Sunday, August 22, 2010

Day 2 @ Macau: Uma Cidade Muito Bonita

After an hour of bumpy (but fun) ferry ride, Macau loomed from the distance - a beautiful city of two islands interconnected by very long bridges. (Actually, there were three bodies of land: the Macau peninsula, and the Taipa and Coloane Islands. The latter two were joined through reclamation, and the area is now called Cotai - where new residential and hotel sites, such as the Venetian and City of Dreams, have risen and continue to be established.) Excitement filled me as our ferry drew closer, so I whipped out my videocam and took shots of our arrival.
This is the main ferry terminal of Macau, which is located at the Outer Harbor. There are two other ferry terminals: one located at Pier #11 at the Inner Harbor (which mostly serves mainland China-bound trips), and the other is at Taipa (for other Hong Kong-bound ferries).
We docked at the Macau Ferry Terminal, where there is a nice view of the Pearl River Delta (the one that leads to Hong Kong), and the island of Taipa. The terminal sits by a part of the Guia Circuit - one of the most challenging racing circuits in the world - the Grand Prix Stand can be seen from where we stood. The circuit was already set up for the 57th Grand Prix, which would happen from the 18th to the 21st of November, 2010. I was curious at how it would feel watching a race - live. But then again, I don't have that much money nor time to come back on winter just for it.

Macau, like Hong Kong, is a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China with its own immigration regime. We had to go through the immigration process, like we were entering a different country - so, our passports got stamped again here. And like in Hong Kong (unlike in Mainland China), entering Macau is visa-free for many foreign nationals, including Filipinos.

The inner side of the ferry terminal. I took this shot while on our way in search of hotel shuttle buses.
After going through immigration procedures at the ferry terminal, we headed to the building's lobby and checked out tourist maps and guides (all free) at the information center. That's where lots of people (many were Pinoys) approached us, offering guided tours - which we declined. 

One particular manong who was offering such services told me, "Ma'am, baka maligaw lang kayo. Masasayang lang ang panahon n'yo." (You might get lost. It would be a waste of your time.) To which I replied with a smile, "Okay lang ho. Sanay na kaming maligaw." (It's okay, we're used to getting lost.) Inside, I felt pity for the guys and at the same time, I felt insulted. I pitied the guy for he looked like he needed the money so much - having waited there for tourists with all the competition. And I felt insulted because, although I'm an amateur traveler, him questioning my sense of direction (and general common sense) offended me. However, the pity I had for the guy was more than my regard for my pride. Nevertheless, we didn't avail of his services. We prefer exploring new places - that way we really learn the ways of traveling, and we tend to remember directions more. But bless him for he still gave us a tip - to take the free buses picking up tourists from the terminals to the hotels, for a free get-around ride. And he recommended getting on the Grand Emperor Hotel bus since one of us mentioned the ruins of St. Paul's Cathedral - it's walking distance between the hotel and the religious/tourist site, just bring your bottled water with you.

More on the tourist guides: they usually ask for 50MP (Macau Pataca) for a whole day tour, plus meals. They seem friendly and helpful - especially the Pinoys who meet fellow Pinoy tourists. Some guides - that we've come across while treading through the streets of Macau - went out of their way to assist travelers. However, I've read from travel forums that there are tour guides who take guests to shops where the latter would have to buy souvenirs and whatnot - and not to the tourists' intended destinations.

Indeed, our group's the adventurous kind - often to our disadvantage. The manong was right, on our Macau trip we have wasted a good amount of time finding our way around from the ruins of St. Paul's to the Venetian Hotel. Had we known where to board the right buses, we could even have visited the Macau Tower. But that doesn't mean that we didn't enjoy going through the hassle. Basing on what I've observed on how my buddies were, just like me they wouldn't have it any other way. It was fun navigating through a new city, and it felt amazing getting through it. Along the way, we stumbled upon interesting sites and shops, which we think we wouldn't even notice had we had a tour guide. Besides, we went along with our normal pace, not having to rush taking photos or lounging at certain places in regard of a stranger waiting for us to get done with our thangs. Personally, I was also concerned that tour guides might stick to certain itineraries, and that it would not jive with our stride.

