Budget Hong Kong: Coward’s Route To Victoria Peak

The tram to the statue of Christ the Redeemer. The elevators to the top of the Eiffel Tower. The Santorini cable car. Any ski lift, anywhere.

They’re memorable travel experiences, sure. But they’re also experiences that strike anxiety into the hearts of heights-fearing travelers, like myself.

So when faced with the prospect of a thrill-inducing funicular railway ride to the top of Hong Kong’s famous Victoria Peak, I decided to take a pass. Though the Hong Kong Peak Tram hasn’t suffered any fatal accidents in its 124 years of operation, I wasn’t ready to take any chances if I didn’t have to. Plus, the bus was cheaper.The Hong Kong Peak Tram connects the city center with the famous Victoria Peak overlook, which offers stunning views of Victoria Harbour, Central, Lamma Island and the surrounding islands, as well as an over-commercialized shopping and dining complex. The historic railway has been in operation since 1888, making it one of the oldest of its kind. The original tram was made from varnished timber and operated by coal-fired steam boilers, but in the 1920s, the boilers were replaced with an electrically powered system. The current microprocessor-controlled electric drive system was installed in 1989.

While the Peak Tram’s history is impressive indeed, it couldn’t make up for the thought of riding up a mountain in a rickety old cable car. Instead, I opted for the slightly more boring but much cheaper bus.

The double-decker CityBus 15 departs every 15 minutes from Exchange Square in Hong Kong’s Central District, right by the Central Ferry Piers. The fare is HK$9.80 (US$1.25) each way – about a third the price of the HK$28 one-way tram ticket – and the ride takes about a hour, depending on traffic. It also offers a unique look at residential life on the Peak, which is home to some of the world’s most expensive real estate.

After a winding ride up the mountain, I was deposited at the Victoria Peak complex and met with a thick bed of fog that blanketed the entire city in white. Turns out, there was no need to be so afraid of heights.

[Photo Credit: Jessica Marati]

Budget Hong Kong” chronicles one writer’s efforts to authentically experience one of the world’s most expensive cities, while traveling on a shoestring. Read the whole series here.

Budget Hong Kong: Journey To The Past At The Hong Kong Museum Of History

hong kong history

The Hong Kong Story,” a permanent exhibition at the Hong Kong Museum of History, isn’t your standard collection of artifacts. Chronicling more than 6,000 years of natural and cultural history, the massive exhibition occupies eight galleries across nearly 23,000 square feet, with more than 3,700 static and interactive exhibits. The endeavor took more than six years and HK$200 million (US$25.8 million) to complete. And with admission at just HK$10 (US$1.30) per person, it’s a bargain way to brush up on your Hong Kong history, while beating the oppressive afternoon heat.

%Gallery-174071%The exhibition begins with a look at Hong Kong’s natural environment, examining the landforms, flora and fauna that make the territory unique. A full-scale forest recreation showcases the massive trees that have since been replaced by skyscrapers, along with sound bites from the island’s indigenous birds and animals.

The next gallery displays artifacts from prehistoric Hong Kong, with stone tools and pottery dating back more than 6,000 years. From there, guests are led to the third gallery, on Hong Kong’s majestic early dynasties, which grew with influence from mainland China.

The fourth gallery, on Hong Kong folk culture, highlights the customs of Hong Kong’s four traditional ethnic groups: the Punti, the Hakka, the Boat Dwellers and the Hoklo. A highlight is a full-scale recreation of the Taiping Qingjiao ceremony, complete with a 54-foot “bun mountain,” a Cantonese Opera theatre, a parade, a lion dance and a Taoist altar.

The fifth gallery is a slightly more sobering look at the Opium Wars, which led to the cession of Hong Kong to Great Britain. The causes and consequences of the wars are examined through documentation, timelines and an informative film. From there, guests can explore the growth of Hong Kong as a modern city under British rule, with its teahouses, banks, tailor shops, pawn shops and other urban structures.

The seventh gallery takes a brief look at Hong Kong during the World War II Japanese military occupation. Like in other parts of the Pacific, Hong Kong suffered heavily during the three-year-eight-month period. The propaganda video and audio clips are particularly fascinating.

Finally, visitors are introduced to the development of the modern metropolis of Hong Kong in the years following World War II. The gallery includes reconstructions of a 1960s diner-style herbal tea shop, a modern cinema and exhibits from the Hong Kong trade fair, showcasing the development of Hong Kong’s manufacturing industry. With hundreds of modern artifacts and memorabilia, this exhibition has broad appeal, even for non-history buffs.

The Hong Kong Story closes with a showcase of documents related to Hong Kong’s return to China in 1997 – as well as a reminder on the final placard that the city’s story is far from over.

The Hong Kong Museum of History is located on Chatham Road South in Tsim Sha Tsui. Admission is HK$10 (US$1.30) for adults and HK$5 (US$0.65) for students, seniors and the disabled. On Wednesdays, admission is free.

[Photo Credit: Jessica Marati]

Budget Hong Kong” chronicles one writer’s efforts to authentically experience one of the world’s most expensive cities, while traveling on a shoestring. Read the whole series here.

