Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Hong Kong & Macau

During my time in Vietnam two other friends and I decided that after Hong Kong we would like to do some independent travel to Macau. So, we booked hotel rooms and flights and planned our trip. For those of you who don’t know, Macau is a “SAR” (special administrative region) of China, like Hong Kong, that is actually seen as somewhat of a different entity. It has its own currency and you do need a passport to travel between Macau and China. They compare the city to Vegas, but bigger they say. One of the friends I was traveling with, Devin, is a serious poker player and he wanted to have a chance to gamble. Neither Moriah nor I have ever been to Vegas and so we wanted the chance to see something similar. Between Hong Kong and China the ship was at sea for two days, and all students had the option to board and sail with the ship or travel independently and meet up with the program in Shanghai. So, Macau it was. But first, we had two days in Hong Kong.

Day 1: The ship docked, per usual, in the morning and students flocked to the deck to see the city. Fog rolled off the water and just as the coast ended, an intimidatingley large skyline rose just beyond the waves. Huge skyscrapers towered over the coast and the city was already bustling at 7 AM. Little ferries buzzed down below our ship and we could hear the frantic honking of cars and screech of brakes in the morning traffic. Skipper, Moriah, Marc, and I disembarked with a multitude of touristy things we had in mind for the day. Number one on our list was to take the tram to the top of Victoria Peak, a mountain that overlooks the city and was supposed to offer the most stunning views on the whole island. The ship was docked directly next to a huge shopping mall so that the only way off the ship was to walk all the way through it. It was enormous and crowded and after some initial confusion, we were able to change some money and find the terminal for the Star Ferry. Star Ferry is a little ferry that takes you all over the island and to the other islands of Hong Kong for only a few cents. One thing that stuck out to me was in line to hand in your tickets there was a line for “singles” “families” and “octopus”.  I guess it must have been some kind of fast pass but it was hilarious. Anyways, so we get on this little ferry and it takes us to the other main island, Hong Kong Island. From there, we grab a double decker bus that zips us through the city. We got to sit on the top of the bus and see some of the sights as we made our way to the heart of the city. Hong Kong was a pleasant mix of stunningly tall skyscrapers and ancient trees, hunched over and covered in vines and moss. The intersections were busy, and people bustled around, rushing off to work. But also, many families lounged around in the sun eating ice cream and couples rambled around holding hands. It was a very interesting mix of highly modern urban and slow paced traditional. After the quick ride we arrived at a bus stop crowded with tourists who were in line to buy tickets for the tram. After we got ours and waited a bit, the tram arrived. It was a large red tram with about three cars, obviously a modern one but styled like an old trolley. We boarded and the tram began to move on its tracks up the steep mountain. At some points we were nearly vertical. At first, we were surrounded on both sides by some very interesting looking vegetation. But soon, the trees broke and we could see down the sloping green mountain and to the city below. It was like nothing I have ever seen. Fog misted over the dense trees and wafted over the city to reside on the deep blue of the harbor. It was like a mammoth sleeping city hidden in the middle of a jungle. Words cant really describe the view. Once at the top, we explored the nice little town. There was a huge tower of a shopping mall that you could pay to go to the top of for the “perfect view” but instead we chose to explore all of the little artists’ stands. I could not resist buying some artwork and snacks before the tram ride back down. Once back in center city, we found an amazing dim sum place in our guidebook and went through a lot of trouble to get there, only to arrive and find that it had just closed. So, we ended up eating in a very inauthentic (but still good) restaurant down the block. After a quick stop back to the ship to change, we went out for dinner and went out for the night.

