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traveling

Hong KongApril 6-10, 2006

Hong Kong

I've only seen Hong Kong from movies as a juxtaposition of extremes - skyscrapers side-by-side with shanties, chauffer-driven taipans with rickshaw caddies, glitzy nightlife amidst abject poverty, etc. I was in for a pleasant surprise.

A Luxurious Tent
We stayed at Rent-a-Room HK. At HK$400/night, it was cramped but clean and fully equipped with a tv, fridge and an all-in-one washroom. You can look at it two ways: a sardine environment or a luxurious tent. Since I'm a mountaineer who spent nights in a 4x4 leaky tent pitched in uneven ground, this place was the Taj Mahal.

Washrooms
I do a lot of walking when travelling, and one of my biggest concerns is the availability of public washrooms. I wish it was as easy and cheap as facing a street wall and relieving myself. Geneva was a nightmare for the lack of it. France had public washrooms but for a fee (euros vs. pesos is a big kick in the teeth). In Hong Kong however, there was always a clean public washroom for free. If that fails, there's McDonalds or a commercial building. That goes a long way.

Funny - I was at Starbucks and asked for the washroom. The guy said, "...go down the basement into the main mall, turn left and keep going straight. At the end is a McDonald's. They have a washroom."

Perks
One thing unusually pleasant about Hong Kong is its many unsolicited perks. Sure, it has the money, but not all wealthy cities offer these little extras that do wonders in extending goodwill. Washrooms are readily available and they're free. In the airport and in malls, there are free internet kiosks. A few tourist attractions didn't even bother with admission fees. Even our modest hotel room offered free toothbrush, toothpaste, hot and cold filtered water, coffee and tea. Wow...I never had the unexpected extras this much.

Idiot Proof
Finding my way around Hong Kong was made painless by the thorough thinking they've done to give the tourist an easier time. Just about everything is intuitive and made easier. Signs are everywhere and they're bilingual - Chinese and English. The airport train has a L.E.D. - lit route map that visually tells you how close you are to your destination. The MTR trains have lit arrows and blinking lights to give you a sense of bearing. Bus stations have map routes with frequency intervals.

Shopping
With the currency exchange at HK$1 = Phil P6.58, Hong Kong is not cheap. A hearty bowl of noodle soup along a street-side eatery ranges from HK$10 to $25. Decent unpretentious lodging starts at HK$400/night.

General imports from North America (like electronics and gear) and made-in-China clothes (read: cheap labor) come at a bargain though. A 3-pack Baleno shirt costs HK$100.

Tip: if you don't have much time, avoid being in Hong Kong on a Sunday. Lots of shopping areas are close.

Mong Kok
This bustling place reminds me of Bangkok's Chattachuk Market. It was fun rummaging through narrow streets for surprising finds. Haggling is part of the fun. Mongkok is where the locals do their shopping. You find everything there at a lower price than the tourist belt areas. This remains one of the must-do things in Hong Kong.

SARS Legacy
SARS devasted Hond Kong. During its outbreak, hotel occupancy plunged down to 5%. It was a ghost town. With huge overheads, you can just imagine the economic nightmare. They've recovered since but having realized the importance of tourist dollars, they no longer give you that take-it-or-leave-it attitude - they're more tolerant...no rudeness. Hygience is also underscored. They seem to be obsessive-compulsive about washing their hands. Guys always wash their hands before leaving the washroom.

Ending Thoughts
I was more than impressed with Hong Kong - its densely concentrated massif of glass, steel and concrete, the hustle and bustle along the crowded avenues, mouth-watering street food, shopping galore from the ritzy to the dollar bric-a-brack, ultra modern facilities and lots of perks. They've kept their progress in-check as well - you don't find smoke-belchers and the chaos itself is organized.

It's a first-rate city with a class act. I would liken it to a more modern New York, complete with all the technological gizmos it can buy (the train service from the airport to the main city even had a movie screen on every seat). I came away feeling a got a tap on my shoulder with this big guy saying, "We've already made our money. The perks are on us. Come visit us again." Given time and money, I definitely will.

Mainland China had a windfall in Hong Kong. 100 years ago, it ceded a rock island to Great Britain. Now, this rock island has morphed into one of the wealthiest places in the world...given back to China on a silver platter. Not bad for a free 100-year lease.

--- TheLoneRider

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