Sidetrips from Hong Kong

Hong Kong is a great place to visit, and there’s lots to do.

But if you’re coming to Asia for a visit from a long way away, it’s likely you’re going to want to stay for at least a couple of weeks to make the flight worthwhile. So is there enough to do in Hong Kong to keep you busy all that time? Well, maybe, but it’s not what I would advise. A fairly comprehensive look around Hong Kong might take you (depending on how hard you want to push yourself) from five to seven days. If you’re in Asia for longer, you will likely want to consider making one or more of several possible sidetrips from Hong Kong. Here are some options.

Macau The standard side trip from Hong Kong is a jaunt by ferry boat to Macau, which lies west across the Pearl River delta from Hong Kong. Macau is Hong Kong’s older, smaller cousin; its historical roots run back to the 16th century incursions by Portuguese explorers, traders and missionaries. Macau has lots to offer – especially in terms of its food – although its nature is changing rapidly and drastically, as its former low-key charm is increasingly replaced by a Las Vegas-style gaming culture. But we batgung are not Macau experts, so we’ll send you over to this site for Macau expats, plus here’s the official Macau tourism site.

Mainland possibilities The most obvious choices are simply to sample the attractions in the two local mainland ‘border cities’: Shenzhen and Zhuhai. The former lies directly north of Hong Kong, the latter is similarly adjacent to Macau. You can just walk right into both via border stations. Ah, maybe I should qualify that a bit – you will not in fact just walk right in; you’ll need a China visa in your passport, and you’ll need to clear immigration and customs, just as if you were going into an entirely separate country.

Neither place is beautiful, historic or even particularly pleasant. But they have three big attractions. First, if you’re interesting in setting foot in ‘the real China’ – which Hong Kong is most expressly not – then they are real enough. They look and feel (and even smell) different from Hong Kong and Macau. Second, they’re both good for shopping for cheap stuff. Most people end up buying CDs/DVDs of questionable provenance, designer clothing and handbag knockoffs, and the like. Both Shenzhen and Zhuhai have vast shopping malls more or less contiguous with their main border stations, so you can just cross over, do your shopping/eating, and come right back out. Shenzhen also features a new underground train system that’s not bad at all if you’d like to get further into the city. Third, if you’re interested in golfing, it’s much cheaper and easier to do so at numerous courses across the border than to try to get tee times in Hong Kong.

Another interesting mainland sidetrip possibility within easy reach of Hong Kong is Panyu, lying just outside Guangzhou. You can get there via ferry, bus or train from Hong Kong. The town of Panyu is nothing special, but it’s home to the vast Chimelong complex, which comprises:

  • A safari-themed resort-style hotel. We Talls have stayed there twice, and I’m getting quite fond of the place. Its signature attraction is a glassed-in habitat for two white tigers located right outside one of the hotel restaurants. I can assure you that it takes a little while to get used to seeing an enormous carnivore sitting a couple of feet away, looking you in the eye, as you sip your morning coffee.
  • An extensive, if rather nondescript, amusement park. It’s got about half a dozen first-rate adult-level attractions, including a good rollercoaster, and a kind of motorcycle-style ride that looked great (Mrs Tall said it was splendid) but which I wasn’t allowed on because I am too tall! Actually, several of the rides had a height limit of 190 cm (about 6’3”), but this was the only one on which it seemed to be enforced. The park also has a seemingly endless array of rides for children, both indoors and outdoors; Daughter Tall loved it, and is constantly muttering about how long it’s taking us to plan another visit.
  • A full-scale circus presented nightly in a 10,000-seat, purpose-built arena. This was an excellent show, with acrobats, elephants, high wire and high diving acts, and so on. Interestingly, most of the performers seem to be eastern European or from former soviet republics.
  • A large zoo, divided into drive-through safari-style and walk-through traditional zones. In the walk-through part, you can rent a golf cart+driver to take you around from display to display. This sounds astonishingly lame, but we Talls did just that – Daughter Tall was a bit sick that day, it was relentlessly hot, and the displays are huge and quite widely-spaced. We paid about 80 renminbi for an hour’s worth of cart, and it was money well spent.
  • A crocodile-heavy reptile park, which also includes a very good sea lion show, and large halls devoted to displays of pumpkins and other squash- and gourd-like growths. (If you are saying to yourself ‘For the love all that's sensible, why?’, you haven’t traveled in the mainland much).

