25 November 2007

Travel: Bangkok

One nice side effect of my being in Singapore is that it is bringing people to Asia, those who normally might not have traveled to this bustling region. (This makes it sound like a small area - in fact, "Asia" is huge. A trip from Singapore to Tokyo - next door neighbors, right? - is essentially the same as that from Washington, D.C., to London.)

Mom and Dad made their inaugural visit over here earlier in November, with an ambitious itinerary that took them through Taipei (for layovers), Hong Kong, Bangkok, southern Thailand and peninsular Malaysia, Singapore, and Bali. They would stay with me in Singapore, but I decided to join them for a couple of days in Bangkok, as it had been a while since I had visited.

They had been in Bangkok for a day when I arrived after 8pm on Friday and apparently had already had some interesting experiences (I'll leave them to tell you). I met the two at our hotel, the Shangri-La, which is right on the river, the Chao Phraya. After a bit of downtime, we headed out to eat.

I had chosen a restaurant named Ruen Mallika from a Wallpaper guidebook. The restaurant is in an old teak house, which is situated in what looks like an alley, and even the taxi driver was not sure how to get there. After an in-transit call to the restaurant (we found that this is quite popular in Bangkok), he found it, and we were in for a nice Thai meal. Mom and Dad let me order, but I went light on the spices. The night was old by the time we finished, so it was off to bed.

The next morning, we headed to the river for a trip up to Wat Arun (the Temple of Dawn) and the Grand Palace. It was hot already, but a cool breeze blows along the river, especially in the boat as you make your way north. We got off on the east side of the river and took a ferry across to Wat Arun.

I have written about this temple before, but it always strikes me how steep the climb is as you get to the higher levels. The first bit is bad enough, steep and without a handrail. The next two levels get remarkably steeper, although you do have a rail on which to apply a vice-like grip as you ascend. We got to the next-to-top level, and Mom and Dad decided that was as far as they would go. I grant you, it is nerve-wracking, the last staircase is so steep. But, I had been up there before, and I knew it was worth it. So, I told them I was going up and appealed to Mom's sense of determination (something about "you're only going to be here once" and "remember how you got to Strawberry Lake" - you'll have to ask her on that one), and I headed up. I circled around to look down and say hello, and lo and behold! They were on their way up! It is scariest at the very top of the stairs, because the platform tilts just a little bit towards the ground, and it is nearly a sheer drop to the next level. But, once you step away, it is not bad, and the views are spectacular. And even the trip down is not as bad as the trip up, as you just grip the handrail tight and take one step at a time.

After that, we headed back across the Chao Phraya for the Grand Palace. We had been warned about con artists trying to tell you that certain attractions were closed, trying you go visit attractions with which they were affiliated. And we were approached by one as soon as we got off the ferry, but we ignored him and started walking north to the palace entrance. We weren't quite sure where the entrance was, however. The grounds are massive, and we had been walking across from the palace walls since getting off the ferry, but no entrance was in sight. We must have looked confused, because a badge-carrying member of the "Tourist Police" approached us to help. He was very persuasive that the palace did not open until 2.00 pm, and showed us a couple of other sites that he claimed were of interest, open to foreigners (a key claim for many con artists), and free of charge. Well, we were convinced. Not to visit the other sites, but to go somewhere else first and then come back to the palace. Fortunately, just as this fellow was leaving us, two Americans we had run into at Wat Arun walked by and told us to not believe anyone, that they didn't, and that they were going to the palace. Sure enough, we walked around the corner, and there was the entrance. I was so angry! I couldn't believe we had been duped, but we still had all our money, and we had been lucky. I did look for our friendly "Tourist Policeman" as I walked back, but I didn't see him.

