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"I'll find my way home while exploring the galaxy"

Day 299: Welcome to the Motherland, Hong Kong

I couldn’t have asked for a more graceful transition into first world travelling. I am indeed referring to Hong Kong, but the story begins the day we left Panya and hitchhiked three rides over our way to Pai.

Crazy to think that just under two years ago, I had absolutely fallen in love with this little mountain town in the two days I travelled through. Not that Pai had become any less than what I remembered, but it dawned on me only a day or two in, that that too can change; you can literally wake up a year later in the same place with an entirely different connection to it. I was coming off the high of communal self-sufficient living and while toilets and laundry were definite perks to look forward to, Pai was no Panya.

Nevertheless, Wylie and I did what we knew best. Rent a motorbike and venture into nature. Always a winning combo.

Make sure to pick up an oversized mango for 30 baht too!

Make sure to pick up an oversized mango for 30 baht too!

Landsplit explorations

Landsplit explorations

Hiking up to the White Buddha

Hiking up to the White Buddha

Viewpoint overlooking all of Pai + rainbow 

Viewpoint overlooking all of Pai + rainbow 

Busting out some yoga to pass the time

Busting out some yoga to pass the time

Doing breakfast in style always 

Doing breakfast in style always 

Back in the cock of bang 

Back in the cock of bang 

A few days of Pai, a week in Chiang Mai, and one full day of Bangkok later – I was headed to Hong Kong, the motherland, to meet Mother herself. The combo of losing my only debit card just days before, the sadness of leaving the country I’ve called home for two months, plus the real anxiety of heading to a first world country (or technically, SAR – special administrative region) had me more anxious than I’ve felt in a while. Apparently I wasn’t totally alone?

SOS text from the airport 

SOS text from the airport 

While mom was raised in Hong Kong until she was six and returned at age 26 after studying in China for two years after college, I have never been to the land of Chinese people (which I would soon learn is not entirely PC – Hong Kong people make it very clear that they are in fact Hong Kong people, not Chinese people).

First Impressions

Love me a good first impression memory. Shortly after landing in Hong Kong and experiencing the liberation that is not having to apply for a visa and waiting in long immigration lines, I moved swiftly over to the conveyor belt to pick up my bag. My backpack looked like the hobo of all luggages making its way around the conveyor belt, amidst all the fancy suitcases around it. A dilapidated backpack OR a backpack with lots of travel wisdom? Perspective.

I headed straight to the currency exchange counter to get a hold of 1400 baht’s worth of Hong Kong dollaz so I could buy a local SIM card. I wobbled into Seven Eleven right afterwards and was welcomed by a really sweet Chinese girl around my age who couldn’t stop eye-ing my disheveled backpack. We got to talking and she looked at me like some kind of war hero for being on the road for ten months. That, or she probably felt bad that my bag had such a sorry look about it.

Once I got the SIM card, it was smooth sails from the Uber all the way to Cosmo hotel. The driver was Sikh and had a lot to say about the city where he grew up. In between soaking up all of the lights and fancy skyscrapers around me, I recalled a few things he shared – Hong Kong’s quality of life is not as good as it looks ($2500 for a one bedroom – sound like New York?), Hong Kong people generally don’t like Chinese people, and good luck trying to be a vegetarian here without spending serious money. Sounds like someone is long due for a major experiment with living….?

When I arrived, first world vibes hit me hard. I walked inside a polished foyer with marble floors and ornate chandelier, feeling eyes around the room looking at me as if I was some strange species of wild animal. As I trudged over to check in, the concierge in a crisp suit looked down from behind his frames in a confused state, “Can I help you?”

Did I look that crazy? Blaming it on the bag!

Nothing spells out warm welcome than being welcomed as Mister Tiffany Wen

Nothing spells out warm welcome than being welcomed as Mister Tiffany Wen

After checking me in, I sprinted as fast as I could to the room shaking off all those uncomfortable eyes from the foyer. I busted through the door and immediately melted into the comforts of everything around me – the fluffy bed, flat screen TV, bathtub, slippers, bathrobe, loaner smartphone, all of it. It was past 10pm, and I could feel the grumble of my stomach snap me back to reality. Where does one get veggie food on a Monday night in Hong Kong?

Happy Cow and Trip Advisor informed me that most places were either a cab ride away or closed. I decided to hop in a cab and head to Causeway Bay in search of a veggie restaurant that was open for another 15 minutes. It was my only hope for food. My New York instincts were kicking in slowly but surely as I grappled with an insanely rude taxi driver and all the sounds, sights, smells of downtown city life around me. The cab smelled of old cigarette smoke. He tried to drop me off at a location that was way off from where I wanted at which point I showed him google maps. He barked at me in Cantonese with the most aggressive hand gestures, and without even thinking, I barked right back in the rustiest Mandarin that I had completely forgotten I knew. The muscle memory of self-defense burst out like word vomit just when I needed it most. All those years of Chinese school paid off, even if just for this moment.

