Spending Lunar New Year, or CNY, in downtown Hong Kong is like living in a street party. It was crowded, festive, and for the first time ever I really got myself into the whole celebratory spirit of Lunar New Year. Whatever that means, hehe. It’s got a Christmasy feel to it in Hong Kong that the crowd, despite its thickness all over the island, simply made the occasion more memorable.
It’s been 6 years since I stayed in Hong Kong for a leisurely visit. Back then, we did the usual Disneyland-Ocean Park package with an inclusive city tour that herded us off into jewelry stores and souvenir shops, making me wish we had more chance to explore the city on our own instead. So this time, I decided to do that in the midst of CNY festivities.
Now, finally, I get what makes Hong Kong “Asia’s world city.”
Where I stayed
I stayed at Hop Inn on Mody, located at the Tsim Sha Tsui area and near Nathan road–where most CNY festivities would take place. The East Tsim Sha Tsui MTR is also right next to this hostel so that sealed the deal for me.
But as much as I’d like to recommend it with flying colors, my stay at Hop Inn on Mody was actually a mixed bag.
Rooms didn’t have a heater, so it can get really uncomfortable during winter. Fortunately, they have hot bath water and the comforter’s thick enough to warm you while sleeping. Still, the cold can get really uncomfortable during the early hours of morning.
Winter issues aside, the room I got was clean, looks new, and was house-kept while I was there. It was more than enough for someone like me who just want spacious privacy after a day’s worth of touring. Though it elicits uncomfy exhibitionist feels with its clear tempered glass, which have curtains for conservatives like me haha, the bathroom was pristine clean complete with shower toiletries. The only items lacking were teeth cleaning shenanigans and a shower cap.
Then there’s also the elevator. Yup, elevator as in a single working elevator. Though I understand that this isn’t entirely the hostel’s fault, still, I hope there’d be plans to upgrade the lift. The elevator tends to jump (literally) whenever it lands on a floor.
And during the final day of my stay, that single solitary working elevator gave up and had to be repaired. So I ended up taking the stairs to and from the 5th floor where the hostel was. Yup, as if I don’t get enough exercise around Hong Kong.
My stay at Hop Inn on Mody made me realize that it was wise to stay away from the Chungking Mansions. I was thinking about going on an adventure by trying one of the infamous hostels there, but after the elevator experience at Hop Inn on Mody’s building, which is a newer “mansion” than that of Chungking, I realized nevermind. This will do. I’m good. Solb na.
All things considerd, if you ask would I stay again at Hop Inn on Mody? Well, I would…provided it’s summer time and peak season in Hong Kong. What they lacked in heaters was made up for by the front desk people’s warmth and, like I said, the location’s smack in the middle of tourist spots. You can literally hop into and hop off your room to go back to touring Hong Kong.
Celebrating the Lunar New Year/CNY
You might be wondering, why did I spend CNY at Hong Kong when I could’ve just spent it in Taiwan? I originally thought about going home to the Philippines but was shocked at the prices of plane tickets that week. Surprisingly, tickets to Hong Kong are way cheaper, coupled with cheap accommodations too.
So I tried Hong Kong, thinking there might be something special there during CNY. A quick look at their tourism site got me excited with their annual parade and special new new year fireworks display at the Victoria Harbor. Before I knew it, I was booking accommodations for 4 days and the rest is Lunar New Year history.
CNY literally quiets down Taipei as folks go home, meaning back in the counties or to China, to be with their family for a week. I thought the same would be for Hong Kong, which means I can enjoy the tourist spots I haven’t seen yet…but boy was I so wrong. Instead of going “home”, most of the locals decided to bring their families right into Hong Kong for the new year celebrations.
Since the parade and fireworks happened in two consecutive nights, I felt like I was in a street party for two straight days. It was fun to be with a crowd of people made up of fellow foreigners and locals, all having a good time. Even though it was crowded most times, people were surprisingly organized. No havoc broke out. And people spoke in English so I was like, I understand you guys OMG! Gong xi fa cai to you all!
