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Introduction top

Rudy in Hong KongHi, I'm Rudy Maxa, venturing to the shores of Asia and one of the world's most thrilling destinations. We're about to discover why great travel experiences are Made in Hong Kong. Next up, it's Hong Kong on Smart Travels.

When you catch your first glimpse of Hong Kong and the skyline unfolds above the harbor, your heart is sure to beat a little faster. No doubt about it, there's something exciting here. From futuristic skyscrapers to incense-filled temples, from hoards of shoppers to bobbing wooden boats, the many faces of China are revealed in this dramatic Pacific Rim city.


Go to www.discoverhongkong.com to visit the Hong Kong Tourism Board.

mapHong Kong is a magnificent balancing act, effortlessly juggling east and west, past and present, commerce and mysticism. Although it was a prized colony in the British Empire until 1997, Hong Kong is firmly rooted in Chinese culture.

This city anchors on the southwest corner of China. We'll explore the downtown core that straddles Hong Kong island and the Kowloon Peninsula. Then we'll escape the crowds as we visit Sai Kung Park...Lantau Island...and some historic sites in the New Territories.


Airport top

Westerners find Hong Kong an easy introduction to Asia. Arriving at the city's ultramodern airport, you quickly discover that all signs here, as well as in the city, are in both English and Chinese. And most businesses cater to English-speakers.


Check out more about the airport at www.airport-technology.com.


Victoria Peak top

victoria peakTo begin, we'll hit Hong Kong's number one tourist attraction: the tram that climbs Victoria Peak. This is the world's steepest funicular railway and it feels like it! Before the tram was built, a ride up to the peak meant a 3-hour trip by sedan chair. By 1888, the tram had reduced that time to about 7 minutes.

In the early days of colonial rule, before air conditioning and refrigeration, the British discovered they could get relief from the heat by living up here on Victoria peak.

Only society's upper crust was allowed to build houses at these lofty heights. To this day some of Hong Kong's most expensive homes are here. For visitors like us, the lookout provides magnificent views of the city and harbor.


Wong Tai Sin Temple top

Wong Tai Sin is Hong Kong's most popular Taoist temple. It was named after a legendary shepherd who acquired a powerful art of healing. Chinese temples are typically are built with red pillars, golden roofs, and multicolored carvings. Hong Kong escaped the religious repression that spread through Communist China during much of the 20th century. While many temples were destroyed on the mainland, hundreds here remained intact.

Wong Tai SinTraditional Chinese religious practices often weave together elements of Taoism, Buddhism and other ancient belief systems, something the Chinese don't find incompatible. There is no special day set aside for worship, people simply stop by a temple whenever they want to pay their respects or feel the need for spiritual guidance.

Tao essentially means "the way of the universe". Taoists believe that there are many different gods who actively intervene in daily life. Believers try to appease the gods to curry favor and bring good fortune.

Since Taoists believe in luck, you'll often find fortune-tellers at these temples. They might read palms and study facial features, as well as consult astrological birth charts and fortune cards. Her consultation also came with a few caveats about my health.


To get to the temple, take the subway to the Wong Tai Sin stop.


Transportation top

boatHong Kong's inexpensive transportation system includes trams and buses, an excellent subway system and reasonably priced taxis.

But my favorite transportation bargain is the Star Ferry. These green and white ferries have linked Hong Kong Island with the Kowloon Peninsula for the past 100 years. The journey takes about 10 minutes and tickets cost only about a quarter. And, with these views, it's obvious why the ferry is one of the city's most popular attractions.


You'll find more on getting around Hong Kong and the surrounding territories at www.moveandstay.com and www.12hk.com.


Cultural Kaleidoscope Program top

The Hong Kong Tourist Board's "Cultural Kaleidoscope" program makes it really easy to get a crash course in Chinese culture. Everyday you can take a different workshop on important traditions that will help you more fully appreciate your visit here.


Tai Chi top

And best of all, the classes are free. For example, one day you can learn how to do Tai Chi...This centuries-old practice mimics the movements of different animals and serves to calm the mind and strengthen the body.


Feng Shui top

Another day you can take a class in the ancient design method of feng shui. Literally translated as "wind water", Feng shui describes how homes and workspaces can be designed to achieve harmony with the spirits of nature. Most Hong Kong Chinese believe in aligning walls, furniture and objects to create a natural flow of energy through their houses.


Herbal Medicine top

I was curious about Chinese Medicine, so I signed up for a workshop with an herbalist.

According to this tradition, human organs and tissues also have attributes of yin and yang. When these forces are out of balance, a person will develop symptoms of disease. Certain herbs are thought to restore harmony.


