I step off the bus onto the side of the road and start walking. Dense greenery obscures the fishing villages downhill, but I’m more intent on finding a path inland. Reaching the base of a crumbling set of concrete stairs, I hesitate. Why is my first instinct when arriving in the major metropolis of Hong Kong to seek out an abandoned village in the jungle? Is this even the right way?
I pace in front of the stairs, debating whether to just catch a bus back to the city. But I’ve already come this far. I start climbing, riding the momentum of the journey that brought me to the opposite side of the world.
When work tells me to pack my bags for my first trip to China, I decide to head down a day early so I can be a tourist in Hong Kong before going to the mainland.
Flying business class for the first time is one of the biggest perks. On the fourteen hour nonstop Delta flight from Seattle, we each get our own pod with an overnight kit, bedding, and enough overhead space for far more than the duffel bag that’s the entirety of my luggage. The flight attendants address us by name and bring by a parade of gourmet meals. The first time I use the six-button control panel to maneuver my seat into a flat bed, I can’t stop grinning until I fall fast asleep.
I never knew that an airplane flight could be such a pleasure. I don’t even bother trying on a seasoned business traveler mien. All I can think, over and over, is, “I’m too young for this!” I’ve been ruined for long-haul economy flights for life.
Once in Hong Kong, I take the Airport Express train to Kowloon and transfer on the free airport shuttle bus to Hop Inn on Hankow. My tiny, windowless room is simple and clean, with a twin bed and its own bathroom. Interestingly, I find I can take a shower, sit on the toilet, and watch TV all at the same time.
Wong Chuk Yeung Village
The early morning streets of Kowloon are eerily deserted, only a few elderly people practicing tai chi in the park like slow-motion ghosts. I take the top front seat of the double-decker bus, taking in the view while the bus gradually fills with commuters. At my transfer stop, an old woman chats my ear off in Cantonese and I helplessly gesture my incomprehension. High rises give way to vegetation as the next bus heads to the Sai Kung Peninsula.
I disembark in what looks like it’s in the middle of nowhere, though there is a fork in the road leading to a fishing village. I find the aforementioned sketchy set of stairs and follow a trail through bamboo groves, praying I won’t get lost. The path lets out on a steep road that passes by several memorial sites before terminating at my destination.
The village of Wong Chuk Yeung was founded in 1660, but in the 1950s lowered water tables drove the residents away, leaving their homes behind to fall into disrepair. Now, the humid air is thick with birdsong and butterflies. I tiptoe down the narrow alleys between the houses, broken glass crunching under my feet. I love seeing how quickly nature triumphs over the man-made. In one house, a tree bursts right through the roof.
Other homes are more intact, allowing me to walk right in. I feel like an invader, but it doesn’t stop my from poking through cabinets still full of dishes or climbing up half-collapsed stairs to peer at a disheveled bunk bed.
Being totally alone here is mildly creepy, but in an exciting way. That is until, in the house next door, SOMETHING. SNEEZES.
Heart pounding, I tiptoe outside and take one step toward the house, then two. I see a blur of motion as whatever it is bolts deeper into the house. A cartoonish cacophony follows – BANG! BAM! CRASH!
I back away with slow steps and stare at the house, warring with my curiosity. I want to know what’s in there, but I don’t want to corner a rabid animal.
Eventually, I walk away. It’s the smart thing to do, but now I am left with a burning mystery. Was it a dog? A monkey? A crazy hobo? I’ll never know!
I’m not sure who scared who more, but my peace is shattered. I jump at every leaf that lands on me and freeze when a mouse scurries across my path. The tension threatens to drown me, until I decide to hike back out a short time after, awkwardly skirting a group of men with chainsaws, and catch the bus back to civilization in Sha Tin.
Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery
Starting by a mall dedicated entirely to home decor in Sha Tin, I follow nondescript signs to the Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery, climbing up hundreds of steps lined with golden statues.
I make it my goal to pick a favorite statue, but it’s an impossible task. Ten thousand is actually an underestimate, and, with the exception of the tiny buddhas in the inner sanctums, they’re all unique. Do I prefer the one surrounded by children? The one riding a lion? The one with arms for eyes? (Holy crap, whose crazy idea was that one?!)
At the top, a few other tourists mill around by the pagoda. I settle in for a reading break overlooking distant apartment high rises. Monkeys scamper around, sometimes perching comically on the statues’ heads before flinging themselves off into the trees. Incense wafts over in fragrant waves from the neighboring ancestral hall. I could fall asleep here, but there’s still more to see.
