Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Real Hong Kong (Part 1 of 2)

While only going to this special administrative region (SAR) of China for three days, I could probably write as much if not more than I did for Thailand on this blog. For those who do not remember or never got the chance to read about that trip, it was a week long adventure that prompted me to write three lengthy posts about the subject. However, I will contain myself in this instance and give to you the information and details I find necessary and interesting to make for a complete story. Now I give you the story of my three day journey throughout Hong Kong.

I mentioned in my last post that I was tentatively scheduled to go to Hong Kong at some point over the next two weeks. Right after making that statement, I realized that it may not be possible due to a number of things including class, lab sessions, workload, and a basketball tournament. But having heard how amazing of a place the city of Hong Kong is, I sent some e-mails out, talked with the parental unit, and did some research about things to do in Hong Kong to come up with three days out of the rest of my semester to pull off a quick visit to this city.

My initial plan was to leave early Sunday morning and see much of the outskirts of Hong Kong. I was then either going to meet up with a friend from back in the States who is studying abroad there or with a buddy at NUS who was touring the city with his mom. Instead, one of my friends at NUS who also attends UConn with me made a last second decision to come along (by last second I mean booking flights to and from Hong Kong eight hours before we left). So the two of us ventured out of Singapore on a 6:40 A.M. flight on Sunday and immediately hit the ground running once we landed. We took a very scenic bus ride from Hong Kong International Airport to one of the urban areas of Hong Kong called Kowloon. From there, we explored the streets of Tsum Sha Tsui, the part of Kowloon closest to the central district of Hong Kong. Then we had to take care of searching for accommodation. Looking for a hostel/guesthouse to stay in was much more difficult than in previous countries I had been to since every place stopped at, the people spoke no English, whatsoever. As a result, we would say something to the person at the counter of the hostel and they would respond in Cantonese as if we were fluent in the language. Progress was made in these conversations through the usage of many hand motions and devices like a calculator or cellphone that could display numbers in order to negotiate a price.

Once we found a relatively cheap place to stay, we decided to head a few stops down the Mass Transit Railway (MTR) to Mong Kok, the most populated area by density in the world. At first, we didn't really see that many people, making us question the validity of such a fact that many people live in this one part of town. However, it wasn't long till after walking a few blocks over from the MTR station that we became bombarded by swarms of people in every direction. Locals, tourists, businessmen, you name it. In the middle of all the chaos we did navigate some street markets containing cheap goods ranging from belts to graphic art to Chinese ornaments. It was then time to leave the crowded streets of Mong Kok, so we walked back down Nathan Road (aka The Golden Mile) to Tsum Sha Tsui to get a feel for the rest of Kowloon.

Later that night, we headed for the Avenue of Stars, the Chinese equivalent of the Hollywood Walk of Fame, to see the monuments of stars like Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li. In addition, we got a great view from this tourist attraction of the daily light show that takes place across Hong Kong's skyline. I must say that this city really does boast one of the, if not the, coolest skyline I have ever seen; it consisted of many uniquely designed skyscrapers with extravagant lights covering many of them while many different LED advertisements casted even more light onto Victoria Harbour. Following the light show, the two of us walked down the entire Avenue of Stars and then checked out one of the biggest night street markets in Hong Kong, Temple Street Night Market. After going through the market, we did some more walking through Kowloon, which is enjoyable at night as huge neon store signs illuminate the streets, reminiscent of Las Vegas during the 60's. It was then time to call it a day and get a fair amount of sleep knowing we had much to accomplish on Monday.

Monday started off with us waking up 8:00 A.M. and heading north of where we were staying in Kowloon to see the Sik Sik Yuen Wong Tai Sin Temple. Before I go forward with this story, I will mention here that this city was very easy to navigate as a tourist. We came to Hong Kong only knowing what to do and roughly where things were. But this temple was one example where once you get off the MTR, you are literally right next to or very close by the tourist attraction. Now this temple was pretty secluded from the city, making it not as full of tourists like in many other places I have been in southeast Asia. It made for an intriguing experience as the two of us stood there taking pictures and looking at the beauty of the many structures when at the same time many Chinese people were praying to these shrines.


