If there’s one lesson I had reinforced after seeing Hong Kong for the first time this March, it’s that you never really know what a place is truly like until you’ve seen it with your own eyes. This was a harsh lesson Japan taught me, but it was a mind-blowing lesson coming from Hong Kong. I waited eight long years to see Hong Kong, but that’s mostly because I assumed it would be yet another overly developed megacity lacking in charm and culture like Tokyo, Seoul, and Singapore. But I was wrong. Very wrong. In fact Hong Kong turned out to be one of the most interesting and fascinating cities I’ve ever experienced in Asia.
But what made Hong Kong so special? How did it even stand out from the megacity crowd? How’s it even all that different from China? In every way, that’s how! This detailed trip report is all about those intricacies that all add up to make Hong Kong one very unique and worthwhile city-country. So grab a snack and a drink, pull up a chair, and get ready to Discover Hong Kong™, as every aspect of the city will be thoroughly explored in this mega trip report!
Let’s get the obvious out of the way first – I’m not in China anymore. I no longer get obnoxious stares, I don’t hear loogies being hocked up every 30 seconds, there are plenty of ice-cold drinks available at every convenience store, and all of my surroundings have that cosmopolitan feel that’s largely lacking in the Middle Kingdom. I’m also hearing mostly Cantonese being spoken around me, versus the Mandarin I hear all over China. It’s even hard to read some of the Cantonese signage, as the Chinese letters and grammar they use are not necessarily interchangeable with that of Mandarin.
That aside, what else did I immediately notice about Hong Kong? Well, I don’t think you can talk about Hong Kong without mentioning the absurd density and scale of the city. Literally everywhere I look I see gigantic buildings sprawling as far as the eye can see. This reminds me a lot of Chongqing, which was also one of the densest cities I’ve ever seen, but I think Hong Kong’s actually got Chongqing beat. I can safely say Hong Kong is the biggest city I’ve ever seen in my life, and that’s saying a lot considering how many megacities I’ve been to all over Asia. An “urban jungle” perfectly describes Hong Kong.
But not only can I see buildings everywhere I look, I can see people too. I find it very difficult to believe the city has only a humble population of just over 7 million. In Tokyo, a much more populated city, the areas near the subway stations are always the most crowded, yet when you venture off into a side street, often you’re the only one walking. This is not the case in Hong Kong. No matter where I went regardless of the time, I saw swarms of people. I generally don’t like large crowds, but for some reason the crowds in Hong Kong made me excited. The flow of energy from all the moving people had a unique feel to it that I find hard to put into words. I admit that if I lived in Hong Kong I’d probably get sick of all the crowds, but as a traveler in the city, I found them enthralling.
I also noticed the traffic in Hong Kong isn’t all that bad. For such a big city, I was definitely expecting worse, yet I was pleasantly surprised that I never really saw any traffic jams. This reminds me a lot of Tokyo and Singapore, two other Asian megacities with relatively low traffic flow.
And all these years later, I can finally say that Bangkok’s Chinatown does closely resemble Hong Kong, far more so than it does mainland China. All the stores selling exotic-looking Chinese medicine, the way the neon signs jolt out from the sides of buildings, the hecticness, the markets – yes, Bangkok’s Chinatown is just like a mini little Kowloon.
Finally, I noticed that there weren’t really too many mainlanders in Hong Kong. Both Seoul and Bangkok definitely have way more. I was expecting the city to be overrun with them, considering I so often hear stories about them causing tension with local Hong Kong people, but there just weren’t that many. Maybe they were just in all the shopping malls where I never bother to go?
Before this trip report goes any further, I need to explain the layout of Hong Kong a bit. I found myself splitting most of my time among Kowloon, Hong Kong Island, and Lantau Island. The majority of the time I was on the Kowloon Peninsula (九龍), which is probably the biggest of the three, and it’s the part of Hong Kong that’s just right across from Shenzhen. Kowloon is massive, so it’s hard to summarize briefly. Some parts of it are very residential, with countless tall apartment buildings as far as the eye can see, while other parts are filled with markets and malls. I was staying at an AirBnB apartment located on Kowloon right between the Sham Shui Po (深水埗) and Prince Edward (太子) subway stations. I definitely liked the area, as it had a lot of energy, character, and the street life was very photogenic. I was also only a few stations away from both Mongkok (旺角) and Tsim Sha Tsui (尖沙咀), two very famous and interesting parts of Kowloon.
