My dad drove me to the airport, while Clara took the taxi with her mom. Immediately we checked in through one of the many self-check in counters. Very swift and convenient! We realised that we had about an hour to burn, so bought some honey lemon for use as bottles and sat down to have breakfast (bread from a bakery in Singapore!).
We took a morning-to-afternoon flight that took about 3.5 hours. Clara’s mom sat separately, near the back of the plane. Sadly, the doggies did not get a seat of their own! It went to the brother of a very noisy toddler on the opposite side of our row. She was constantly talking/babbling and we found it difficult to get rest.
Thankfully, the flight felt a lot shorter than the one we took to South Korea, partially due to the absence of a stopover. In fact, we suspected that our flight was the first leg of a longer flight – to South Korea, where else! Half of us wished we could continue taking the plane, but we got off at Hong Kong nevertheless.
For me, Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA) was quite a familiar sight, so there was no feeling of surprise whatsoever. Immigration was a breeze, and we were thankful we didn’t check in any baggage! Now, we had three tasks to accomplish – collect the data SIM cards we bought through Klook, have lunch, and purchase Octopus cards. We accomplished them in this order.
Lunch was at Tong Kee Bao Dim, a store specialising in steamed buns, or baos! We got the ubiquitous BBQ pork bao, while Clara’s mom opted for their best-selling pork and cabbage bao. Our baos tasted rather commendable; I liked both the texture of the bao and the taste of the fillings. As for the Octopus card, which was the main mode of payment for transport in Hong Kong, we got the tourist version from a 7-Eleven outlet, which couldn’t be refunded, but the design was so nice we couldn’t bear to part with it anyway!
The young guy serving us at the 7-Eleven had only rudimentary understanding of English, so we were struggling to communicate until Clara’s mom stepped in with her conversational Cantonese. It challenged my impressions of Hong Kong that most Hong Kongers, especially the youth, were proficient in English. Throughout our trip we would encounter older people who possessed better English proficiency as well, which goes to show that age wasn’t a very reliable indicator of it.
The advantage of being able to speak Cantonese were manifold. Given that Hong Kongers speak mainly Cantonese, there wasn’t trouble with conversation and communication. I felt that it added another dimension to the trip, which I could not experience in my previous trips there, due to the inability of my extended family and I at understanding Cantonese. The downside, though, was that we often got local treatment instead of special tourist treatment. But then again, there isn’t much of ‘special tourist treatment’ in a city like Hong Kong. The rudeness of servers is to be expected. Actually, I consider that a tourist attraction in itself, for one doesn’t often get treated harshly as a tourist.
With the SIM cards and Octopus cards in hand, we headed to the bus terminal to board Cityflyer A21 to Tsim Sha Tsui, where our residence was located. The bus ride took about an hour. The Airport Express, a more popular mode of transport (high-speed rail), takes 23 minutes, but only terminates at Kowloon Station, which meant that we had to transfer to a bus anyway. It was also more expensive, so I guess things even out!
Out of the windows of the bus, Clara and her mom got their first glimpses of Hong Kong. I think what would strike first-timers the most are the high-rise apartment blocks and buildings. Even in space-constrained Singapore, our flats don’t rise very high. The unapologetically-tall buildings in Hong Kong easily dwarfed those we were so used to seeing. After all, amongst all cities around the world, Hong Kong has the most number of residents living above the 15th floor.
Eventually, the bus crossed from Lantau island to Tsing Yi island, then to Kowloon peninsula, and we found ourselves in the midst of Mong Kok, the most densely-populated neighbourhood in the world. Further down Nathan Road, we lugged our luggage off the bus. There was still a bit of distance to Stanford Hillview Hotel, but it was manageable.
We entered through the basement, which (from what we read) eliminated the need to climb the hill (for the hillview of course), and I instantly got reminded of a hotel my family stayed at two trips back, seven years ago. My mom confirmed that the name sounded familiar, so yes, I can declare that Stanford Hillview was the same hotel my family stayed in seven years ago (albeit for only three nights)!
It evidently underwent renovation and looks much more modern now, though the lobby looked extremely familiar (they even put the Christmas tree in the same spot!). The room, though, was where the real change was at. An abundance of wood furnishings gave it a contemporary vibe, and it had a natural theme – they even went so far as to name the rooms Oak, Pine, and so on. From the little I could remember of the room seven years back, it used to be run-of-the-mill, very typical and unremarkable and slightly antiquated. So yes, a renovation was definitely necessary, even back then.
We put down our luggages, wasted no more time, and hurried out to Kowloon park – just across the road from Miramall. Our main aim was to catch the best-kept secret in the middle of a green sanctuary in the middle of towering concrete blocks before sunset – flamingoes! Not very well-known to most tourists, I must have walked past Kowloon park a dozen times on the last trip without even being remotely aware that such a place existed!
We spent a great deal of time trying to capture them with their wings spread out, because that was when the intense pink feathers beneath shone through. As if they were taunting us, they just kept turning their heads or digging at something in the soil. Eventually, we decided that enough was enough, and went to explore another part of Kowloon park – the Avenue of Comic Stars!
Unfortunately, we could only recognise one or two comic character statues. Perhaps we weren’t comic fanatics when young. Or perhaps these were characters special to Hong Kongers. Regardless, we posed with the cuter ones, and I even stuck my finger into McDull’s nostrils!
By then, the sun was beginning its descent below the horizon (the sun consistently set about 5.30pm, it being winter). We walked past an open space where some locals were having a workout session and some boys were kicking a ball around, which was apparently not allowed because a lady security guard walked over to ask them to stop. Her words seemed to fall on deaf ears, but a gruff-looking security guard with a gruff voice appeared, barking at them to leave, and instantly they flocked away like birds at a square.
As it was approaching dusk, next up in our plans (appropriately) was Temple Street Night Market. We decided to walk there as it was within proximity, but it was far from a short walk!