While I didn’t necessarily get my way, it certainly forced some Chinese words out of my mouth, and for that I was content. I wandered around without any luck in finding this restaurant. That is, until I saw a sign that said “Green Monday." Basically promoting Hong Kong people to eat veggies at least once a week.

I pulled out a piece of paper that read “vegetable only?” in Mandarin, which I had requested back at the hotel. A great hack for any vegetarian in a foreign country, by the way. She immediately nodded her head in excitement, and within seconds, I was sitting and salivating at the table waiting for much needed grub. It was nothing to write home about, but it was surely a success.

Best part of the night? A hot bath followed by some BBC Earth on the softest bed ever. First world integration at its finest.

First Day Out

Savasana in Hong Kong 

Savasana in Hong Kong 

I survived my first night out in Hong Kong. And now I was about to head into my first full day out on the town. Mom was just a few hours away from the hotel, and I was building up with excitement as we were about to have our much-anticipated reunion of ten months.

And out of nowhere, the door knocked. REUNION MOMENT <3

It’s no reunion with Mom without a spread of all the gifts: new debit card, new pair of glasses to replace the ones that were stolen in Thailand, and THINX underwear!

Still organized as ever with all that China research!

Still organized as ever with all that China research!

She had more energy than I could have imagined for someone who travelled over twelve hours from New York to Tapei to Hong Kong. We were out the door in no time to start our day with 11:30am breakfast at Ovo Café, a super modern vegetarian café that also doubled up as a living wall-plant store. Somewhere between navigating daytime Hong Kong vibes and catching up at lightning speed page, I made out the best news of them all – Mom had watched the documentary ‘What the Health’ and had decided she wanted to give the whole vegetarian thing a real shot. Turns out I didn’t have to go at it alone – AMEN!

The rest of the day was exploration and spontaneity at its best – we stumbled on a market where she made her first Hong Kong purchase, a poka-dotted pink sun-mbrella after which we found the nearest train station at Wan Chai to head on our first MTR ride through the city. We hopped on a train to Kowloon, the island directly north of HK Island, and got off at the stop that had Battery Park meets South Street Seaport vibes. We wandered around taking in the sights and sounds of downtown, passing by the Space Museum, Opera House and then of course, the glory of Victoria Harbor herself.

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The insane heat levels were more than any normal visor wearing Chinese holding a sun-mbrella and portable fan could bear. We decided to make the most of it, and found a black sesame ice cream shop under a shady awning – hands down, one of the best ice cream flavors I’ve had ever. Arguably one of Hong Kong’s best kept secrets too. We stumbled inside a nondescript entrance to what appeared to be a dingy little mall, just to mooch a bit off the air conditioning, and soon enough found ourselves entering yet another mall with even colder air conditioning. If that’s what it takes to cool off in Hong Kong, sign me up forever.

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Then the best part of the afternoon happened – in search of a store to adjust the frames of my new glasses, I stumbled into a boutique department store, a mixture of McNally Jackson Books meets Eataly, minus all the chaos. The vibe was zen with diffuse warm lighting to bring all the different departments together – essential oils, diffusers, trendy glasses, dried fruits, books of almost every genre in both Chinese and English, a Moleskin collection, a wide variety of stationary, a DIY workshop to make your own figurines, jewelry, cameras old and new, I could go on. We parked up at the in-house coffee shop with the best most unobstructed view of Victoria Harbor in the comfort of air conditioning and serene Hong Kong vibes. If you ever want good coffee shop vibes with stimulating reads and top views, there is your spot: Eslite Spectrum. Make sure to grab a black sesame ice cream on the way in too.

After a much needed cool-off, we took a boat ferry back to the other side, not realizing we were headed to Central and not Wan Chai, the pier closer to our hotel. Must have been for a good reason, because almost immediately after docking, I saw the ferris wheel emerge front and center. We were in plain view of one of Hong Kong’s most beautiful viewpoints – what could be more perfect than riding the ferris wheel? So ride, we did.

In case the views aren't doing it for you, there's always plenty of wifi

In case the views aren't doing it for you, there's always plenty of wifi

We caught sight of the Apple Store from above, and decided to head in that direction post ride. And it dawned on me – this was my first Apple spotting in Asia since I started the trip. Never thought seeing an Apple store would feel as exotic as it did at that moment, a fresh first world moment. I just had to indulge.

