid-Levels escalator and walkway system which is the longest outdoor covered escalator system in the world. The entire system covers over 800 metres and elevates over 135 metres from top to bottom allowing commuters and tourists to navigate these commercial districts without having to resort to public transportation on roads which zigzag over several kilometres or expend huge amounts of calories in climbing steep steps.
The Hong Kong Disneyland speaks for itself and is a massive draw for families from all over the region. The charming Ocean Park, built in the ‘70s, has recently seen a revival with a vast investment and expansion which has made it another family destination drawing huge crowds. The good news for families is that Hong Kong is an incredibly safe destination to visit as it has one of the lowest crime rates in the world.
Whether you are looking for a luxury romantic escape of fine dining and posh hotels, a fun weekend shopping getaway with your girlfriends, a gastronomic indulgence of some of Asia’s finest food, or a family holiday, Hong Kong pretty much has it all, and at varying levels of bahts. Now with HK Express shuttling between our two cities daily, it is just a matter of a few mouse clicks and you will be sitting all windswept on a Star Ferry taking in the harbor views, or rubbing shoulders with the city’s trendy in Soho, in a matter of hours.