Shopping top

For many, Hong Kong is synonymous with shopping. And for good reason. The city is a prime distribution center for much of world's products. In fact it's difficult to find anyplace here where you can't shop.

Thousands of malls, department stores and designer boutiques offer every imaginable name-brand luxury, as well as factory seconds and designer knockoffs. In stark contrast are the many traditional open-air markets nestled in among the towering skyscrapers. Here, dedicated shoppers hone their bargaining skills. Shopping in Hong Kong extends far beyond buying life's necessities. It's a recreational and social activity. So, unless you're a committed non-shopper, best to leave a little extra packing room in your suitcase.


For shopping tips go to www.discoverhongkong.com.


Horse Racing top

horse racingSo, apart from shopping, what's Hong Kong's most popular pastime? I'd put my money on horse racing. Here, betting on the ponies isn't just a sport, it's a passion.

Millions of people follow these events and the average betting turnover per race is the highest in the world. The first race was held here at the Happy Valley track more than a hundred and fifty years ago, and the track even remained opened during the Japanese occupation of the city in the 1940s. Until recently, horseracing was the only legal form of gambling in Hong Kong. And, with an annual turnover equivalent to more than a billion US dollars, the Sport of Kings definitely reigns.


If you'd like to listen in to one of the races, check out www.happyvalleyracecourse.com.


Maritime Museum top

A legacy of shipping and trade have made Hong Kong the city it is today. An interesting place to learn about south China's seafaring past is the Maritime Museum in Stanley. Hong Kong's deep and protected harbor has beckoned vessels since ancient times. But in the 20th century the shipping industry mushroomed. In 1900, an estimated 11,000 ships docked here; within ten years that number had doubled. Hong Kong continues to impress the business world with its import/export prowess.


If you've got a broadband connection and an interest in learning more about the operation of the city's port, take a look at the video from Hong Kong's Marine Department.

No question, this maritime muscle is not to be trifled with.


Landmark Mandarin Oriental Hotel top

All of the commerce rolling through this port creates plenty of demand for high-end hotels. While Hong Kong is generally inexpensive, hotel costs are on par with major American and European cities. The hottest new place to stay is the Landmark Mandarin Oriental, with a great location right in the middle of the Central shopping district. These state-of-art rooms have high-end electronics and marble baths. And the Oriental spa offers the ultimate in relaxation.


Check out a list of Hotels in Hong Kong at www.expedia.com.


Outside Hong Kong top

mapVisitors who anticipate nothing but shopping and crowds are often surprised at Hong Kong's abundance of open space and natural beauty. If you're willing to explore beyond the high-rise jungle of downtown, you'll discover that much of the region is made up of rural countryside and unspoiled coastline.


Sai Kung top

Sai KungThere are plenty of easy day-trips. We're checking out Sai Kung, an enormous country park popular with locals, and the culturally rich island of Lantau.

Before 1970, this was still a remote area that could only be reached by foot or on ferry. Then, development of a huge new reservoir brought in several roads and opened up easy recreation for Hong Kong's workaholic residents. Relatively unknown by tourists, the park can be reached by a 20-minute taxi ride or by local bus.

Located near the edge of the park, the town of Sai Kung is a busy marketplace and convenient gathering spot for fishermen and local villagers.

You can easily hire a sampan boat and take a leisurely ride through the serene waterways. Looking at these little islands, it's easy to imagine how Hong Kong island itself must have once looked, before the British took control in 1842. For thousands of years, this was a quiet, remote corner of China occupied by small settlements of fishermen and farmers, and the occasional band of pirates.

Back in Sai Kung town, don't miss a chance for one of the best seafood meals anywhere in Hong Kong. Many restaurants line the pier offering tanks with your pick of fish and shellfish. Just point out what you want...and the restaurant will cook it to order. My friend and tour guide, Denny Ip has the inside track on great local food.


Lantau Island top

Another great day trip is an excursion to one of Hong Kong's many outlying islands. And Lantau Island is at the top of the list. An hour-long ferry ride takes us to this large mountainous island filled with evocative scenery and interesting sites.

The ferry docks in Silvermine Bay, where you can rent a bicycle for a few dollars and set off on the flat roads through town. Here you'll get a slice of traditional Chinese village life, with crops growing in fields and locals enjoying a game of mah jongg. Lantau island is twice the size of Hong Kong island and yet it's largely undeveloped.


For more info on traveling to Lantau Island, visit www.passplanet.com.


Driving Restrictions top

To see Lantau's most famous sites you'll have to either hop a local bus or, if you want more flexibility, hire a taxi. No outside cars are allowed on the island during the day; even residents are restricted from driving during certain hours.