The Grand Palace was built beginning in 1782, to mark the founding of Bangkok as the new capital (Bangkok, or Krung Thep - city of angels - is a relatively young city) and provide a residence for the king (Thais love their king, who doesn't look anything like Yul Brenner). It also houses the Wat Phra Kaeo, the resting place of the sacred Emerald Buddha, a 600-year old jadeite image of the Buddha. It had several homes before it was brought to Phra Kaeo in 1785. The statue itself is housed in a bot, a brilliantly-colored building at the eastern end of the grounds. Tourists are not allowed to take pictures inside the building, and you are instructed not to point your feet at the Buddha.

While the bot is the most important building in the wat, it is by no means the only sight worth seeing. The grounds are filled with beautiful structures, from the gold-covered spires of the Phra Si Rattana Chedi, which contains a piece of the Buddha's breastbone, to the green-hued Phra Mondop, the library, to a Khmer style stone tower. The craftsmanship and attention to detail are amazing here. You could spend all day just staring at the buildings. But, it was blazing hot, and after a while, we were ready to head back.

I wanted to see Wat Pho, which contains a large reclining Buddha, but Mom and Dad wanted a rest and headed back to the hotel. We actually had walked right by Wat Pho when we first got off the boat, and it wasn't hard to find. It is a nice site, quieter than the Grand Palace but still providing a feel of grandeur. The reclining Buddha is massive, and the grounds hold many interesting structures. And around the back of the Buddha, there is a row of pots that people line up to drop coins in (you change some baht for small coins). I don't know what the significance of this is, but I participated, if only for the sake of karma.

Dad wanted to stay at the hotel and swim when I returned, so Mom and I went to the Jim Thompson House. Thompson was an American who was stationed in Bangkok after World War II as head of the OSS office there. He became fascinated with the ancient art of Thai silk weaving, which had disappeared during the war, and he very successfully revived it. He became well known in Bangkok not only for his silk company, but also for his home. He brought six individual houses from remote parts of Thailand and re-assembled them into a sort of compound, locating it on the banks of a khlong, a finger of the river that run through the city. Just across the khlong was the Bangkok silk works, which he helped develop and continued to patronize for his supplies of silk, which were woven into his now world-famous garments.

Thompson mysteriously disappeared in 1967 while vacationing in Malaysia, and his legend has grown ever since. Not only was he a charismatic man, but he had good taste in art and in design, as evidenced by his extensive collection of Asian art and the style of his house. The house is mainly in dark wood, a mix of open, airy rooms and smaller, peaceful spots like his study and the dining room. It felt very lived-in for a museum, and it was a nice respite from the hustle and bustle - and heat - of the city.

Mom and I took the skytrain back to the hotel and the three of us enjoyed a nice Royal Thai meal, complete with traditional Thai music and dancing.

I had an early flight on Sunday, and they had to prepare for their train journey through Malaysia to Singapore, so we said goodbye, and I was on my way to get ready for their visit to the Lion City.


As previously mentioned, Singapore is a city of Autumn festivals. The first was Mid-Autumn Festival (or, Mooncake Festival or Lantern Festival), in October. The second of these is Hari Raya Puasa, a Muslim celebration marking the end of the fasting month of Ramadan. It is a day of prayer and celebration, as celebrants will attend the Eid prayer in the morning, often followed by a visit to loved ones graves for cleaning and to recite chapters and prayers from the Koran. The rest of the day is spent in celebration, visiting friends and family and welcoming visitors. It is a festive occasion, especially for the children, who receive token sums of money known as duit raya from their parents. Traditional Malay dress is worn, baju Melayu for the men and baju kurung or baju kebaya for the women. It is a very special day for Singapore's Malay community. Unfortunately, it coincided with my visit to Hong Kong this year, so I was unable to see any of the festivities.