Mongkok Street Markets
The markets of Mongkok are in full swing in the afternoon, all clustered within convenient walking distance of each other.
The Yuen Po Street Bird Market, a long garden-like street overflowing with birds for sale, overwhelms the senses. I pass exotic birds chained to perches, little songbirds suspended in bamboo cages, and myna birds spritzed by spray bottles. Walking into a stand full of parrots triggers a raucous chorus of squawky “Hello!”s. Other stands sell wriggling sacks full of live mealworms and crickets. Even wild birds join in, flapping around to snatch up spilled birdseed.
Not all the birds look healthy, and I can’t imagine how the market for pet birds can be this big – some of them must live out their entire lives in this chaos, fighting for their songs to be heard above the din.
The Flower Market next door lifts my mood. It’s exactly what you’d expect, a street lined with stalls bursting with colorful flowers and other plants. There are even huge garden shops that give the illusion of stepping into Eden.
Next up, the Goldfish Market. It spans several city blocks with one aquarium shop after another, all glowing enticingly. Outside, thousands of fish ogle the shoppers from individual plastic bags pegged to walls. Some of the shops feature other pets, even puppies in the window.
My last market of the day is the Fa Yuen Street Market, which deals in more typical consumer goods. I want to try my hand at haggling, but I don’t know a lick of Cantonese and don’t need anything that’s for sale.
Instead, I pay full price for some green tea ice cream and head back to the metro station.
Evening by the Harbor
Have I mentioned yet how much I love Hong Kong’s public transportation system? Clean, easy to navigate, and all stops announced British-accented English alongside Cantonese and Mandarin. I also adore my Octopus card, which I use not just on the MTR and buses but also to buy drinks at vending machines and pastries at 7-11.
I transfer to our business hotel, the Intercontinental Grand Stanford, where I’ll meet coworkers to catch the ferry to the mainland in the morning. The contrast from my little hostel is almost absurd, and I struggle to compose myself as I walk into the sparkly lobby with its chandeliers and grand piano. The hotel upgrades me for free to a harbor view room, where the staff comes by with a pillow menu and chocolates. This is my view:
My day started so early it’s now barely evening. I swim in the rooftop pool and nap while the sun sets. My coworker Mimi shows up after spending the day with her extended family. She lived in Hong Kong until the handover from the British back to China in 1997, so I question her about her childhood as we walk along the waterfront Avenue of Stars, Hong Kong’s version of the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Before I know it, my one full glorious day in Hong Kong is over. Fortunately, I know I’ll return.
Weeks later, Mimi and I are back in Hong Kong. We pick out the most touristy thing to do, so I can get it out of the way: riding the tram up to Victoria Peak.
Mimi finds a package deal at the concierge that includes tour bus transport to Hong Kong Island and tickets to all the attractions on the Peak. We discover that the main value of our ticket is skipping the hours-long wait for the tram. Our assertive guide pulls aside the velvet rope to usher us directly to the front of the line. We avoid all the frenzied shoving and even get a window seat.
At the top, we wander through the wax museum, which is kind of creepy and kitschy but a good lesson in Hong Kong media and celebrities.
The Sky Terrace provides panoramic views over the harbor, assuming you can get an uninterrupted look past the hordes of tourists. By this point I’m sick of selfie sticks and craving some quiet. We retreat to walk down dark and deserted paths along the tram tracks. At the nearby mall, we eat wonton soup at Mak’s Noodle, one of the cheapest Michelin-starred restaurants in the world.
To avoid the tram line this time, we take a public bus down to the MTR station. It’s a longer route, but provides breathing room and arguably even better and varied views.
End of trip lethargy steals over us in the hotel lounge, fueled by the sense that Hong Kong has so much more to offer. I may not be a “city person”, but this is one international hub I wouldn’t mind returning to again.
- Hop Inn
Simple, private-room or shared budget accommodation in Kowloon.
- Intercontinental Grand Stanford
Elegant 5 star hotel on the Kowloon waterfront. Amazing breakfast buffet.
- Wong Chuk Yeung Geocache
The geocache that led me to the abandoned village. There is still a road, so you don’t have to walk through the jungle if you have a car.
- Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery
A peaceful retreat overlooking Sha Tin with monkeys, a pagoda, and thousands of golden statues.
- Street Markets
Check out the bird, flower, and goldfish markets and many more.
- Victoria Peak
Hong Kong’s top tourist attraction, featuring a cable car to a commanding view of the city.
- Octopus Card
A must if you plan on using a lot of public transit during your stay, and can also be used at many retailers.