The whole place wasn’t very crowded, and prices are extremely reasonable. If you’ve got kids, a sidetrip to Chimelong is an excellent option. Most travel agents in Hong Kong should be able to get you set with hotel bookings, transport tickets, and visas.

A little farther afield The places I’ve mentioned so far can all be reached by surface transport, but there’s no reason to rule out air travel from your sidetrip options. Even if your ‘big ticket’ from Europe, North America, Oz, etc. can’t be extended to include another Asian stop, it’s very easy to find flight/hotel package deals here in Hong Kong that will take you to a whole bunch of excellent sidetrip destinations. Thailand is perhaps the most obvious choice; there are direct flights from Hong Kong to Bangkok, and to the beach resorts in Phuket and Koh Samui. The Philippines also has some nice choices, with direct flights to Cebu, for example. Slight farther away, and more expensive, would be a trip to Malaysia/Singapore, Vietnam, or Indonesia/Bali.

I’m not going to go any deeper into recommendations for any of these places, as there are other websites out there that will do a much better job for you. I’ll just add a couple of notes to whet your appetite.

First, all of the places I’ve mentioned, especially Thailand and the Philippines, are cheaper than Hong Kong. If your finances extend only to a rather dull hotel here, for example, you will find the same money will get you five-star elegance in Bangkok or Phuket. For many people, it will actually be cheaper to get out of Hong Kong than to stay here, even if you need to throw in another flight. Second, you’ll get a chance to experience a different culture/cuisine/landscape, which should make your trip that much more exciting. And third, it’s really easy to do. Travel in the tourist areas of most southeast Asian countries is well-oiled and smooth, so it’s usually not stressful.

If you are looking for a package deal leaving from Hong Kong, you might do worse than to start at, a travel site that focuses on Asia deals.

I’m going to stop here, by noting that I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of the possibilities for trips out of Hong Kong. Reader recommendations and tips are most welcome!


Guangzhou is good

I like Guangzhou as a break from Hong Kong. It's not as convenient as Shenzhen to get to, but it is a good trip if you want to see somewhere more 'Chinese' and spend one or two nights out of HK. I can't think of any must-see attractions, but it is an interesting place if you are happy to wander around and soak up a different way of life.

We normally stay at the White Swan Hotel, as it has good facilities and an interesting location. It is on Shameen island, which was developed and maintained by France and Britain from the mid 1850's until the second world war. The old colonial-era buildings are still there, and there is very little traffic so it is pedestrian-friendly.

There are several direct HK - Guangzhou trains each day, and there is a free shuttle bus between the station and the hotel. Though I've only ever taken the bus in the hotel -> station direction, as we normally hop in a taxi at the station. If you take a taxi, have the name of the hotel written in chinese with you, to show to the driver.


Ocean Spring Resort

This past weekend we Talls made another foray into southern China. This time it was a quick trip up to Zhuhai, where we stayed in the Ocean Spring Resort. (Note the website seems to be available in Chinese only at the moment.)

It's much like the Chimelong complex I wrote about in the main article, in that it's a 'destination' resort (read: totally isolated out in undistinguished countryside), and in that it comprises hotels, shopping, a theme park and a night show presented in a purpose-built auditorium.

The main differences: the theme park is small, although there is much construction still going on. There were just four or five rides Daughter Tall could go on, and about the same number that might attract adults. A good rollercoaster, though! Although the day we were there the hotels were fully booked, there were no lines whatever in the theme park.

The night show is also seriously inferior to Chimelong's circus. It's much more a DANCE! show, if you know what I mean, with lots of energetic if cheesy and repetive numbers. But there were some acrobatic acts integrated into the show that were very good, including two incredibly muscular guys who did things I don't even want to describe on account of just thinking about it hurts me . . . .

