Michael T George
Updated 6 June 2018
Hong Kong has a population of just over 7 million people in an area a little smaller than that of London, Most visitors stay either near the north shore or Hong Kong Island or the southern part of Kowloon, which is just across Victoria Harbour to the north.
95% of the population is ethnic Chinese. The remainder are mostly Westerners, South Asians and over 250,000 live-in domestic helpers, mostly from the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia.
Hong Kong has a sub-tropical climate with two distinct seasons. Winter (November to March) temperatures can dip below 10°c (52°F). Summer comes in May and continues into late August, with temperatures often above 30°c (92°F) with rain, high humidity and even the occasional typhoon.
Octopus Card. For anyone that will be in Hong Kong for more than a few days, an Octopus Card is an absolute must. Can be used on public transportation and for most purchases less than HK$200 (US$26). It can be obtained at the airport and all MTR stations. The card costs HK$150 (US$19.35) and comes with HK$100 in credit. All but HK$50 can be refunded upon departure.
Adding credit can be done at all 7-Eleven stores, MTR stations and most locations that accept the card. Recharging takes seconds. You hand the store clerk the cash, touch the card against the reader and after you hear the beep you are on your way. You never have to take the card out of your wallet or purse, just touch same against the reader and you are good to go.
Language. Most of the Chinese that have regular contact with Westerners have some degree of fluency in English. Hotel clerks in better hotels speak fluently. At lesser hotels, shops and restaurants the degree of fluency declines. But, one is rarely in a situation where communicating a need in English is a genuine difficulty, as someone who speaks good English is likely to observe your communication challenge and act on your behalf.
The local language is Cantonese, which is spoken by 110 million people in Hong Kong and the adjacent Chinese provinces of Guangzhou and Guangxi. It is sufficiently different from Mandarin (called Putonghua by native Chinese) that they have to be separately learned.
However, written Chinese is a completely different matter. The written language is entirely pictographic, with no phonetic equivalent. It has approximately 3,500 characters that must be individually learned. So, all literate Chinese can communicate in writing, regardless of dialect. (Think of universal sign language as the nearest equivalent.)
CHEK LAP KOK AIRPORT
Located on Lantau Island. 40 km (21 miles) from Central, Hong Kong, Chek Lap Kok International Airport offers the necessary amenities to make the transit to and from the airport almost a pleasure. You will find the helpful and approachable people at the information counter and on foot throughout the arrivals area. Free, high-speed wi-fi is available throughout the airport.
ATM Machines are located in several locations at the terminal. Don’t trust ATMs that are not directly affiliated with a bank, as the fees may be exorbitant. Bank affiliated ATM machines at the airport arrivals are include: China Construction Bank, HSBC and Standard Chartered. There is also a Travelex money changer, should you want to get your HK dollars at the airport.
Mobile Phones. You can purchase a SIM card for your mobile at the Airport. If you are coming from the USA or Canada, make sure your mobile phone has been “unlocked” ten days before you come to Hong Kong.
For pre-paid SIM cards you might consider the Discover Hong Kong Tourist Sim Card. They offer two plans: five day (HK$88 / US$11.25 / 1.5 gb) and eight day (HK$118 / US$15 / 5gb). Is operated by 1000. The office is on the 5th floor of the arrivals building.
Your mobile phone will work as well in Hong Kong as it does in Europe, and infinitely better than it will in the USA or Canada. Why? The low, building penetrating frequencies on which mobile phones operate in Europe and Asia were allocated to the US military long before mobile phones existed. American and Canadian mobile phones operate at the high frequency, low penetrating range of the electro-magnetic spectrum. Be pleasantly surprised to discover your phone will even work on the MTR.
GETTING TO AND FROM THE AIRPORT
Assuming that your hotel is on Hong Kong Island or in Kowloon, getting to your destination will be remarkably easy. You have a choice of the Airport Express, taxis and public buses.
Airport Express. For those traveling alone or in pairs, taking the Airport Express is recommended. You can buy your Octopus Card and ticket for Airport Express at the same time. (Or, buy your Octopus Card and purchase your AE ticket with the Octopus Card.) The one way fare to Central station is HK110 (US$14) and to Kowloon station it is HK$100 (US$12.75).
The Airport Express runs shuttle buses from Central to most of the hotels in Central and Kowloon. Takes only 24 minutes–much faster than a taxi or bus. Other pluses: There are no stair steps between the arrivals area and the doors to the train; attendants will even help you put your luggage on the train.