Next there’s Hong Kong Island (香港島), which is only a short ferry or subway ride south from Tsim Sha Tsui up in Kowloon. The area along the northern bay is very upscale and glamorous, as it’s lined with shiny, tall, and modern-looking buildings. This is the part of Hong Kong you’ve probably seen in photographs. This is also clearly the area where most business people and office workers work, as so many of the people in the area are all dressed up and looking fancy. And while I really didn’t see that many Westerners at all up in Kowloon, I saw countless well-to-do foreigners anywhere and everywhere on Hong Kong Island. This means most Westerners in Hong Kong stay in a tiny bubble and don’t venture far from Hong Kong Island. Good I say, as that just makes them easier to avoid. Nevertheless, Hong Kong Island is still well worth checking out, as the entire area is impressive and futuristic-looking. It’s also a great area for nightlife (more on that later).
Finally there’s Lantau Island (大嶼山), which is where the airport is located. This island is far less developed than neighboring Kowloon and Hong Kong Island. It’s also home to some relatively isolated and much slower-paced Hong Kongese communities. If you’re wanting a break from the madness, then Lantau Island is probably the place for you. Other islands like Cheung Chau and Lamma Island also have similar dynamics, and would probably be worth checking out.
I arrived to Hong Kong late on a Saturday night, so I didn’t do much exploring until Sunday the next day. One thing I was noticing on that Sunday was that the women all around me just weren’t that physically attractive. I mean a cute girl here and there, but the ratio of hot to not was pretty pathetic. Could it be true? Did I finally find a place in the Sinosphere where the local women just weren’t hot? Or was there more going on than meets the eye?
As it turns out, there are a lot of Filipina and Indonesian maids employed in households all over Hong Kong, and Sunday is generally their only day off from work. They all descend upon the city on Sundays, and some like to go shopping, whereas others enjoy simply throwing a blanket right onto the sidewalk or in the alleyway and having a picnic with their friends. So it turns out I was actually just seeing LOTS of these Southeast Asian women from poor/rural backgrounds. I guess they may be cute to some, but 98% of them just weren’t suited to my tastes at all.
But guess what happened once Monday rolled back around? I started to see good-looking women anywhere and everywhere. Well-dressed women with slim figures were a dime a dozen, and there was no end of them in sight. They just kept coming and coming. Hong Kongese girls somehow manage to be both cute and sexy, whereas I find most other Asian women tend to only be one or the other. This was only amplified even further every time I made my way across the bay from Kowloon to Hong Kong Island, where all the office people work. I also noticed Hong Kongese women definitely have that deep south Chinese look which you can also find in places like Guangdong, Fujian, Taiwan, and parts of Malaysia. Their statures tend to be on the smaller side compared to their northern Chinese sisters, and they tend to have more Southeast Asian (albeit very Chinese) looking faces.
But unlike in other parts of the Sinosphere (particularly Kaohsiung and Shenyang), I just wasn’t getting much eye contact from the local ladies in Hong Kong. Sure, a glance here and there, but most of the ladies just looked right past me or had their faces buried in their smartphone. Hong Kong is a gigantic city after all, and with that often comes egocentric women, so I guess I’m not too surprised.
But on the few occasions where I actually did make an effort to talk to the ladies, I was pleasantly surprised. I would have their complete attention, they would fully engage in the conversation with me, and they would have a big, genuine smile on their face. This reminded me a lot of Seoul, another place where the women seemed somewhat aloof, yet when I spoke to them they always seemed delighted. My advice to guys wanting to meet girls in Hong Kong is to just cold approach them. I was surprised how receptive they were to me.
I’m not a nightlife guy by any means, but one Friday night I made my way over Lan Kwai Fong (蘭桂坊), as I was doing some photography in the area. Anytime I’ve ever read a Westerner’s blog about Hong Kong, Lan Kwai Fong was always mentioned, so I figured I’d peak my head in and see what the fuss was all about. Wow! All I can say is I was very impressed with the atmosphere, the ratio of guys to girls, and the quality of the women walking around! It was a melting pot of some of the hottest women from all over Asia. I was getting eyed pretty hard just walking around with my camera, so I approached a few ladies merely as a social experiment. I talked to girls from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea, and even Kazakhstan, and every last one of them were stunningly gorgeous. Be warned that there are a lot of well-dressed and really good-looking Western men in LKF, but it doesn’t seem to matter as there are so many groups of single women prowling the bars, meaning there’s more than enough ladies for everyone. There were also lots and lots of Western girls there too – some of which were very good-looking – if they’re your thing. If you at all like nightlife, then you can’t pass up Lan Kwai Fong. Even I enjoyed it, and I usually despise nightlife!
With them being big city folks and all, I always had the assumption that the Hong Kongese would be arrogant and snoody. But after spending a week there, I can’t say I ever met anyone who fit this description. In fact I felt Hong Kongese were actually pretty easy-going considering they live in an ultra-dense city. This was apparent to me the most when I was taking photos.
