Sunday, May 13, 2012

Cheung Chau

For the tail end of April and first week of May, my good friend John came to visit me. Fresh from a three-month stay in Nepal, he got a solid taste of a city about as unlike Kathmandu as you can find in Asia. It was great to have him here and I wish him all the best as he prepares to embark on a two-year stint in Burkina Faso with the Peace Corps. Hopefully, he’ll also have some sort of blog that I’ll be sure to link here! 

Having John visit was fun for me as well. Not just because I got to spend time with a friend, but also because I got to revisit some of my favorite places in Hong Kong again. Of these places I revisited, I’d say the most memorable was Cheung Chau. I wrote about my first trip to Cheung Chau Island back in August. My second trip there was among my first dates with my current girlfriend back in October. But this third trip really confirmed my suspicion that Cheung Chau is my favorite spot in all of Hong Kong. And just after I started writing this blog, it dawned on me why this is—because there are so many similarities to Bainbridge Island. 

The most obvious is that it’s a small island a short ferry ride away from the bustling city. But also, Cheung Chau is a careful contrast of laid-back neighborhood life and green, serene wilderness. After you dock and see the main street of shops and pricey but delicious restaurants, you walk through a village where people calmly go about their daily lives. Walk a little farther and you get to hiking trails and beaches. On this last trip, our group of John, Henry (another high school friend, living in Guangzhou) my girlfriend and I trekked up to a viewpoint pavilion and then down to a secluded beach just below. Unfortunately, the beach had its fair share of litter but we didn’t let that ruin the experience. 

After swimming and dining at a harbor-side restaurant, we hopped the ferry and made our way back to downtown vertical-land. It’s hard to explain, especially when there’s not much there in the way of landmarks, but Cheung Chau is simply blissful. I feel similarly about nearby Lamma Island, but Cheung Chau’s lack of Western pubs and hippy communes make it a bit more genuine in my book. Speaking of the true Chinese-ness of Cheung Chau, we witnessed the grand finale of the annual Bun Festival, where people worship mountains of buns and parade all over the place. It was a lot of fun, though I hope to see more of it next year. And you can’t beat the delicious buns filled with lotus for a cheap 7 HKD! 

It wasn’t until just recently that I declared this my favorite place in Hong Kong. I’ve mentioned many times the stifling population of the city and this is, in my opinion at least, the best way to escape that. These days the heat is getting pretty strong so outdoor adventures are losing their appeal, but I expect to visit old Cheung Chau at least once every few months. Call it therapeutic, refreshing or whatever you like, this place is special.

Nice buns

View of Cheung Chau's central isthmus, where most of the houses are


Three gweilos

Bun mountains

Tuesday, April 10, 2012


My expectations for Guangzhou (formerly known as Canton) were considerably lower than they were for Bangkok. Most of this had to do with the opinions I’d heard from friends, saying that Guangzhou was like a bigger, dirtier, less friendly, less convenient, less exciting version of Hong Kong. And honestly, this was the general impression I got of the place. However, I still had a good time visiting my friend Henry, who recently visited me in Hong Kong, and thought it was money well spent. 

Early on Easter morning, my girlfriend and I travelled from Hong Kong to Guangzhou via passenger ferry from the south coast of China up into the Pearl River Delta. The journey was around two hours and not nearly as pleasant as the Bainbridge-Seattle ferry—it actually felt more like an airplane cabin than a ferry. On another note, the population density in this coastal area is absolutely staggering. I’ve read that the population of the delta megalopolis (including Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Macau etc.) is as much as 120,000,000. So basically, that means one in 57 people on Earth lives in this small chunk of fertile land in South China. Whoah. 

After arriving and getting one of two visits checked off my rather expensive Chinese visa, we took a shuttle bus to our hotel in southern Guangzhou. Checking into the hotel immediately brought back memories of my tour through China with the PLU jazz band in the spring of 2009. Everything about the hotel was exactly like all four of the hotels we stayed in during that trip through Beijing, Xi’an, Chengdu and Shanghai. Big fancy lobby with a huge eating area, a whole row of elevators, hard beds, etc. China doesn’t seem to exactly encourage diversity in hotel designs, or at least from my experience.

We met up with Henry at the metro stop nearest the hotel soon after arriving. From there we went on a tour that can be best summarized in Henry’s post here, focusing on the crazy things we saw at the Quingping market. You can call me lazy for linking this, or you can understand that he’s a much better blogger than I am. Essentially, the day consisted of wandering around interesting parts of the city such as Shamian Island, the aforementioned creepy crawly Qingping Market and the beautiful Bright Filial Piety Temple. The day ended with a trip to the thrilling and famous Chime-Long Circus. This was highlighted by bears riding motorcycles, people jumping from extremely high places and five motorcyclists riding in a small chain-link ball. Stressful but impressive. 

