Every now and again the tempers flare between Kiera and me and when they do, we give vent to whatever is bothering us and then it is over and forgotten, in a flash. However on our first night in Hong Kong, we had an argument that went on for a bit longer than usual and left me feeling rather bruised, partly because, for once, she didn’t play fair and partly because I behaved badly!
That morning the taxi had picked us up from Cookies’ at 6:00 to take us to the ferry, which left Koh Phangan at 7:00. The 2 hour ferry ride to Koh Samui was very choppy and because we were sitting on deck (some of us suffer from motion sickness) we got a bit wet and windswept. The shuttle to the airport seemed to take forever and we then had a bit of a wait at the airport before catching the plane to Hong Kong. We arrived in the late afternoon and caught the airport bus to our hostel in Causeway Bay, on Hong Kong Island. We were all a bit dishevelled, salty and tired.
We had stayed in hostels in Beijing and Shanghai which had been really nice, so I was expecting something similar. However this hostel, in my opinion, was awful. The rooms were in an apartment building and to get to them one had to go down a myriad of maze-like passages and through a number of fire doors and gates. Alex and I were sharing a room which had no redeeming features. The aircon made a racket and wasn’t very effective, there was a single light bulb in the ceiling, the mattresses were like cardboard and the pillows had plastic coverings underneath the pillow cases. It also didn’t have a window and that is what got me more than the dreariness of the room. It made me feel completely disorientated and claustrophobic. We dumped our bags and went looking for food. I felt miserable because I knew I could not stay in that place and this is what Kiera and I had the god-awful row about. Suffice to say she said some mean things about me being a drag and I overreacted by swearing at her and storming out of the restaurant, like a five year old. It was not one of my finest hours and I put it down to travel fatigue! Later, we both calmed down and apologised but the evening was ruined and we all returned to the hostel in a sombre mood.
The upshot of it all was that we checked into a nearby hotel, the Regal, in the morning. It was way beyond our budget, at just under R1000 for a room, compared to the hostel which was about R300 but Peter very kindly suggested that I put it on the trusty old credit card. The location was great, just around the corner from the hostel and within walking distance of shops and the metro. The only drawback was that it did not have free wi-fi, which was unusual for Asia. Its biggest asset though was that it had a Michelin-star restaurant which served dim sum. On my list of things to do in Hong Kong was to eat dim sum. I had also promised the kids, who are avid foodies, that I would treat them to a meal at a Michelin-star restaurant, so the Regal Palace restaurant killed two birds with one stone.
Dim sum is a traditional Cantonese speciality which is usually served at lunch time and with tea. It is a very sociable way of eating as one orders a selection of small dishes for the table, which arrive in no particular order, and everyone tucks in with their chopsticks. This is what we ordered:
Steamed bun with barbeque pork
Steamed shrimp dumpling
Spring rolls with porcini and shredded chicken
Deep fried crispy squid
Sweetened coconut pudding with yellow bean
Baked mini egg tarts
Barbeque pork spare ribs
Crispy smoked chicken in green tea (this was an award-winning dish from the a la carte menu)
All of it was mouth-wateringly delicious. So delicious in fact that after lunch, we promptly booked a table for the next day and had more-or-less the same meal all over again!
Hong Kong is such an amazing city. There are just so many people, so many shops and so many buildings but I never felt overwhelmed. I found it all rather invigorating and captivating. We went shopping for watches, cameras, ipods and earphones, which were all much cheaper than in S.A. and I actually found myself enjoying the whole shopping experience in Hong Kong. We found a really nice shopping centre nearby called Times Square which had everything in it. Unlike our shopping malls which tend to sprawl for miles, this centre went up about 10 floors which made shopping much easier. The sales assistants were all so charming and helpful. In fact when I bought a new camera, the assistant was able to give me all the pros and cons of the different makes that I was interested in and, in the end, I changed my mind and bought a fantastic camera on his advice and saved myself R500. I did get bored with all the same designer shops; everywhere you looked there was a Gucci, Armani, Feragamo etc. which we couldn’t afford anyway but there were also some little gems having sales, like Shanghai Tang and, Kiera and my favourite, H&M.
Also on my list of things to do was a trip up Victoria Peak. However the weather had not been great so we decided to wait until it cleared. After spending a rainy afternoon shopping in Times Square, we bought some snacks and bottles of wine from Marks & Sparks and returned to the hotel where we proceeded to polish them off with great gusto. It was quite late when we noticed that the weather had cleared, so we gathered ourselves together and headed off to Victoria Peak. It is a spectacular sight to see Hong Kong from there at night. I had not realised just how vast the city is and the buildings looked truly amazing with all their lights ablaze. Taking the funicular up to the top of Victoria Peak at night is definitely a must for any visitor to Hong Kong. And I think that having a few drinks beforehand gives it an extra sparkle!