Day 2:  The next morning I woke up early to get dressed for a side trip. The trip was called “Tai Chi and Dim Sum” so I wore work out clothes, grabbed a bottle of water, and hit the road. The bus left from the port at 9 AM and took us to Hong Kong Park, a gorgeous green park in the center of Hong Kong Island. The morning was chilly and grey, but the park was alive and vibrant. We walked past huge ponds full of colorful koi fish and enormous green trees where the birds were just waking up. There were waterfalls and beautiful fountains and lily pads lazily floating down miniature streams.  After the walk, we found ourselves in a stone amphitheatre where a man dressed in a white silk robe was waiting for us. Our guide had told us earlier that he was a Tai Chi master and had been studying the art for 30 years. We put down our stuff and joined him as he demonstrated. At this point, I suggest you youtube Tai Chi. Its so fluid and graceful, I cant even really describe it. He explained that Tai Chi is an ancient art that is supposed to be practiced every morning as the sun rose and that not only is it an exercise, but that it calms both the mind and the soul as well. Now it was our turn. First, he taught us some basic steps and then we followed him as he went through motion after motion into something like a slow motion dance. I loved it. It was certainly harder than I was expecting and even going really slowly, you still work up quite a sweat. But it was so zen and calming, I felt light and graceful, I don’t know, I guess I cant really describe it. At first, I was a little annoyed because I had been expecting there to be music of some kind. But, after a while I started to hear the chirping of the birds and the rustling of the branches and the far off chime of the water on the rocks in the park around me, and I felt that it was the perfect background noise.  Then, it began to sprinkle a light cold morning mist. In any other circumstance I would have been really annoyed but it was so pleasant and unexpected, I actually enjoyed it. We did this for about an hour, and let me tell you Alex, the whole time all I was thinking about was how much you would love it. We should pick it up when I get home. Anyways, at the end of the lesson we gathered our things and walked back through the park. At a fork in the road, instead of going back the way we came we walked instead to a little teahouse nestled in the park. We were sat down at tables that surrounded a stand where a funny little man in thick black glasses stood grinning at us. He explained that we would be able to witness a traditional Chinese tea ceremony and that we would be able to taste the six different types of Chinese tea. The types are green tea, red tea, yellow tea, white tea, black tea, and greenish tea (oolong tea).  The way he told us to remember the colors are a panda crossing the road. The panda is black and white, the lights are green yellow and red, and the bamboo the panda is eating is greenish. Anyways, over the next hour we learned all about tea, what makes it different, good for you, ect. It was very interesting (and tasty) but I’m not going to go into it here. After the teahouse, we all boarded the bus which took us to a famous dim sum restaurant. We were all seated at tables of 10, and out of the back room servers brought platter after heaped steaming platter of authentic dim sum. The placed them all down on our lazy susan, and we ravenously dug in. There was peking duck, noodles of all kinds, buns, rolls, dumplings, puffs, and rice. I was starving and it was delicious. After the meal, the trip was over and we returned to the ship. Once back, I met up with Moriah and we packed quickly for Macau. Then after a quick taxi ride to the express ferry, we handed in our $20 tickets and boarded. The ferry ran every hour to Macau and was so fast that it made the long journey in only an hour. On the inside, it looked exactly like a plane. We got settled in very comfortable seats and napped until we arrived in Macau. An hour later, we disembarked and left the terminal into the chilly evening air. The weather in Hong Kong had been nippy, but here it was downright chilly and drizzling. It was a pretty big contrast to the sweltering heat of ‘nam. The taxi drive to our hotel took us through the main city of Macau, and the lights were out of this world. The hotels and casinos were all completely covered with bright fluorescent lights that blinked and shone. It was completely dazzling and also completely decadent. We drove through the city center and off to the side a little bit where we found our much more demure hotel nestled onto the steep incline of a hill. The inside of the hotel was classy and simple, and we met Devin there who showed us to our nice little room. Then, after quickly getting dressed and reveling in the free internet, we grabbed a taxi to the Venetian. For those of you who don’t know, the Venetian in Macau is the largest casino of all time. I know this because Devy had been raving about it for weeks. But, actually being there and seeing it, it took my breath away. This thing was massive. To see the whole thing, you literally had to stand from a distance and turn your head from side to side. I mean, this thing was the biggest structure I have ever seen. The entire thing was painted gold and lit up like a beacon. It was decorated just like something straight out of Italy including massive lion statues and torrents and towers, words cant even describe this thing. Like, you need to google this. Right now. Inside, the whole thing was bright gold and the ceiling was adorned with paintings of cherubs and gods as far as the eye could see. It was breathtaking and impressive and also kind of sad and disgusting at the same time. We wandered through the casino which stretched out into eternity. An ocean of slot machines and tables as far as the eye could see. I couldn’t believe it. That night, we had a nice dinner and watched Devy gamble, and got to see some of the town. While it was staggeringly beautiful, it also had this weird depressing vibe to it. I cant really explain it.

Day 3: The next morning when the three of us got up, Devy instantly booked it for the casino leaving me and Moriah on our own for the day. We decided to head to one of the tourist attractions that our guidebook talks about, The Fisherman’s Wharf. The Fisherman’s Wharf was basically constructed for families who have kids and need something to do for the day. It’s a huge structure including an outdoor shopping mall, an arcade, international cuisine restaurants, a huge fake mountain housing a roller coaster, an ice sculpture museum, and (of course) a casino. At first, we wandered through the outdoor strip mall. Each shop or block was designed in the architecture of a different country. There was France, England, South Africa, America, and many others. It was cool to see because we had already been to many of the countries represented. While the stores were decently priced, the styles were a little weird so we didn’t end up buying anything. Next, we wandered past the restaurants and into the mountain. The roller coaster happened to be closed that day, but we spent some time chilling in the arcade that was housed in the bottom of the mountains and made out to look like a cave. Wandering around we saw some wedding parties, snacked, shopped, and schmoozed. Later, we took a cab to the famous Ah Mah temple located about 10 minutes from center city. The temple is located at the  bottom of a hill and from the ceiling hangs tons of…well they’re hard to describe. Basically, its incense. But, instead of being straight rods, they are really long pieces spiraled around into huge cones. I have pictures, don’t worry. Anyways, there are a gazillion of these things hanging all over the temple. Standing underneath them to take pictures, I almost passed out from lack of oxygen and smoke inhalation. The rest of my time there, I was light headed simply from 5 minutes under the incense cones. Once outside of the main temple, a path winds up through the rocks on the hill and forks and branches off into many smaller paths. Moriah and I wandered around, exploring them, and came to find many small temples also full of incense and candles. Some sticks of incense were the width of a fire pole and a few feet taller than me, letting off columns of smoke. After lighting some ourselves and seeing all there was to see, Moriah and I met up with Devy and headed to the Lisboa, one of the largest casinos in Macau. There, or so they said, was the most amazing dumpling restaurant in all of Macau. Though skeptical we were, the dumplings were as wonderful as the service was terrible, and that’s saying something.

