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]

The World’s Largest Sound And Light Show: Hong Kong’s Symphony Of Lights (VIDEO)

hong kong symphony of lights

Each evening at the stroke of 8 p.m., Hong Kong‘s Victoria Harbour is illuminated with a cacophony of dancing lights and laser beams, accompanied by a blaring soundtrack of synthesized music. It’s the Hong Kong Tourism Commission’s Symphony of Lights, a wonderfully tacky celebration of the city’s energy, spirit, diversity – and luminescence. The nightly spectacle includes more than 40 buildings on both sides of the harbour, earning it the Guinness Book of World Records title for “World’s Largest Permanent Sound and Light Show.”

Best part? The show is absolutely free.

The most popular spot to view the Symphony of Lights is on the elevated Tsim Sha Tsui promenade, in front of the Hong Kong Cultural Centre on the Kowloon side of Hong Kong. Get there early, or you’ll be left jostling with tourists eager for the perfect camera phone shot. A different vantage point can be had from Golden Bauhinia Square on Hong Kong Island, from which you can catch the action happening on the Kowloon side of the harbour.

More photos and video after the jump.

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[Photo and Video 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: 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

Great ‘Cultural’ Spa Experiences From Around The World

spasEven if you’re not a spa junkie, it’s hard to deny the appeal of a great massage or other self-indulgent treatment. I’m actually a massage school graduate, and although I ultimately decided not to pursue that career path, I’ve parlayed my experience into doing the odd spa writing assignment. Not surprisingly, I’m a tough judge when it comes to practitioners, facilities and treatments. I also don’t have any interest in generic treatments. What I love is a spa and menu that captures the essence of a place, through both ingredients and technique.

Many spas around the world now try to incorporate some localized or cultural element into their spa programs. It’s not just a smart marketing tool, but a way to educate clients and hotel guests, employ local people skilled in indigenous therapeutic practices, or sell branded spa products made from ingredients grown on site, or cultivated or foraged by local tribes or farmers.

Sometimes, it’s not a hotel or high-end day spa that’s memorable, but a traditional bathhouse used by locals (such as a Moroccan hammam) that’s special. The low cost of such places is an added bonus: think Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, Asia, and parts of the Middle East.

Over the years, I’ve visited a number of spas and bathhouses that have made a big impression on my aching body or abused skin, as well as my innate traveler’s curiosity. After the jump, my favorite spa experiences from around the world.

ninh van baySix Senses Ninh Van Bay: Vietnam
Located on an isolated peninsula accessible only by boat, Six Senses (near the beach resort of Nha Trang) is a seriously sexy property. Private villas nestle in the hillsides and perch above the water, but the spa and restaurants are the big draw here, as many of their ingredients are sourced from the property’s extensive organic gardens.

The “Locally Inspired” section of the spa menu features treatments like the Vietnamese Well-being Journey: three-and-a-half hours of pure hedonism. A scrub with com xanh (Vietnamese green rice) is followed by a bath in “herbs and oils from the indigenous Hmong and Dao hill tribes of the Sa Pa Valley,” and a traditional massage using bamboo, suction cups and warm poultices filled with native herbs.

On my visit, I opted for a refreshing “Vietnamese Fruit Body Smoother” made with ingredients just harvested from the garden: papaya, pineapple and aloe vera. Other body treatments include applications of Vietnamese green coffee concentrate and a green tea scrub.

Foot reflexology: Hong Kong
Foot reflexologists and massage parlors are ubiquitous throughout Asia, and in my experience, it’s hard to find a bad one. That said, one of the best massages I’ve ever had was an hour-long foot reflexology session in the Tsim Sha Tsui district of Hong Kong. It cost me all of ten dollars, and interestingly enough, it also proved eerily accurate about a long-term GI problem I’d been having that had defied Western diagnosis.

My bliss was momentarily interrupted when my therapist pressed a particular spot on the ball of my foot, causing me to nearly leap out of my skin. He informed me that my gallbladder was inflamed, information I processed but soon forgot. I’d already been tested for gallstones with negative results – twice. A year later, I had an emergency cholecsytectomy to remove my severely diseased gallbladder. A trip to Honinh van bayng Kong for a foot massage would ultimately have been cheaper and far more enjoyable than three years of worthless diagnostics.

Verana: Yelapa, Jalisco, Mexico
One of my favorite places on earth is Verana, an intimate, eight-guesthouse hilltop retreat located in Yelapa, a fishing village one hour from Puerto Vallarta by water taxi. Husband and wife team Heinz Legler and Veronique Lievre designed the hotel and spa and built it entirely by hand, using local, natural materials.

Although the spa doesn’t focus on traditional Mayan or Aztec technique, Verana grows or forages all of the raw ingredients for its treatments (the gardens also supply the property’s outstanding restaurant), including banana, coconut, lemon, pineapple, papaya and herbs. Try an outdoor massage, followed by a dip in the watsu tub, or an edible-sounding body scrub made with cane sugar and coffee or hibiscus-papaya.