Taxis have the advantage that taxis have everywhere. You get door to door service; a plus if you are carrying a lot of luggage or market paraphernalia. The cost of a taxi into town is HK$280 (US$36) plus surcharges for luggage. So, three people traveling together via taxi will pay about the same as they would by taking the AE. Transit time would be about the same: the AE gets to town faster; but, after switching to the shuttle bus and making the rounds to the various hotels, the overall time would be about the same.
Bus. Traveling by bus from the airport is cheap. But, the buses are slow, uncomfortable and not recommended after a long flight. (YHC takes it because he is cheap and the A11 stops near his flat in Tin Hau.) A bus ticket to Hong Kong Island costs only HK$40 (US$5.25).
CUSTOMS AND MANNERS
Overview Hong Kong Chinese are more conscious of the cultural differences between the East and West than you are likely to be. In general, it is best to speak softly and avoid drama if at all possible. Droll humor and irony are to be avoided if possible, even with Chinese that have been educated in the West. Low key is generally the best key.
If you have time, the book The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently … and Why (2006) by Richard Nisbett makes for worthwhile reading .
Gratitude. Hong Kong Chinese do not generally thank people who are being paid to provide a service, such as a server at a restaurant. However, the charming Chinese custom of knuckle tapping is a way of acknowledging service. To do this, make a fist with your right hand with the palm side facing down. With your fingers still curled, extend the forefinger and middle finger and tap the middle knuckles silently on the table twice.
If you are in a crowded place, there is no need to excuse yourself if you need someone to move in order for you to pass by as long as you have made eye contact with the person. To do otherwise implies that the person is not making sufficient effort to accommodate you, and will induce the person to apologize. Save the “excuse me” for when the person is unaware of your presence.
The Pedestrian Life. The pace is fast. Sidewalks are crowded, and made even more congested by innumerable unauthorized vendors competing for space.
Sidewalks. It is entirely acceptable for a person to pass you and cut directly in front of you as they continue onward, as long as they both maintain your pace (barring some other obstruction) and make the minimum physical contact possible. This seeming violation of personal space takes some getting used to by a westerner.
The same is true for waiting for the traffic light to change and there is enough space in front of you for another person to fit, be prepared for someone to fill this space.
Crosswalks. Pedestrians have few rights. Except at intersections with traffic signals, be particularly careful about crossing streets. Few cars use turn signals or slow down when making turns. But, just as pedestrian rights vary dramatically on the east and west coasts of the USA, so too Hong Kong has its own ways. Be careful.
Doors. Hong Kongers traveling alone open doors just far enough for themselves to pass through. Is a bit disconcerting that holding doors for strangers is not standard practice. But, such is the local custom. However, should you do so for others, it is generally appreciated and acknowledged.
Escalators. Stand on the right and pass on the left.
The MTR. Probably the most disconcerting custom is the anarchy of boarding and exiting MTR trains. Recorded announcements in English and Cantonese plead with passengers both to allow people to exit the trains before others board and to move towards the center of the cars. Both requests are routinely ignored. The generally high standards of courtesy break down on the MTR.
During less crowded times, an air of patience prevails. But, when it gets crowded it is a free for all.
Eating. No tipping. No sales tax. A few restaurants assess a 10% service charge. High service standards, though not particularly friendly. Good food. And, great value as long as one avoids the major tourist thoroughfares and the tony realms of Soho and Lan Kwai Fong.
A few tips: In general, the farther one gets from areas frequented by Westerners the fewer the number of English speaking servers one is likely to find. If you do not see a bi-lingual menu posted outside the restaurant, presume that English is not spoken. However, if there are pictures of the fare on the menu, go ahead and take a chance.
At informal restaurants, expect yourself or your group to share a table with others.
To ask for service, extend your arm upward with fingers extended and keep it there until the server appears at your table.
The dishes are likely to come at different times for each diner. Chinese custom stipulates that one starts eating when their dish arrives. The western custom of waiting for all to be served is viewed as a quaint curiosity.
When the bill is brought to the table, presume that you should pay the server at that time. If you are directed to pay the cashier, the server will point towards same.
If using chopsticks, place them on top of the bowl or plate when finished.
If the restaurant is crowded, do not be surprised if you are asked to leave shortly after finishing your meal.
One last note. Compliment service people on their good English, even if their use is barely adequate. It will make you both feel good.
GETTING AROUND HONG KONG
Easy, efficient and cheap.
MTR. The nonpareil underground system not only runs every two minutes during peak hours and every 3-4 minutes at other times. The fare from Wanchai (the station nearest to the Convention Centre) to the famous Night Market in Jordan costs only HK$7.7 (US$1).