We had so much fun in Hong Kong doing ordinary things like taking the ferry across Victoria harbour to Kowloon; catching a tram; walking through the market at the back of our hotel; window shopping; going up the travelators and taking advantage of happy hour. Ah, happy hour! As we were going up the travelators (escalators that take you from one street level up to the next) we spotted a bar advertising a jug of any beer of your choice and a large pizza for R150. So we hopped off the travelator and ensconced ourselves at the bar, with a view of the passing parade. Two jugs of Erdinger and two pizzas later, we decided to move on. We didn’t get very far because next door was a bar advertising half price cocktails and that was an offer we couldn’t refuse. Alex chose the best one, called a Japanese Mule, but I was quite content with my Kir Royale. I only seem to drink cocktails when I’m on holiday, which is a pity because it seems such a festive thing to do. We caught a taxi back to the hotel; I made the inevitable cup of tea and went to bed. The kids on the other hand went out jolling in the bar district of Lan Kwai Fong. Oh to be that young again.
When we left Hong Kong, Kiera and James were on the SAA flight and Alex and I were on Cathay Pacific, both leaving at more or less the same time. It was the end of a fantastic trip and I think we all felt a little sad saying goodbye, even though we were all going to meet up again in Jo’burg. But I returned to Durban with both my children and James, a very happy and contented mother. I really appreciated it that they enjoyed my company and were happy to have me along for the ride (most of the time anyway). I also love it that we have added to our collection of family stories to reminisce and laugh about in the future, like Alex being stopped by Thai customs officials because he had sugar (for my tea) in his backpack which they thought was drugs. He was not amused. And when James explained diarrhoea symptoms to a Chinese pharmacist using only hand gestures. Or the time that ………………………
I left home with some misgivings about the trip. I was concerned about the cost; keeping up with three youngsters; food related tummy troubles; and the toilets in Asia. I needn’t have worried.
- The cost. Accommodation, eating out and transport were all incredibly cheap. Other than the Hong Kong Regal and the Airport Pullman, our accommodation throughout China and Thailand averaged about R300 per night, per room and I was happy with all the places we stayed in, except for the HK hostel. The nicest was Baan Hanibah, the B&B in Chiang Mai. But really they were all great value for money; comfortable, air-conditioned, perfectly located and clean. Eating out was also inexpensive. Even our dim sum in a Michelin-star restaurant came to under R500. Wine however was expensive (the cheapest bottle was about R200) so we drank beer and took advantage of happy hour cocktails instead. Transport again was not expensive, even the taxis (provided that they were metered) were reasonable.
Even though it is very cheap to travel in Asia, it is still an extraordinary expense that someone has to pay for, so I am eternally grateful to Peter, not only for paying for Alex and me, but for all of us at times when it was necessary to make use of the credit card. He has worked so hard to get us back on our feet financially and the trip was an extravagance that we really could ill afford. But it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that he didn’t want us to miss out on.
- Keeping Up: I was pleasantly surprised at how much stamina I had and, once I got my head right, my body seemed to follow suite. I do think that, because I was so captivated by everything, the adrenalin simply kicked in and kept me going. Whenever I did feel uncomfortable, I told myself “this too shall pass” and indeed it did!
- Foreign Food: The food in China and Thailand was really great and only Alex had to resort to medication after a few really spicy meals. It did help that Kiera and James knew what to order and were able to advise us on what was good and what was not. We had McDonalds once when everything else was closed and it was gross. We ate pizza and went to Starbucks on a few occasions but otherwise we ate locally and it was always good. Our best meals were Pecking duck, wonton dumplings, dinner at Houhai lake, xiao long bao (the dumplings we had in Shanghai), dim sum, fresh coconut curry and tom yum goong (at O Soleil), fresh fruit pancakes for breakfast in Haad Salad, Thai beef salad cooked by us on our cooking course, crispy prawn spring rolls at Ginger and, of course, mango sticky rice pudding.
- Foreign Toilets: It was always easy to find clean toilets on our travels, even in the remotest places. Some were squats and some were a bit smelly but they were always clean.
Finally, I want to say a word about our “travel agent” Kiera. She planned and organised the trip from beginning to end. All Alex and I had to do was show up and pay up! She planned a perfect itinerary and made all the travel arrangements. There is nothing that I would’ve changed (other than the hostel in Hong Kong but hey, let’s not goes there). It’s a lot of pressure to organise a trip like this and then have to act as a tour guide as well. She did an amazing job. Thanks Kiera, I loved every minute of it and would do it all over again, in a heartbeat.
PS. Some useful sites if you are planning a trip to China and/or Thailand:
Blue Mountain Hostel Bund (Shanghai) (the deluxe rooms are really nice)
hoF, Shanghai (for decadent chocolate pastries in the French Concession)
Regal Palace Restaurant, Hong Kong (a must for dim sum)