Just last night we returned from a couple of weeks in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing and Macau. Technically all of those places are in China.
Theary had never been to any of the places on the tour so it was great fun watching her eyes light up at each new experience. Even if you have been to a place before, when you go with someone for their first time, it’s really great fun. Mind you, I had only been to Hong Kong previously and on a day trip to mainland China and that was way back in 1997. So I was confident a lot had changed in China since then.
Our trip was from Phnom Penh (Cambodia), Bangkok (Thailand), Hong Kong, Shanghai (China), Beijing (China), Macau, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Phnom Penh.
We hit the trail the 1st September 2017. We had an early morning flight out of Phnom Penh with Bangkok Airways to Bangkok. Always a nice airline with their own lounges which are free for their passengers. We chose to not go into Bangkok on this trip and so stayed in transit. The point of that is it means you don’t need to go through immigration, customs and baggage pick up.
It’s much easier and way less stressful which is a big thing when traveling as it can be very stressful and lead to a not so great time being had. So when planning a trip, try to look for the ways which will make it easier, also it’s less expensive to stay in transit than go into a city. Of course if you have not been to that city then sure, take a night or two out and explore.
The leg from Bangkok to Hong Kong was with Cathay Pacific who are based in Hong Kong. I organised this flight with points I had with Alaska Airlines. I only had to pay for the taxes. It was a 2.5 hours flight.
Hong Kong is an island which was under British Crown Rule from 18471 to 1997. It’s still very “English” especially when compared with mainland China.
The airport is absolutely huge and is built entirely upon a man made island. Super easy to grab a 24 minute train into either Kowloon or Hong Kong.
For this stay we decided to stay in Kowloon which is much more old school Chinese style than Hong Kong which is a bustling, frantic global financial center.
We grabbed a taxi from Kowloon station to the hotel and checked in. In this part of Asia it seems they always want a deposit to cover any expenses. They also don’t like or trust debit cards. I found it best to pay for the hotel stay online to avoid hassles at check in. I also found a way around paying the deposit. It’s really only to cover the bar fridge in your room. So tell them to empty it or to lock it. You never want to be buying snacks and drinks in your hotel room. Much better to go to the local 711.
Once we were settled in we went for a walk and found ourselves surrounded by a very lively neighborhood of local food shops, clothes, souvenirs. The food was fast, cheap and delicious.
The next day we got up pretty early and went for a walk to Nathan Road which is the big place in Kowloon. It’s a huge long road with about a billion shops on it. If shopping is your thing (it’s really not mine) then Nathan Road is a good place to start.
Along Nathan Road are literally hundreds of gold and jewelry shops. All displaying the same over the top golden necklaces and other assorted ugly pieces of gold.
We took the excellent underground rail system down to the harbor
The HK harbor is easily recognizable by its iconic skyline. One thing every visitor must do is take the Star Ferry across the harbor. Se we walked along the waterside and came to the star ferry. It’s super cheap (25 cents) and hardly any waiting. It’s a fairly quick trip taking about 10 minutes.
The harbor side area of Hong Kong island is all modern buildings, tons of public transport, tour buses. Elevated walkways make it easy to get around safely above all the traffic.
Now if you like big banks, finance corporations, high end brands, overpriced food and coffee then this area is for you. Me no likee. So we walked up to the ticket office for the Peak Tram The island is crowned by Victoria Peak named after Queen Victoria. To get to the peak one takes the Peak Tram which is a cable car. The ride up is a single track with a dual passing track about halfway as there are 2 trams running at all times.
The Peak Tram’s route from Central district to Victoria Peak covers a distance of about 1.4 kilometers (0.87 mi) and an elevation of just under 400 meters (1,312 ft).
From its opening in 1888 until 1926, the Peak Tram divided into three classes:
First Class: British colonial officials and residents of Victoria Peak
Second Class: British military and the Hong Kong Police Force personnel
Third Class: Other people and animals
Oh those old colonials and their rampant racism and bigotry, how colorful of them.