The sun was going down as we made our way into Central’s mid-level elevators in search of a veggie restaurant I had read about earlier. Hong Kong’s rush hour crowd was flooding into the streets on their way home, so people watching became much more interesting. With Hong Kong’s steep inclines and July humidity, it was a miracle to have elevators installed to do all the work for you. We took in the neighborhood scapes all the way until we reached our final destination, Grassroots Pantry. That uber drive was not kidding when he said we vegetarians would be spending serious money.

It was a long and adventurous city day, and for all the times I’ve wondered how tourists coming to New York do it, I could finally understand. It was time to get horizontal and pass out J

Why is Hong Kong so special anyways?

I really wanted to know. Other than the birth place of mom, I wanted to find out why this place is so sought after and special. It was incredible the moment we left the city over to the southern part of the island when I realized that kind of like LA, this was a place where in under an hour, you can have access to the beach, the mountains, Disneyland, Ocean Park and traditional fishing villages. Unlike LA, this island has a culture thousands of years old and an identity most determined to be separate and unique from Chinese. To ask what you are would likely elicit “I’m a Hong Kong person” versus “I’m Chinese” if you were to get real literal and down to it. Highly recommend the Museum of Hong Kong History if you ever get around to it.

It was fascinating to learn pretty quickly that to speak English felt more appropriate than attempting Mandarin. It soon became clear – these people are Chinese, technically, but politically and socially something completely unique. But I couldn’t quite put my finger on what that was. As a tourist passing through in a week without the slowness of my previous trips, I knew I wasn’t going to find that answer this time around. I was also very much wrapped up in all the first world efficiencies and trends that were all too familiar – malls, more malls, footbridges, Mannings (not the Wylie kind, but the CVS kind), and all the super hip Hong Kong girls wearing black on black with purple or pink dyed hair. And of course, the inevitable rush hour vibes down in the MTR that were made more pleasant by cleanliness, orderly lines and courteous manners that seem to be lacking in the Chinese environments I had grown accustomed to in places like Chinatown back at home.

Mom and I made a little ode to Hong Kong rush hour as a way to pass time and blow off some steam (to the tune of “Oh My Darling, Clementine):

All the Asians
All the Asians
All the Asians in my way
When rush hour comes to Hong Kong
I just want to hide away


(Real talk)

Get me the f*$&amp;5^#*k outta here

Get me the f*$&5^#*k outta here

If you’re in Hong Kong for a week, don’t forget to include these:

·      Hong Kong Park Aviary: explore the bird wildlife of 70 species inside a man-made tropical rainforest. The Rainbow Parikeet and Bali Myna are pretty social, and you’ll likely get some good eye contact and interactions. Later, go check out the turtles at the nearby lake if you want to have a serious laugh. Baby turtles will do that to you.

·      The Peak: Buy yourself some cherries at a market before taking the tram up to Victoria Peak for epic views of Victoria Harbor and a yummy snack. Yes, you’ll have to endure long lines and neverending escalators through a mall up to the view, but it’s worth it.

·      Symphony of Lights: Even if cheesy neon lights aren’t your thing (as they’re not mine), you will appreciate the Hong Kong-ness of this little light spectacle. Colors of all kinds deck the sky and building walls in sync with music. The breeze that sweeps in will make up for all your heat stroke moments of the day, and you’ll be happy you did it.

·      Stanley Park: Worth it just for the bus ride through the mountains and bays dotting southern Hong Kong (if you’re one of the first on the bus, make sure to score one of the seats up front one the second deck). Once you arrive, you can enjoy a good breeze in the bay while doing some light rock climbing to get as far out into the sea as possible. It’s worth all the selfie sticks you won’t be seeing in action J  

·      Sheung Wan: HK has alittle bit of everything – a bustling downtown, no shortage of fancy malls, mountains, bays, beaches, fishing villages, even its own Disneyland with its own very MTR stop. But a strollable tree-lined neighborhood for easy living is not as easy to find, unless you find the little gem that is Sheung Wan (thanks Alix!). A cute hood with small quiet streets, artisanal-mom-and-pop flair, and a giant Banyan tree that sinks its earthy roots into cobbled stoned ground. Make sure to catch your breath in the hidden oasis that is Lof10 and order yourself some yummy caffeine in a cup.

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·      Veg 6: While Hong Kong has a long way to go as far as making vegetarian food accessible and more creative than simply noodles and a side of veggies, this place has got it DOWN. Props to my eye doctor in Hong Kong for the winning recommendation. You know a place is good when they found a way to make sashimi vegetarian.

And whatever you do, don’t leave Hong Kong until you try the black sesame ice cream in Kowloon near the pier. It’s the JAM.

Onward to China!&nbsp;

Onward to China! 

Tiffany Wen