Budget Hong Kong: Renting A Room At The Notorious Chungking Mansions

There are two types of travelers: those who would go out of their way to avoid a place like Hong Kong‘s notorious Chungking Mansions – and those who would elect to stay there.

I’d probably put myself somewhere in the middle.

Nestled between luxury emporiums on one of Hong Kong’s most expensive thoroughfares, the Chungking Mansions is a chaotic complex of shops, food stalls, restaurants, wholesalers, budget guesthouses and low-income apartments. The 17-story compound is home to around 5,000 permanent residents, most hailing from South Asia and Africa. That’s not to mention the estimated 10,000 people that pass through its halls each day, trading in currencies, refurbished electronics, counterfeit bags and other slightly less legal commodities. TIME Magazine called the Chungking Mansions the “Best Example of Globalization in Action” because of its extensive network of informal trade, while The Economist compared it to Spaceport Cantina in the original “Star Wars” film. Travel articles alternately refer to it as a “heart of darkness,” a “den of iniquity” or, simply, a “hellhole.”

Naturally, I was hesitant to check out the Chungking Mansions for myself. But I was also intrigued. With single rooms running from HK$150 (US$19.35) to HK$500 (US$64.50), Chungking Mansions is one of the cheapest budget accommodation options in town, stairwell drug deals notwithstanding. Anthropologist Gordon Matthews estimates that more than 129 different nationalities pass through each year.

%Gallery-174068%What I found was … anticlimactic. After a number of high-profile deaths and disappearances in the 1990s, the owners of the Chungking Mansions installed an extensive CCTV system and employed round-the-clock security guards to monitor the complex. There are regular police patrols, and I witnessed no fewer than five crackdowns during my visit.

Because of the heavy monitoring, Chungking is actually a quite safe place to stay, compared with other Asian backpacker ghettoes. It is also conveniently located in the heart of Tsim Sha Tsui, a lively district in the Kowloon side of Hong Kong. Luxury hotels like The Peninsula and The Sheraton are steps away, along with malls, restaurants, museums, MTR subway stops and the scenic Tsim Sha Tsui promenade. If you don’t mind the cramped quarters and chaotic surroundings, it’s not a bad budget option. Some even claim it’s a quintessential Hong Kong experience.

Not all Chungking Mansion guesthouses are created equal, though. Quality varies wildly, and photos on booking sites like Hostelbookers and Agoda are often heavily edited. The best way to score a good value room is simply to show up and make the rounds of Chungking’s 80-plus options, most of which are clustered in blocks A and B. The Ashoka Hostel, consisting of nearly 100 rooms across three floors, is a popular option; their head reception desk is located on the 13th floor of Block A. The price per night depends on the month (or even the day) so don’t be afraid to negotiate, particularly if you’re traveling during off-season.

The reward? A chance to experience not only a different side of Hong Kong, but also the world. One guesthouse owner showed me his logbook of guests, hailing from Ghana, Bangladesh, Holland, Malaysia, the Philippines, Germany, Japan and even America. “People from everywhere come to stay here,” he boasted. Globalization in action.

[Photo Credit: Jessica Marati]

Budget Hong Kong” chronicles one writer’s efforts to authentically experience one of the world’s most expensive cities, while traveling on a shoestring. Read the whole series here.

Hong Kong Travel Tips

Budget Hong Kong: The Best Cheap Eats For Under US$5 A Bite

Tourists come to Hong Kong for a number of reasons: business, shopping, sightseeing.

Me? I came to eat.

I have long heard about Hong Kong’s famed cuisine, with its unique blend of Chinese, Western, Japanese, Southeast Asian and international influences. The city is home to dozens of celebrity chefs and boasts 62 Michelin-starred restaurants. It’s regularly called the culinary capital of Asia, if not the world.

I wasn’t interested in Hong Kong’s chichi gourmet restaurant scene, nor did I have the budget for it. Rather, I was intent on sampling the city’s dizzying array of cheap eats. Dim sum. Wonton. Noodles. Tea with medicinal properties. Bakery tarts that melt in your mouth. My mouth waters just thinking of it.

Here are some of the highlights of my Hong Kong eating extravaganza, each costing less than US$5 a serving.

%Gallery-173830%Pork Siu Mai with Quail Egg at DimDimSum Dim Sum Specialty Store
Four steaming pork dumplings, each topped with a small, perfectly boiled quail egg. It’s no wonder The Daily Beast named this small dim sum chain one of the 101 Best Places to Eat – in the world.
Cost: HK$18 (US$2.32 at US$0.13 to HK$1)
7 Tin Lok Lane, Causeway Bay

King Prawn Wonton Noodle at Tsim Chai Kee Noodle
The wontons at this Central District noodle shop contain succulent pieces of juicy king prawn. Select the yellow noodle option and spice to your heart’s content.
Cost: HK$22 (US$2.84)
98 Wellington Street, Central