The Indian community celebrates in Autumn, as well. Deepavali (or Diwali, as it is known in northern India) is the Festival of Lights, observed by Hindus, Jains, and Sikhs (it is celebrated in Nepal as well, known as Tihar, or Swanti). There are several legends associated with the festival, mostly related to the triumph of light over darkness. For Hindus in northern India, Diwali celebrates the homecoming of King Rama after a 14 year exile. The people of Ayodhya, his capital, welcomed him home with rows of lighted lamps. For southern Hindus, Deepavali celebrates Lord Krishna's victory over the demon Narakasura. For Jainism, the festival marks the nirvana of Lord Mahavira. And Sikhs celebrate the release of the Sixth Guru - Guru Hargobind Ji - from imprisonment, along with 52 Hindu Kings. Today, the festival is a national holiday in India (and Singapore) and celebrated regardless of faith.

As an aside, the U.S. sitcom "The Office" featured Deepavali/Diwali in an episode last season, complete with an Adam Sandler-esque song describing the festival, as sung by Steve Carell. It may not be the best way to learn about the celebration, but it's an enjoyable starting point.

To celebrate, Little India lights up like Christmas (which isn't completely accurate, given how much Singapore actually lights up for Christmas. Which is a lot.). Serangoon Road, the north-south road cutting through the heart of the district, is beautifully colored in purple and gold lights, and the entire area buzzes with more energy than usual. And usual is pretty exciting. It really is pretty.

I was lucky to get to experience a celebration first-hand. An Indian colleague invited me and other co-workers to join her in a Deepavali dinner at her favorite restaurant. She, like the restaurant, is vegeterian, so I was in store for a treat. The night was great. It included a powerpoint presentation on the history of Deepavali by her 9 year old daughter and an out-loud reading of a children's story by a colleague's 5 year old son, who insisted that several of us get up and play act the parts of the characters in the book. The food was wonderful, as well. We had dishes from all different regions of India, including those on the Chinese border, which are mixtures of Indian and Chinese style food. My favorite two were Chilli Gobi and Gobi Manchurian. Gobi is cauliflower. I had no idea what you could do with this vegetable! Chilli Gobi is a wonderful dish with very spicy chillies. In fact, my colleague's daughter still talks about my chilli eating prowess. Gobi Manchurian is cauliflower in a sweet and sour sauce, one of the Indian/Chinese mixtures. I couldn't get enough! It was delicious, and a great way to celebrate a new festival to me. After the meal, it was out for a nice stroll through the lights on the way home.

So, Singapore really is a city of Autumn festivals. Both Hari Raya Puasa and Deepavali are national holidays, and businesses are closed. It has been a great multi-cultural education. But, apparently they save the best for last, as Singapore is already alight for Christmas. Granted, we start a bit later here than in the States, but the city is aglow in Christmas decorations, anchored by the Christmas in the Tropics festival running from Orchard Road to Marine Parade, two major commercial districts in town. It is a bit odd, as it is 88 degrees and 88 percent humidity every day, but Christmas songs and decorations fill the air. I'll write more on that later.

A&M - is the "A" for "Asia"?

During a quality control visit to a Clarke Quay establishment recently, I found this and had to take a picture. Even halfway around the world, the Aggies make their presence known. I don't know what Gig 'Em translates into over here.

The Game in Singapore

Since 1990, I have joined three of my SMU Sigma Chi fraternity brothers once a year to play a game of Hearts. Graham Gibbs, Jeff Kays, Greg Webb, and I used to play in college, and we had an impromptu game during Senior Week in 1990 (the week before my graduation), out of which came a vow to get together every year to play. If anything, we are true to our word, and we have played annually since then.

What started as a little game of Hearts has evolved into what we call The Game. And it has become quite the formal event. It is governed according to a constitution which the four of us drafted (we call ourselves the Recalcitrant Four, which will be familiar to Sigs out there). The loser every year has to display prominently "The Plaque", which shows his name as well as the location of his loss. We even have a history of the game, including past scorecards. It has become a great tradition.