Day 4: The next morning, still on the temple kick, Moriah and I decided to head to another famous religious spot in Macau. Thought the name currently escapes me, the remains of saint something or other cathedral. All that’s left of it is one wall, but its really beautiful. Standing at the top of a hill overlooking the city, the wall is huge carved stone. In an odd contrast, someone had chosen to erect large plastic panda statues next to the wall (they were pretty cute).  After we were done perusing, we turned around and looked at the view of the city below. An impressive stone staircase led to bustling shopping streets on the outskirts of the city. We descended the stairs and immediately got swept away in the crazy crowd. All around us were stores of every kind. Ladies boiled dumplings in huge vats of boiling water, and smeared almond icing over little buttery cookies in the street. There were a million stores that people pushed and shoved into, and still more people perched on the dividers between the lanes snacking. We grabbed some bubble tea, shopped around a bit, and then decided to head over to the Venetian for lunch. Getting a taxi on the crowded shopping street was not what you would call easy, but after almost getting run over twice and one definitely illegal u-turn, we managed and were whisked away. Even though I had already seen the Venetian, you never really get used to seeing something that enormous. Pulling up the gilded awning felt like being dropped off at some ancient palace. Once inside, however, the bad vibes washed over me. Depressed looking asian men sat immobile at tables and slots. It looked that they were still there from the night before with their wrinkled shirts and baggy faces, like they were trying to win back all their money. We left the casino quickly and found a little Italian place where we shared a pizza and garlic bread. On a whim, I wondered how much a manicure would be at a place like this, and so the server pointed us in the direction of the spa. We got lost several times on the way, I’m telling you this place is no joke. But when we finally emerged, we found ourselves on the streets of Venice. Apparently, the shopping section inside the hotel has been made to look like Venice, canals and all. There are bridges, cobblestone sidewalks, and the ceiling is painted to look like the sky on a summer day. You can even pay to take a gondola ride through the shopping center. And, yes, the gondoliers really do sing to you. The stores (and the spa) were much too expensive for either of us to even dream about getting anything, but it was really nice to see. One of the gondoliers even told us about a free show at the Hard Rock Hotel right across the street so we headed in that direction. In a complete coincidence, while crossing the street, someone called our names and we saw Devy getting out of a taxi. He joined us and we entered the Hard Rock tower. The show, called the “Bubble Show” is free but there were literally no signs describing what exactly it is. However, there was a huge line, so we joined and prepared to be surprised. We entered into a very strange auditorium. There were no seats and the walls were curved around us like we were standing in a huge cylinder. There were brightly colored LED jellyfish hanging from the ceiling and they moved up and down. In the center of the ceiling, water rained down in different patterns and shapes. Then, once everyone was inside, the walls began to glow and we realized that the entire room was one huge screen. The show was about 20 minutes long, about dragons, and was fabulous. If you ever find yourself in Macau, it is the first thing I would recommend.  Afterwards, we caught some dinner and headed back to the Lisboa to watch Devy gamble.

Day 5: The day of our flight, we slept in a little, grabbed a quick lunch at our hotel, and headed to the airport. Once inside, it was relatively empty but we found that our flight had been delayed about an hour. With nothing to do, Moriah and I decided that we wanted some ice cream. However, the only shops we could find were designer and the only food we could find was greasy Chinese. Let me tell you, we were already pretty sick of Chinese food. However, when we settled back down at our gate we noticed that almost everybody else at the gate had bags and bags from all of the designer stores. Either they won some serious money, or were already rich and needed to buy themselves some consolation prizes. Soon enough, the plane boarded and we were on our way to Shanghai, which I will try to blog about in a few days.

All in all, I had a really wonderful 5 days of independent travel. Hong Kong was by far one of the most fun places I have visited so far, and one of the first on my list to return to. Macau was also really fun, but I just felt some bad vibes there. Firstly, everyone there was literally obsessed with gambling. I mean, I know that that’s the main function of the city, but when I hear it being compared to Vegas I think shows, nightlife, cool day activities. And, I’m not saying we were bored during the day, but in three days Moriah and I saw everything there was to see. Devy might sing you a different tune though, seeing as he won about 12 hundred dollars (and still wouldn’t take us out to dinner, I might add). During the day in the main city the streets were empty and the casinos were packed, if that gives you any sense of the gambling obsession. Anyways, I’m really glad I got to see it but I’m not sure if I would return.

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