Soon thereafter, we took the MTR back through Kowloon and across Victoria Harbour to the main part of the city, Hong Kong Island. We briefly walked around the central business district before catching a bus to Stanley Village, located at the southern portion of the island. Similar to the bus ride from the airport to the city, this ride offered many postcard-esque views of bright blue waters accompanied by small beaches and an abundance of mountains. Forty five minutes later, we reached this tiny and remote village to see another street market as well as more outstanding views of the ocean and the beachfront property nearby. After going through the market and grabbing lunch, we headed to Repulse Bay, which was ten minutes back in the direction we came from. During this bus ride, the driver cutoff a motorist who then followed the bus to the stop we got off at and started a quarrel with the driver. I stood there and watched as the driver pulled over, examined from the bus that he did no damage to the moped, then drove off as the motorist kicked the side of the bus. We quickly ran off after this as the man kicking the bus noticed we had been watching him the whole time from the sidewalk. We then walked down to the huge beach with uniquely designed hotels as a backdrop that make up Repulse Bay. This really made it clear to me that Hong Kong is much more than an urban environment as we sat down and took in the natural beauty of the area. I always knew Hong Kong was a giant financial hub and that has a number of things for the city dweller to prey upon. Never did I expect to be relaxing on a beach staring out over clear waters to see mountainous islands off in the distance. An hour passed by on the beach before catching the bus back to the central part of Hong Kong.

It was only then that for the first time all trip we found ourselves lost in the city. I was very impressed that we had gone so long without little to any issue not using any taxis, relying solely on public transportation and walking (we didn't take one taxi the entire three days in Hong Kong as supposedly taxi drivers there no very little English if any). Anyway, we ended up in some corridor of the city that wasted a good thirty minutes of our time before getting back on the beaten path. This was critical as we were trying to meet up with our Belgian friend at the top of Victoria Peak for its great view overlooking the city skyline. We eventually made it to the top of this mountain, but about forty five minutes later than we planned between getting lost and a temporary malfunction with the tram that takes you to the top. At approximately 7:00 P.M., we had reached Victoria Peak to get an unbelievable view of the skyline. In this shot, one can see the fourth tallest building in the world on Kowloon across the harbor as well as the eleventh tallest in the middle of the picture in the heart of Hong Kong Island. The two of us, who had now failed to meet up with our friend, then proceeded to have a light dinner before coming back to the top of Victoria Peak to watch the same light show as last night but from this different vantage point.

When the show finished up, we headed down a couple floors of the building that stood atop Victoria's Peak and went through the Madame Tussaud's wax museum since my friend had never been to one before. It may not have been as impressive as the one I had been to in New York City, but it still made for a good time taking pictures with many celebrity look-alikes we both knew and had never heard of before. Around 9:30 P.M., we took the tram back down the mountain and began to make ways towards the supposed Clarke Quay of Hong Kong, Lan Kwai Fong.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

False Alarm

It has been quite some time since I last posted about being in Singapore, but the streak ends here.

The last couple of weeks in the country, before and after the trip to Kota Kinabalu, have been out of the oridinary to say the least. The weather hasn't changed the slightest bit with the usual 90-95 degrees Fahrenheit accompanied by 80-90% humidity. Basically, what I'm getting at is my room is still a sauna.

In fact, now I seem to find myself in the TV lounge getting work done prior to passing out in a comfy chair for a few hours. The downgrade in the quality of the bed is more than made up for with air conditioning.

An interesting development that has been taking place is the constant ringing of the fire alarm in my block. About three weeks ago, the fire alarm went off four times in between the hours of 6-8 A.M. Guess who was the one guy who evacuated the building every time? Yup, the American. It was very confusing, especially since I was still rather sleepy, to see I was standing outside in the dark by myself with the fire alarm going off. Nobody else evacuated the building but yours truly. What gives? The first time this happened it was fine since I figured the alarm had to go off once or twice this semester. The only problem is that this second time came approximately thirty minutes later. Fine that still didn't phase me too much. Forty five minutes later it went off again followed by a fourth instance ten minutes after that. It had gotten to the point where I was just sitting in my room waiting for the thing to start up again like the way you wait to hear that you can board a plane at the airport. The constant repetition of a quick nap followed by being woken up to the irritating ringing of the bell ended up throwing my whole day off. For the first time since summer I ended up sleeping past lunch time and into the afternoon missing my one lecture of the day. I will get to what probably set off the alarm so many times in one morning later on.

So one bad day, it happens to everyone at one point or another. A week goes by and I come back from Kota Kinabalu having, for the most part, forgotten about the fire alarm incident the week before. A couple of days later the fire alarm goes off again at 7:30 A.M. As always, I was the only person to evacuate the building while one of the most annoying noises known to man continued to invade my place of residence. This time, though, instead of waiting for the alarm to stop, I decided to just go to the TV lounge in a different building where I could put two chairs together and sleep there. So I ended up passing out in this air-conditioned haven for about three hours that morning. It was comforting to be able to sleep for a good period of time without having to worry about being disturbed.