Anyway, so we looked for the Grand Emperor Hotel bus - there were so many hotel buses at the ferry terminal offering free rides to the corresponding hotels. We were like giddy kids as the bus drove by posh hotel/casinos, especially the Grand Lisboa, with all its shiny-shimmering glass walls. It calls you. When we got to the Grand Emperor Hotel, we took advantage of the air-conditioning at the lobby (it was hot in Macau!), while we took pictures in there.

pure gold bars such as this one lay encased under
glass on the floor of the hotel lobby
 The Grand Emperor Hotel was, well... grand! It screams luxury and comfort, judging from its interior, which by the way boasts a walkway adorned with 78 bars of pure gold laid amongst gems. The lobby displays portraits of royalties of old (whom I forgot to take note of), facing a golden fountain in the middle. Someday, when I have much money to spare, I will check in at this hotel.

Reality time! And so we plotted our way to the ruins of St. Paul's Cathedral, with the help of the map that we got from the tourist information center and my phone's GPS. It took us a while, discussing our course at the front of the hotel prior to venturing on to our little adventure.

Again, I wanted to kick myself for not bringing a hat. Have I mentioned it already? It was hot in Macau!

Hong Kong Day 2: The Search for the China Ferry Terminal

Got up at around 6AM, bathed and dressed up at once while my roomies were still in slumber. I woke them up when I was ready to go, so that saved me from the queue to the bathroom. :) They were complaining about our early prep for our trip to Macau, and I reminded them that we had to return by nighttime so we should make the most out of the day. And so they dragged their carcasses to the bathroom, one after the other.

We had a little bread and instant coffee for a quick breakfast, and then headed out to find the China Ferry Terminal - a pursuit which we found to be rather challenging. The thing is, we were so used to how Philippine ferry terminals look like (buildings and pier in open premises) that we weren't able to find the ferry terminal right away. We forgot that this is Hong Kong and things are different here. So here's what happened...
two of my fave travel buddies: the couple Oliver & Lyn. photo taken on our way to the ferry terminal.
From Lee Garden Guest House, we walked our way along Cameron Road and then turned left at Nathan Road. When we reached the first street corner, we crossed Nathan Road, and then walked along Haiphong Road passing by Kowloon Park, until we reached the World Finance Tower. We then turned right and headed to Canton Road, where we started to have trouble looking for the ferry terminal building.
designer shops fill building fronts along Canton Road.
I particularly love the look of these panda bags, however I can't think of any use for them in my kind of lifestyle :)
(photo courtesy: Oliver & Lyn)
It said on the map in my phone that the terminal was located near the Kowloon Park Drive flyover. We've seen signs pointing to the terminal's general direction, but weren't able to figure out its location right away. We even walked into the driveway leading to the Prince Hong Kong, emerged from it realizing that there was no way to the terminal from there, walked up north Canton Road again until we reached the fire station. At that point, we figured out that we were getting lost. We walked back south and realized that the mall-looking China Hong Kong City building was actually the way to the terminal (inside were ticket booths for the ferries).

quiet Hong Kong street, early Sunday morning. shot while we were looking for the ferry terminal
We bought tickets from the CotaiJet booth (HKD146 each), and then headed to the Immigration area where we had our passports stamped for exit. We bought breakfast from a 7-11 store at the lounge while we waited for our departure.
the ferry where we boarded - for our 1-hr. trip to Macau
(photo courtesy: Lyn & Oliver)
It was my first time on a ferry, and boy, was I a bit worried about the wavy sea. I know we're perfectly safe - I've been to a lot less safe boat ride before *cough*Hundred Islands tour*cough*, what I'm worried about is me getting seasick from being in an enclosed vessel on a turbulent sea. I tried to eat my breakfast on board, and I was only able to consume half of it. I mostly swigged water.
Sansu, Jeff, and I aboard the ferry. Lyn & Oliver were seated far from us. (photo courtesy: Jeff)
I thought that the ferry ride to Macau was dizzying, but the trip back to Hong Kong was a claustrophobic theme park ride... I'll tell about that later.

Anyway, I still managed to relish that ferry ride experience despite looming dizziness. I was able to take photos and videos while on board and once again, the inner child went "wheeeeeee!!!" :D

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Hong Kong Day 1: Sweltering Day at Disneyland!


