Recycled Hong Kong Airport Opens As Cruise Terminal

Hong Kong
Hong Kong Tourism Board

Hong Kong‘s $1 billion Kai Tak cruise terminal is open and processing cruise travelers as anticipated. Located at the site of the former Kai Tak International airport runway, the terminal will eventually source passengers from a pool of 50 million potential middle-class passengers in China. This week though, it’s all about the Americans.

Passengers disembarking Royal Caribbean’s Mariner of the Seas this week found a bit of a different experience than that of other cruise ports around the world. Showcasing some of what China has to offer cruise travelers, Mariner of the Seas offered passengers a kung fu demonstration, a lion dance at Mikiki mall in San Po Kong, shopping, dining and more on planned tours.

Adventure cruise travelers with a desire to go it on their own had a bit different experience, finding transportation options limited. “The terminal is fine, the building is fine but there is no good connection to the city,” passenger Fred Lutjens said in a Standard report that notes a queue of 100 people waiting for a taxi.Kai Tak airport, which closed in 1998 after 70 years of service, was replaced by the current Chek Lap Kok International Airport. Using that valuable and available land efficiently, the $1 billion Kai Tak cruise terminal has the ability to handle passenger vessels as large as two of Royal Caribbean’s Oasis-class cruise ships, the largest in the world.

Bun Snatching At The Bun Festival In Hong Kong

Buns at the Bun Festival, Hong Kong
istolethetv, Flickr

On May 17, a good chunk of East Asia had a day off to celebrate the Buddha’s birthday (Southeast Asia will celebrate it next week). It happens that in Hong Kong the Enlightened One’s birthday coincides each year with a Taoist celebration called the Bun Festival. The culmination of the Bun Festival occurs at midnight of the eighth day of the fourth lunar month, when “bun snatchers” climb a 60-foot tower of buns and collect as many buns as will fit in their bun sack.

Yes, buns. Those doughy things you eat.

The Bun Festival has roots in the Taoist “Jiao” festivals, where communities pay homage to deities in order to foster peace in the coming year. The origins of the Bun Festival itself are vague. The common and possibly apocryphal story is that offerings were made to Pak Tai, the God of the Sea, in order to protect island villagers from pirates. Another history says it began during the days of Hong Kong’s bubonic plague epidemic, when Pak Tai again was asked for relief from the disease.

These Taoist Jiao festivals were apparently widespread before Mao-era suppression brought most religious activities to a screeching halt on the mainland. But the Bun Festival carried on unabated in Hong Kong – that is, until the late ’70s, when tragedy struck.

Bun Towers, Hong Kong
Adam Hodge, Gadling

The new bun towers (lit. translation: “bun mountains”) are steel-reinforced and authorities only allow harnessed, elite bun snatchers to climb them. The old bun towers, pictured above, are traditionally made with a bamboo frame. And in the ’70s and before, there were no harnesses – and no limits on the climbers. A mass of men would swarm at the towers, sometimes shimmying up the inside and bursting through the top, all trying to retrieve the top bun: the bun that conferred the most honor on the bun snatcher’s family; the luckiest bun.

(In case you’re wondering, the buns are blessed. The big red character on each of them means “peace,” which, as you’ll remember, is the reason the gods are being indulged.)

In 1978, one of the towers collapsed. One hundred people were injured and bureaucrats went into action, canceling the festival. It was only revived 27 years later, in 2005, with strict safety measures in place including limiting the number of climbers to 12. Locals complain that the festival has lost its authenticity because the towers are not a death trap and therefore less thrilling. Personally, I agree with this assessment – things are naturally edgier and more exciting when life is on the line. But I would contend, and I think Competitor #2 (in the pink shirt) in the following video will surely agree, that not all changes have been for the worse.

(You’ll forgive my videography, I was mesmerized by #3’s blistering pace.)

Other Attractions
A note on geography: Cheng Chau, where the BF is held, is one of Hong Kong’s Outlying Islands, which generally see far fewer tourists than Victoria Harbour and her famous skyline of hill-scrambling skyscrapers. So when a festival like this comes along, with its quirky competition and photo-op whimsy, it’s almost bound to be exploited to full effect, which it is.

A friend and I arrived with half of Hong Kong on a 30-minute fast ferry from Pier 5 in Central, but the other half of Hong Kong was already there. Spectators were stacked 20+ deep beside the cramped main street for the 2 o’clock start of the Parade-In-The-Air, arguably the most entertaining part of the festival. With a bit of a squeeze, we managed to get within tiptoe viewing distance of the procession, and at that moment it began to rain, so we only saw umbrellas for the next quarter hour. When the sun returned, so did our view, and the first thing that paraded into sight was a small child hovering above the heads of the onlookers, being borne precariously down the street atop a vertical column of bowls and plates.