If you thought that was the end to that story, not so fast, it turns out that it gets even better. The next morning the fire alarm goes off again at 5:30 A.M.! At this point I've really had enough. Later that day I go to the Management Office of the housing complex and ask them what the deal is. It seems that someone that morning was making something in the oven and forgot about it causing the alarm to go off...at 5:30 A.M. Why in the world was this individual up so early baking/cooking/etc.? This, my friends, is well beyond me. I just don't get it, mainly because that is most likely the culprit for the other five times it went off, as well. I did suggest to the office that they just get rid of the alarm altogether since I'm the only person evacuating the building so you aren't really saving any lives (I was obviously kidding when I said it).

Other than this issue with the fire alarm, I've been really busy with work as the semester is already coming to a close. From now till the end of the semester, there are only about three weeks of classes left plus a reading week before finals.

This leads me into previewing the next few weeks before coming home (that's right it is getting down to the wire). I am tentatively scheduled to go to Hong Kong at the end of October (if any NUS students are interested in joining me, please do get in touch). Afterwards, I will be complete the triple-header of trips in southeast Asia between late October and early November with a couple days in Bali followed by a week in Myanmar. From there, it is a week and a half of finals before Beijing! I plan on spending a week in Beijing for the first week of December with a Swiss buddy on exchange and a Chinese friend who happens to live in Beijing when he is not studying Singapore. This could change any second, but then I would head down to Vietnam afterwards to see Halong Bay and Hanoi followed by Ho Chi Minh City then Phnom Penh and Siem Reap in Cambodia. It is then that I will endure the long travel back to New York for a few days of relaxing. This will be short-lived as I will then head to Barcelona and Madrid with the family the day before Christmas.

It will surely be one of, if not the craziest and most exciting month of my life. But I can't look ahead with four finals standing in the way between me and freedom...

Monday, October 11, 2010

Welcome to Pandora

Kota Kinabalu: a place no one or at least very few people have heard of back in the States. For all the NUS exchange students please bear with me for one moment. Kota Kinabalu is in Malaysia, more specifically Borneo, which is the Malay part of the third largest island in the world. More importantly, Kota Kinabalu is located an hour and a half from one of the tallest mountains in southeast Asia, Mount Kinabalu. The twentieth highest peak in the world, I had heard people raving about hiking up this mountain for a couple of weeks so when I heard people going the first week in October, I had to jump on the opportunity of a lifetime. Luckily, it was e-learning week at NUS meaning a lot of classes were either cancelled or required writing up a quick post on the internet, meaning there was no reason for me to be in Singapore.

So after a few clicks, the entering in of some credit card information, and chaos meeting up with people the morning of the flight, I found myself sitting next to one of my friends at the gate to our plane in Changi Airport. We got on the plane at around 10:30 A.M. and found ourselves in Kota Kinabalu approximately two hours later.

The two of us took a taxi into town and in no time found a place to stay. Since our main goal was to climb the mountain, we hadn't put in any thought as far as what to do in Kota Kinabalu. Fortunately, the guy who ran the hostel we were at was very helpful and told us to check out a number of things right on the water. The city/town, I'm not really sure how you would classify it, was very small so we walked across town to check out the various markets down by the sea. Soon thereafter, it was time to check out the food stalls located close by. There were many different places offering up their own fish, right off the boat, as well as chicken wings, corn, rice, tiger prawn, lobster, and so on. Between the two of us, we had banana fish, tuna, two servings of rice, and ten chicken wings. Without question one of the finer meals I have had in southeast Asia thus far.

The rest of the afternoon and evening was spent seeing whatever was left of Kota Kinabalu and waiting for the rest of our group to meet up with us at the hostel.

The next day, we made an attempt to go and see orang-utans at this hotel/resort located an hour outside of town. We arrived at the very nice and most likely overpriced venue only to find out that the orang-utan viewing was fully booked. As consolation for our travels, the five of us ended up chilling out in a hut on the massive beach located adjacent to the hotel. A few hours went by before picking up our things and heading back to Kota Kinabalu for another fantastic seafood dinner. Afterwards, it was time to head to the bus stop to go to Mount Kinabalu.

Now here is one of lasting memories I will forever have of Malaysia. We arrive by taxi at the bus station swarmed by ten or more Malays. They immediately flung open the doors to the vehicle and popped the trunk. It was then that I saw them take my bag and a friend's bag. Instinctively, I went after the man who had taken our stuff and followed him to wherever he was going. I asked repeatedly for him to give me my stuff back but he didn't comply. Finally, he dropped our things at his stall to buy a bus ticket to Mount Kinabalu. I let down my guard after having to endure such a chaotic situation being separated from my friends momentarily in a country where none of us had working phones while having so many locals screaming in your face and not understanding a word they are saying. The other four individuals found me without any problems and managed to also grab the pair of shoes I had left in the trunk, which was crucial since I wouldn't have had anything to hike in the next day.

