- The Washington Times - Friday, March 12, 2004

HONG KONG — “You drink,” said the old man as he tore the marble-size gall bladder from a snake’s underbelly and drained the black bile into a small dish before mixing it with a bit of rice wine and a few drops of snake blood.

As he slid the dish toward me, I slammed down the concoction, continuing an ancient tradition, and prepared to head out into the urban chaos that lies outside.

Drinking snake bile at the base of a modern-day skyscraper is exactly the sort of stark contrast that makes this special administrative region of China such an enticing destination. As a land where East meets West and old meets new, few places offer such variety.

This is a place where Buddhist monks use Palm Pilots to check e-mail, construction workers build skyscrapers using bamboo scaffolds and oceangoing freighters ride side by side with century-old sampans.

In the streets of Kowloon and Central, Porsches roll beside old women toting carts of dried seafood while Armani suits mix and mingle with blood-stained aprons and straw hats. Home to age-old traditions and leading-edge technology, Hong Kong is a magical place trapped somewhere between the past and the future.


I stumble out into the streets to discover that this isn’t a place that can be understood by seeing it on television or reading about it in a book. Urban Hong Kong is an intoxicating dose of smells, sights and sounds that attack the senses and leave a visitor stunned like a deer in the headlights of an oncoming car.

Wandering side streets of places such as Mongkok, Ya Ma Tei and Tsim Tsa Tsui, I become lost in the endless ringing of cell phones, the beeping of alarm clocks in the market, the rumbling of buses, the blaring of radios and the endless chatter in Cantonese.

For the eyes, Hong Kong is one giant billboard of neon lights, decorated skyscrapers and sign upon sign advertising everything from televisions and cell phones to fast food and underwear. But no sense of a place can ever be captured by anything as distinctive as its smell, which in Hong Kong is a strange mix of exhaust, fruit, barbecued meat and the stench of drying seafood.

In Mongkok, one of the most densely populated places in the world, I am swept from the underground train in an ocean of people. The crowd carries me through a series of overhead flyways and tightly packed sidewalks before releasing me to the tranquillity of the Yuen Po Street Bird Garden. There are so many birds — macaws, cockatiels, parakeets, songbirds — that I hear the garden long before I see it.

Dozens of middle-aged men wander the park with their birds in tow, resting their cages in trees for them to bask and perch in the sunlight. Down the block, I find women battling for the best greenery in Mongkok’s Flower Market, while the Ladies Market and Goldfish Market draw hefty crowds as well.

While Hong Kong’s most intoxicating experiences can be found in its numerous markets, which sell such disparate items as live chickens and pirated DVDs, nothing is as exciting as the Temple Street Night Market. Just past the Tin Hau Temple, where fortunetellers read the chien tung sticks and Cantonese opera performers sing their twangy tunes, I find almost four blocks of market madness that bring out the city’s true Chinese characteristics.

Countless rickety stalls are crammed and stitched together, where workers tout seemingly everything from minitelevisions and strobe lights to fake Rolexes and designer jeans. Blaring through the night is a constant blast of thumping techno music, a genre that makes the perfect soundtrack for such a high-tech society.

When darkness falls over Hong Kong and the neon signs come to life, I ride the Star Ferry to Kowloon, grab a seat on the harbor-front promenade and sit in awe at one of the most beautiful skylines in the world.

Reflected upon the choppy waters of Victoria Harbor, Central’s splendor lies in its hundreds of skyscrapers adorned with neon and billboards. During Christmas and Chinese New Year, this luminescent spectacle is only intensified by a bombardment of flashing lights, towering Christmas trees and lighted messages. Dominating the skyline is the towering presence of Two International Financial Center, the sixth-tallest building in the world.

Feng shui, the ancient Chinese art of placement, is perhaps more apparent in Hong Kong architecture and society than anywhere else in Asia. It dictates just about everything in Hong Kong, including the direction of one’s bed and the date for a wedding or the merging of two firms. In Repulse Bay is a building with a huge square hole in the middle of it. Rumor has it that that is to enable dragons who live in the mountains behind to get to the ocean for a drink.