Hovering Girl at Bun Festival parade
inkelv1122, Flickr

The poor kid looked pretty miserable. After the rain stopped and the sun came out, the temperature soared. You’d be miserable, too – the parade lasts two hours and they’re heavily costumed as figures from Chinese history and mythology and perched (or rather hung up by wire frames) atop a sculpture of some sort. One child was dressed in a finely tailored suit, standing on a sword. I have to wonder about the symbolism of that. On the other hand, a few kids looked genuinely thrilled, as below.

Overall, the effect is quite enjoyable. The little human statues are interspersed with loud drums and dancing dragons and lions and flag bearers. The crowd is as photographically enthusiastic as anywhere else in China, with generous and effusive “ooos” and “ahhs” for the suffering children.

Again, I have to wonder what famous figure this was.


As night fell, the elderly locals assembled at a stage between the towers and the Pak Tai temple to watch a Cantonese opera. However, unlike the spectators at the parade, the opera performers’ pentatonic dissonance was appreciated more contemplatively than vocally.

Meanwhile the other side of the island is all day a far quieter place, well enough away from the crowd control barriers and bun sellers. There are several sand beaches, and the eastern cove is actually a great windsurfing venue (it’s home to Hong Kong’s only Olympic gold medalist – a windsurfer).

A stone path takes you out beyond the beaches to some rock formations on the self-described “Mini Great Wall,” which is actually no more than the stone path you’re walking on. The views are terrific, though, overlooking the cargo ship-spotted West Lamma Channel to Hong Kong, Lamma and Lantau Islands. It’s all quite peaceful by the rocky shore, the surf swishing gently over the stones and little scuttling crabs fleeing every which way. So much so that despite the sunset being on the opposite side, we – and many other crowd refugees – chose to linger a little longer before diving back into the madness of the bun tower crowds, who had already staked a place in the ticket queue for a viewing spot beneath the tower.

Better Know A Holiday: Buddha’s Birthday

Laughing Buddha, Singapore
xcode, Flickr

AKA: Vesakha, Vesak, Wesak, Visak, Vixakha and many more derivatives.

When? The second Sunday in May OR the day of the full moon in May OR the Sunday nearest to the day of the full moon in May OR the eighth day of the fourth lunar month OR if you’ve decided all that calendric work is too much hassle, like the Japanese, April 8.

Public holiday in: Hong Kong, Macau, Thailand, China, South Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, India, Nepal, Cambodia, Vietnam, Bhutan, Laos.

Who died? Nobody.

Reason for celebration, then? The birth of the Buddha, of course. Though for many, the Buddha’s birth, death and enlightenment are lumped together in one big holiday. So …

Who died? The Buddha.

Origins: Some 2,500 years ago, Queen Mahamaya of the Shakya Kingdom in modern-day Nepal gave birth in a grove of blossoming trees. As the blossoms fell around mother and child, they were cleansed by two streams of water from the sky. Then the baby stood up and walked seven steps, pointed up with one hand and down with the other – not unlike a Disco Fever John Travolta – and declared that he alone was “the World-Honored One.”

The rest is Buddhist history. The toddler, named Siddhartha Gautama, grew up to become the Buddha and the founder of one of the world’s major religions. He attained Enlightenment under the Bodhi tree in what is now Bodhgaya, India. Later, after amassing many followers, he died, either of food poisoning or mesenteric infarction, depending who you ask, and reached Parinirvana, the final deathless state of Buddhism.

How is it celebrated now? Bathing little statues of the baby Buddha with tea or water, hanging lanterns, extended temple services.

Bathing Baby Buddha
Joint Base Lewis McChord, Flickr

Other ways to celebrate: Freeing caged birds, parades with dancers and illuminated lantern floats, temple offerings.

Concurrent festivals: The Flower Festival in Japan, the Bun Festival in Hong Kong.

Associated food: In many places, varieties of porridge, which commemorate the dish that Buddha received that ended his asceticism phase.

Associated commercialism: Certain companies like McDonald’s will even offer solely vegetarian options on Buddha’s birthday to stick with the spirit of the festival. Precious little, in fact. Though sales of lotus lanterns and baby Buddha statues rocket during this time, the celebrations are remarkably uncommercial.

Associated confusion: There is no reliable record for when the Buddha was actually born, thus the wide range of celebratory dates. This in no way puts a damper on festivities, but does result in a bit of awkwardness when there are two full moons in May, which happens regularly enough. Most recently it occurred in 2007, and Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Malaysia decided to celebrate during the first full moon of the month, while Singapore and Thailand celebrated at the end of May.