The next day, after briefly exploring the ritzy Beijing Street, we parted ways with Henry and headed to the Canton Tower. The Canton Tower is currently the fourth-tallest freestanding structure in the world and now the tallest building I’ve ever been in, surpassing the Taipei 101. Despite this claim to fame, the thick smog made the view from the top rather disappointing. I like the design of the tower, but after seeing the Hong Kong skyline and view from the Peak, nothing else can really compare. And so another holiday ends. But fortunately, I very much look forward to seeing my students again. My job is tiresome and sometimes repetitive, but a day never goes by that I don't feel my heart warmed by these mini Hong Kongers. And so it goes...

BHS grads reunite, eating Middle Eastern food on Easter in South China

At the Bright Filial Piety Temple, known by some as the Bright Feline Piety Temple

Chime-Long Circus

Canton Tower

That's a lot of floors

Our ferry

Saturday, April 7, 2012


Since I discovered this list of 100 Cities of the World, I’ve sort of made it a goal to visit as many of the places listed as I can. With this trip to Thailand, I’m proud to say I’ve made it into the double digits of world cities visited, with Guangzhou about to be number eleven this weekend.

For those interested, that’s:

1. Seattle
2. Los Angeles
3. Beijing
4. Shanghai
5. San Diego
6. Hong Kong
7. Taipei
8. Macau
9. San Francisco
10. Bangkok 
11. Guangzhou (as of April 8th)

It’s not that many so far but considering my total equaled a big fat uno back in 2008, I’d say eleven is respectable. I'm curious to find out how many you have been to, dear readers? Anyway, I spent a couple days in city number ten with my girlfriend for a part of my Easter holiday. 

As you probably know, Bangkok is absolutely massive—even bigger than HK—so spending two full days there was only enough to get a brief taste. Speaking of taste, upon arriving in the hotel, I almost immediately threw up the airplane food. It wasn’t a great start to the trip, but from there on out, Bangkok treated us well.

The first full day was spent navigating through the many golden temples in the historic district of Rattanakosin Island. After climbing up to see the panoramic views from the temple known as the Golden Mount, we made our way by auto-rickshaw (known as the onomatopoeic 'tuk-tuk') to the Grand Palace. The Grand Palace is the main attraction of Bangkok and was obviously a highlight of the trip. The Palace was founded by the king of then-called Siam 230 years ago and contains some of the most amazing, elaborate architecture you can find in Asia. Also, inside the palace grounds is the Emerald Buddha, generally regarded as the most famous statue in Thailand. I enjoyed hearing from the tour guide about how this 2,000-year-old statue was found inside a building that was struck by lightning, leading to the belief that this particular statue was given to the Thai people from the heavens. This is one special Buddha, so much so that they even change his golden clothes with the seasons.

That evening, we went on a nighttime tour of many of the other temples and attractions in the area. It was a totally different experience being alone beneath these giant golden spires in the dark compared to the hordes of hot sweaty tourists in the daytime. Despite being in one of the larger cities on earth, you could hear crickets chirping around the Wat Pho temple when we were there at around 9 pm. The temple was home to many sleeping cats and dogs as well, something I found rather charming though I'm not sure why.

The next day was a bit less sight-seeing and a bit more vacation-style luxury. After a brief trip to a temple close to our accommodations, my girlfriend and I found a massage spa that her friend recommended closer to downtown Bangkok. After that relaxing new experience, we went to a French restaurant for a nine-course dinner that served as an early six-month anniversary celebration. Heading back to the hotel that evening, we saw the ritzy, westernized side of Bangkok that included the multi-story Siam Plaza. It turns out Hong Kong isn’t the only east Asian city with an obsession for international-style decadence.

As I mentioned, the trip wasn’t long but just long enough to see that Bangkok is a one-of-a-kind city, albeit with an old heritage meets new fashion feeling similar to China. Our trip was given another memorable twist by the fact that our hotel was on Khaosan Road, also known as Bangkok’s “backpacker ghetto.” Almost everyone we saw there was a foreigner who looked like they hadn’t bathed in a week. It may sound kind of gross but it made for some fantastic people watching. My personal favorite was a man with dreadlocks down to his ankles.

Back in Hong Kong now, I leave for Guangzhou to visit my friend Henry early tomorrow morning. It will be the third city with eight million or more people I’ll have visited in as many days. Hong Kong will surely feel like a village after this. I shall post again once I return to the Kong about my travels through old Canton.