On the plus side, the hotel we were in (there are two, actually) was pretty nice, with the kind of cool clean decor Mrs Tall and I both really like.

We actually skipped the main attraction, which is a hot springs/spa complex. We've heard from others who have been that it's good. The highlight is a pool full of little fish that swim up and nibble the dead skin right off your hide. Next time, definitely!!

More fun at Ocean Spring Resort

If my description of the joys of Ocean Spring Resort was not enough to convince you to give it a try, perhaps this photo of one of the resort's other selling points will do the job:

Actually, it appears to be just a gift shop in Ocean Spring's amusement park -- which does have a Pirate theme -- but then, who really knows? Maybe I should have asked one of these gentlemen in the doorway . . . .

Sidetrip report: Jiuzhaigou

The most recent Tall travel adventure took us on a 5-day local tour to Sichuan province.

In spite of our tour’s brutal schedule of morning wake-up calls – 5:00, 8:00 (thank God), 5:30, 6:30 and 5:00 again – and despite Daughter Tall’s lavish and repeated motion sickness on the first full day of the tour (5:00 wake-up + airplane flight + too little to eat + 1.5-hour bus ride down seriously winding roads + parents forgetting all about previous motion sickness episodes and neglecting to give Daughter Tall Dramamine = barfotastic fun!), we had a pretty good time, and now Daughter Tall knows at least a half-dozen colloquialisms, in several languages, for involuntarily voiding the contents of her stomach via mouth.

The main purpose of the trip was to visit a scenic area called Jiuzhaigou, which was indeed magnificent. The park was like a combo between the alpine loveliness of Banff or the Colorado Rockies in North America, and the otherworldly water colors and rock formations we've seen in New Zealand. The park had dozens of lakes and pools and waterfalls, all with shocking bright blue-green water. It looked like another planet at points!

We also spent some time seeing more conventional sights in Chengdu itself, and took a side trip to the Leshan Buddha, a very big statue carved into riverside cliffs. On the last day, we went up Emei Shan, a spectacular 10,000-foot mountain with an enormous golden Buddha statue right on the summit. It was quite a ride getting there -- a couple hours in a minibus up hairpin turns, through lush, inviting mountain scenery. The last lap was a cable car to the summit. It had snowed up there pretty heavily the day before, so everything was coated in white and very pretty.

I would recommend these sights in Sichuan quite highly as a side trip from HK. The flights are not long – just two hours to Chengdu – and you really get the sense of being in an entirely different world. The name ‘Jiuzhaigou’ refers to nine villages that lie within the area; these villages are in fact home to Tibetans, and the look and feel of the place reminded me a great deal of my past travels in other Himalayan areas in eastern Nepal. If you’re looking to break a siege of cabin fever in HK, and experience something really different, it’s hard to beat.

See this article for other reflections on this trip.

Chimelong hotel, circus, zoo and amusement park

This week we made the trip to the Chimelong complex that Mr Tall mentions above. It was all very straightforward, so even without speaking any Chinese you shouldn't have any problems.

We booked the transportation, hotel and various entrance tickets through China Travel Services in Hong Kong, so we had very little to organise when we got there. We booked around ten days before we went, and the hotel rooms for Saturday night were already fully booked We just went a day earlier, but if the weekend is your only option, book early.

There are various ways to get there from Hong Kong (remember in all cases you'll need a China Visa in your passport to get into China):

  • Ferry. We took the 10:40 catamaran ferry from China Hong Kong city in Tsim Sha Tsui, which got us to the Lian Hua Shan port around 12:30. It worked well for us, as our two young girls (2- and 4-years old) could get up and walk around. The ticket includes a minibus shuttle to the hotel, where we arrived at 1:25.
  • Coach. The hotel runs a coach that makes several pick-up stops in Hong Kong before going direct to the hotel (of course you'll need to get off at the border to go through immigration). There was a long list of pickup stops in Hong Kong. On the plus side you can say it is worry-free as it's door to door. But if you're one of the first pick-up stops, check just how long the journey would take.
  • Taxi. Our friends live in Shatin, and for them it was easier to go to the Huang Guang border crossing, then catch a 90-minute taxi ride to the hotel. If you live in Hong Kong and have friends that can arrange the taxi, it can be a good option. Otherwise stick to the coach or ferry.

