If you’re a traveler, you know the feeling of eventually wanting to land somewhere different. Nothing gets old about the beauty of the Caribbean, the adventures of Central America, or the history and delicious food of Europe. But sometimes you just want to travel somewhere new. And that somewhere is the continent of Asia.
Traveling to the other side of the world can be daunting; it’s hard to pick a destination. After all, Asia is the biggest continent in the world. Each country is so different and carries unique traditions and cultures that have been cultivated over thousands of years. But there is one place that retains the deep-seeded Asian history while still inventing itself as a modern metropolis. So if you’d like to get a taste of Asian flavor but don’t want to feel like a fish out of water, visit a corner of the continent that could easily be called its stepping stone: Hong Kong.
Packed with people, Hong Kong is on the southeast tip of China and is one of the world’s most densely populated places. The people, who represent diverse nationalities, are on the move and create the hustle of an authentic experience of what most Asian cities feel like. Built around Victoria Harbor, Hong Kong (which means ‘fragrant harbor’ in Cantonese) is characterized for its impressive skyline which seems to be ever-changing with the rapid construction of tall office buildings and hotels. Visitors speculate that as the population increases, Hong Kong responds by cutting land from the mountains and dumping it in the sea to create more space. Locals joke that you might own waterfront property one year but by the next, you’ll have a building blocking your view.
Despite the morphing landscape, it is relatively easy to get around in Hong Kong. The territory was a British colony until 1997 when it was handed back over to the Chinese. Still, most of the locals speak English with a high level of proficiency from the business professionals. Striking up friendships with the residents isn’t hard if you have the time. But if you’re on a tight schedule in Hong Kong, I recommend hitting three highlights.
First, find the Big Buddha. Located on Lantua Island near the airport, the Tian Tan Buddha sits on a platform shaped like a lotus flower and towers at more than 112 feet high. It is the largest outdoor sitting Buddha in the world. The statue is named Tian Tan because its base is a model of the Altar of Heaven Mountain of Tian Tan, the Temple of Heaven in Beijing. Visitors have to take the hike up 268 steep steps to reach the Buddha, and it is handicapped accessible by car. The area surrounding the Buddha is serene, quiet and magnificent. But if you visit in late April or May, prepare for a big party and hoards of people who make the pilgrimage in honor of Buddha’s birthday.
A trip to Hong Kong is not complete without hitting one of the famous markets. There is a goldfish market, a ladies market, a men’s market, a night market, a flower market and a jade market just to name a few. Markets are a great way to meet locals, get great bargains on clothes, name-brand knock offs and immerse yourself in the authentic, Hong Kong experience. By far, the most interesting market is the Hong Kong bird market. Adjacent to the flower market on Yuen Po Street, the bird market is more than just a bazaar for any breed of parakeet or wooden, handmade cage. The bird market is the gathering place for old men who sit together and tell stories and for housekeepers who meet on their time off to gossip. Among the birds, chirping of all kinds comes from the locals as tall tales and personal scandals are exchanged in the open air for anyone to hear.
Finally, don’t forget to relax a little by taking a ferry to the Kowloon side of the harbor that offers shopping, hotels and museums. The ferry from Central – what residents call the main Hong Kong Island – takes 10 minutes and offers a calming, short respite from the chaotic foot traffic along the financial district. At less than a dollar a ticket, hop on as the sun sets at dusk and float away from all the chaos and energy of the big city. Take a deep breath and gaze at the glowing Hong Kong skyline. The next time you visit Asia, it won’t look the same.
Krisha Chachra serves on the Town Council of Blacksburg and is a regular columnist and author. She has traveled to over 40 countries in 6 continents and reported and hosted shows for public radio and television. Her columns are taken from her journals and personal insights from traveling nationally and internationally throughout her life. Her book about returning to Blacksburg, Homecoming Journals, may be found online or in local bookstores. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org