Victoria Harbour at night
Hong Kong, talk about a culture shock after rural Thailand 24 hours before. Between the plane running a bit late, customs taking a while and having to take the train to Hong Kong island (thankfully a painless airport express) it was just after eleven before I found my hotel. I’d had some sort of brainfart while booking and spent a lot more than I’d planned but the hotel was certainly nice if VERY compact due to real estate prices. It was a 32 storey (minus the “4” floors Chinese folks find so terrifying so more like 27ish with some other mysterious missing floors) building with a footprint not much bigger than my parents’ back yard. In that small space there were 5 hotel rooms and 2 tiny elevator shafts per floor. Despite the compactness my room was really well laid out and didn’t feel suffocating and somewhat gloriously I’d ended up on the top floor facing the harbour.
Since I hadn’t eaten anything in forever I grabbed a quick shower and went in search of food but sadly the neighbourhood I’d ended up in didn’t have much to offer at almost midnight on a Wednesday night. The desk clerk admitted I might have to resort to McDonalds. In the end I got a coke from a 7-11 and found a Dim Sum place about to close up but with a couple steamed pork buns still hot.
The next morning I got up reasonably early wanting to make the most of my day but still spen a few minutes enjoying my the view out my window (after opening my power blind from bedside control!) seeing the ferries scurry about and watching a small group do tai chi on the public park 30 stories below. Somewhat hilariously my shower sprayed with such a powerful fine mist that there was a warning posted to only use it with the air fan on full and both the bathroom and shower door closed lest it set off the sensitive smoke alarm and force evacuation of the hotel. As I had no desire to walk down all those stairs in my undies I obeyed.
One of my cousins and his family live in Hong Kong so I’d asked them for advice on how to spend a quick stay sightseeing (though they’d fled before I arrived in terror so we didn’t get to meet for a meal.) I started off exploring the neighbourhood round my hotel as I slowly made my way to ‘Central’ but as it was apparently a holiday more than a few things were closed. Central however was a lot more lively and I really enjoyed finding the bits of colonial architecture still standing in the midst of the more modern towers.
Their suggestion (and pretty much everyone else’s too) was to check out Victoria peak so I braved the holiday crowds and hopped on the Victoria Peak tram which has been running since the 1880s. It’s an occasionally wildly steep ride and the views are fantastic. I have to admit that the crazy long queue was exceptionally well managed for most of its length. I started on the other side of the street in a long (b/c holiday I’m guessing) queue for tickets. After making my way through that lineup (probably 30m) there was a gap to the other side of the street where the expensive tour people got to mostly skip it. At that point some of the marshals handed out plastic cards with which you could rejoin the queue on the other side. Sure enough some tiny old woman pretending? to be yakking on her cell phone (and her adult daughter) tried to squeeze in with my group in the rush but as they didn’t have the card (and a bunch of us pointed her out) she got the boot.
On the other side things were much more poorly managed but I eventually got on a tram through an area lined with historical displays which would have been quite interesting had I been able to browse them and not just get to read whichever one I was penned in next to each time the crowd crush for each tram moved forward. It was like waiting to get into an exam in University Center in an exam with lots of international students, the same elbows first mentality. Once at the top I did a 3km-ish circuit of one of the walking paths and enjoyed the sights. Not only do you get a fantastic view of the harbour and nearby islands in all directions, you’re looking down on the skyscrapers of Hong Kong island as well and it gives you quite the perspective on just how much city is crammed into such a tiny area.
Looking across to Kowloon from the peak
Once I’d gotten down from the peak I took a walk through nearby Hong Kong park which was quite pretty and which features and free to tour aviary filled with various birds. There are also a number of busy public areas and a large pond filled with fish and turtles.
By this point my legs were aching a bit as Hong Kong is quite the hilly/stair-filled place and even all my thailand power walking hadn’t prepped me for much up and down. Frustratingly my timing wasn’t great and my planned lunch stop fell through as they had closed for the afternoon, walking away from that place I randomly stumbled into another shop from an article on the “best xiao long bao in Hong Kong” and gave in to my craving for dumplings.
Xiao Long Bao are soup dumplings. Thin shelled steamed pork dumplings that when cooked properly have a mouthful of soupyness ready to squirt out all over the unwary eater’s shirt. They are phenomenal when done well and these were definitely good along with a bowl of spicy noodles. Happy and recharged I walked the rest of the way to the dock for the famous Star Ferry to hop across the harbour and experience a bit of Kowloon (the peninsula across from HK island.) Along the way I ran into a bunch of groups of young women clustered on the walkways, at one point there was a giant swarm of them practicing what can only be describe as catwalk model/strip club prancing or music video dancing in tottering heels to loud stereos blasting Bruno Mars and Beyonce. It was rather bizarre as one a) tried to avoid them and b) tried to avoid laughing as the occasional young woman trying very hard to be sexy instead fell over and was ridiculed by the others as they all giggled.