Khaosan Road, known as the 'Backpacker Ghetto'

Part of the Royal Palace

Wat Pho at night

Victory Monument in downtown Bangkok

The Erawan Hotel and Shrine (needless to stay, this was not our hotel)

Bang a Gong (Get It On)

Friday, March 23, 2012

Settling In

I write this while sitting in my Tai Wai apartment (precisely here), nearly three weeks into my tenancy. March has really sped by and it doesn’t feel like it’s already spring, though the weather is indeed starting to warm up. In fact, this last weekend concluded winter with some of the nicest weather I’ve seen in Hong Kong—warm, clear and promising.

In a sense, I’d like this to be a ‘First Impressions’ kind of post, like when I first came to Hong Kong. Obviously, this is on a much smaller scale, but nonetheless, I live in a completely different place than I had before.

Earlier, I explained why I chose Tai Wai as my new locale. Most of the reasons had to do with closeness to work, but also, I wanted to live in a quiet place that still wasn’t as isolated as my last flat was. So far, the area has lived up to my expectations in these regards. I’ve managed to find a bus that takes me to work in 10-15 minutes that stops 5 minutes from my apartment. As convenient and consistent as the MTR is, I’ve found that using the bus every morning helps me stay sane. I can have a comfortable seat, enjoy my iPod or a book and view the scenery before starting work. The MTR is more like a crowded cattle transport in a dark tunnel for roughly the same price and the same time interval.

Outside exit A of the MTR station (10 minutes from my flat) lies the Tai Wai village. I haven’t explored it too much yet, but it seems that you can find just about any daily necessities in this area. There’s a grocery store, pharmacy, home appliance store, clinic and hundreds of other little shops. So far, I’ve only found a couple Western restaurants as it is very local, but I think I’ll start forcing myself to try some of the dozens of Chinese places and try out my Cantonese chops.

Most of my time in Tai Wai has been spent in my apartment enjoying my precious free time totally alone. I don’t know if it has to do with my being an only child but I absolutely relish being alone for a short period; it’s often the only way to really collect one’s thoughts. Overall, the apartment itself has worked out fairly nicely. One annoyance has been that some people occasionally throw trash that lands on my balcony. Being on the first floor I’m one of the only people who has a small balcony, though it’s not quite as attractive when littered with used tissues and cigarettes. Another problem has been that my upstairs neighbor occasionally decides to seemingly rearrange his/her apartment at four in the morning, making bangs and scrapes to wake me up.

But these two problems are minor compared to the fact that I’m quite comfortable here and have all my utilities/furniture/appliances taken care of. Six weeks ago, I was anxious about where I would be living after moving out of Chan Uk. I’ve now lived in seven places in my life: two on Bainbridge Island, three in Tacoma and now, two in Hong Kong. I expect good memories to come from this one just as the previous six provided. 

The awesome door knocker on my flat

The apartment, after three weeks of inhabitation

The massive MTR station that serves as my gateway to the rest of Hong Kong

The bike path and sidewalk of Chui Tin Street just outside my complex

Tai Wai
And as an aside, I was happy to host my hometown friend and neighbor Henry Atkinson this last weekend. He's now my neighbor again in a sense, teaching English in Guangzhou only 100 miles away! You can check out his blog as well and what he wrote about his time here in Hong Kong. 

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

New Flat, Part 2

Maybe one day, these will be the first of a 'before and after' sequence. For now, this is what a semi-moved-into apartment looks like.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

New Flat

The end of February finds me in the process of moving into a new flat here in Hong Kong. After eight months in Chan Uk Village, I decided it was time to find something more convenient for me. So for the first time in my life, I'll be living alone. Exciting!

The new place is in Tai Wai, a ten minute walk from the train station one stop away from my workplace in Kowloon Tong. So basically, this cuts my commute down by 45 minutes each way. Sure I'm paying more money, but extra sleep and relaxation time are priceless. Also, as much as I've enjoyed living with my roommate Ben, I feel like I'm at a point where I want to have my own place. I am forever grateful for his letting me live with him, and now that I have a bit more knowledge of this city, I think I'm ready to live independently. Of course, it would be silly for me not to mention my girlfriend right about now. She has helped me so very much in the house hunt and rental process, and though I'll be living alone, I am more than happy to have a native Hong Konger to help me settle in and find my way. Not to mention, a welcome house guest from time to time :) 

I have a living room, bedroom, bathroom and small balcony. I'm on the first floor in a nice complex called 'Golden Lion Garden'. Tai Wai is somewhere between urban and rural. That's to say the area has shops, markets and restaurants but is not the concrete zoo of Hong Kong Island. Geographically, it's just north of the Lion Rock, which acts as the border between Kowloon and the New Territories. Having shops around me will be nice when compared to Chan Uk, where the closest store was a single grocery store, twenty minutes away. Now I can get essentially anything I need within a ten minute radius while still breathing somewhat clean air.