Even the front door of the Mandarin Hotel is slanted to keep evil spirits away, while the Hopwell Center has a pool on the roof simply to counteract the building’s bad chi. In Hong Kong, too, every number has significance, so much so that people pay fortunes to have license plates with the lucky number 8.


When the hustle and bustle of Central Hong Kong and Kowloon begin to wear me down, I can travel worlds away in less than an hour. Although Hong Kong is known around the world for its concrete jungles, the region has more than 250 islands. From the seclusion of Peng Chau to the ramshackle inlets of the Tai O fishing village, rural Hong Kong lies in stark contrast to the one so often represented in martial-arts films.

On the tiny dumbbell-shaped island Cheung Chau, I discover a charming fishing village wrapped around a typhoon shelter that houses an endless barrage of junks, sampans and fishing vessels. Lying along the waterfront are numerous restaurants, which all adhere to the No. 1 rule in Cantonese cuisine: It must be fresh. Each establishment boasts its own tubs, which hold grouper, lobster and more exotic specialties, such as giant starfish and mantis or “scissor” shrimp. When darkness falls, the waterfront promenade comes to life with romancing couples and families from the city.

It isn’t very far to Hong Kong’s largest and most mountainous island, Lantau. High in the mountains near the center of the island, I find one of the world’s largest outdoor seated bronze Buddhas, a majestic 85-foot creation that looks out over the landscape and can be seen from outlying islands on a clear day.

Down by the coast, I cruise the canals of the Tai O fishing village, a ramshackle settlement of stilt houses perched on canals where locals leave seafood out to dry. Less than a mile off Lantau’s rocky coast, I manage to track down some of the area’s rare pink dolphins.

When it’s time to eat, Hong Kong has countless dai pai dongs, which originated as inexpensive street-food stalls, and dim sum restaurants nestled between its endless supply of Western fast-food establishments.

Loosely translated as “touch the heart,” dim sum is the ultimate Cantonese culinary experience. A variety of steamed dumplings and rolls is served in small portions, usually in brightly lit, loud rooms. In the old dim sum establishments of Central Hong Kong, I find entire communities meeting for breakfast.

Most restaurants in Hong Kong hold live food and slaughter or clean it when ordered. Some of the more interesting local specialties include pigeon, frog, chicken feet and “thousand-year-old eggs,” which I discovered are an acquired taste.

The gastronomically adventurous can head to a snake shop, as I did that first morning in Hong Kong, for what has to be the ultimate culinary experience, raw snake bile.

When it’s time to head back to the city for the night, there’s nothing more relaxing than riding the top deck on one of the island ferries.

Bouncing around in the South China Sea beneath a full moon, I find an endless array of dimly lit junks and sampans plying the choppy waters throughout the night. Nearing Hong Kong Island, Central’s neon-lit skyscrapers beacon me back every evening from the dark ocean.


A sore foot is the sign that one has truly experienced Hong Kong. Every night, I return to my hotel with callused and blistered feet, but I always find walking one of the most enjoyable means of transportation.

Whether it’s a flyway over the urban chaos of Mongkok; a stroll up the 2,600-foot Mid-Levels Escalator, one of the world’s longest escalators; or a dirt path in the backwoods of Lamma Island, this is a place made for walking.

Though Hong Kong is known around the world as an urban metropolis of skyscrapers, neon signs and martial-arts stars, more than three-fourths of its territory is undeveloped land, while 40 percent of the region is divided into 23 country parks.

Numerous paved and unpaved trails wander throughout the islands of Hong Kong, leading visitors through stunning flora and fauna and past seaside villages, lonely monasteries and smoky temples. The number of trails here is almost baffling; it seems as if every village has more than a half-dozen paths that lead to even more paths. Follow them long enough, and you can walk your way around just about every square inch of land in Hong Kong.