Soup dumpings, amazing
If nothing else the trip was worth it for the view. Though you can take the subway across the water these days the ferry gives a pretty great panorama of all the tall buildings crowding Victoria Harbour, the mountains in the distance and the seemingly unending parade of boat traffic all around.
Wandering around Kowloon itself was definitely another side of the Hong Kong seen in movies and tv. Kowloon’s population density is something around 40,000 people per square kilometer and it really shows. Lots of narrow alleys packed with with shops and restaurants and people. In various places street markets fill almost every inch of available space and shopping appears to be where it’s at almost everywhere. Honestly if I wasn’t already running a pretty damned full bag I’d have been taking part more myself, maybe next trip. In the end I only bought a couple teeny things including a new luggage tag for my bag as mine had disappeared in a bus cargo hold somewhere in Thailand.
Night was starting to fall when I finally gave in to my aching feet and hopped the subway back to the harbour, though I sadly found out the subway station was not particularly close to said harbour. Still, the ferry ride was worth it again, this time with the view being a closeup of the sparkling light displays on the various buildings that I’d seen from a distance (and up high) the night before in my room.
I grabbed a leisurely and delicious dinner once back on the Hong Kong side, planning my cheque to leave me with more or less just enough to hop on the airport train/buy a bottle of water for my flight. I don’t know if it’s a Hong Kong thing but as I waited (a while) for my food to come the hostess stopped by my table with a small bowl full of seasoned peanuts and seaweed bits. I had a few but they honestly were a bit too salty and bitter for me to enjoy too much so I put them aside after a couple pinches. Imagine my surprise when the bill comes and they’re the equivalent of like $5CAD, there went my grand financial plan. I asked the hostess wtf and she said “but you ate them.” What’s worse is they were taken away while I was asking what was up with the extra charge on the bill so I couldn’t even finish them out of spite. The meal was otherwise fantastic, I was just really hoping to not have to take out any extra money before heading back as I knew I’d probably get double dinged on the exchange charges.
When I got back to the hotel it wasn’t super late but to be safe I wanted to leave for the airport around 6am (wise choice) and my (notoriously terrible) feet were aching. I wasn’t surprised when via some quick online calcs I figured out I’d walked about 15 hilly km that day. Sadly the trip was definitely at a close now, the only thing left was the annoying part and as I fell asleep watching the Champions League replays in Cantonese I tried not to worry about the long flight to come.
I definitely didn’t get to see as much of Hong Kong as I would have liked but I saw enough to whet my appetite to return and I suppose that’s all you can ask for with a one and a bit day visit.
Getting back to the airport was just as painless as my arrival with a quick subway ride leading to the airport train. Unfortunately for me I’d booked to go through Toronto as any vancouver flight around this date had had a premium on it of at least $400 iirc.) The result being of course that the flight time I’d saved from the BKK->HK flight was now just being spent crossing a section of Canada I’d just to have to cover again in reverse. This time however I’d booked a window seat, something I’d never do on a domestic flight due to space issues but knowing it would be relatively painless on the wide body airbus and at least give me a wall to lean against and sleep if I got another captain elbows.
Thankfully that didn’t happen but instead ended up with a flight full of people connecting from India, seemingly half of whom had either checked in last minute or perhaps missed/been bumped from another flight and were thus desperately trying to swap seats with people once on board to sit together. I had to very apologetically tell a girl that no I wasn’t going to swap so she could sit with her sister as it would have led to me sitting in the middle of a three seat cluster and there was no way I was doing a 15.5 hour flight in that position. Perhaps as karmic balance (though I think I made the right choice for everyone’s comfort involved) my entertainment system audio broke 3 hours into the flight… but at least I managed to snatch a few hours of sleep.
The map was working eventually though, so I got to unhappily watch the plane pass over Flin Flon then down midway across lake Winnipeg as it dodged some weather and couldn’t help but wish for some minor issue that would require stopping at Winnipeg and unloading for the night. Instead we went on to the nightmare that is Pearson international and what I supposed would be a fairly leisurely 2 hour layover turned into a near sprint for the gate.