We stayed at the Chime Long Hotel for two nights, and were very happy with it. The service had a few little quirks to remind you you're in China (eg room service tidied up the coffee cups to make them look tidy - but forgot to clean them. And there were ashtrays in our 'non-smoking' rooms!), but overall it was clean and comfortable. We included the breakfast when we bought the tickets, and there's a good buffet breakfast to set you up for the day. We had a couple of meals in the hotel's Unicorn Chinese restaurant, and both were good.

There's a big outdoor swimming pool, so if you're visiting in the warmer months, take your swimming costumes. A couple of our party tried the massage and said it wasn't the best they've had, but ok - they'd go again. Inexpensive too, starting from RMB88 for an hour's body massage.

The first night we went along to the Cirque du Chime-Long. It's just next to the hotel, so it's just a few minutes walk away.

It was one of the best live shows I've ever seen, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Our 2-year-old liked to see the animals, but didn't get much more out of it. Our 4-year old was a bit overwhelmed by the noise at first, but enjoyed it later on. All the adults enjoyed it a lot.

The arena & tiered seats are covered by something like a circus big-top tent. That'll keep the rain out, but the sides are open so if the weather is cold bring something warm to wear. The central area of seating is the 'VIP area', costing an extra 30 or 50RMB depending on the day. We didn't sit there, but had no problem seeing. The regular visitors seemed to head for the front sections, which seemed to have the best chance of catching the small soft toys that were thrown into the audience at regular intervals. We were near the back, but again had no problem seeing. The main entrance is to the right of the VIP block - but it's also near the toilets which were pretty whiffy. We moved over to the left of the VIP block, and it was much better.

It was opened in 2005, and the websites show there have been three different shows so far, so it looks as though they change each year. I'd like to go again when the next show is launched.

The next day we went along to Chime-Long Paradise, the amusement park. The entrance is right next to the circus entrance, so again it's just a few minutes walk from the hotel. Following Mr Tall's advice we went straight to 'Kids Land' at the opposite side of the park. It's an air-conditioned building with rides and games suitable for young children.

And that's where we stayed! We had waited for friends to arrive from Hong Kong, so hadn't started until after 12, then by 4pm our girls were getting cranky and we headed out and back to the hotel. (Once you exit the park you have to buy new tickets if you want to go back in) It's a big park though, and there's plenty of other rides for older children and adults. Our four-year old rated two of the rides in Kids Land as the highlight of her holiday - despite how dull they looked from an adult standpoint!

On the third day (Saturday) we went along to the Zoo (the Xiangjiang Safari Park). This is also near to the hotel, but a little too far to walk. There's a free shuttle bus there from the hotel, and coming back we took a taxi. The driver didn't turn on the meter and just pocketed RMB10.

The zoo was very busy, but it was never a problem seeing the animals or getting in to the shows. The first animals we saw were a mangy pair of polar bears, with the disturbing walk of caged animals that have gone mad. After that poor start, everything else was much better. Apart from the shows and exhibits, it was also a pleasant place to walk through. We managed about three hours before everyone was tired and it was time to head back to the hotel in time for the shuttle bus, and the ferry home.