After making it through our “little adventure” at the MTR System and having lunch in a fastfood store, my buddies and I headed to Disneyland to spend the rest of the day there. Quickly learning from our navigational mishap, we were able to make our way through from Tsim Sha Tsui to Disneyland Resort Park.

From Tsim Sha Tsui Station, we headed to Lai King Station (red line), changed lines to Tung Chung (yellow line), got off at Sunny Bay Station and waited for the Disneyland Resort train there (blue route in the map).

Waiting for the Disney train at Sunny Bay Station (the one that connects to Disneyland) felt like forever - given our excitement - for it was the first time to a Disneyland for all of us except for Oliver. It read “5 minutes before the next train” when we looked at the big digital clock at the station. It was a long five-minute wait and the temperature wasn’t helping at all- no wonder they called the place “Sunny.” It was a good thing that I was done with my medication and the hot flashes were gone. It would have felt like being in a oven if I wasn’t, given the amount of light that was coming in through the sunroof and the glass windows. 

my travel buddies, while we were waiting for the Disneyland Resort train...
And so the Disney train arrived - and what a delight it was to the eyes with its Mickey Mouse windows. Inside, it was like a museum-cum-playtrain (the equivalent of playhouse) with the statuettes, colorful seats, and Mickey-shaped handles. I don’t know about my companions, but inside, I was reduced to a child. Had there been no one else in the train, I would have walked (no, trotted) from one end of the train to the other and took pictures of everything in it. My outer, adult shell held on to mature conduct to save myself from embarrassment. So I was left with smiling like I had a nasty secret - which could explain why the Chinese man sitting opposite us gave me that weirded out stare. Anyhoo, my buddies couldn’t help but smile a lot too - a sign that they could be having a great time as much as I was.
photos by me: train, statuettes, Oliver / group photo by Oliver / photo of handle by Jeff

Disneyland Station welcomed us with its 1920’s Old American look, which was inviting for a brief photo shoot. But the crowd that we arrived with rushed out of the station like floodwater and took us along with them. We were just stepping out of the train and then the next thing we knew, we were already at the turnstiles.

going up the escalator to the station gates
photo courtesy: Jeff
And then bam! Hello intense sunshine! It was as if the sun was on ambush for people stepping out of the station. Global warming could not be denied: sunlight was painful down to the dermis. Among us, only Sansu had the sense to bring an umbrella, and so we all huddled together with her to share the only shade we had until we reached the nearest tree. But the benefit of the umbrella shielding us from the sun was offset by the warmth of being too close together at midday. It didn’t take long before we dispersed because of the heat. Having no individual umbrellas, we ran from shade to shade to minimize sun exposure. However, from time to time, we braved the heat so we could take pictures at the promenade. I was so thankful that I changed into lighter clothes, since I flew in in long-sleeved, knitted shirt. I would have ended up like embutido - or since we were in Chinese territory, siomai (dumpling) - had I not reconsidered my outfit.
sharing the only umbrella with Sansu near the Disney Station / photo by Jeff
When we got to the park proper (we paid HK$350 for the entrance), we were initially at a loss at where to go, though we had a map of the park on hand. We were being like kids left to ourselves in an immense playground. Although we have been to Enchanted Kingdom a lot of times, and HK Disneyland had a similar feel, it was still a new playground.
photo courtesy: Jeff (top) / Oliver (bottom)

 We first agreed to join the queue to the photo op with Mickey and Minnie - a visit to Disneyland wouldn’t be complete without having a pic with these iconic mice. And so we endured the long and creeping line, where at one point we were overtaken by a couple of queue jumpers (we've encountered a lot of such people in our entire stay at the park). By the time that we reached our turn, we were already pretty displeased with the way we were smelling. (Sun + sweat + human skin = awful!) I pitied the guys inside the mascots - they must have been sauteing in whatever was left of their body fat, plus they had to pose with smelly park visitors like us. 