One of the items in the constitution is that we will never play The Game in the same state twice. It has been fun traveling around the U.S. over the past 17 years to play - Arkansas, Tennessee, Minnesota, Texas, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Alabama, Nevada, Florida, Wisconsin, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Illinois, South Dakota, West Virginia, and South Carolina. This year, however, called for an international adventure. Jeff has been on an expat assignment in Sydney, which will end early in 2008, and Greg had business that brought him to the Lion City. So, after a careful reading of the constitution to verify that international play was indeed allowed (we interpreted that it is), we convinced Graham to come to Asia for The Game.

We had a great time. I won't go into all the gory details, but suffice to say that we enjoyed renewing the bonds of brotherhood, I got to show them some of the town (Little India, Chinatown, Clarke Quay, Raffles Hotel, Orchard Road and Towers), and I - last year's loser - was able to pass the plaque to Graham. It is ritual to capture this moment, and I wanted to share it with everyone. Emotions are always the same - elation contrasted by utter disappointment.

With Jeff heading back to Minnesota, it looks as if The Game will return to domestic locales for the near future. And if this was to be the only international venue in its history, The Game did itself well.

12 November 2007

Travel: Hong Kong, Part 4

I jumped in a taxi at the Macau Ferry Terminal and asked the driver to let me out in Lan Kwai Fong, in Central towards the Mid-Levels. Little did I know that I was headed for the annual Lan Kwai Fong Carnival. The area is a hotspot for expats and locals alike, filled with restaurants and bars but populated with the young professional set, not the clientele of the seedier Wan Chai (see Part 1).

I got out of the cab into a mob scene. The steep streets of the district were packed with revelers, and every establishment along the row had a stall in the street selling food and drink. It was like Mardi Gras! The crowd was generally well-behaved, although it was clear that a good part of it had been celebrating for several hours. I ran into some Coloradans who were enjoying themselves and gave them best wishes for their team (up 2-0 against the Diamondbacks at the time, on their way to the sweep and a World Series berth). It was a great atmosphere. But, alas, I had to behave, as my flight was early enough that I couldn't sleep in, so after a walk around the entire area, I headed back to the hotel. Not before watching four young men (one a teenage boy) participate in a Tabasco eating contest. Each was given a bowl of chili that was LOADED with Tabasco, and off they went. It was like a mini-Coney Island on July 4th, although these guys were throwing back hot chili. Of course, hailing from Texas and having spent six months now testing the local chillies, I had to scoff. But, at the same time, I wasn't volunteering.

Lan Kwai Fong apparently is a great place any time of the year, but I lucked into visiting during a particularly festive time. I can't wait to go back. Especially because I left my car there.

11 November 2007

Travel: Macau

Macau is a former Portuguese colony, lying 65 kilometres west of Hong Kong. The Special Administrative Region (SAR) - China resumed sovereignty over it in 1999 - is split between the peninsula connected to the mainland and two islands. While it apparently boasts some fine colonial architecture and interesting sights, I knew only of its reputation as a gambling center. The city's casinos played a role early in The Man With the Golden Gun (unfortunately, the wreck of the Queen Elizabeth in Hong Kong Harbour, which was a secret British Naval outpost in the movie, was scrapped years ago; a portion of it is now landfill on which HKIA sits). More recently, however, Macau made international news when the world's largest casino, the Venetian, opened there in August. Since I was in the area, I thought I would pop over for a rendezvous with Lady Luck.

The Macau ferry pier is to the east of the central piers. High-speed ferries run to Macau every thirty minutes. I wanted to spend only a couple of hours there to give me time to come back for a few more hours of exploring Hong Kong. I tried to catch a 6 o'clock ferry but was told the earliest available was at 6.30. While the ferries only take an hour to cover the 40 or so miles, that would put me in Macau at 7.30, and I wanted to be back in Hong Kong by 10.00. While I was thinking about my schedule, I spied the next ticket window, Heli Express. A helicopter ride would take 16 minutes to cover the distance, and it would put me down right at the Macau ferry terminal. I had never flown in a helicopter, and I decided to do it. As they say, time is money. I bought my ticket for a 6.30 take off and headed to the departure lounge. My fellow passengers were a mix of Westerners and Asians, tourists and locals. None particularly stood out, although one fellow in the departure ahead looked the high roller, decked out in a white suit. Ten of us passengers boarded the helicopter, and up we went into the darkness. The immediate sights were outstanding - the same harbour view from the night before on the Star Ferry, but this time from a thousand feet up. Quickly, however, we moved into pitch darkness, and it wasn't until nearly 15 minutes later that the lights of Macau led us to our destination. I don't know what kind of helicopter it was, so I have included a picture to allow you, gentle readers, to identify it.