Many of the times I was taking photos in the street or in restaurants, people were always very welcoming, patient, and some would even help me take a better photo. For example, one time I was taking pictures of some food on my table, and the patron sitting in front of me at the table started tidying up the table and arranging the dishes and glasses nicely. This happened on multiple occasions in many different scenarios, even when I was far away from the tourist traps. I can’t think of any other country in Asia where people were so relaxed and helpful in letting a complete stranger take their photo. +1 for Hong Kong!
But when it came to everyday social and business interactions, I could tell that the Hong Kongese were somewhat curt and to-the-point, which is a common theme in Asia, especially within the Sinosphere. I’m not saying they were rude or anything, just kinda “no frills” and straightforward. They were also noticeably more soft-spoken than their mainlander brethren, who are surely some of the loudest talkers in the entire world.
And finally I should touch on communication. As a person who speaks both fluent English and conversational Mandarin, I never really ran into any communication problems. It seems most people I encountered on a daily basis at least spoke simple English, while others actually spoke very good English (especially the younger crowd). On the rare occasion where someone didn’t speak English, I would just revert to speaking Mandarin, which always seemed to delight the person I was speaking to. I’ve always heard that Hong Kongese are somewhat resistant to speaking Mandarin, but I guess when it’s a white guy speaking it to them they let down their guard a bit. The average level of Mandarin in Hong Kong seemed to range from basic to fluent. Nevertheless, English will be enough for the average tourist in Hong Kong, but knowing a bit of Mandarin or of course Cantonese can take you pretty far.
Having lived three years in Bangkok, I can now clearly see where so many Thai dishes originate from – Hong Kong and Guangdong. This is especially true for Thai noodle dishes and sweets. Half the time I tried something new in Hong Kong, I kept thinking of the Thai counterpart dish it reminded me of. That said, I would still say the flavors of Cantonese cuisine and Thai cuisine have a lot of differences. Thai food is more fragrant and spicy, whereas Cantonese food seemed a bit more subtle.
Portions in Hong Kong were also medium-large, which doesn’t surprise me considering Hong Kong is located right next to mainland China, a country where food portions tend to be quite generous. I almost always felt one plate was enough to feed myself, and I never left a meal still feeling hungry like I so often did when living in Japan. But just like Taiwan yet very much unlike mainland China, the food in Hong Kong was never overly oily. I don’t get why mainlanders love drowning their food in shitty cooking oils, as no other ethnic Chinese seem to do this.
I tried several different noodle dishes, stir-fries, and dim sum in Hong Kong, and looking back I’d say dim sum was the most memorable meal of them all. I never really thought I’d like dim sum, but I guess I do now! It wasn’t amazing, but I definitely liked it more than any other food I tried in Hong Kong.
And that leads me to my next point – the food was descent, portions were fair, but none of it really stood out all that much. Besides the dim sum that I really liked, most of the food in Hong Kong was very forgettable. Nothing was bad, but neither was anything great.
As for the foreign food scene, I have to admit that I didn’t even try any of that in Hong Kong. It was clearly there as I saw lots of it, but I decided to save it for my trip to Bangkok later, where both the quality and value are really good.
Hong Kong was pretty awesome, but the weather there in early March was anything but awesome. It wasn’t freezing cold like up in Northeast China or anything, but I don’t recall ever seeing the sun in my seven days in the city. Every day was overcast, grey, and gloomy, and there was even some light rain on a few days. This greatly discouraged me from getting much landscape and cityscape photography, which was quite a letdown.
Despite the light humidity, temperature-wise it was actually almost perfect during the daytime, seeing as it generally hovered around 70 to 75° Fahrenheit. But when the sun went down, it often got a bit chilly – usually around 58 to 65° F. I found it best to wear pants and a T-shirt during the day, then pants and long-sleeves at night. A hoodie would’ve also worked well at night.
So while the weather wasn’t exactly terrible in Hong Kong, it was definitely my least favorite part of the trip. My hunch tells me April and May would both be significantly better than March. I could be wrong though.
Things to Do
I had a blast in Hong Kong, but I think this was largely due to what a fun place it was to photograph, both during the day and at night. I personally found the Sham Shui Po markets, the Prince Edward/Mongkok entertainment and shopping area, and Victoria Harbour to be the most photogenic. I could spend days taking pictures at these places and never get bored.
I also made my way to the top of Victoria Peak to take a few photos, but it was kind of a flop due to the hazy weather. It also felt like a tourist trap, so I doubt I’d ever bother to go back. The tram ride to the top was kinda fun though.
