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Thursday, June 24, 2021

Getting around HK in 36 hours

IT’S been eight years since I first visited Hong Kong.

Back then, for a Cebuano like me, it was synonymous with Hong Kong Disneyland Park, which is the closest Disneyland to Cebu. But now that I’m in my 30s, and I’ve gotten the Disney bug out of my system, I was excited to explore the culture of Hong Kong.

Cathay Pacific, which celebrated its 70th birthday last month (founded on Sept. 24, 1946), decided to award its top travel agents at the posh Marco Polo Hongkong Hotel on Canton Road in the busy Tsim Sha Tsui district. They decided to tap three members of the media—representing the three English dailies in Cebu—to tag along.

We arrived in Hong Kong shortly before midnight on a Saturday.

Tip #1 for first-timers in Hong Kong: wear comfortable shoes. The airport is like a small town on its own—it’s huge with coffee shops, restaurants and shopping boutiques. Hong Kong International Airport even has a public gallery. So if there’s a person or a ride waiting for you at a specific time, don’t dilly-dally, you are going to do a lot of walking. Granting there are a lot of walkalators in the airport, you will still be walking quite a long way.

Because Hong Kong is a premier tourist destination, the queue in the Immigration Hall is going to be long. But there are a number of personnel and windows, you are not going to be stuck for a long time.

We were out of the airport by 12:30. The bus waved through the same highways my ride had woven through eight years ago. I felt like I was seeing the same things—just on a much larger scale: more buildings, the tall buildings have become so much taller (redundant for emphasis) you may as well call it skyscraper city.

Despite the massive improvements over the years, there are still so many more developments underway.

The group was comprised of Cathay Pacific representatives headed by Cebu manager Catherine Sin and marketing and communications supervisor Ma. Consuelo Cimafranca; agents, owners and managers from at least 13 travel agencies from Cebu, Davao and General Santos City; writers from the three English dailies: this writer from Sun.Star Cebu, Clint Holton Potestas from Cebu Daily News and Kristine Quintas from The Freeman.

We arrived in our hotel past 1 a.m. We were checked in at the Harbour Plaza 8 Degrees Hotel in To Kwa Wan, Kowloon City District, 40 minutes away from the airport. The hotel certainly had an interesting name that piqued our interest. It turns out that behind the hotel, there used to be an airport where planes flew out and docked at an eight-degree angle.

The hotel certainly embraced its name. Check out its check-in counter (in photo).

Tip #2: Don’t sleep. When you’re a tourist, you don’t go to sleep until you’ve at least made an ocular inspection of the area—no matter how late it is. So the three writers went out to the deserted place looking for culture. Okay, To Kwa Wan is not exactly Tsim Sha Tsui—not even Cebu City. Shops and most restaurants and clubs were already closed before midnight.

But I told Kristin and Clint we were not going to sleep until we found an authentic Chinese noodle shop. So we walked along Pau Chang Street, around San Shan Road, down to Ma Tau Kok Road.

Tip #3: Be ready with the calculator. The great thing about most of the restaurants in the area is that they display the menu outside. Some would suggest that when you’re in a foreign country, you should stop being conscious about expenses. I disagree. You may be in a foreign country, but you—at least we were—are still earning in pesos. So prepare your calculators and do some currency conversion. This also brings me to the next tip…

Tip #4: Don’t scrimp on food. Yes, if you want culture, you spend—but just know your limits.

Anyway, so we found a door that had Chinese writings on it. It also had the number “24.” Great. It was a 24-hour restaurant. So we went in, a man met us, and he started barking in Chinese. “We want to eat,” I said. “Close, close!” he yelled. This brings me to the next tip…

Tip #5: Don’t assume too much. Don’t even try to understand Chinese when you know nothing about the language. Further on, we found another nice-looking eatery. A woman met us and said something in Chinese. We told her we wanted to eat, but she just looked at us, confused. “English?” asked Clint. “No English, no English,” the woman said, while literally shooing us away with her hand gestures. Wow. They certainly knew how to make foreigners feel welcome.

Based on our experience, only about two out of five Hong Kong locals speak and understand English—and not fluently.

We finally settled on a restaurant called Delicious Food. The fact that the restaurant’s name had an English translation made us feel welcome, so did the waiter who spoke little, but understandable English.

The three of us shared a bowl of spicy soy chicken and a plate of noodles, which cost us about HK $120, or about P720. Not bad at all considering how delicious it was.

By the time we left the restaurant, it was past 2 a.m., only 711s were opened. So we headed back to the hotel to get some shut-eye.