Now, let me start off by saying I understand that Toronto is my port of entry into Canada and I need to clear customs, but Pearson is absolutely the worst place I’ve found to do that in all of Canada if you’re then shipping onward to somewhere else. First up was immigration which has a long lineup in one of the cattle tunnels down to the main section and absolutely no one telling you that that’s only one smaller area for pre checks to relieve the main area. Another passenger actually told me we could bypass it. Once at the main area we got in a line that though it moved fairly smoothly had every other passenger in it (Canada being literally the only country I’ve been to on my wider international journeys that doesn’t always have a “Local Citizens Only” speed line.) They had odd new robo passport checkers that moved up and down to shoot the camera at your face. All in all that part wasn’t great but could have been worse, still ate up about 30m of my layover in speed walking/line up time.
Next up was baggage claim where I had to claim my big bag, theoretically have customs look at it but in reality walk right by, then give it back to Air Canada. The baggage claim hall appears to have been unrenovated since the 80s, is dank and smelly and full of often unintelligible baggage claim announcements. It is not an exaggeration to say that the english baggage announcements were better in Bangkok and HK. Literally every flight that arrived in the thirty minutes I waited there had its carousel changed, often multiple times. Our flight had one carousel announced, the notice showed up on the tv screen on another carousel, then the announcements said a third one, followed by swapping back to the first. The tv screen had not changed by the time I got my bag. The bags themselves came in one batch of five, then a full fifteen minute wait before we saw another bag during which everyone on a connection was progressively getting closer and closer to climbing in the back.
Bag finally retrieved I walked by my customs “inspection” and brought my bag into a tiny room where a helpful West Jet person asked me if I was on their airline. I said no (sadly) and she directed me to the conveyor belt on my left where I walked right past two people playing on their phones and chatting, briefly making eye contact. Said woman made no comment at all as I placed my bag on the conveyor until it reached the end when she hit a loud “STOP THE LINE” alarm and started yelling at me “ARE YOU ON AIR CANADA” to which I replied yes and proceeded to get a lecture about having to show my baggage claim tag blah blah blah. I bit my tongue as I needed to change terminals and get the hell out of there but man… you knew damned well I was. Once my bag disappeared she with zero grace agreed with me that the particular unmarked door I needed was the one behind me and went back to her candy crush. It’s also worth noting that on West Jet you often don’t even need to do this process, though they have other problems at Pearson usually being stuck at extreme far gates with no functional slipways.
The worst part of the pearson experience in this is that unlike many other airports they don’t have a way for you to stay behind security as you change terminals, nor a particularly expedited way for you to get back through when you’re on a connection. So it was on the train, over to the departures area, through to back area, arrive at a tiny security desk with only two lanes open (despite at least 5 large international flights arriving in the previous hour) and a huge lineup of people and ~25m until my flight began boarding for Winnipeg. In the end I made it thanks to a group of Regina HS students returning from Europe knowing their flight had been delayed and letting me jump ahead of the fifteen of them (thanks fellow prairie folks, I promise not to bash Regina for a whole month.)
The scary part of the this was? I got the good experience! The young woman named Jenna I was sitting next to on the flight (middle seat, thanks for respecting my “seat preference” when you wouldn’t let me check in from China Air Canada) had been on the same HK flight returning from Indonesia. Roughly 10 different airline employees had told her different things about whether her bag was checked through or not and then a “rude employee just after customs” (boy I wonder who that was) had refused to help her get back or even contact anyone for help when she informed her that she needed her bag. All she said was you’ll have to go talk to your airline for an escort (good luck finding someone from Cathay an hour after their last flight for the day has arrived.) In the end she was left with no idea where her bag was or if she’d ever see it again but absolutely needed to be on the flight back to Winnipeg and was sobbing as she got seated. That sort of crap isn’t fun at the best of times but she was on an even longer day than me having had a 5 hour flight from somewhere in indonesia followed by a 5 hour layover in HKIA. We chatted for a while until she finally accepted that there was nothing she could do now and tried to sleep while I caught the end of the movie I’d been watching on the first flight when my tv broke.
A few hours later the snowy familiar sights of home were outside the window and I came down the arrivals escalator to see my mother blankly staring past me and not recognizing me as I went over to the baggage claim (hoping my own bag had made it.) Eventually my Dad showed up as well and he at least recognized his son ;p just before my slightly filthy backpack emerged. Some hugs and a warm coat later we headed out to the car to meet up with a dog that seemed to have missed me given she climed out the back into my arms, went and grabbed a delicious pizza then came home for a chat followed by one heck of a long sleep.