Other thoughts:

  • It's November now, and a good time to be walking through the zoo. Summertime would be too hot I think, though going in September or October would make it warm enough to go swimming in the pool.
  • If you're going Friday-Saturday, do the amusement park on the Friday. Both the park and the zoo will be a lot busier onthe Saturday, but you'll notice it a lot more in the park bexuase of having to queue for rides.
  • With older children you could spend a lot more time in the parks.
  • You can hire strollers for toddlers in the amusement park, but not in the zoo.
  • If you're on a short stay, one night would be fine. eg arrive midday and drop off bags at the hotel. Spend 2-7 in the amusement park, then headover to the circus at 7:30. Then either head back to Hong Kong next morning, or go to the zoo and return to Hong Kong in the late afternoon.
  • We passed some outlet stores near to the hotel, so I'd be interested to hear if anyone has been along to them and if they are any good.
  • The PanYu area is also supposed to be famous for its pork restaurants, so if you are more adventurous than us there should be some good restaurants within a short taxi ride of the hotel.

All in all a good trip, and one to repeat in say a year's time when there is a new circus show.


PS Keep an eye out for some lovely chinglish. eg where would you expect to see "The non-disinfectors are strictly prohibited to use the facility"? Outside the hotel swimming pool of course, ie shower before you swim! The hotel's massage service is also tailored to the results of a day at an amusement park. You are asked to note that their body massage is "only available for the backside".


Shanghai and Hangzhou

We're just back from a week-long trip to these two cities. Either could be a short side-trip in their own right, or they go well together.

We started off a bit differently, taking the non-stop train from Hong Kong to Shanghai. The full-fare price is around $800 an adult for a soft-sleeper ticket. We paid around $600 each by getting the group-ticket rate. If you have a friendly local travel agent, ask them if they can get this price for you.

The train leaves Hung Hom on the dot at 15:16. But we only made it as far as the New Territories before coming to a stop! There were several other stops and starts, but passengers aren't allowed on or off the train until it arrives in Shanghai at 11:10 the following morning.

The soft-sleeper ticket puts you in a room with four bunk beds. If you're traveling with less than four people, that means it's pot-luck who you are sharing the cabin with. We were a group of five (children under 5 go free, but have to share a seat / bed), so we had the cabin to ourselves.

It was an easy journey. We took a few colouring and activity books to keep our two girls entertained, and I spent a lot of time gazing out of the corridoor window at the passing scenery. There's a restaurant car open for dinner and breakfast - not going to get any Michelin stars in the near future, but as cheap & cheerful fast food it was ok. The only thing I'd do differently another time would be to take eyeshades for sleeping. It seems the budget was all used up by the time it came to fit curtains to the carriages. The flimsy material lets a lot of light through, and so as you pass through stations and built-up areas you get lights flashing at you.

Up in Shanghai we stayed at a friend's house, so no tips for accommodation. Getting around was easy enough, whether via metered taxi, or their subway system. For one day the main activity was a trip to Shanghai Zoo. It's set in a beautiful park with grassy spaces, so when the weather is a bit warmer it would be good to take a picnic along. As well as the seeing the usual animals, a highlight was the children's zoo, where you could feed vegetables to knee-high dwarf goats. They can get quite enthusiastic, which proved to be too much for our five-year old, but our three year-old had fun with them.

Our five-year old had a much better time the following evening, when we went to see the Shanghai acrobats show. I found this video online, but can't find the booking details. But you should be able to just ask at your hotel -  all the audience were from overseas when we watched, so they'll know where it is. We left our youngest at home, but everyone else (5 to 75 years old) enjoyed it.

From Shanghai we took an express train to Hangzhou. This takes a little over an hour, and is a comfortable, modern train. When we arrived we joined the taxi queue - metered cabs are the norm again, and it was a short ride to the hotel. We stayed at the West Lake Sofitel, but would try somewhere else if we were staying again. The location is good, but it didn't live up to the expectations of 'luxury' we got from the hotel website.

With young children and a not-so-mobile granny in the group, we stuck to the usual tourist route. We let a guide talk us into a 60Y minibus & driver to drive us around some of the main sites. Then another day we took one of the boat trips on the lake (take insect repellent: lots of mozzies!), and in between we took short walks along the lake shore near the hotel. It's a beautiful location, and somewhere we agreed we'd like to go back to as a couple when the children decide they don't want to travel with us any more!

From Hangzhou it was a two-hour flight back to Hong Kong, and home.