On a side note, I don’t know what came over Minnie Mouse. During our photo op with her and Mickey, she rested both her hands on my right shoulder (I was sitting low in front of the group) and squeezed it repeatedly. It was kind’a weird, cuz my shoulders were skinny and there was nothing “squeezy” about them. Maybe the mouse was trying to tell me to eat more and gain some weight. Or she must have been going bonkers from the heat and found a stress ball in the form of my shoulder. I can’t remember if I gave her a weirded-out glance or if I just smiled at her. Or him - whoever was in that pile of fabric and foam. He/she got me a bit concerned - she kept squeezing my shoulder until I stood up and walked away. Anyway...

one of the two stations for the Disneyland Train that goes around the park
souvenir shops & stalls abound at the park, which
offer all the temptations that can break one's budget
photo courtesy: Oliver

After the photo op, we went around the park via the Disney train. Bless them, whoever thought of putting a train that went around the park - it was a lifesaver. I couldn’t imagine walking halfway at the open grounds and managing not to melt and eventually sizzle out. (Lyn mentioned that a visit to the park could be better if done on Winter. She could be right, however until we try it, we'll never know.)

The wind that came with the movement of the train was a relief - but it wasn’t enough since the sun shone on us at angle that’s beyond the train roof’s coverage. Plus the train was packed with passengers when we boarded. It was a real commune with the other visitors as we shared seats and body odors half the ride - majority of the passengers alighted at that pink station at Fantasyland. My group decided to stay through another round and eventually got off at Fantasyland, from which we walked to Adventureland and passed time refreshing over cold (and overpriced at HK$16 a bottle) drinks that we bought from one of the stalls.

Left Photos: artificial geysers burst every time a Jungle River Cruise boat passed by;
Right: totem poles spraying mists

My friends and I considered trying the Jungle River cruise, but were discouraged upon sight of the insane queue to the ride. So we decided to lounge around and chill under the trees for a while to regain normal body temperature and sanity. While we were at it, I caught sight of the Liki Tikis and had the urge of walking amidst the totem poles that sprayed mists in the air - so I could feel fresher, but dropped the idea when I was reminded of my camera that was hanging on my neck.

We spent our time at the park until sundown, getting on rides, chilling out, and buying souvenirs. One interesting thing that I can’t get off my mind was the getup of that Chinese girl in front of us at the line to Space Mountain. The girl was wearing a lacy ensemble of white, long-sleeved blouse and full length skirt, that came complete with a long umbrella. It was like watching a white lady (a form of a ghost in Philippine folklore) in high fashion, getting on a roller coaster. In the coaster, she sat in front of me, which caused me concern about her long hair hitting my face in the course of the ride. Thankfully, it wasn’t long enough to do so. She looked so proper and dainty, that I watched out for how she would scream  by the rise and drops of the coaster, but she was a letdown. Before the coaster exited at the last turn of the ride, a camera flashed and took a photo of us. My buddies and I were intrigued at how the girl would look in the picture, so we immediately scanned the wall of photos at the exit. We found our pic, and the girl looked rather unexcited in it - compared to me who looked like the one who did the most screaming in the group. The girl must be a roller coaster hustler. Anyway...

Our group agreed to leave the park by 6PM so we could catch the light show at Victoria Harbour by 8PM. Apparently, it wasn’t that easy to leave Disneyland. We were tempted (and we gave in) to take pictures every step of the way out of the park. Hungry and tired, when we were done with the picture-taking, we dragged our feet back to the resort station where we boarded the train back to Tsim Sha Tsui. It was already past 8PM when we got there so we didn’t bother to go the Avenue of Stars anymore to witness the light show. We opted to look for a place to eat, and found ourselves in a Chinese restaurant along Humphrey’s Avenue - a few blocks from our hostel - that was being flocked by locals and foreigners alike. I forgot the name of the place, but it looked like a Chinese fastfood with menus on the walls - imagine ordering food while pointing at your choices on the walls that surround you. The food was good, although a little pricey. I ordered rice topped with braised beef, which was yummy, although it was a little greasier than I could handle so I wasn’t able to consume my entire plate. My friends had better appetite, so they got their money's worth.

After dinner, we headed back to the hostel and called it a day. Whoo! It felt so good to take a warm shower after all that walking and back-breaking bearing of the combined weight of my shoulder bag and camera! If it wasn’t for my roommates waiting for their turn at the bathroom, I could have fallen asleep with the warm water running down my weary back. Speaking of my back, it loved being in contact with the soft bed so I zonked out in no time.

And no, I didn't have Disney-themed dreams.