As the longest in the region, the 62-mile Mac Lehose Trail weaves its way across the New Territories and follows the ridges near Pak Tam Chung, Hong Kong’s highest peak.

Though Mac Lehose’s length and steepness deter casual travelers, the trail is broken down into numerous sections, all of which are easily accessible by public transportation. While hiking some of Hong Kong’s trails, I discover that every trail has numerous escape routes that lead quickly back to civilization by way of bus or sampan.

Even in the concrete jungles of Kowloon and Central, walking is the best way to discover the bustling action and culture that lie packed between the skyscrapers on some of the city’s narrow streets. An endless array of markets, alleyways, temples and exciting neighborhoods lies just steps outside the subway stations.

Hopping aboard the high-speed KCR (Kowloon-Canton Railway), I head into the villages of Hong Kong’s New Territories.

Home to more traditional Cantonese culture and lacking the bustle of Central Hong Kong, the New Territories have countless temples, walled villages and chaotic markets. In Shatin, I follow the 400 steps to the Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery, along a trail flanked by hundreds of golden monks. Each one has a different face, a different expression. In the monastery’s main temple are nearly 13,000 Buddhas, all neatly placed on shelves that encircle the temple.

From a viewpoint near the temple, I look out into the city below and see steel buildings reaching for the sky, trains whizzing by and a population fixated with cellular phones. It all is encased in green rolling mountains, nestled in the blue waters of the South China Sea. Above it stand a pagoda and thousands of Buddhas. Trapped between the East and the West, caught between the past and the future, Hong Kong is not just a destination for the body. It’s a destination for the soul.

Setting a Hong Kong itinerary

By Craig Guillot


Hong Kong is about a 16-hour flight from the East Coast. Cathay Pacific, a member of the One World alliance, which includes partners such as American Airlines and British Airways, flies nonstop from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Public transportation in Hong Kong is among the cleanest, safest and most efficient in the world. The Mass Transit Railway (MTR) runs all around central Hong Kong and the Kowloon Peninsula, while the Kowloon-Canton Railway travels up through the New Territories to the Chinese border. An extensive ferry system also reaches to the nearby islands of Lantau, Lamma, Cheung Chau and Peng Chau.

Although hotel rates in Hong Kong are among some of the world’s most expensive, the service and value are among the best in the world.

Overlooking Central and the Harbor, the Grand Hyatt Hong Kong, 1 Harbour Road (852/2588-1234 or hongkong.grand.hyatt.com), offers some of the most amazing views in the region. All rooms are elaborately decorated and designed in accordance with feng shui.

The centrally located JW Marriott Hong Kong, at 1 Pacific Place, 88 Queensway Central (852/2810-8366 or www.marriott.com, lies just above an MTR station and offers fine views of the bay. The service is world-class.

For those on a budget, Rent-a-Room Hong Kong, Flat A, Second Floor, Night Garden, 7-8 Tak Hing St., Ya Ma Tei (www.rentaroomhk.com), has 40 small yet immaculately furnished rooms.

Rainbow Seafood Restaurant, 16-20 First Street, Sok Kwu Wan, Lamma Island, is a fine place to sample a variety of fresh seafood, including grouper, crab, oyster and starfish. Its waterfront location offers fine views of the harbor and the restaurant’s fish farms. The restaurant also has a shuttle boat to and from Central.

Jumbo Floating Restaurant, Shum Wan Pier Drive, Wong Chuk Hang, Aberdeen (www.jumbo.com.hk), is one of Hong Kong’s most unusual eateries, as the restaurant sits in a gargantuan boat that can accommodate up to 2,300 guests. It has an extensive selection of live seafood with reasonable prices.

Yung Kee Restaurant, 32-40 Wellington Street, Central (www.yungkee.com.hk), is a fancy three-story restaurant famous for its roast goose and Cantonese specialties.

For more information, contact the Hong Kong Tourism Board: 115 E. 54th St. 2F, New York, NY 10022; 212/421-3382; [email protected]; www.discoverhongkong.com.

This is the year of the monkey in Hong Kong.

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