Macau looks like the Vegas strip, but in an island setting. As we approached, you could see dozens of different casinos, some right on the water. There was a mix of familiar names (Sands) and typical historical motifs along with more Asian-centric themes. Most of the casinos are on the peninsula, but new ones such as the Venetian are popping up on Taipa Island across the causeway (actually, there are three different bridges connecting the peninsula with the island). After getting through Customs, I boarded the free shuttle (imagine that!) for the ten minute ride to the Venetian. It is incredible. I have been to the Venetian in Las Vegas, as well as many of the other "name" casinos, but I don't remember anything on this scale. Even the Bellagio. The structure is massive. The shuttle drops you off on the hotel side, and the walk to the casino takes you through an expansive shopping arcade with all kinds of high-end shops. It is luxury-shopping heaven.

The casino itself is even grander. The ceilings in the open areas stretch three to four stories above the ground floor and are covered in Italian Renaissance style murals. You could spend an entire evening just staring at the surroundings. But, I didn't have all evening, and I wanted to give the tables a chance.

I prefer blackjack and craps, but the game of choice in Macau is baccarat. I don't know enough to play this game successfully, so I walked around until I found one of the few blackjack tables (the Venetian doesn't have a craps table). I sat down rather nervously at a low stakes table and found immediately that my Asian co-players did not understand how to play the game. Oh, they knew the rules, but they didn't know the odds, so they were staying on any hand of 12 or higher, even when the dealer was showing a 7 or better. That generally means a one-way flow of money towards the house, and this night was no different. I, however, played by the rules, and only played for about ten minutes. After a good run, I decided to see some more of the building and then head to the Wynn, which was much nearer the ferry terminal (I was up, but not enough to buy a helicopter trip back to Hong Kong; anticipating this, I had already purchased my return ferry trip).

A cab ride took me across a different causeway, this one to the east of the trip down to the Venetian, for good view of the waterfront casinos. We circled back around to the Wynn, where I hoped my winning streak would continue.

The Wynn is nice, modeled after Steve Wynn's original Vegas casino (although I have never been, so I don't have any grounds for comparison). After the Venetian, however, it seemed quite dreary. The ceilings were low, the room dark. They did have a single craps table, which they were promoting heavily with cards that explained the rules. I would have liked to join in, but the table was packed with players and interested on-lookers, so I headed back to the blackjack table. I may have stayed there for a shorter time than at the Venetian, but my run of luck continued. After at most ten minutes of play, I walked straight to the cage to cash out and find a place for a drink before heading to the ferry terminal. To my delight, I was up HK$1,500. Of course, that is about $200 US. Which is better than losing $200, but I wasn't headed back for some shopping at the Venetian. I did get to catch the fountain show at the Wynn, which is reminiscent of the one at Bellagio featured at the end of Ocean's 11.

The ferry ride was pleasant - I rode in upper class, which is quiet and offers free food and drink. It is the way to go, if you don't want to spring for the helicopter ride, and the hour-long trip was just the perfect amount of time to decompress from the casino experience and get ready for one last night of exploring in Hong Kong.

08 November 2007

Travel: Hong Kong, Part 3

Translated, dim sum literally means "to touch the heart." Dim sum are snacks that Chinese and other Asians eat for breakfast or lunch. It is served in small bamboo baskets, usually in three or four small pieces. Ideally, you eat this with a group, ordering several different baskets to share. But, you can eat it alone, too. Just bring an appetitite.

