We emerged from the air conditioned and orderly subway station, bleary from a sleepless night on a plane, into the chaotic streets of Mong Kok. The intense heat, streams of people and traffic took our breath away as we searched for our hostel amongst the tenement towers and neon signs. Back in Asia after three years away it was a little overwhelming. We checked into our tiny but thankfully air conditioned hostel room and, giving up on the idea of staying awake until a reasonable time, took a nap for a few hours. We woke energised and after fueling up on a bowl of congee, eased ourselves into the crazy night scene. This time we were invigorated rather than overwhelmed by the sensory overload and immense crowds.
Hong Kong Island may be the centre for business and Kowloon the tourist hub (with that skyline view) but for us the beating heart of Hong Kong was Mong Kok, further up the Kowloon peninsular. It’s a densely packed area of gritty tenement buildings, bustling markets, hotels rented by the hour and Chinese medicine pharmacies alongside spangly electronics shops selling the latest gear. It’s a place where Hong Kongers live, work and shop. The crowds are intense, the traffic frenetic, but it feels alive and vibrant.
Our favourite retreat from the crowds of hectic Hong Kong is the Chi Lin Nunnery and attached Nan Lian Chinese Garden. It’s a peaceful place of lush greenery, lotus flower filled ponds, a delicious vegetarian restaurant and this golden pavilion. I loved the way the gold and the red of the bridge brightened up a cloudy day. The high rise apartment blocks provide a stark contrast and remind you that you are in Hong Kong.
The Chi Lin Nunnery and Nan Lian Gardens are free and are a five minute walk from the Diamond Hill MTR stop.
When first glancing at restaurant menus in Hong Kong things don’t look promising for vegetarians. Often there are no meat-free options and items like pig’s blood, chicken’s feet and shark fin on the menu can be a little off-putting. Eating is an important part of experiencing Hong Kong though and with a little planning vegetarians can eat well too. One advantage is that many menus are written in English, so even if the staff don’t speak it you can always point to a vegetarian option. The best and safest bet though is to try one of the many vegetarian restaurants in the city. You can find listings on happycow.com.
On our way to Japan we spent a few days in Hong Kong. One of the most astounding features of the city is the skyline with miles of shiny skyscrapers backed by lush green hills. The best views are found on top of the Peak which can be reached by a short, steep tram ride up the mountain. The tram has been running since 1888 and is a popular tourist attraction so be prepared to queue (we waited over an hour on a Saturday).