The ride is definitely worth it, the incline traveling the side of the mountain is mind-boggling. Some great photo opportunities.
When you reach the top you will be greeted by crowds and a maze of shops. I’m sure the greatest pleasure and pastime in China is shopping. Count me out. Mind you I did find a coffee shop among the madness which had an amazing view and the best sausage rolls I’ve ever tasted outside Australia.
We stayed for 2 nights. We stayed in a hotel in Kowloon for this visit so we could experience the more “Asian” feel and style of Kowloon. Lots of small, authentic cheap asian “restaurants” where you can get some amazing food in pretty cramped, hot shops. Lots of street food, color, lights and hustle and bustle. I do prefer Kowloon over Hong Kong.
We walked a lot as you can see by my steps image from my phone. A lot of HK is on some very steep hills so wear some good walking shoes, have plenty of water, a hat/umbrella and have fun.
For tourists, HK is all about sightseeing, shopping and partying. It’s a truly busy place. It’s crowded all the time, there are over 7 million people living on this island and probably a few hundred thousand visitors at any given time.
Its vibrant, densely populated urban center is a major port and global financial hub with a skyscraper-studded skyline. It was great fun for me to show Theary around as it was her very first time.
To be honest though, after the Peak Tram ride, the Star Ferry ride and a heck of a lot of walking I was happy to get going again.
The city has a population of only 200, 952 which is very small compared to Bangkoks 14, million. Even Phnom Penh, where I spend a lot of time is a touch over 2 million. This meant that Chiang Mai was a much quieter and more ordered city.
The weather was very hot for much of our visit reaching 38C / 100F nearly every day. Normally it’s not as hot as this.
The internet is very good, lots of cafes, restaurants, bars and co-working spaces have made the city a popular destination for “digital nomads”. There is a very large ex-pat community who do try to fit in and often learn a fair bit of the Thai language. Personally, I’m terrible at languages; I know 4 Thai words and about 20 Cambodian and I’ve been coming here for 5 years.
Anyway, last Saturday we decided to take a day trip which would take in the White Temple, the Village of the Long Neck Women and the infamous Golden Triangle. A trip covering 900 kilometers of road in a rather uncomfortable minibus.
We set off after meeting our guide at 07:30, a very uncivilized time on a Saturday.
The first stop was a crappy market with hot springs shooting up from the ground. Pity they were in a car park. Weird. I’m not even going to bother you with a photo.
After 10 minutes we all piled back into the bus and headed off to the White Temple
This bizarre-looking white temple located about five km south of Chiang Rai City is the brainchild of Chiang Rai-born visual artist and painter Chalermchai
Kositpipat. He brings an unconventional approach to temple architecture, fusing elements from his own imagination (white, not gold, as a pure colour to embody the sacredness of temples) with orthodox Buddhist teachings about heaven, hell, karma and earthly sins.
The temple is filled with Buddhist symbolisms, from its layout, architecture, all the way to the ornate reliefs and mirror decorations. You can only enter the ubosot (main chapel) from the front, via the narrow bridge that passes over a pool of upturned, beseeching hands representing suffering souls in hell.
From here, there’s no turning back, as the only way is to ascend ‘heavenwards’ to through the pathway guarded over by demons to the ubosot. Inside, two Buddha images seem to be floating on a lotus pedestal, set against elaborately painted murals in various hues of gold and other colours.
Rather than traditional characters, Chalermchai uses icons from modern culture, such as spaceships, superman, and even Neo from the Matrix movie to tell the stories of the Buddha’s life and his teachings on these murals, creating a rather striking – and lasting – impression upon visitors.
Once again we hit the road we traveled through Chiang Rai and out into the fields which were weaving themselves between hills. Soon we were off the very good highway and into some dirt roads on our way to the village of long neck women. I had seen a few photos of these women and heard stories of why they deform their bodies but was very unsure of how I was feeling about this whole thing.