Tip #6: Wake up early and see Hong Kong with a fresh perspective. So what if you didn’t get enough sleep? There’s plenty of time to sleep when you’re dead anyway. My roommate Kristine and I woke up an hour earlier than our call-time, since it was a business trip after all, to check out the neighborhood.

It was a great place for a walk. It was clean and not so busy. Large and beautiful dogs, accompanied by their owners, converged at the corner of Pak Tai and Mok Cheong streets.

Behind our hotel, development was in place.

Karen Chow, the hotel’s director of sales, said that with Tsim Sha Tsui already saturated, developments are now headed to To Kwa Wan. Hopefully, in a few years, it will also become an area that never sleeps.

Hong Kong is small. Its land area is almost the same as the land area of Metro Cebu. But its development is off the charts. An area this small has the second highest number of high rises in any city in the world. What is interesting is that you also see a lot of greens in Hong Kong. You can actually walk from one park to the other.

Some of Hong Kong’s private properties also have parks that are open to the public. There’s a condominium tower in To Kwa Wan called Jubilant Place. It has its own park that everybody can enjoy, not just its residents.

Alas, the first order of business on Saturday morning (ninth hour in Hong Kong) was to inspect two hotels since the trip was essentially for travel agents and owners. We inspected the Harbour Plaza, of course, and the three adjacent Marco Polo Hotels in the Tsim Sha Tsui area: Marco Polo Hongkong Hotel, Gateway Hotel and Prince Hotel.

There’s one thing common among all four hotels: the rooms are generally smaller—at least smaller than the hotel rooms in Cebu.

“Because Hong Kong is small, the land is very expensive. So you have to practice minimalism,” said Chow.

But the 26-square-meter deluxe room of Harbour Plaza already has two single beds, a television, a bathroom with a tub, a cabinet for clothes, refrigerator, a stove and a sink.

In the afternoon, the group was treated to a fun experience at Magical World in Tsim Sha Tsui East. It is a Disney 4D world where tourists, mostly those who don’t have the time to drop by Disneyland, can take photos of their favorite Disney and Marvel characters—in my case, it was the Hulk. I would’ve preferred Mark Ruffalo, the actor who portrayed Hulk’s human form, Bruce Banner, but I’ll take what I can.

In between hotel inspections and dinner, we squeezed in less-than-an-hour shopping sprees a couple of times.

Tip #7: Know where to shop. Esprit, Giordano and Bossini are some of the most expensive apparel brands in Cebu. But these are all based in Hong Kong, so expect their products to be cheaper. And I know that for a fact because I followed my own tip number three.

There is a price difference of at least a few hundred pesos. And that’s for the regular-priced items. If you are just patient and walk around more, you’ll soon realize that there are a few of these stores in one area. And some of them are on sale.

As a result of our patience, the three reporters were late to dinner.

Tip #8: Bring a map. Because we were so excited by our great shopping experience, we walked and walked, without noting the turns we made. So we got lost. By the time we met back with our group for dinner—30 minutes late—there was an uncomfortable glare from our companions who were already hungry.

Great thing dinner, courtesy of Marco Polo Hotels, was amazing. A full stomach got our companions smiling again.

But we were not done shopping.

So after dinner, around 9 p.m., we boarded a train (fact: Hong Kong has one of the best transportation systems in the world) from Tsim Sha Tsui to Mong Kok, which is kind of the Carbon Market of Hong Kong—minus the stench. But it’s where “cheap” items are supposedly sold for pasalubong.

Tip #9: Don’t let vendors sweet talk you. I found these supposedly lucky trinkets that I wanted to give a few people. Each trinket was sold at HK$50 each but the vendor (a woman at that!) said she’d give me three pieces for just $100. It seemed like a good buy so I said yes!

But then, we saw the same items at the airport, sold at just $30 for three trinkets. Ugh.

For pasalubong items, buy from ambulant vendors with carts, not from boutiques, for obvious reasons. Since they are not paying rent, coin purses sell for around P60 at carts, while the same kind costs as much as P150 in stores.

Tip #10: Bring a hotel brochure. Tired from all the walking and shopping, we decided to take a taxi home. We were turned down a few times just because the driver could not understand English. Good thing my hotel key card was still in the hotel envelope, which had the hotel’s name in Chinese. We showed that to a driver and we finally got a ride after a few tries.

We hit the bed at around 2 a.m., 26 hours since we arrived in Hong Kong.

Sunday morning was all business. There was no “going around” to speak of. We were already at the airport by lunch time (36th hour) in preparation for our flight back home to Cebu.

It was one hectic flight, but no one can say I didn’t make the most out of it.
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