Dim sum is widely available in Hong Kong, but I was given a couple of recommendations that I wanted to try, one on Hong Kong Island and the other on Kowloon. Since I was on the island, and short of time, I headed to Maxim's at City Hall. This restaurant is actually housed in Hong Kong's City Hall building, and it is open for lunch until 3.00. I arrived at 2.50, just in time.

At Maxim's, as in other "authentic" dim sum eateries (I put "authentic" in quotes, because they all are authentic in Hong Kong), the dishes are served by women wheeling around trolleys. They speak mainly Cantonese, a dialect in the southern part of China (named after the southern city of Guangzhou, formerly known as Canton), and much of my ordering was done by pointing and nodding. I definitely wanted cha siu baau (buns stuffed with barbecue pork, or char siew as spelled in Singapore) and siu mai (pork dumplings), but I didn't know how much they had left, so I just started ordering. First was a shrimp cheong fun (a rice noodle roll), followed quickly by fun zao, poetically known as Phoenix talons. These are chicken feet, which are fried, marinated, and then steamed. These chickens must have been huge, because the feet were. Eating a chicken foot is a difficult proposition, because the meat to (shall we say) non-meat ratio is pretty low. Add on that it is covered in a glaze-like marinade and your only utensils are plastic chop sticks, and it makes for a labor-intensive meal. The taste was fine - tastes like chicken - but I just found myself more frustrated than anything trying to eat them. So, after devouring parts of two feet, I put the rest aside. By that time, I had found my pork buns and dumplings, and I was set. This was all washed down with copious amounts of hot chrysanthemum tea, which is a must when eating dim sum. All in all, it was delicious, although somewhat more expensive than your normal meal in Hong Kong. It was well worth it, however.

I dropped into the post office near City Hall (for my stamps and postcards fix), and then headed back to the hotel to get ready for a night in Kowloon. I was meeting some local friends at 7.00, and I wanted plenty of time to take the Star Ferry across the harbour.

The Star Ferry has been running passengers across the harbour for more than 100 years. It is billed as the cheapest ferry ride in the world, at HK$2.20 per trip, about 30 US cents. But, what is so great is that it leaves from its pier at Central on Hong Kong Island and takes you to Tsim Sha Tsui, a popular commercial district at the southern end of Kowloon, giving you beautiful views of both sides of the harbour. I set off right at dusk, and the sights were incredible. Hong Kong truly is built up right on the water, especially on the island side, and all the buildings light up at night. I have attached some pictures, although they really don't do justice to the scene.

I met up with my friends a couple of stops up on the MTR, and we headed for one of their favorite places, which happened to be a hot pot restaurant. I would give the name, but there were no English characters to be found (even on the name card). This was a true locals place - no fancy accommodations, cramped quarters, and a chaotic atmosphere. Our beers were delivered in litre bottles and sipped out of bowls, and our food arrived uncooked, along with a hot pot filled with pork-based broth (the pork ribs were already in the hot pot). From there, we had the controls and started cooking our meal. The ingredients consisted of a mixture of vegetables, beef, fish balls (come on, now - I am talking about fish paste formed into little spheres, like meatballs), clams, and oysters. You would either dump the ingredients into the broth (for vegetables or some of the seafood), or - in the case of the thinly-sliced beef - keep it on your ladle-like spoon and dip it into the broth for about 20 seconds, until it was cooked. Singapore has its own version of this cook-your-food-at-the-table experience called steamboat, but I had never tried it. I may have to now, as it was delicious. And it is fun to cook your own food. It is very reminiscent of fondue.

