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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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]

Photo Of The Day: All Signs Lead To …

If you calculated how much time you look at certain things when you travel, signs would be at the top of the list. Whether it’s indicating a road or a restaurant, without signs we would quite literally be lost.

In some places, there are more signs than others, and in this photo, Flickr user Luke Robinson captures a jumble of signs in Hong Kong. In fact, it’s not even clear what each sign leads to. It almost begs the question whether too many signs actually just might make you feel more lost.

Want your photo featured on Photo of the Day? Submit it to the Gadling Flickr pool or mention @Gadling on Instagram and tag your photo with #gadling.

Globalgig Brings Affordable Mobile Internet For World Travelers

Globalgig provides mobile Internet for international travelersSmartphones, tablets and laptops have all made travel easier and more enjoyable. Those devices help keep us connected to friends and family, allow us to more easily share our experiences and provide the ability to stay productive while on the road. But of course, all of those gadgets depend upon an Internet connection to be useful and at times it can be a real challenge to find such a connection. Mobile Internet services help alleviate many of those challenges, but finding a reliable and affordable service that works internationally can turn into an exercise in frustration.

Enter Globalgig, a mobile Internet provider that is working to take the complexity and high costs out of the equation. The service launched last fall, giving users flat pricing – without monthly contracts – for mobile Internet that works in three countries – the U.S., the U.K. and Australia. By mixing reliable 3G cellular service with affordable data tiers, Globalgig has quickly become a solid choice for the connected international traveler.

Today, Globalgig is announcing expanded service in more countries and aggressive new price points that will make it an even more attractive option for globetrotters. By partnering with wireless carriers in Ireland, Denmark, Sweden and Hong Kong, customers can now stay connected while traveling to each of those destinations in addition to the original three countries. Monthly fees now start at just $17 for 1GB of data, while other options include 2GB for $25, 5GB for $45 and 10GB for $80. Additionally, users can now choose to either buy the mobile Wi-Fi hotspot for $119 or get it free by signing an 18-month contract.

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been putting the Globalgig service through its paces and I’ve found it to be surprisingly solid – especially for the price. Because it uses a 3G connection you’re not going to get the blazingly fast speeds that you’ll find from newer LTE technology, but more locations are covered in 3G service, which makes it a better option for world travelers. Speeds were still more than acceptable while surfing the web on my laptop and iPad, however, and it worked wonderfully for sending emails, instant messaging and tweeting. Streaming video or uploading photos required a bit more patience but those aren’t necessarily the activities you want to do with a limited bucket of data.Globalgig WiFi hotspotGlobalgig’s mobile hotspot is small and very lightweight, which makes it easy to carry with you anywhere you go. Its 5-hour battery life comes in handy when away from a power outlet for extended periods of time too. The device comes with several travel adapters for painless recharging around the globe and the hotspot has the ability to support up to five connected devices at any given time. That means, if you’re feeling generous, you can share your Internet connection with travel companions.

Set-up of the hotspot is a breeze, even for non-techies. Prior to using it for the first time, simply head over to Globalgig.com to create a user account and register the device. After a couple of hours the service will be up and running and you can begin using your mobile Internet service while on the go. The device appears like any other Wi-Fi router and serves up data to any device capable of connecting to it. You can even login to an on-board configuration screen that allows you to change the name of the hotspot, add a personal password and configure some of its settings.

In terms of price, it really is tough to beat Globalgig’s data plans, particularly if you travel regularly in the countries that the service covers. If you find yourself routinely in any of those places, and often in need of Internet access, carrying one of these hotspots is a bit of a no brainer. On the other hand, coverage is still limited to those destinations, which may be Globalgig’s biggest drawback at the moment. As the company fills in more of its coverage map, however, the service will only become more useful.

As it stands right now, it is a real challenge to find mobile Internet that reliably works on an international level. But Globalgig is delivering on that promise and they’re doing so without draining your bank account. If you find yourself in need of just such a service and regularly visit the countries that currently have coverage, this is definitely a great option. If you’re patient, you’ll probably see Globalgig expanding even further in the months ahead, bringing mobile data to even more countries. Hopefully, they’ll also eventually upgrade to 4G LTE services. But those minor quibbles aside, this is a service that will likely make many world travelers very happy.

[Photos: Globalgig]

Bird’s-Eye Snapshots Of Hong Kong’s Most Claustrophobic Apartments

If you’ve ever wished you had more space in your home, just wait until you see these startling images of abysmally tiny apartments in Hong Kong.

The livings spaces are so small that the bed, TV, kitchen and office are all within arm’s reach, and belongings are stacked precariously high along the walls.

According to human rights group The Society for Community Organization (SoCO), nearly 100,000 people in Hong Kong live in these tiny spaces known as “cubicle apartments.”But it’s not just bachelors living in these cramped quarters – entire families are crammed into the 40-square-foot apartments, which are the result of illegal subdivisions.

The series of images show the living spaces as viewed from above, and the perspective makes the already claustrophobic apartments seem even more dizzying.

SoCO commissioned the photos in order to raise awareness of the atrocious living conditions. The QR code you see in the corner of each image links to a petition urging Hong Kong’s government to do something about the inadequate housing.

Take a look at the photos below.

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[Photo credit: Society for Community Organization/Publicis Hong Kong]