It was a crazy ninety minute bus ride: twisting and turning up and down the many mountains that consumed much of Borneo. Upon arriving at the base of the mountain, the group walked down the road for cheap accommodation. It was very refreshing to be outside as the air was cool and even a little on the chilly side. It must have been about 50 degrees Fahrenheit (that's 10 degrees Celsius for everyone else in the world). Those were some of the best few hours of sleep I've had in southeast Asia; it was splendid to not be cooped up in a very warm single room back in Singapore.

It was now Thursday morning, the beginning of our grueling hike was approaching. We met our tour guide who would watch over us for the next two days and caught up with another friend from NUS. The six of us got a ride over to the starting gate of the hike and in almost no time began the our trek up the mountain at 10:44 A.M. MYT.

At first, the terrain seemed relatively flat with a few staircases to climb here and there. But as time went on, the rain that had started that morning began to pick up while the convenient staircases turned into muddy areas with jagged rocks. Nonetheless, the six of us and our guide moved forward at a solid pace taking the occasional break to catch our breath and indulge in energy-filled snacks. Five hours later, covered in soaking wet clothes, we found ourselves at the Laban Rata Resthouse, which is 6 kilometers (3.75 miles) from the starting gate. Starving and exhausted, we indulged in the buffet at 5 o'clock prior to passing out in the room at 6:00 P.M. I enjoyed once more being able to sleep in a room that wasn't one giant inferno, yet going to bed so early ended up not working out so well. I would have thought climbing one of the biggest mountains in southeast Asia would have put me out of commission for a few hours. Instead, I ended up just taking a bunch of hour long naps. Time slowly passed by, but at long last it was 1:30 A.M. Time to wake up and finish the last leg of our journey to the summit known as Low's Peak.

Following an early morning breakfast, the expedition continued in the darkness of night at about 2:30 A.M. For an hour we struggled up steep staircases in the midst of many other hikers, making it very crowded on various parts of the trail. Then came the part of our ascent up the mountain that nobody saw coming. The mountain had become so steep that ropes were assembled so that people could pull themselves up, untethered. It was still very dark out and all we had for visibility were the headlights we were wearing. One person actually lost their footing for a second and almost got seriously hurt if they hadn't been hanging on to the rope. This was very physically demanding to have to pull our own weight for the majority of what remained in our hike. As time went on, our pace sped up in order to make it to the peak for sunrise. For the last kilometer, I was working my body so hard in the thin air, giving every last bit of energy I had as I could see the peak in front of me, but also see the tiniest bit of light coming from the sun off in the distance. For the last hill I had to traverse, I must have looked like a barbarian as I just climbed from rock to rock with no regard to where the beaten path was. Having nothing left to give, I had made it to the top of Mount Kinabalu. One friend was already waiting for me there while the rest of the group caught up with us in little time. The view was outstanding! I took, in all likelihood, some of the best photos of my trip to southeast Asia up to this point. Here's that sunrise I was working towards:


It was a sight for the ages as we hung out on the freezing cold summit for over an hour. I really could have convinced myself we were on the planet Pandora from James Cameron's "Avatar," the way the clouds looked from above complemented by the spacey looking terrain of the mountain. Simply stunning. After enjoying the view from the top, we began our slow descent down the mountain. At one point down the mountain, we reached a checkpoint to make sure everyone in our group was still there. It was at this stopping area that a park ranger got in the face of one member in our group and began yelling in his face. He was shaking with anger and kept asking him "Who are you?" He spit just to the right of my friend as a sign of disrespect and began going off about how much he hates white people. We still to this day aren't sure what he was so mad about, maybe that we weren't holding the rope for a second on the way down when it wasn't exactly necessary, but no one is too sure of that. He went off for a few minutes before we just walked by and ignored him. The rest of the 8.9 kilometer path felt like it was never going to end as the rain began to come down very hard, once again. When we did reach the end, it felt so good to have achieved such a great accomplishment. We had lunch as a group at the base and headed back to Kota Kinabalu to stay the night.

The next day, three of us took an early morning flight back to Singapore.

Overall, it was another exciting, exhilarating, and pleasant trip. There weren't many tourists in Kota Kinabalu, which was interesting since many local children came up to us and would say "Hi" just because we were Westerners. The mountain itself, I highly recommend to anyone who comes out to this part of the world. You may hate yourself during the climb and descent of the mountain as well as the few days after its over (I'm still very sore in my legs), but you will not regret the opportunity to be above the clouds on one of the biggest mountains in southeast Asia. A great experience on all fronts, thanks to all who I shared it with.