After that, I headed for the night market in Mongkok for a little browsing. Wouldn't you know it, there was a Krispy Kreme there, too. The shopping was fun, as the hawkers are very aggressive once they perceive any inkling of interest. Once they have your attention, the bargaining starts. I really wasn't in the market for anything, but you can't get out of there without engaging in a little back-and-forth with the stall patrons. There are all kinds of goods sold, mostly knock-offs. But even these fakes have degrees of quality, and you will pay more for higher grade fakes than for lower. It is a shopper's paradise, and I even almost bought a backpack, but in the end, I escaped without making a purchase. Much to the dismay of the ever hopeful hawkers.

That was it for my night, and I was off to the hotel.

I decided to skip the breakfast buffet the next morning to try what looked like the Hong Kong equivalent of a greasy spoon just next door. I knew it served breakfast, because there were pictures of fried eggs on the menu board, but again, no English. Nevertheless, in I went. I sat down at the first booth, and the hostess, after one look at me, went to get the "special" menu, with a bit of English to let you know what you were ordering. I chose the simple combo #1, with eggs, toast, and noodles with ham and fish. A cup of Hong Kong coffee (coffee with milk) washed it down. I was joined in my small booth by a young local couple halfway through my meal, as all other seats were taken. The language barrier allowed for only a quick "hi" and "bye", and it was like I wasn't even there to them.

Since it was still a little hazy, I decided to forego the Peak and head to the end of the MTR line on Lantau Island for a ride up the cable car and visit to Po Lin Monastery, with the Tian Tan Buddha, the largest seated outdoor bronze Buddha in the world. On the way to the MTR, I bought a local newspaper, and a couple of stops into my ride, I looked at the picture on the front page, which was of the cable car, noting that authorities hoped to have the cable car system up and running again by Christmas. Hmmm...I guess I wouldn't be riding the cable car. It had been closed in June when one of the cars plunged 50 metres to the ground (nobody was in it at the time). Since I was already on my way, I decided to see the monastery anyway. The trip to Lantau takes you to the Disneyland Hong Kong interchange, so I shared the ride with a number of families on their way to see Mickey. Once at the end of the line, I jumped on a bus for a 45 minute ride up and down steep hills to the monastery. And there was the Buddha, sitting on top of a hill more than 50 metres above the monastery. The climb up the very steep stairs brings you to the statue itself, which is quite impressive. There is a small exhibit and worship area inside, with artwork and a large bell, with a striker mounted by a beam on the wall and driven by a computer-operated piston. Apparently, the bell is quite loud, and it is no longer rung. The podium on which the Buddha sits, as well as the stairs leading up the hill, are filled with ornate statues of goddesses making offerings, stylized lamps, and replicas of towers. The chants of Buddhist monks drifted up the hill from the monastery below to complete the experience.

A bus ride took me back down to Mui Wo, where I caught a high-speed ferry back to Hong Kong. It was mid-afternoon, but I needed to get back to the hotel and get ready for Saturday night and a trip to Macau.

02 November 2007

Travel: Hong Kong, Part 2

Victoria Peak is a popular destination for visitors to Hong Kong. From the top, one gets a beautiful view of the city and harbour across to Kowloon. Awakening to a hazy sky (which would keep temperatures in ranges reminding me of Autumn), however, I decided to follow advice to skip the peak in less than clear conditions and instead head into the heart of the city. I jumped on the MTR (an Octopus card, which gives you unlimited subway rides for three days, is a must) and headed to the termination of the Island Line at Sheung Wan for a walk back towards Central.

The MTR is clean and efficient, but it is a subway. Singapore's MRT has a monorail feel to it, with wide cars filled with natural light from each cars panel of windows. The MTR has more of a London Tube feel - tighter cars, darker stations with smaller platforms, the feel of a train rocking back and forth on the tracks, and standing room only crowds. The train passed through the very modern (and airy) Central Station and reached the termination of the line just one stop further west, where I was thrust into the grit, dirt, and energy of Hong Kong on a weekday. It is a mix of new and old, with advertisements for global brands juxtaposed against small shops selling traditional Chinese medicinal remedies. I just started walking back towards Central and absorbing it all, with the Mid-Levels Escalators in mind as a destination. I actually passed the entrance to these and walked several blocks by, mostly because I was enthralled by the surroundings. It has been a long time since I have visited New York, but this seemed to be just like it.