It's going to be wonderful when I move in in early March, but now, there is so much I need to take care of. Essentially I'm turning four empty rooms into a home. This means I need furniture, appliances, cooking supplies, etc. Once again, I was lucky enough to move into a place with all these things nicely set up in Ben's home last July. But I had to do this eventually. Moving will change my life in many ways. My job is the same, but outside of work, I will now see different people and places, eat different food and probably spend my leisure time differently. I'm thrilled about this and welcome the newness with open arms. Expect another post about this with photos once I'm a bit more settled in.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Lunar New Year in the Philippines

After having two weeks to come home to the states for Christmas, I was lucky enough to have another week of holiday for Lunar, also known as Chinese, New Year. In my second opportunity to explore Asia outside of Hong Kong (Taiwan in August), I travelled with four fellow Hong Kong teachers to the island of Palawan in the Philippines. We were there for three full days and though all vacations go by too quick, this one truly couldn't have felt shorter. We really had a spectacular time.

We left Hong Kong for Manila on Monday morning and after a brief layover, we flew from Manila to Puerto Princesa, the largest city on Palawan. City might not be the best term though. Despite having 200,000 people, most of the houses have thatched roofs and there only seemed to be a handful of buildings that much larger than our hotel. The ride from the airport to our jungle hotel couldn't have possibly been any different from the ride from my flat to the Hong Kong airport. The hardly paved road was occupied by hardly clothed Filipino villagers, motorcycles, tiny crowded vans, a few old cars and tricycles, which are essentially carriages attached to motorcycles and serve as the island's taxi service. Not to mention the weather being in the 80s and sunny (low 30s Celcius).

Palawan is a big tourist destination within the Philippines due to its natural beauty. People on the island seemed to coexist with nature in a more respectful way than I'm used to, as evidenced by a hefty fee for littering. Despite being fairly undeveloped, Palawan and Puerto Princesa are also popular destination for Westerners. We went to the 'Tiki Restobar' on the first night where a band of Filipinos played great versions of western pop songs for a mostly white patronage. The place was outdoors, gorgeous and had cheap and delicious food and drinks. A killer combination.

The next day we went island hopping and snorkeling in the major bay of the island, Honda Bay. It doesn't get much more tropical than this. After riding our motor boat with the tour guide, two boatmen and a handful of other tourists, we stepped onto the white sand and got in the crystal clear water to look at dozens of different kinds of fishes. I had never been snorkeling before and I hope to go again before long. It's so easy to forget how vast the ocean is, even within a dozen yards of the shore. Between snorkel dives, we feasted on delicious barbecue cooked by our wonderful tour guide Joanne while drinking the juice of pandans directly out of the fruits, which look like coconuts. Underneath one of the hundreds of palm-like trees, you could purchase these massive fruits for less than $1 US and watch the merchant cut it open with a machete before placing your straw inside and enjoying the sweet flavor. 

The second full day, we went to Palawan's main attraction, the Underground River. After travelling by van for a few hours, we came upon the western coast of the island at the resort town of Sabang. After that, we took another boat across the churning ocean waves to a tucked away cave, we got in a row boat to travel down the river. After seeing this river, I can see why it's one of the 'New Seven Wonders of Nature.' As you travel, you feel like you're in some strange Disneyland ride through a fictional planet, but then you remember that the stalactites, stalagmites, bats and enormous limestone formations are all real and carved out over millions of years here on planet earth. It was tough to take pictures due to the darkness, but I did my best.

On the third full day, we went to variety of places around the city of Puerto Princesa, including a crocodile reserve, ziplining area and a firefly river tour. This confirmed that this island is truly all about natural majesty. The ziplining and firefly watching provided a nice contrast from each other. With one, we were able to see stunning views of a vast valley and coastline, while flying though the air and pumping adrenaline. With the other, we were quietly guided down a calm river in the black night, watching the trees light up and the stars above shining brighter than I've ever seen. The light breeze prevented the bugs from lighting up all that much, but we saw some and even were able to catch a few and let them illuminate our hands as we drifted through the brackish water. I didn't even know there was brackish water, though I suppose it makes sense that a river on an island would be slightly but not entirely salty.

We reluctantly flew home the next day and now I sit on my bed in Clearwater Bay, HK, sorting through photos and wishing that I didn't have to go back to work on Monday. After this trip, my desire to travel is even stronger. Lucky for me, I'm in an awesome location to do so and my next trip will be in April for Easter break. I'm not sure where it will be but I hope it's half as inspiring, educational and flat-out fun as this trip was!