Let me also take the time to remind everyone that more photos and videos from my escapades can be seen at the following two links:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/itsjcoco/
http://www.youtube.com/user/airmcnair8643

Thanks for reading!

Friday, October 8, 2010

A Tale of Two Islands, Part 3: The Final Act

Our night consisted of more relaxing in the Irish pub followed by another visit to Reggae Bar across the street. The few days of non-stop activity finally had caught up to me and so I called it a night rather early. Everyone else seemed not to care that we were in for a long day of traveling the next day...

I woke up the next morning at the crack of dawn to wake up the two exhausted friends of mine. The long journey from Koh Phi Phi to Koh Pha Ngan was set to begin at 10:30 A.M. It was comprised of a ferry ride back to mainland Thailand, followed by a bus across the country, then a ferry from east coast Thailand to Koh Pha Ngan. We didn't reach our final destination until about 7:30 P.M.

Despite the late arrival, we quickly found accommodation and met up with fellow NUS exchange students who had left Koh Phi Phi the day before. Soon thereafter, we found ourselves on the infamous Haad Rin beach, home to the Full Moon Party. It was only Tuesday and the full moon wasn't set to come until Thursday. It didn't seem to matter as an incredible sight unfolded before my very eyes: people juggling fire sticks, jumping through rings of fire, UV paint all over the place, and masses of people running up and down the beach. The music blared from a number of beach bars well into the night and morning of the next day. People literally stayed out all night dancing and partaking in many of the aforementioned activities involving fire. This made for an odd sort of routine that involved many of us sleeping throughout most of the daytime in Koh Pha Ngan. Then we would wake up midday to afternoon and get ready for another night on the beach.

The night before the Full Moon Party on Wednesday went over pretty similarly to Tuesday night. A number of us exchange students from Singapore, about twenty or so, got together for a nice Thai dinner before starting up with the festivities. Once again, we stayed up well into the night conversing, drinking, dancing, etc. It made for an interesting night when I met up with one friend who had jumped through the "Ring of Fire." He hadn't made it completely through the ring untouched by the fire and had cuts on his arms as well as black char marks scattered on his shirt. While it is an accomplishment to have the courage to take on such a feat, I think I'm happy I sat this one out. For the second day in a row I saw one of the most stunning sunrises ever. A group of us sat on the beach at 6:30 A.M. and watched a view none of us would surely forget.

After two nights in a row of non-stop partying, it was time for the real Full Moon Party. On this night, us exchange students got together to start the night off properly. We put UV paint all over each other as if we were preparing for battle. Little did we know we would be battling a number of things like the weather, which initially did not cooperate, in addition to more people being on the beach than previously imagined. It was so easy to lose whoever you were with after looking away for only a second. At the same time, if you just stood around for a minute or two, you were bound to run into an NUS student and carry on the night with them. The funniest part of the whole ordeal had to have been the "Sleep Area" designated for any people that passed out on the beach. It was funny to walk by and see all the people that had fallen asleep at various points of the night. In fact, I witnessed one of the most comical scenes of all-time at this spot on the beach. As I walked by the sleep area, I saw a very intoxicated individual stumbling around. He then lost his balance and fell into the sleep area on top of an unsuspecting victim who, as you would imagine, was out cold. The guy sleeping didn't flinch at first, not realizing what had taken place. The intoxicated fellow eventually got up only to then get close-lined by the "Sleep Area" banner hanging at the entrance and fell right back onto the ground. Moments later he then got up and ran into the water. It was quite something seeing it all play out. I stayed up for another sunrise, tired and all, yet people were still dancing at 8 A.M. as if the night had just started. I stood there almost disturbed by what I was seeing as the sunrise shed light on the individuals. On the tables, on the sand, some even in the water. After three straight days, I had seen enough. I went to sleep at 8 A.M. knowing I would have to get up in four hours to head home. I will just say it was a very rough day of traveling.

I will wrap up this recap of the Recess Break by saying that it was one of the best times I have ever had in my entire life. Thank you, fellow exchange students for sharing these many moments with me. May there be many more.

I must also add that regarding our group of NUS students in Thailand, whatever could have gone wrong, went wrong. Approximately fifteen people caught pink eye during and a few days after this trip. Not only that, but multiple people lost their passport, wallet, etc. Yet, somehow I am pretty confident in saying everyone had a great time in both Koh Phi Phi and Koh Pha Ngan. While lucky to have escaped from disaster, I will be more careful in the future.

Thanks for reading!