I also spent half a day exploring the old communities of Lantau Island, and I eventually made my way to see the giant Tian Tan Buddha (天壇大佛). Not bad. The island reminded me a lot of the ethnic Chinese communities spread all over Penang Island in Malaysia.
Looking in hindsight I can see that I actually didn’t do all that many noteworthy things in Hong Kong, yet ironically I felt there was never a dull moment. Hong Kong is a great city to just get lost in, and its fast pace is addicting.
Cost of Traveling
As of March 19th, 2017, 1 USD equals 7.76 HKD.
I had always assumed Hong Kong would be a grossly expensive place to travel – it is one of the most famous and cosmopolitan cities in Asia after all. But was Hong Kong really as expensive as they say? I don’t really think so. Let me break down the numbers to explain why:
I rented two different AirBnB apartment rooms (both were located between the Sham Shui Po and Prince Edward subways stations as mentioned above), and the average price per night for each room was 245 HKD. One room was kinda ratty, rundown, and filled with cockroaches, while the other was very decent, clean, and acceptable.
The bus ride to and from the airport to my room was 14 HKD each way. Subway rides generally ranged anywhere from 4 to 15 HKD, depending on where I was going. If I was crossing Victoria Harbour (like say going from Kowloon to Hong Kong Island), the subway ride was always 10+. But if I was just going from one part of one island to the other part of the same island (like say going from Tsim Sha Shui station in Kowloon to Sham Shui Po station also in Kowloon), then the ride was usually less than 10. I would say the average cost was about 7 HKD per ride. I also took a few ferry rides, and they were always only 3-4 HKD each.
Most of the meals I had averaged around 50 HKD per person, but a few times I went all out (like with the dim sum), and I paid around 100 HKD per person. But I think 50 HKD per meal per person is a safe number to go with.
The only tourist attraction I went to was Victoria Peak, and the round-trip tram ride cost me something like 40 HKD.
And finally I bought an unlimited 3G data SIM card that was good for seven days of usage. That was 45 HKD.
Now that I think about it, all of these numbers are roughly equal to what I paid to visit Seoul last August. Sure, Hong Kong is moderately expensive if you’re comparing it to relatively cheap Asian cities like Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur, but it’s definitely not that expensive either, especially when compared to cities like Tokyo and Singapore.
Hong Kong can be as cheap or as expensive as you want it to be. Just don’t go there expecting rock-bottom backpacker prices. I prepared a budget of 2000 HKD (after airfare and accommodation) to tide me through seven days, and at the end I still had a couple of hundred left. Not bad considering what a good time I had in the city!
If you plan to spend any significant amount of time in Asia, then Hong Kong is definitely a must-see city. I went in assuming I’d dislike the place, yet I left the city a true believer. Hong Kong nicely blends the ultra-modern and flashy with the old school and gritty. It’s also one of the only few cities in Asia I’d feel comfortable calling “international” or “cosmopolitan.”
Hong Kong is a fascinating city that can overwhelm a newbie more so than any other place in the Sinosphere. The sheer volume of people and buildings as far as the eye can see has to be seen to be believed.
The women, who can often come across as aloof or “in their own world,” are actually pretty interesting, smart, and engaging if you make the effort to talk to them. They also seem to balance both cute and sexy more so than any other Asian women I’ve ever seen. I would imagine Hong Kong is a pretty fun place to date for a single white male who’s got his act together.
The locals are also pretty cool once you engage with them on a personal level. Many are multilingual, which is a trait I strongly admire, and many of them are also pretty laid back in letting you take pictures of whatever you want, something I highly appreciate as a photographer. But they can also be very business-like and straight-to-the-point in everyday interactions.
The food, while not exactly my favorite in Asia, was pretty decent and filling. Most of the meals I had were satisfying, but I don’t miss them now that I’m away. Dim sum is worth a shot, though, as it did exceed my expectations.
The cost of traveling in Hong Kong is actually pretty fair when you consider the city’s dynamics as the international hub of the Far East. I expected it to be much more expensive, yet I was pleasantly surprised when it actually turned out to be more or less the same cost as Little Rock, my hometown.
There’s also tons to do in Hong Kong. In fact you could write books about each of the city’s districts, considering just how much is packed into each one. I actually found myself the most entertained when I simply walked around, soaked in the vibes, and snapped photos.
The lowest point of Hong Kong was surely its weather, which was miraculously always grey, gloomy, and overcast over a 7-day period. March is clearly not the best month for travel if photography is on your agenda.
Nevertheless, Hong Kong was surely one of the coolest cities I’ve ever seen in Asia. It blew me away. I waited eight years too long to see it. Sometimes what you’re expecting a city to be like and what it’s actually like are entirely different. I’ll definitely be back, probably sooner rather than later.