Hong Kong Day 1: Lost in the MTR System

I almost didn't go ahead with my travel buddies to Hong Kong, because I had a bad stomach the previous day.  But when my tummy got slightly better, I took the chance of taking this weekend getaway because I knew I may not be able to find another chance to have it anytime soon. And the Hong Kong adventure was worth it.

We arrived at Hong Kong International Airport at 6:30AM - 20 minutes earlier than our ETA. I didn't enjoy much of our time in the air, as I was assigned an aisle seat - the price I had to pay for not reserving seats when we booked our flight. Nevertheless, it didn't take away my excitement over being in a new place, in a different country, again.

photo courtesy: Jeff
Although there were five of us we didn't take a cab even though we could split the fare. We decided to take the Airport Express Train for a supposed hassle-free trip to Tsim Sha Tsui where our booked hostel was. We bought Octopus Cards and then hied off to Kowloon.
my dog-eared MTR map, Octopus Card, and the single-journey ticket that I had to purchase when my Octopus Card ran out of credits on our last day at HK

Anyway, as I've mentioned earlier, the decision to take the MTR was supposed to be hassle-free. But with incredible luck (or lack thereof), our group was split into two when Jeff had to struggle his way through the turnstiles with a wheeled luggage on hand while we were all running to get on a train that was about to depart. Oliver and Sansu, who were already in the train, decided not to get off while Lyn and I stayed behind for Jeff. I had an exchange of hand gestures with Oliver as the train was pulling away, but that didn't work. I was gesturing that we meet on the next station, but apparently, he had different in mind. Basically, it was like a chasing game, and the fact that our mobile's roaming service doesn't allow calls didn't help at all.

Somehow, we didn't feel too worried, because Oliver had been to Hong Kong twice before so Sansu was in good company. Lyn, Jeff, and I were able to get to Tsim Sha Tsui (where our booked hostel was) in no time. There at Tsim Sha Tsui station, we waited for the other two to show up, but they didn't. So we decided to proceed to the hostel first and confirm our booking, leave our baggage there and go back to the station to wait for Oliver and Sansu.

We went out at Exit B2 to Cameron Road and walked eastward looking for Lee Garden Guest House. It was my first time on the streets of Hong Kong: Kowloon looked pretty much like Binondo (Manila Chinatown), except a lot cleaner and sans street vendors. (The next morning, we saw people washing the sidewalks with pressurized water. We learned that it is a daily activity in Hong Kong so they could keep the surroundings neat. I wish we could do that in Manila, but that might be asking for too much.) I also noticed that people were generally on the rush (pretty much like in Seoul). Even cars on the streets seem to be in a hurry. And if you're not careful, you could even get side-swept by a zipping cab in as much as you mindlessly step off the sidewalk on a green light. (In Manila, you get side-swept by a zipping motorcycle squeezing its way in between vehicles.)
photo by Oliver
When we saw the signage for Star Guest House (Lee Garden's sister hostel) we knew that we were close. Before we could cross Carnarvon Road, Lyn was able to catch sight of Lee Garden's signage - it was a little challenging to discern amongst signs of various shapes and sizes.

The place was just across Tung Fai Bldg. and Cameron Plaza. The guest house occupies the 7th and 8th floor of Fook Kiu Mansion (I know, I know...). We were even confused when we got to the entrance at the ground floor and saw a signage leading to a spa. And then there was a narrow hallway with an aluminum gate and a guard behind it. We walked in and headed down the hallway and ended up at what looked like a fire exit - the door was painted red and above was an exit sign. We walked out again, looking for an elevator, until the guard called us and told us that what we've found at the end of the hallway was actually the elevator. A Chinese girl walked in and asked us if we were looking for Lee Garden, we said 'yes.' She led us back to the elevator. (It was very reminiscent of that first night in Seoul when were were looking for Seoul Backpackers' Hostel and we met a Korean girl who helped us get to the guest house.) The three of us were laughing on our way up, thinking about how stupid we were for not being able to figure out where the lift was. The girl got off before we did. We thanked her before the lift closed.
view from our room at the 7th Floor of Fook Kiu Mansion
  At the 8th floor, it was easy to find the hostel desk. Prior to flying in, I e-mailed the hostel for reservations. I showed the print-out of our e-mail to the guy at the desk, whom I believe was Mr. Charlie Chan - a nice guy, though he didn't smile much; his lady assistants scanned through the notes tacked on the corkboard next to the desk for our names. Lyn, Jeff and I were speaking to them in English and then one of the ladies spoke to us in Tagalog. I chuckled at the thought that the three of us were feeling so lost and confused that we weren't even able to figure out her nationality. After paying for our rooms and for the key deposit, we were led to our rooms.