Giant Bronze Buddha top

The island's steep hills reveal one of Hong Kong's premier attractions: the giant bronze Buddha. Unveiled in 1993, it's said to be the largest outdoor seated Buddha in the world and towers a 112 feet high. Few statues have such a powerful impact as this enormous Buddha with its serene eyes and raised hand, ready to deliver a blessing. You have to climb some 260 steps to reach the statue, but it's worth it.

buddhaThe Buddha was built at the site of the Po Lin Monastery, home to a devout community of Buddhist monks. Buddhism was introduced into China almost 2000 years ago from India. The Chinese mingled traditional beliefs, such as Confucianism and Taoism, with Buddhist principles of peace and acceptance. Buddhists seek enlightenment in order to move beyond life's suffering, and the monks here live quiet lives of mediation.

After climbing all of those stairs, we're in need of a lunch break. The monastery's only restaurant is inexpensive and strictly vegetarian. Here you'll eat as the monks do, with tea, spring rolls and tasty all-vegetarian dishes.

On the western side of Lantau island we found the picturesque town of Tai O. Some refer to it as "Hong Kong's Venice" because the town features many crisscrossing waterways, and the only real transportation is by boat. The town's many small houses are built over the water on stilts. Along the banks of the canal, villagers clean fresh fish, and the fishermen still sun dry their catch using old traditional techniques.


To avoid crowds of vacationing locals, try to visit Tai O mid-week.


New Territories top

Spreading out north of the Kowloon peninsula, the area that connects Hong Kong to mainland China is known as "the New Territories". There are loads of fascinating historical sites to choose from; we'll sample just a few of them now.

mapThe New Territories are a kind of living museum of Chinese heritage. In 1898, to create a buffer between themselves and the mainland, the British leased the area from China for the term of 99 years. As the expiration date of the lease neared, talks between the UK and the People's Republic of China heated up.

Britain agreed not only to return the New Territories to China, but also all of Hong Kong as well. Part of that agreement was that for 50 years, Hong Kong and its outlying areas would be considered a Special Administrative Region, and would be allowed to continue operating under its free-market system.


For more detail about the 1898 agreement between Britain and China, check out answers.google.com.


Ancestral Halls top

Once rural and undeveloped, the New Territories are undergoing rapid change. But, although enormous housing projects are springing up at a staggering rate, you can still find quiet villages that foster time-honored traditions.

The Chinese venerate their ancestors, and you'll find ancestral halls throughout the area. This hall, near Hang Mei village, belonged to the Tang clan, one of the five great indigenous clans of Hong Kong. Migrating here from China's north central plain, these clans dominated the region for hundreds of years. (Even today their descendents wield political and economic clout here.) This hall was built about 700 years ago and contains the soul tablets of clan members. Most Chinese believe that, in the afterlife, ancestors have special powers that can influence the fate of living descendants.


Lo Wai Walled Village top

Farther east in the New Territories, we can walk through Lo Wai Walled Village.


For more on this and other walled villages, go to www.discoverhongkong.com. Scroll down the page for Lo Wai.

This was the first walled village built by the Tang clan. Rural villages were often built inside a protective wall as a defense against wild animals, bandits and rival clans.

Usually, people living in the walled village were large extended families. At one time, 600 hundred people lived within this small area. Today, the village is occupied by a few dozen residents. Many of the younger people leave the village looking for work and new opportunities, never to return.


Lam Tsuen Village & The Wishing Tree top

Located in the village of Lam Tsuen, this Wishing Tree is said to have magical powers. During Chinese New Year, thousands of Hong Kong people make a pilgrimage to this spot so that they can hang their wishes on this celebrated banyan tree. How does it work? You buy this special, inexpensive paper that's attached to an orange. Then you write your name and your wish on it. To keep from overstraining the tree branches, visitors are encouraged to hang their wishes on these nearby wooden pegs. But the magic is said to be just as powerful.


Check with the Hong Kong Tourist Board for heritage tours to the New Territories.


Joi Gin... top

Hong KongHong Kong has so many faces. The cacophony of downtown streets, the solitude of little harbors, and the many sacred rituals...like plumes of incense, they permeate the senses and leaving memories that linger on.

I have one more wish to make: that it won't be long until I'm back in Hong Kong. Here's hoping all of your travel wishes come true. I'm Rudy Maxa, joi gin!



Interested in planning your vacation to Hong Kong?
Start your trip at
Expedia.com/Hong Kong.



You'll find more on getting around Hong Kong and the surrounding territories at www.moveandstay.com and www.12hk.com.

For more info on traveling to Lantau Island, visit www.passplanet.com.