The MTR is a modern wonder. Clean, efficient and cheap. You will quickly realize that if you are changing to another line the train running to your intended location will be directly opposite the train from which you’ve just disembarked. This will be no coincidence. In designing the interchange stations, the trains with the highest numerical probability of being the train passengers would switch to are positioned directly opposite each other.
For example, to go from the Wan Chai MTR on Hong Kong Island to City One in the New Territories requires five changes of trains, but the trip takes only 40 minutes.
Using your Octopus card will spare you the wait in line at the ticket machines. Buy yours at the airport when you arrive.
Taxis. Cheap, clean and the drivers are generally honest. (I have, however, heard horror stories from tourists taking taxis to or from major tourist attractions, such as Victoria Peak.) The drop charge on Hong Kong taxis is only HK$22 (US$2.80) and will get you quite a distance. Finding one is easy, as they far outnumber passenger cars in the principal business areas.
If you are returning to your hotel, is best to give the driver the business card for the hotel. Keep in mind the following: Most drivers speak very little English; and, streets with both English and Chinese names have no phonetic similarity.
But, Hong Kong has found a simple solution. If the cab driver does not understand you, he will call the dispatcher on his mobile and hand the phone to you. You will tell the dispatcher where you want to go, and the dispatcher will then tell the driver. It usually works out pretty well.
Tipping is not mandatory. But, if you receive a combination of coins and bills as change, you may wish to take the bills and give the driver the coins.
Trams. The routes of these double decked wonders are clearly marked at the trolley stops. Fare is only HK$2.30 (30 US cents!). They run at the same frequency as the MTR during the day. The trams are convenient, and their routes are clearly marked. Most are old, but clean. The newer ones are more comfortable, but have all of the charming features of the older trams. They feature wood interiors and the view from the upper deck is a real pleasure. Much recommended.
Do you know the direction you are going, but are not sure if you are on the right track? The track on the left side in the direction you want to go is side on which you want to go..
You board trams at the rear, and pay as you disembark at the front. (More info in the WHERE TO GO section.).
Buses. Public light buses (holding up to 16 people) will get you close to anywhere you might want to go. But, these are not recommended unless you are traveling with local knowledge, or on an easily explained Point A to Point B route.
WHERE TO GO
Hong Kong hosts many attractions. Select an activity according to the time you have available.
Since Wan Chai has a large number of tourist hotels and is centrally located on the north shore of Hong Kong Island, we will use the MTR station thereat as a starting point for excursions.
A Ride on the Ding Ding (aka Tram, Trolley). Hong Kong Island. (1-3 hours) The cheapest and best tour conveyance one can hope to find is the tram that runs along the north side of Hong Kong Island (except for the tram to Happy Valley, which goes inland and has few attractions other than the horse track). For HK$2.3 (US$0.30) you can have unlimited one-way travel on the ding-ding. However, I would not recommend this means between 6pm and 8pm in the evening, when seats are hard to come by. (Standing on a crowded tram is no pleasure.)
Exiting the Wan Chai MTR (Exit A3) you can take the train in either direction. I recommend the eastbound tram to North Point, where you will pass along the edge of Time Square in Causeway Bay, trundle alongside Victoria Park and exit in North Point. (Takes about 30 minutes.) You can then take the same tram back to Wan Chai or take the MTR at Fortress Hill to your next destination.
Victoria Peak. Hong Kong Island. (2-3 hours) Probably, the most popular attraction in Hong Kong for visitors. The Peak Tram is a funicular that ascends to the highlands behind Admiralty and Central, delivering you to the Peak.. The view is spectacular. The restaurants and shops are expensive. The tram ride is entertaining.
To get to the Peak Tram take the MTR to Admiralty Exit C1 (one stop away from Wan Chai on the Island Line going west). From there walk to Pacific Place and take the escalator to Hong Kong Park. Follow the signs to the Peak Tram terminus.
Temple Street Night Market. Kowloon. (2-4 hours) The first choice for visitors to Hong Kong is pretty much ignored by locals. Mostly clothing and accessories. Plenty of fun, inexpensive restaurants. Always a rather festive atmosphere. Don’t hesitate to haggle. Take Exit A at Jordan MTR Station. Make a right turn and go three blocks. The real action starts around 8pm.