Once I got my bearings, I followed the signs to the escalators, actually walking across the street, going up one set of escalators, taking an elevated walkway back across the very same street I had just crossed, through a long, deserted hallway that used to be a busy arcade, to jump on the first of several moving walkways and escalators that would take me to the Mid-Levels.

The Mid-Levels is a residential and retail area that stretch about halfway up Victoria Peak. The big money lives high up on the peak, but many of Hong Kong's workers live in the high rise apartments of the Mid-Levels and would walk to and from work. This was a tough task, up and down the steep hills, especially in the steamy summer months. So, Hong Kong built the world's largest people mover system, composed of three (steep!) moving walkways and 22 escalators. Here in the middle of these great little neighborhoods, dotted with restaurants, bars, antique shops, retail stores, outdoor markets, and food stalls, are these escalators that keep taking you higher and higher up the hill. At the end of each one, you can walk down a short flight of stairs to access the street or keep heading up. In some instances, you are a couple of stories above the ground. In others, you are eye to eye with pedestrians. You pass by churches and apartment buildings, over streets and alleyways. It terminates on the winding Conduit Road high above the start, and you can either walk back down the way you came (the escalators run down from 6.00 to 10.00, then up from 10.20 to midnight) or take a meandering way through Soho and Lan Kwai Fong. I chose the latter, and ended up in the Botanical Garden and Zoo. It has a pretty impressive collection of primates, and I got a funny video of one monkey going vine to vine a la Tarzan, but in the end it is just sort of sad, because the animals don't do much more than lay around and look miserable.

I kept wandering back down the hill, taking a detour to view St. John's, an Anglican cathedral consecrated in 1849. It is an impressive sight, nestled in between skyscapers, but it is under renovation, so much of it is obscured. That didn't stop the hundreds of curious onlookers who were taking in the photo session of a wedding.

From there, I wound my way back down through Lan Kwai Fong and Soho, until I decided to quench my noonday thirst at McSorley's, a crisp little Irish pub. After a renewing pint (as the advertisement reads, "Guinness for Strength"), I was back out. (Full disclosure - this wasn't technically my first refreshment stop. Earlier in the journey, the escalator passed right over a brand new Krispy Kreme, so I backtracked the block down the stairs for a little quality control visit. I was disappointed to find that their special Halloween doughnuts were not filled with icing - they explained that the previous year, they had gotten complaints about the doughnuts being too sweet, which almost made my head explode - but I still was able to choke down a couple or three and a cup of coffee in what really was my first break for sustenance that day. Well, after the breakfast buffet at the hotel, but that didn't count, because it was before I was out and about.)

The streets of Soho are narrow and hilly, home to all kinds of businesses. There are lots of eateries and drinking establishments, but there are also small temples and traditional Chinese shops, in which you would see elderly owners/workers playing mahjong to pass the time. These shops gave way to antique dealers as I headed towards the Man Mo Temple, an 18th century Chinese temple dedicated to two deities, one civil and one martial (Man and Mo). The temple was under heavy construction, so it was difficult to really enjoy it, but it offered a glimpse of a traditional place of Chinese worship, with praise and offerings for ancestors, and large coils of incense burning continuously.

Heading back towards the escalators, I passed by an Argentine restaurant called La Pampa, which I thought was interesting. Here I was, halfway around the world, looking at the name of my hometown. I did not go in, as I had one more stop before heading for lunch. I wanted to have a drink in the Peak Bar, which used to be at the top of Victoria Peak but had relocated with its original accoutrements to the Mid-Levels. It was a nice place, surely serving up large doses of nostalgia for Hong Kong veterans.

I could not stay for long, however. I had lunch on my mind, and there was only one thing that I would settle for - traditional Hong Kong dim sum. And I knew just where to go - Maxim's at City Hall.