Morocco: hammams
A staple of Moroccan life (as well as other parts of North Africa and the Middle East), hammam refers to segregated public bathhouses that are a weekly ritual for many. A “soap” made from crushed whole olives and natural clay is applied all over the body with an exfoliating mitt. Buckets of hot water are then used to rinse.

Although many hotels in the big cities offer luxury hammam treatments tailored for Western guests, if you want the real deal, go for a public bathhouse. While in Morocco, I got to experience three types of hammam: the hotel variety, a rural DIY hammam at the spectacular yelapaKasbah du Toubkal in the Atlas Mountains, and one at a public bathhouse.

In most public hammams, you’ll strip down in a massive, steam-filled, tiled room. Request an attendant (rather than DIY), who will then scrub the life out of you, flipping you around like a rag-doll. Massages are often offered as part of the service or for an additional fee.

Yes, it’s intimidating and unnerving to be the only naked Westerner in a giant room of naked Muslim men or women, all of who are staring at you and giggling. Once you get over being the odd man (or woman, in my case) out, it’s fascinating to have such an, uh, intimate glimpse into an everyday activity very few travelers experience. The payoff is the softest, cleanest, most glowing skin imaginable.

At hammans that accept Westerners, the vibe is friendly and welcoming, and it’s a way to mingle with locals and participate in an ancient, sacred ritual without causing offense. Do enquire, via sign language or in French, if you should remove all of your clothing, or leave your skivvies on. I failed to do this at the public bathhouse, and increased the staring situation a thousand-fold, because at that particular hammam (unlike the Kasbah), the women kept their underwear on. Oops.

Three highly recommended, traditional, wood-fired Marrakech hammams are Bain Marjorelle (large, modern multi-roomed), Hammam Polo (small, basic, one room), and Hammam el Basha (large, older, multi-roomed). Expect to pay approximately $10 for an attendant (including tip, sometimes massage). Independent travelers can easily find a hamman if they look for people of their own gender carrying buckets, towels and rolled-up mats near a mosque. To ensure you visit a Western-friendly hammam, it’s best to ask hotel or riad staff or taxi drivers for recommendations, and enquire about male/female hours.

Daintree EcoLodge & Spa: Daintree, Queensland, Australia
The Daintree Rainforest, located near Cape Tribulation in Far North Queensland, is over 135 million years old. It’s home to some of the rarest and most primitive flora on earth, muchalto atacama of it traditionally used by the local Aboriginal people for medicinal purposes.

The Daintree Wellness Spa at the low-key, family-owned and-operated EcoLodge has received international accolades for both its work with the local Kuku Yajani people, and its luxe treatments. The spa relies on ochre (a skin purifier) harvested from beneath the property’s waterfall, as well as indigenous “bush” ingredients from the Daintree such as rosella, avocado, native mint, wild ginger, bush honey, quandong, tea tree and spring water. The spa also produces its own line of products, Daintree Essentials (available online).

All treatments integrate traditional Kuku Yalanji modalities and spiritual beliefs, and have received approval from the local elders. I opted for the Ngujajura (Dreamtime) package, which includes a full body and foot massage, Walu BalBal facial and rain therapy treatment (a specialty at Daintree, consisting of an oil and sea salt exfoliation, ochre mud wrap and spring water shower administered tableside … trust me, it’s revelatory). An added bonus: the lodge offers Aboriginal cultural classes that include jungle walks, medicinal plants and bush foods (try eating green ants, a surprisingly tasty source of vitamin C).

Alto Atacama Desert Lodge & Spa: San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
This absolutely enchanting adobe property on the outskirts of the village of San Pedro is a slice of heaven, even if you skip its Puri Spa. But that would be a mistake, because then you wouldn’t be able to succumb to treatments and ingredients adapted from what’s been traditionally used by the local Atacameño people for thousands of years.

Atacama is the driest desert on earth, so on my visit, I chose the “Royal Quinoa Face Mask,” made with locally sourced quinoa (for its exfoliating and regenerative properties) mixed with local honey and yogurt. I left the treatment room looking considerably less desiccated.

The real splurge is the Sabay Massage, which uses pindas, or cloth pouches, filled with rice (used here as an exfoliant), rica rica (an herbal digestive aid also used in aromatherapy) and chañar berries (medicinally used as an expectorant and to stimulate circulation, as well as a food source) collected from around the property, which has extensive native gardens designed by a reknown Chilean ethno-botanist. You’ll emerge silky-skinned and tension-free. Dulces Sueños.

[Photo credits: Massage, Flickr user thomaswanhoff; Six Senses, Laurel Miller; Verana, Flickr user dmealiffe]