Vermicelli Roll Stuffed with BBQ Pork at Tim Ho Wan
The wait at the world’s cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant is worth it: simple, home-style dim sum classics like the BBQ pork-filled vermicelli roll, prepared to perfection and drizzled in soy sauce. Though I didn’t try them, the pork buns are also said to be excellent.
Cost: HK$18 (US$2.32)
2-20 Kwong Wa Street, Mong Kok

Aloo Paratha at Waka Sweets in the Chungking Mansions
Hankering for curry? Look no further than the ground floor of the Chungking Mansions, which is filled with South Asian specialties like curries and sweets. The aloo paratha at Waka Sweets is greasy, but it hit the spot.
Cost: HK$8 (US$1.03)
Ground floor, past the first staircase on the right, Chungking Mansions, 36-44 Nathan Road, Tsim Sha Tsui

Coconut Sago at Ying Heong Yuen
This coconut milk drink with tiny tapioca beads is the perfect way to beat the Hong Kong heat. It’s available for a pittance at most street stalls, but the version at Ying Heong Yuen in Causeway Bay is particularly good.
Cost: HK$8 (US$1.03)
3-7 Cannon Street, Causeway Bay

Chrysanthemum Tea at Good Spring Company Limited
The herbal teas doled out at century-old Good Spring Company Limited are said to provide energy, eliminate bodily toxins and promote general health. The chrysanthemum tea is mildly sweet and refreshing.
Cost: HK$7 (US$0.90)
8 Cochrane Street, Central

Milk Tea at Tsui Wah Restaurant
A legacy of British colonialism, milk tea is a must-drink in Hong Kong. Tsui Wah’s is smoother than most versions and pairs well with the home-style diner’s sweet toasted bun.
Cost: HK$16 (US$2.06)
15-19 Wellington Street, Central

Egg Tart at Tai Cheong Bakery
Bakeries around the city vie for the title of best egg tart. By many accounts, including that of former British governor Chris Patten, Tai Cheong takes the cake. The secret is in the buttery cookie crust, honed over more than six decades of operation.
Cost: HK$6 (US$0.80)
35 Lyndhurst Terrace, Central

Steamed Milk with Ginger Juice at Yee Shun Milk Company
This dessert, ordered hot with ginger juice, has a consistency somewhere between warm milk and pudding. The ginger adds a spicy kick to the sweetness. It is, quite simply, one of the most delicious things I have ever eaten, with a taste that stays with you long after you leave. Though there were tons of cheap eats to try, I ended up returning for seconds.
Cost: HK$26 (US$3.35)
506 Lockhart Road, Causeway Bay

[Photo Credit: Jessica Marati]

Budget Hong Kong” chronicles one writer’s efforts to authentically experience one of the world’s most expensive cities, while traveling on a shoestring. Read the whole series here.

Budget Hong Kong: The City Of Blinding Logos

budget hong kong

The streets of Hong Kong have a way of accosting you with neon lights and ostentatious logos. Louis Vuitton and Giorgio Armani lay claim to the Central District, while Tiffany & Co. and Burberry dominate Tsim Sha Tsui. Causeway Bay is a cacophony of luxury labels from around the globe, and let’s not forget the lesser brands that sit on every street corner: McDonald’s, Starbucks, 7-11. It’s enough to make your head spin.

And indeed, it made mine, at about 4 p.m. on my first day in the city. From the moment I had arrived in Hong Kong, my senses had kicked into overdrive. I walked faster, talked faster, flitted my eyes from one new sight to the next. Everything was new, big, bright and exciting.

But after several hours on the town, I began to feel the effects of sensory overload. The crowds became claustrophobic. The pollution started to choke me. The tik-tik-tik of the crosswalk signs drummed an endless circle in my head. And everywhere, lit-up advertisements and shop signs taunted me, tempting me to buy, use and consume. It was enough to drive any sane person to the brink of madness.

Thankfully (and ironically) I managed to find sanctuary at a nearby Starbucks.

%Gallery-173824%Hong Kong is a magical city. But it’s also an intense one – even for a downtown Manhattanite like myself. The special administrative region of the People’s Republic of China is one of the world’s most densely populated parts of the world, with seven million people crammed into an area of just 426 square miles. It is one of the world’s most expensive cities, by many indices. The Atlantic reports that it is the priciest place to buy a home, while the Savills World Cities Review concludes that it is the most expensive city to locate ex-pat workers.

Hong Kong is also a city largely driven by consumption. Just this year, it surpassed New York as the world’s costliest retail location, according to Bloomberg. For the luxury traveler, it is somewhere this side of paradise, with 62 Michelin-starred restaurants and extravagant boutiques representing nearly every high-end brand on the globe.

But I am not a luxury traveler. Far from it, in fact. My mission in Hong Kong was to experience the best of the city, on a shoestring. And once I recovered from the assault on my senses and stepped off the main tourist drags, I discovered how. My two-day trip was filled with fascinating cultural activities, unique discoveries and awe-inspiring sights.

And then, of course, there was the food. I’ll save that for the next post.

[Photo Credit: Jessica Marati]

Budget Hong Kong” chronicles one writer’s efforts to authentically experience one of the world’s most expensive cities, while traveling on a shoestring. Read the whole series here.

Hong Kong on High Time-Lapse