Yau Ma Tei Kowloon. (2-3 hours). Huh? Located between Jordan and Mongkok, this is one of the most crowded areas in all of Hong Kong, and one of the most fascinating. Make a U-turn as you leave Exit C at the Yau Ma Tei MTR Station and go two blocks to Temple Street. Pass through the Ladies Market for dinner at the funky Mido Cafe (63 Temple Street) or pop around the corner for dessert at the Kubrick Cafe (3 Public Square St, Prosperous Garden) at the Hong Kong Cinematheque.
Afterwards, head back to Temple Street. Make a left turn and walk four blocks to Waterloo Road, cross the street and go one block to Portland Street. (Runs parallel to and one block west of Nathan Road.) Walk along fascinating, grubbyPortland Street to Langham Place, a gigantic, brilliantly designed shopping centre, with some of the longest indoor escalators anywhere. There is an MTR station at Langham Place
Stanley Market. Hong Kong Island. (3-5 hours). Your best chance to see rural Hong Kong if you have a half-day or less to spare. Best visited during the day. Located on the opposite site of Hong Kong Island. There is a low-rise shopping arcade, restaurants in every price range and a nice view of the open sea. Nice place to relax.
Take the #6 bus (Central MTR Station Exit B) to Stanley Police Station bus stop. You will be unable to see anything of interest as you disembark. But, the action is only five minutes away. The bus takes about 50 minutes, and takes the most scenic route.
Returning to Central, you can take the 6x or 260 bus, which take a less scenic route and are 20 minutes faster. You might want to take the slow bus there and the fast bus on the return..(You can also take the #40 public light bus on Tang Lung Street at Hennessey Road, near Time Square inCauseway Bay.)
Lantau Island. (Day Trip). Would you like to take a scenic ferry ride to a charming rural village, followed by a bus ride to the world’s largest sitting Buddha and finishing with a ride on the world’s longest aerial tram ride?
Go to Central MTR Station Exit A. Follow the signs to Central Piers. This walk will take up to 15 minutes.
Look for the Ferry Terminal #6. You will want the ferry to Mui Wo. The fast ferry takes 35 minutes. The slow ferry takes 55 minutes. You can see the ferry schedule at http://www.nwff.com.hk/eng/fare_table/central-mui_wo/
Mui Wo is a village of 6,000 people, very popular with expats and featuring a handful of very good western restaurants and cafes near the ferry terminal.
Looking out from the ferry terminal, you will see a McDonalds (the only chain restaurant in Mui Wo) on the far left. Walk past it on the left until you can see The Kitchen (18A Mui Wo Ferry Road) and Cafe Paradiso (3 Ngan Wan Road). Or, you can immediately take bus #2 to Ngong Ping Village in the mountains of South Lantau Island, home of the Sitting Buddha.
From there, you can board the Ngong Ping 360 aerial cable car for the 5.7 km (3.5 mile) journey over the mountain tops to Tung Chung, where the both an MTR station and the largest outlet mall in Hong Kong are located near the exit.
The MTR station has a direct line to Hong Kong MTR Station, which is connected by an underground walkway to Central.
Macau. (Day Trip) The fact that Macao surpassed Las Vegas years ago in amount money spent gambling is well known. But, did you know that this former Portuguese colony is 250 years older than Hong Kong, and much of its historic architecture remains intact?
Take Exit D at Shueng Wan MTR Station to the Hong Kong Macau Ferry Terminal. Hydrofoil ferries leave for Macau at least every hour. The one hour trip costs about HK$155 (US$20) each way. You must have a valid passport. See the Turbojet website for prices and timetables at http://www.turbojet.com.hk/en/routing-sailing-schedule/hong-kong-macau/sailing-schedule-fares.aspx
If gambling is your objective, free shuttle buses will you to where you want to go. But, if you want to see historic Macau take the #3 bus from the ferry terminal via Avenida Ribeiro to the Ruins of St Paul and wander among the attractions of the nearby Senado Square. Macanese cuisine–a hybrid of Chinese and Portuguese styles–is worth a try.
Pay via credit or debit card where you can, as the change given for payment in US or Hong Kong dollars will be in the local currency–the pataka–which will be useless to you outside of Macau.
FINAL THOUGHTS. Hong Kong is the most user-friendly city that your humble correspondent (who lived there for over nine years) has ever visited. The internet is fast. Transportation is inexpensive and reliable. Service standards are generally very high.
For the first time traveler to Asia, Hong Kong (along with Singapore, perhaps) is where East and West meet with the least friction. But, it can be frustrating. A cool head and patience are almost an absolute must.
The success of your visit will largely depend upon your adaptability to the environment. Take a deep breath. Relax. Absorb yourself as much as you can into the Hong Kong experience. Enjoy the adventure.