The rooms were nice and clean. The only complaint that we have is that the bathrooms were too small. It's quite difficult to take a bath without getting everything in the bathroom wet. (Whenever I showered, I had to face the door so my clothes that hung on the wall wouldn't get splashed on.) It is general knowledge that real estate in Hong Kong comes with a high price tag, given its economic state and the scarcity of land. And Fook Kiu Mansion (I know. I know...) is not an exception. The rooms, the hallways, the elevator... they were so cramped that I had to do some mind-conditioning so as not to have a claustrophobic attack. I just tried to enjoy the experience of being exposed to a typical Hong Konger's daily environment. By the end of the day, I got used to it that I didn't mind anymore.

photo by Oliver

Anyway, after freshening up (and Lyn charged her phone), we headed back to Tsim Sha Tsui Station. Lyn texted Oliver our location in the hope that the message gets through. Thankfully, after a while she received a reply from him. Apparently, only text messages work on the roaming service for Globe's prepaid phones in Hong Kong. We waited for another 15 to 25 minutes for them before they finally showed up. We were so relieved and glad that the group was together again.

photo taken by Jeff while we were waiting for Oliver and Sansu
It turned out, that Oliver thought that we were all to meet up at Hong Kong Station. He told us that he and Sansu waited for the three of us there. From then on, we agreed to have a default meeting point the next time we go out, in case the group splits up again.

Lyn, Jeff and I got off at Lai King, changed lines and headed to Tsim Sha Tsui (route in blue), while Oliver and Sansu didn't get off at Lai King and headed straight to Hong Kong Station (route in yellow)
photo by Oliver
We went back to the hostel so Oliver and Sansu could freshen up before we head to Disneyland. When we stepped out of the building, we looked for a Chinese resto so we could have lunch. We weren't able to find one that we liked, so we settled for KFC near the train station.
We feasted on a bucket of chicken, rice toppings, and egg tarts.
photos from bottom to upper right (clockwise) by Jeff. photo at lower right by me.

We ate up good in preparation for the rides and lots of walking that we expected to do in Disneyland.

transportation cards

Personally, I prefer taking the subway/train when exploring a city. To me, it's a safe and efficient mode of transportation and it saves you from traffic jam, which could use up your traveling time. One of the first things I buy whenever I enter a foreign country is a transportation card (if there are any).

For those planning to visit Hong Kong for the first time, I'd recommend the Octopus Card, especially if they plan to get around the city via the MTR system. It makes traveling a little (if not a lot) easier.

The Octopus Card can be used to pay for public transportation - mostly on buses and trains (but not on taxis). It can also be used to pay for purchases in participating convenience stores or restaurants. These cards can be bought from any public transpo stations. I bought this one at the airport upon our arrival.

The ones that were available at the airport were being sold at HK$150, 120, and 300. HK$50 of the price is refundable deposit, and the rest is usually stored value. When you use up the stored value, you can reload the card at MTR stations or participating convenience stores. The card remains valid for 3 years after the last date of reload. So you can leave Hong Kong and return within three years with the card and it will still be good for use. However, if you don't want to keep it, you can return it to any public transpo customer service stations and get the card's remaining balance and deposit.

I bought mine for HK$150 and used up its load within three days. It's so convenient to use - you just wave it over the reader to pay for transpo fees or purchases from stores. It works even if it's in your wallet or bag. I kept my card in my mobile phone pouch and didn't have to take it out whenever I have to use it. It's very convenient for people in a hurry - like, say, majority of the people in Hong Kong. :)

However, I like T-money (Korea) better, because it can be used in paying for taxi fares, and it comes in various forms, such as cellphone attachments and keychains. They also sell cute items with embedded T-money chips, such as dolls, watches, memory sticks, etc. It can be used in many provincial buses, including those that operate in Jeju Island. I also, still, have my T-money with me for souvenir. Since, I'm not sure of its validity period, I intend to bring it when I return to visit Korea and see if I could use it again.