The Peak Tram
Among my main agenda for the trip was to finally visit the Peak Tram. At 11AM, a crowd of people all willing to wait for TWO HOURS for a regular ride greeted me at its lower terminus. So I went for the combo ticket which included an express roundtrip tram pass + Madame Tussauds entrance + Sky Terrace 428.
Not bad, considering I saved time and also got access to some worthwhile extras. It was my first time to check out a Madame Tussauds wax museum so I thought, hey, why not.
Plus the Sky Terrace 428 offered a fantastic 360 view of the entire Hong Kong island. I know I sounded like a tagline for a brochure but it truly is what I just said.
One of the really cool things about riding the Peak Tram is that it’s been there for more than 100 years already. Plus the inclined railroad ride is an experience in itself.
By the way, there’s a nice spot along the ride where the tram curves along the mountainside and enters into this amazing view of Hong Kong’s Victoria harbour and cityscape, which I’m now just describing from memory. Before you knew it, you’d be face to face with Hong Kong being birthed from the mountainous greenery, eventually emerging as a sprawling megacity. I was too mesmerized to take a photo because the way the ride opens up to that view was so unexpected. It’s just one of those experiences that you soak up in without thinking of potential online uploads. Let your eyes tattoo it in your mind, sit back, and enjoy.
The tram ends at the Peak Tower, which is like a supermall that connects you the 3D trick-eye museum, Madame Tussauds Hong Kong, and Sky Terrace 428. It also houses several souvenir shops and restaurants that’ll give you reasons to stick around as you reach the Peak Tram’s upper level terminus.
On my way back down from the Peak Tram, I came across some flat-railed trams snaking along Queensway and wondered how the heck can I ride those too. Google informed me that there’s actually a tourist tram for HK$ 95, that comes with an English tour guide. So I did the next best thing and decided to take the TramOramic tour at the Western Market.
From the Sheung Wan MTR station, I Google-Mapped my way to the Western Market terminus. From the exit, I just followed the signs and saw it easily because the terminus is kind of a dead end bordered by restaurants with trams parked in front of it.
To join the tour, just find the tram with the TramOmatic print on the sides and purchase your ticket from the conductor inside. They follow a certain schedule, so you might need to wait a few minutes before you can hop on the tram.
The whole tour lasts for an hour, but to me it seemed like an hour and a half, which was a good thing. The recorded guide was so informative and made with matching sound effects as fits your current area. As a souvenir, you can keep the headsets! Plus a golden ticket for unlimited public tram rides in the next 2 days!
Touring like a local
Aside from acting like a tourist, I also decided to go local by checking out the popular Wong Tai Sin temple. It’s a Taoist temple popular among locals especially during the first day of the new lunar year.
And boy, was I in for a Quiapo-like treat.
So why this religious trip? Well, ever since Siem Reap’s Angkor Wat adventure, I got interested to know more about other religions. I’m mostly fascinated with the way people pray and show devotion. Different strokes for different folks, but all of us are pretty much doing the same beautiful way of honoring a higher Force, of humbling ourselves to good nature. Seeing how people pray as Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, and Taoists made me realize spirituality is such a mysterious and beautiful thing, no matter how it’s presented. Faith is a very special experience to witness regardless of religion.
Back to this Taoist trip. As we finally reached the Wong Tai Sin MTR exit, the passenger crowd naturally merged as a sea of heads with silver and golden specks. I ended up moving along, or rather, going with the flow that I no longer have to think about where to go next. The crowd moved me right to the entrance of the temple and before I knew it, I was climbing up stairs and ended up at the temple entrance guarded by the 12 Chinese zodiac animals.
One look at the crowd told me it would be impossible to go in and out in minutes. My frequent trips to Longshan temple gave me an idea of what I would find inside, and it’s definitely not a lot of space. So as much as I wanted to pay my respects to the main deity inside, I just contented myself with the spot where I was and bowed three times towards the direction of the temple’s middle shrine. I decided to stay a while, looking at the stream of devotees chanting prayers, holding lighted incense sticks and colorful pinwheels, all human waves in a vast sea of smoke and colors, all uttering a hopeful wish of a prosperous and peaceful 2016 ahead.
