I’ve been a little slower on this one compared to the others, but here I am with part 5, the penultimate chapter in my inability to shut up about my time in Hong Kong. If you haven’t yet, feel free to catch up on parts 1, 2, 3 and 4, otherwise you can read this one on its own. It’s totally up to you. No pressure.
Unlike my day trip to Macau, which had barely been planned and my casual-ness had led to a delayed arrival, I was extra prepared for my last full day in the country. I was heading to Lantau Island, and not only had I already bought tickets for the Ngong Ping cable car, but I had everything planned out. I knew how long it’d take to get there, what time I needed to be at the cable car, what to do once I was there and what buses I needed to catch to see the rest of the island. I felt like I knew what I was doing, which is a rare luxury for someone like myself.
First things first – well first was a breakfast, which deserves its own little tangent. Good breakfasts aren’t as easy to find in Hong Kong as other two main meals are, but it can be done. Several places also include a tea or coffee as complimentary with your order. Awesome. But apparently the Australian word for ‘tea’, which incidentally is the same word for ‘tea’ in every other English speaking country, is actually the word for ‘coffee’ in Hong Kong.
Now, people who know me in real life know I’m not really a coffee drinker. It’s not my thing. So when I order tea in this situation, I do so because A) I like a cup of tea every now and then, and B) it’s more because I don’t like coffee but I’m too cheap to order a separate drink. Well here I am sitting at the table with a cup of coffee in front of me. This actually happened twice somehow, both times when I had a breakfast that came with your choice of tea or coffee and I ordered tea. Now I could have sent it back, but that’s treading well and truly into ‘awkward social interaction’ scenarios, something I will bend over backwards to avoid (and well it was kind of free), so I ended up drinking more coffee in the space of a couple of days in Hong Kong than I have in years in Australia. Update: Still not a fan…
Anyway, the rest of the traditional Western breakfast was nice (I’m all for trying new foods, but when you offer a man bacon, sausage and eggs, is there really a choice?) and after filling my belly I made my way to East Tsim Sha Tsui Station (all 20 metres away from where I ate…) and prepared for what I had read was an hour long journey by train. Which meant I’d get there with enough time to orientate myself before catching the cable car at my designated time.
The hour long train ride actually took about 35 minutes at most. But I thought I’d see if I could redeem my ride for an earlier spot, and after being directed towards a line before I could ask to change my time, I ended up getting on a cable car like an hour earlier anyway. Apparently the time is more a guideline, but that was fine by me, because the early arrival ended up being a blessing.
See, Ngong Ping and the Big Buddha statue is one of those tourist attractions that guarantees to draw in the crowds. But I ended up arriving around 10am, and it allowed me a grace period where there were a few people, but hardly the congested mass I had been used to in Hong Kong. It was a far cry from the eternal mosh pit of Macau, and it made Ngong Ping – a fairly nature heavy location – something to really appreciate. By the time I left there were plenty of people, but I was able to enjoy several of the key spots in relative peace. Seems like the numbers really start to pile up around 11.30/12, so if you ever find yourself with a chance to go, try and get there before then.
The Wisdom path in particular was quiet. For the fifteen-ish minute walk to the path I was all alone, with just the chirping of birds, the squeak of my Converse shoes and the voices in my head to keep me company. Once I got there, there was just three hikers taking a break, and a lady to the side practicing Tai Chi. Given the nature of the Wisdom Path, not having to deal with other tourists made it that little bit more special, allowing you to take in the rather impressive arrangement of wooden poles and the calming feeling you get whenever you’re in a beautiful natural environment. And yes, this and other areas ticked off more ‘Running Man’ media tourism spots. I even found where the white haired man was hiding, though he had now been long gone.
The Buddha too was pretty quiet when I made the trek up the stairs, and it’s always nice to know I’m not pulling myself up through endless selfies as sweat pours down my face – which was more to do with the heat. Yeah there’s a lot of stairs, but it’s not really that difficult a climb if you’re even close to somewhat fit (which I’m not really). There is an option to avoid those stairs though, at the top there’s a spot for buses, one of which had pulled up to let off a few elderly Chinese tourists. It’s actually kind of funny that the typical Buddha figure, known for his less than athletic body, sits at the top of a lengthy stair climb.
And yes, it’s worth the climb. You can see the Buddha across the Ngong Ping area (It’s a damn impressive sight too) but you can really appreciate the handiwork and detailing once you get up there and get a good look. There are also plenty of other well crafted statues around the base, and while I’m far from knowledgeable on Buddhism, from a outsider looking in there’s still plenty to take away from the experience. You are also treated to the best views outside of the cable car as you can look out across most of the Ngong Ping area, including the equally impressive Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery.