Best place to enjoy the festivities: Seoul really takes it up a notch, planning a week of events and celebrations in the lead-up. It kicks off with the Lotus Lantern Festival the weekend prior to Buddha’s birthday, when tens of thousands of Korean Buddhists parade through Seoul’s main roads under colorful lanterns, bringing the city to a standstill. The municipal government really pulls out all the stops, offering music, dance and theater performances in public places that are jammed with revelers. Take a look at the celebrations in Seoul and elsewhere around the world in this gallery:

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Hong Kong Harbor Invaded By Giant Rubber Duck


Hong Kong’s famous skyline was joined by a 54-foot rubber duck on Thursday. The duck, a traveling public exhibit by Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman floated into Victoria Harbour with the help of a tugboat.

The project has seen giant ducks float into harbors around the world since 2007, stopping by New Zealand, Japan, Germany, Brazil and Netherlands, among others. It’s been well-received in Hong Kong, where local papers have been looking out for the oversized inflatable children’s toy for weeks.

Hofman describes the purpose of the duck as a way to relieve political tensions around the world. According to him, the duck knows no boundaries and “doesn’t discriminate.”

The exhibit will remain on display in the harbor until June 9, 2013. Next stop is an unannounced city in the United States.

[Photo: AP]

International Budget Guide 2013: Hong Kong

Hong Kong may be the most expensive city in the world to set up an office, buy a luxury home and open a retail location, but it also offers surprising values for the budget traveler. For every five-star hotel, Michelin-starred restaurant and luxury emporium, there is a budget guesthouse, hole-in-the-wall noodle joint and back-alley marketplace waiting in the wings. Don’t believe us? Check out our Budget Hong Kong series, which ran earlier this year and featured ways to enjoy the Chinese special administrative region on a shoestring.

One trick is to venture beyond the heavily congested districts of Central, Causeway Bay and Tsim Sha Tsui, which tend to cater to the expense accounts of the business and finance set. Take a pilgrimage to the Olympian City mall in West Kowloon for a taste of Chef Mak Kwai Pui’s famous Michelin-starred dim sum at the newly expanded Tim Ho Wan. Or, head to the less-touristed Southern District to trek the famous Dragon’s Back, named Asia’s best urban hike by Time Magazine.

Though it is traditionally known as finance hub, Hong Kong has also emerged as a world-class center for contemporary art. The city held six art fairs in 2012, including the renowned Art HK, and this year sees the launch of the inaugural Art Basel Hong Kong, which will bring together artists and collectors from around the world in May. While purchasing the artwork may cost a pretty penny, the cost to attend and appreciate is minimal.

Budget activities

Symphony of Lights: This free nightly sound and light show over Victoria Harbour is magnificent, if cheesy. The best place to take in the hour-long spectacle is on the Tsim Sha Tsui promenade, which affords a perfect view of Hong Kong Island’s illuminated skyscrapers. Another option is to queue up for a journey on the famous Star Ferry (HK$2-3.40, US$0.25-0.44) to coincide with the show. http://www.tourism.gov.hk/symphony

Hong Kong Museum of History: Learn about Hong Kong’s colorful past in “The Hong Kong Story,” a superbly curated interactive exhibition at the Hong Kong Museum of History. Admission is just HK$10 (US$1.30) for adults and HK$5 (US$0.65) for students, seniors and the disabled; on Wednesdays, entrance is free. http://hk.history.museum Chatham Road South, Tsim Sha Tsui

Dragon’s Back: Hiking in Hong Kong? Not only is it possible, it is also a popular pastime for those who call the city-state home. Don’t miss Dragon’s Back, a moderately difficult 5.3-mile path connecting Wan Cham Shan and Shek O Peak over the D’Aguilar Peninsula in the Southern District of Hong Kong Island. The trailhead is located on Shek O Road; take the MTR to Shau Kei Wan Station and transfer to bus 9 in the direction of To Tei Wan, then look out for the signposts. Shek O Road near To Tei Wan Village, Southern

Hotels

Hotel ibis Hong Kong Central and Sheung Wan: This sparkling new budget hotel from the Accor group is located on the border of the Sheung Wan neighborhood, an easy walk to the high-rises and shopping centers of Hong Kong’s Central district. Standard rooms are small but feature high ceilings, bay windows and Sony LCD TVs. From US$137. http://www.ibis.com/gb/hotel-7606-ibis-hong-kong-central-and-sheung-wan 28 Des Voeux Road West, Sheung Wan