On one hand it was very voyeuristic tourism at it’s worst and on the other it was a genuine desire to learn about another culture.
We arrived into a dusty, hot, dry parking area and walked a couple of hundred meters to where there were a few dozen thatched roof huts. Each was a primitive shop offering souvenirs of our visit. These items included hand made scarves, hand carved wooden sculptures of the long neck women and other nick knacks. Each shop had a long neck woman in attendance. Some sat just looking at the tourists gawking back at them. Others busied themselves weaving the scarves they offered for sale.
The women ranged in aged from early twenties to one who was 65.
Our guide had told us that from age 5 the females have rings wrapped around their necks. He said the rings were made from one piece of metal and each year they were removed and a new longer one was added as the girl grew. It’s not so much that they make the girls neck longer, but rather, the very heavy weight of the rings forces the body to not grow or maybe get stunted from the weight. Apparently this causes a great deal of medical problems in later life.
At one shop there was a set of rings which I lifted. Even having been forewarned they were heavy I
truthfully was not prepared for how heavy they really were. I would estimate they weighed 6 kilos and this set was of medium size.
The women are, as one would expect, quite incapacitated and cannot perform anything other than light duties.
The alleged reasoning for this terrible deforming of the women is to protect them from tigers. Tigers attack the neck of their prey. These days with the internet reaching even these villagers, less women are going along with this practice and it’s expected in the next 15 years it will have disappeared entirely. Good riddance I say.
We purchased some lovely scarves from one young woman who was very pleasant to speak with and had a lovely smile. I still felt very unhappy about what I had seen and very uneasy in my stomach. Overall I think we were all sad and wanted to get on our way. I’m kind of glad I’ve been there and seen the long neck women for myself but sad that tradition and uneducated superstition has forced these lovely women to have to endure this terrible hardship.
Whether or not anyone should visit the long neck women is debatable, however there is a good article on travelfish here
Funnily enough there were no stragglers when it was time to go. We were all very quiet as we headed north. It was a fair drive but finally we came to the part of the mighty Mekong River where three countries meet.
Most Australians are familiar with the golden triangle as much of the drugs which hit the streets of Australian cities has come from this region in the past. The golden triangle is where Myanmar (Burma), Laos and Thailand meet in a wider context it also includes Vietnam and Cambodia. The area is notorious for opium and cannabis production in truly huge quantities.
A very remote, mountainous region it’s an easy trade to get involved with. Big money and plenty of corruption make it all very viable. The Governments have tried converting the farmers to more socially acceptable crops and there is evidence that has had some impact. There was no evidence to show the drug trade had truly been effected in anyway though
I had always wanted to go to the golden triangle, so now at least it’s off my bucket list. In recent years I read the biography of super dope smuggler Howard Marks called “Mr Nice”, that had fueled my desire to go there. Of course, one cannot see or do much on a one day 900 kilometer tour, so we didn’t see to much at all
opium smoking and campaigns to eradicate and substitute the crop. There’s even a tiny opium plantation inside! The Hall describes itself as “edutainment”, and indeed this is something of an opium theme park, with the latest in snazzy multimedia exhibits and lots of subtle hectoring about the evils of addiction. To their credit, though, they don’t whitewash Thailand’s own history at all and even the CIA’s exploits are covered in detail.
While we were there we took a boat ride over to Laos which was a bit of fun. Being a super hot day, we felt obligated to have a few bottles of the local brew.
Then on the way back a very courageous young Chinese girl sang a tune for us to keep us all entertained. Very nice.
Then before long it was time for the 450 kilometer ride back to the city of Chiang Mai
It’s been a really nice visit to Norther Thailand and one well worth doing for any traveler.
There is so much to do and see.
So much wonderful local food to taste.
Grab some friends and come on over, we will throw a couple of shrimp on the barbie for you…og wait, yeah that’s a different story.