I’ve come up through a Christian background, and not one that encourages fancy buildings like the old school Catholic churches. We’re talking plastic chairs and bare bones walls “it’s about the message and the people not the building” kind of stuff. So taking in the temples and monasterys in Hong Kong, which tend to skew to the other end of the spectrum, is a real culture shock. These buildings make you pause and take it all in, and the attention to detail is phenomenal. The thing you notice most of all is the colour. The rich reds, blues and greens that cover the outside of the building, and the sheer brightness of the gold of the statues inside. We’re not talking nine carat plated gold that fails an acid test and upsets the middle aged woman who assures me it’s legitimate and worth a lot (sorry, getting nightmare flashbacks from my first job buying old gold from people). This is amongst the purest gold my eyes have laid witness too, and I’m glad I wasn’t here with a potential future wife because it would mar any jewelry purchases that might ever get made by comparison.
That’s to say, it’s impressive. You’re not allowed to take photos inside the monastery though, so I can’t share the blinding gold Buddhas, which I’m actually ok with. People use the areas to pray and pay respects to their Gods, and while I might not share their faith I do feel it’s best to let them do so without capturing them in some photo. It’s weird enough to be there as a tourist as they engage in their worship – I couldn’t imagine the roles being reversed, though beige walls and a small cross on a pulpit is less photogenic – so keeping the area as a place of quiet and respect sits well with me.
Before this blog leaves Ngong Ping though I do have to comment on the cable car. I only caught it one way, as I was planning to catch a bus down to Tai O, but it really is a fantastic experience. It’s a twenty minute ride and you really can appreciate the Island from up there. It’s probably not ideal for people who might be afraid of heights, but I’d say you have to at least go up there via cable car once, even if you bus back. I didn’t go for the fancier crystal cabin which offers a glass bottom for you to enjoy, and I don’t feel I missed all that much by doing so. The standard cabin does the job unless you’re really willing to pay the extra.
Just like with Victoria Peak, I’d recommend taking the cheaper and longer option back down. Yes the cable car is scenic , and you do get to see quite a bit even on a hazier day, but the bus ends up traversing the other side of the island and you get to take in even more beautiful countryside (and some free roaming cattle). You can bus back to Tung Chung station, or do what I did and head down to Tai O fishing village.
Why go to the fishing village? Well it’s an amazing contrast to the rest of Hong Kong. Home to the last stilt house collection in Hong Kong, Tai O is a tranquil little taste of life as it used to be. There are touristy things to do like catching the boat out to try and spot some Chinese white dolphins (which are actually pink, but whatever), but its worth coming to just to walk around and take in the area.
The highlight is far and away the stilt houses. People live there, but you’re free to travel along the walkways and look around. It’s fairly safe – I’m a big guy and the wooden bridges that connect the houses didn’t give way on me, but again watch your head, this isn’t a Western height friendly place – and every direction you look you’ll find something worth looking at to stop you in your tracks. But it’s not built for tourists, it’s built for people to live. It looks decrepit and run down, but there is beauty to be found in how the people are making do. Tourism has brought in money to the area (there’s plenty of street food to eat here, and the egg waffles are fantastic) but they don’t make much money from their fishing industry and it’s still a very poor neighbourhood, especially compared to the luxury of high end Hong Kong. I personally couldn’t imaging growing up and living there, but the human race will do what it does to survive and thrive. Bring your camera, because you’ll find new angles and focal points to fill your memory cards up with. It’s oddly serene.
After exploring Tai O for a few hours, I caught the bus back to Tung Chung. Now, normally the thought of being trapped on a bus with a ‘talker’ next to me would be enough to terrify me, but the man who sat next to me and introduced himself as Henry ended up changing my mind about the idea – I’m not going to convert and become the guy who gets a life story out of every passenger who has to take a seat next to me mind you, being social is terrifying – but he was incredibly nice. We talked about his family and his travels, he asked me about what brought me to Hong Kong and what I was going to do now I’d graduated. His English was fantastic and I got off the bus feeling like we had made a bit of a connection. As I’ve mentioned in previous entries, one of the highlights of this trip has been the people I’ve encountered. I’ll be honest, despite the more pronounced language barriers I felt like the Japanese people I dealt with on a day to day basis were friendlier than those in Hong Kong. BUT the lack of language barrier has also allowed me to truly interact with the people, and when that happened I left feeling blessed and encouraged. Those I actually talked to, properly, not just on a ‘need to’ basis, have been fantastic, and added a lot to the trip, whether they were locals, tourists or ex-pats. Henry, if you somehow end up reading this, you’re a top bloke!
Part 6 will mark the end of my journey in Hong Kong. There’s not that much more to cover, but I want to allow myself some space to finish with some additional thoughts about the trip and the oppourtunities I’ve had to travel both as a group and on my own. But I do delve into Mong Kok at night and also visit some more of Hong Kong’s beautiful gardens and temples. So keep your eyes on guard for the final edition of 1Up Abroad: Hong Kong!