Since I got time to spare, I decided to just check out a nearby museum. Luckily, Wednesdays are also free entrance days to the Hong Kong Museum of History. You can take pictures inside provided you don’t use flash or DSLR. A museum visit for me is a must, because it gives you a full picture of what was, what is, and what could be in the place you’re visiting.
As I spent the rest of the day walking downtown, I also noticed how unique Hong Kong locals, Chinese mainlanders, Taiwanese, and Chinese Singaporeans are from each other. They may share the same ethnicity, but they still have special quirks that make each of them unique. in Hong Kong, it’s interesting to hear people talk in different types of Chinese language, then English. On top of that, it’s also amazing to see how European influences have embedded itself in Chinese culture—east meets west and vice versa.
After waxing nostalgic with local history, I decided to move on to modern times and check out Causeway Bay. I’ve never been to New York, but something tells me Causeway Bay got the same feels as the big apple, just more Divisoria-like in some parts. It wasn’t just a city or district or area. It’s like I was warped into a shopping planet. All I could do was wonder if it’s possible to cover all the malls in one day, or one year maybe?
As I looked at countless pedestrian lanes and never-ending malls, Xinyi district and Orchard road came to mind and were dwarfed by what I saw. Sorry, I didn’t mean to compare, but that was my first thought as I looked at brands after brands after brands and…oh my god I finally got into an Apple Store!
I was so tempted to take photos inside, good thing my dignity got the best of me so I just stopped, looked, and listened. And from time to time, I politely declined Apple people asking me if there’s anything I’m looking for…though my mind silently asked, can we take a groufie?
After getting overwhelmed with Causeway Bay, I decided to check out and cool down with Mong Kok. I was like, hey maybe it’s smaller and easier to cover than Causeway Bay. I’ve been to Shilin night market so chicken na to! Maybe the Ladies Market is more manageable and more familiar and…
There I was, in the middle of Mong Kok, going into deja vu with all these people and shops and brand names and Lunar New Year discounts. I open-mouthedly looked at the medium version of Causeway Bay and asked if I am still in Hong Kong. Now I get why people take time to go to Hong Kong just to shop. Good thing I wasn’t much of a shopaholic and I really made it a point not to check out a store lest I be tempted and miss my flight that night.
I could easily get lost in both planets and come back as a shopping god.
Four stars for female solo travel
Going around Hong Kong felt like I was walking in a movie set for Chinese action films or Hollywood Bourne-ish flicks. It was still surreal. The iconic bamboo foundations, the red Toyota taxi cabs…Hong Kong’s still an iconic international city. Despite having more signs now telling people how to use the MTR, formula milk popularly sold in every pharmacy, Hong Kong still has that old-school charm that makes it one of the most important cities in the world.
But why just four stars? Actually, my trip wasn’t totally peaceful. I’m just lucky I wasn’t where the riot happened. The night before I went to Mong Kok, an ugliy riot happened around its street food area. I saw the local news and the video footage was kinda scary. It happened between street food vendors and police officials checking the legality of some of the food stalls. The “checking” spiralled into an anti-Beijing political divide that ended up with pavement bricks and just about anything being thrown at the police, and several arrested vendors.
I’m not saying that riots just happen every where but it helps to be extra vigilant because it can happen. The island’s divided politically and it’s politics is a very sensitive issue island-wide.
Still, my stay in Hong Kong ended up being an unforgettably happy trip. I’d recommend you try visiting it on CNY too. Even though there’s an additional crowd of Chinese tourists, to me they were part of the charm and they would make you understand why Lunar New Year is also popularly known as Chinese New Year. Though I didn’t get any red envelope, I still had a very rewarding lunar new year experience that’ll stick with me forever.
Yup, even without tikoy.