All together I travelled countless kilometers by foot and bicycle, ~2000km by bus/minibus, ~1500km by various forms of train and another 250km by ferry on this trip. Add on 12,722km between YWG and Bangkok each wayplus a detour to Toronto (and the noticeable and appreciated detour the intercontinental flights took around North Korean airspace) and that’s the better part of 30,000km. Something tells me the big red backpack still has a few more trips in her though… but will it be back to Thailand next?
Some trip details for those who asked.
I know there’s been a bit of a running theme in this blog about me cheaping out on things. Honestly there are a few parts of solo travel that are amazing and there are a few parts that suck. The cost of things is one of the latter. This was an exceptionally cheap trip overall but there are still instances where you really wish you had someone to share the cost.
If you discard Hong Kong as an outlier my most expensive hotel of the whole trip was I believe $55ish Canadian the average was probably 30-35 and that was with me always having a private room and almost always springing for the extra baht for air con. Even my time share apartment generously obtained from my dad was I think only around 80 or 90 a night if booking privately, though you were then charged utilities. I generally stayed at guest houses or bungalows with good ratings on trip advisor or booking.com or that were recommended by people I met and other than the one place in Lanta was never really disappointed. Overall they ranged from fine but spartan to amazingly luxurious and with one exception had ensuite bathrooms.
I’d say were I travelling with a partner or a friend sharing twin beds I probably would have bumped this up by $10 a night in certain places but it definitely wasn’t necessary and I certainly never felt and urge or need to seek out one of the big us or euro chains for a luxury night (especially as in Thailand these hotels are often very remote from the fun stuff.) That said if you’re willing to do dorm stays (even if you want to stay to smaller four bed dorms) many places in Thailand have some very fun looking hostels. After having felt a bit old on the last trip five years ago and valuing sleep a bit more this time around (and given Thailand’s ridiculously low prices) I decided to stick to private rooms.
My most expensive splurgy meal including a beer was around $18, my average meal was definitely under $5. I often spent as much in a day on bottled water as I did on food. The downside of travelling solo here is that there are times you really want to try more things on a menu and you’d love to just do some family style dining. Occasionally I’d splurge on a bigger meal but as I only had a kitchenette the only place leftovers usually weren’t useful. If there was someplace I knew I wanted to try and eat a bunch I’d often skip lunch or just have something tiny and just chow down for dinner.
Booze wise local beer is cheap, terrible Thai whiskey/rotgut is cheapish, most other things are expensive by comparison. A lot of places you’d pay near the low end of Canada prices for a mixed drink/cocktail, again not terrible in the grand scheme of things but probably 2-3x what you spent on dinner. Given the heat I often just had a cold Thai beer or have a mango smoothie or the like.
Here is often where I skimped even though relatively speaking it wasn’t expensive. Had I had a bit less time I likely would have flown around a bit more as you can hop domestic air for often under $100 between some destinations. Were I doing the same itinerary again I likely would have flown to Phuket from BKK and perhaps back from Samui after Koh Tao. As it was I definitely wanted the experience of the train journeys though I’d only really recommend the night train to Chiang Mai of the ones I took, the other is probably better done at least partially by day.
Whenever possible I’d say do your research and always spend the extra money on the higher end buses and particularly on the good brands/government ones where applicable. Always buy your ticket at the bus station as the touts are generally more money.
Taxis,Tuk Tuks and Red Trucks:
These vary so incredibly widely by city that one can’t really give blanket advice. Tuktuks are cute but terrible in Bangkok as they charge you massive amounts that aren’t worth it unless you’re a group of 4 and the roofs are so short that anyone tall-ish can’t see out anyway. Add on the smog/scooter exhaust and it’s not super pleasant anyway, even before you factor in the fact that they’re usually trying to take you to some business from which they’ll get a commission. Taxis are cheap in Bangkok and should always be on meter, just use them, you’ll get a chance to tuk tuk elsewhere in Thailand for the experience. Taxis etc are also the one “tourism” industry in Thailand that often doesn’t have a lot of english spoken so if possible have the address of your hotel in Thai or at least know how to clearly pronounce it properly in Thai.
Taxi wise in general in thailand they’ll often try to bilk you for big money if you’re just getting off a bus/train, carrying a backpack and if you’re solo (also no doubt worse if you’re female.) It’s usually better to take a short walk away from the hotel/station/tourist attraction and flag down a cab on the move rather than take one of those just sitting there waiting for someone to scam as honest cabbies in Thailand make their living through volume and will be on the move.