Holiday Inn Express Kowloon East: Opened in October 2012, the Holiday Inn Express Kowloon East is adjacent to the new Crowne Plaza Kowloon East, making it the InterContinental group’s first “twin brands” hotel project in Hong Kong. The 300-room property also sits atop the Tseung Kwan O MTR station, which makes for quick and easy access to Hong Kong’s central neighborhoods. Rooms are clean and spacious, with Simmons mattresses, massaging showerheads and workstations with ergonomic chairs. Also included in the nightly price is the chain’s signature “Smart Start” breakfast, with eight menu options. From US$129. www.hiexpress.com/kowlooneast Tower 4, 3 Tong Tak Street, Tseung Kwan

The Ashoka Hostel at the Chungking Mansions: If you’re up for an adventure, staying at a Chungking Mansion guesthouse can be a cultural experience all of its own. The chaotic 17-story complex has a storied past as a center for illicit activities, but in the past few years it has (mostly) cleaned up its act thanks to heightened security and an extensive new CCTV system. What you sacrifice in space and ambience you gain in savings – the guesthouses contain some of the cheapest accommodations in town. The Ashoka Hostel is a popular option, with close to 100 rooms spread across three floors and easy online booking. Dorms from US$20, private rooms from US$30; haggling encouraged. www.ashoka.hostel.com, A Blk. Flr. 13, A4, Chung King Mansion, 36 – 44 Nathan Road, Tsim Sha Tsui

Eat and Drink

Tim Ho Wan: For years, three-hour waits were the norm at hole-in-the-wall dim sum eatery Tim Ho Wan, otherwise known as the cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant in the world. But in February, high rents forced Chef Mak Kwai Pui out of his 29-seat Mong Kok establishment into a cheaper but larger 100-seat space in Olympian City, a shopping mall in West Kowloon. The restaurant is also expanding, with new locations in Central, North Point and Sham Sui Po. Now you can taste Pui’s specialties, like barbequed pork buns and steamed prawn dumplings, without the comically absurd lines. Expect to pay about HK$50 (US$6.50) per person for a filling meal. Shop 72, G/F, Olympian City 2, 18 Hoi Ting Road, Tai Kok Tsui

Tsim Chai Kee Noodle: Mak’s Noodle is the traditional favorite for Hong Kong-style wonton noodles. However, rumor has it that relative newcomer Tsim Chai Kee, located across the street in Hong Kong’s Central district, is surpassing Mak’s in both taste and popularity. With only 30 seats, the ambiance is cozy and warm, with dark wooden floors, matching tables and squat stools surrounding each of them. But the centerpiece at this diner is the food. The King Prawn Wonton Noodle (HK$22, US$2.80) stands out brightest with its succulent shrimp-filled dumplings, thick yellow noodles and perfectly seasoned broth. 98 Wellington Street, Central

Yee Shun Milk Company: Think you know what steamed milk is? Yee Shun Milk Company will prove you wrong. The unpretentious Macau-based diner chain specializes in light milk puddings that are almost ethereal in their texture and consistency. The hot steamed milk with ginger juice (HK$26, US$3.35) is a perennial favorite, with a taste that will stay with you long after you leave. There are four Hong Kong outlets, but the one in Causeway Bay is the most popular for visitors. There are also soups and salads for those seeking a full meal. 506 Lockhart Road, Causeway Bay

Logistics

Seasonality: The best time to visit Hong Kong is from September to November when the air is less humid and the temperatures hover in the 60 to 80 degree Fahrenheit range. January and February are comparatively chilly, with temperatures around 50 degrees, while July and August are downright oppressive, with 85 degree heat amplified by humidity and pollution.

Safety: Hong Kong is a safe place to visit, but like in most major cities, there is some petty crime, like robberies and pickpocketing. Be aware of your belongings, particularly in crowded areas like Tsim Sha Tsui, Central and Causeway Bay.

Get Around: Hong Kong’s public transportation system is remarkably efficient and easy to navigate. Your best bet for getting from the airport to the central districts is the high-speed Airport Express train, which runs every 10 minutes and costs HK$100 (US$12.90) each way. If you will be in the city for a while, it’s worth picking up a pre-paid tap-and-go Octopus card at the airport or any mass rapid transit station; they can be used on buses, trams, mass rapid transit, ferries and even in select shops like 7-11. There’s also a HK$55 (US$7) tourist day pass, which can be used for crossing the bay and exploring the more off-the-beaten-path parts of Hong Kong, like the Southern District and the New Territories.

[Photo Credit: Flickr user Mike Behnken]