Where possible in smaller towns it’s often worth trying to use the Rot-dam/Sorng-Taa-Ew local system (the pickup truck pseudo buses/charterable buses) as they’re often under a buck to go really long distances or get to less touristy areas (say if you want to go to a mall to stock up on sunscreen and other sundries at non tourist prices.) As chronicled in the blog there are a few places where you’re just at the mercy of what they feel like charging you.
Lots of excursions offer deals if you book more than one person, sadly not helpful when you’re solo. Shop around though, some places offer better deals online, some hotels have discounts (though some of the in hotel places also gouge you for a commission or in some northern towns even require you to book at least one tour through them to be able to stay the night) it’s definitely worth comparing yourself and knowing at least the ballpark of what the cost should be.
What to bring:
Don’t bring backups of anything really, it’s pretty rare to go too long without seeing some kind of shop that will sell backups of anything really critical. Clothing wise I’d definitely skew towards more shirts/less other things. The heat will often have you returning from a day’s activities and wanting to throw on a fresh shirt before going out to dinner. I had a couple items in my bag that never got worn though at least I learned my lesson from last time and didn’t have jeans weighing down my bag. Pretty much everywhere in Thailand has laundry services done by the Kilo so try to bring stuff that is friendly to wash together and you’ll be set. Touristy shirts are available pretty much everywhere if you get stuck for around $5-10 if you get really stuck.
Unless you’re really planning to go to a super high end place in Bangkok it’s probably not worth bringing anything super fancy clothes wise, I went with one collared shirt and my khakis for that. Really the only thing worth worrying about clothes wise is the occasional restriction at temples, particularly for women about covering skin. Usually they will have things you can rent but wearing pants at some temples may be required and midriff baring tops aren’t acceptable. I saw many women at the temples in bangkok just using one of the gorgeous silk scarves you can buy many places in town as a shoulder covering and that seemed to be acceptable though a lightweight rain jacket stowed in the purse/backpack was a frequent choice as well.
It’s worth having one sweater (ideally a light weight zip up imo) with you either for temples or for your time on the frequently meat locker set AC temps on public transport.
I travelled with my stupidly expensive sandles because of my frequently mentioned terrible feet but for those who can function in flip flops you can buy them pretty much everywhere there cheaply and can be ignored if space is tight. Absolutely bring a well broken in but still supportive pair of shoes, consider throwing in some gel insoles as you’ll be walking a bunch. According to people I talked to replacing a pair of sneakers if you have big western feet can be a difficult prospect outside Bangkok.
Other things to buy and bring with you:
-Sunscreen/bug spray are both necessities (I avoided Dengue hurray!) and are significantly more expensive in Thailand for western brands. I forgot my sunscreen and had to drop $20 on some coppertone then had to buy a further slightly cheaper bottle in week 3 thanks to the volume I was going through.
-first aid/advil other small things. Sometimes you’re at the mercy of small tourist pharmacies or 7-11 for these things, definitely worth having a small first aid kit with you. Mine’s about the size of a deck of cards and served me well having bandages/gauze, some antibiotic ointment and immodium/advil/decongestent. I also brought a tensor bandage given my explosion prone ankles but thankfully never needed it.
-If you’re going to snorkel or dive a lot and don’t have your own mask either resign yourself to renting or buy one at home. Masks of any quality had a significant mark up most places I looked. Was definitely worth the bag space to me, ymmv.
Bring an unlocked smartphone with you (all Canadian carriers are now required to unlock your phone) if your brand new smartphone is too pricey for you to want to risk it go pick up a cheap last gen pay as you go phone somewhere, you can usually find something on sale for under $150. Once you’re in thailand cheap tourist SIMs are everywhere and there are counters in the airport where you literally just give them the phone and they’ll set it up right in front of you and hand it back (keep your original sim safe if it’s your prime phone and you want to be able to slot it back in after.) LTE coverage is astonishingly good most places in Thailand (even mid ferry ride shockingly) and I got coverage for my full month for about $25cad. Being able to use GPS or look up a hotel booking while on a ferry was a lifesaver at times though I wish I’d brought a phone with a better battery.
I think that’s about it for off the top of my head, mostly just putting things in here I’ve talked to people thinking of travelling to Thailand about since returning.
Thanks everyone who read along for the trip, I wasn’t originally going to do a travel blog this time but there was definitely enough people asking that I guess more people read it than I imagined last time. I know things were a bit more matter of fact this time but that was down to fewer hours on a greyhound and my laptop battery only lasting about 40m without power so not often being able to write in a bus or train station and instead just taking longhand notes. As for the trip itself feel free to reach out if you have questions either in general or because you’re planning to visit this gorgeous and delicious country.
Cheers, and see you next time?