Photo-Diary: Siem Reap & the Angkor Temples

Three months after the event – and interrupted by a couple of blogs on our pre-Christmas weekend in Hong Kong – here is the final installment in our Laos-Cambodia trip: Siem Reap and the Angkor Temples…

From the airport we caught a remork (Cambodian tuk-tuk) to our hotel, our luggage piled precariously at our feet, and as our driver sped into the night the smell of smoke mingled with the powerful fragrance of the frangipani trees. The long, wide, straight road from the airport was lined on either side by floodlit luxury hotels, then a few minutes later by a smattering of late-licenced shops and bars. We turned off the main road to take a weaving route through increasingly dark, narrow and gravelly streets, at one point passing through what was clearly the red light district; I gave Matt a sideways look which said “our hotel better not be here!” but to my relief we pressed on towards The Green Corner Residence, a small but beautifully designed hotel tucked away at the end of a secluded cul-de-sac.

With five full days ahead of us in Siem Reap we were in no rush to see the temples on Day 1. Instead, we chilled out by the pool (me) and explored the city centre (Matt). Siem Reap is often referred to as the ‘gateway to the Angkor temples’; a functional base camp in which to to eat and sleep, in close proximity to the Angkor Archaeological Park. It fits this bill perfectly, with lots of great bars, restaurants, coffee shops, massage parlors and a huge day-to-night market. We read about a number of other things to do – from Khmer cooking classes to the Phare Circus – but as this was the last stop on our trip we indulged in a good bit of R&R when we weren’t out ogling temples.

The atmosphere in Siem Reap (once you learn to tune out the persistent solicitation of remork drivers and massage therapists) is very laid back and it seemed we were only ever 3-4 metres away from a frozen margarita which was ideal!

The Angkor Temples

R&R successfully accomplished, we set off the next day to explore Angkor Archeological Park; the 400 sq km stretch of lush Cambodian forest which contains the remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire- including over 1000 temples. From the 9th to the 15th century each Cambodian ‘god-king’ strove to surpass his predecessor by building a bigger, grander, more symmetrical and increasingly intricately carved place of worship which culminated in the world’s largest religious building: Angkor Wat.

Today the remains range from ruinous piles of moss-covered rubble through to painstakingly well-restored landmarks – thankfully all now safeguarded by UNESCO – and you can choose whether to stick to the well-trodden paths or venture further afield to some of the more remote areas. We hired a remork and driver via our hotel, purchased a 3-day pass* from the ticket office, and explored 9 temples over two visits:

VISIT 1: Banteay Kdei, Ta Promh, Ta Keo, Bayon and Angkor Wat.

VISIT 2: Preah Khan, Neak Pean, Ta Som and Pre Rup.

* FYI, there are three types of tickets: a 1 day ($37), 3 day ($62) and 7 day ($72); the latter tickets can be used on non-consecutive days over a fixed period, for example the 3-day pass that we chose can be used over a ten-day period. Peculiarly the ticket office is around half way between Siem Reap centre and the Park so you need to make a stop here first to buy a pass – be prepared to show your passport or ID card, have your photo taken, and pay in cash.

Temples map

Unsurprisingly there is a wealth of information on the internet about the Angkor temples so it’s not my intention to replicate that here. Instead, I have captured some of my favourite photos from our temple tour, with a few brief captions.

Banteay Kdei

The first temple we visited was Bantaey Kdei, a massive Buddhist monastery built during the reign of Cambodia’s most celebrated king, Jayavarman VII, in the latter part of the 12th century.

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Banteay Kdei means “A Citadel of Chambers”. It was still quite early in the morning when we arrived and there were only a few other people there, so we had peaceful stroll around the shady corridors and courtyards.
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A cloud of strong-smelling incense lured us into this temple chamber, where Buddhist nun tied a red-and-yellow thread bracelet around our wrists as a blessing (in return for a small donation!).
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This was our first sight of the intricate  carvings which we soon found were synonymous with the Angkor temples. The stones were a mottled mix of ruddy red, bleached white and charcoal grey, which looked beautiful in the early morning light.

Ta Prohm

Nicknamed the ‘Tomb Raider Temple’ – having provided the backdrop to the 2001 movie – Ta Prohm is one of the most popular temples in the park. Built by Jayavarman VII for his mother, and consecrated in 1186, the temple is an amalgamation of long narrow corridors, courtyards and towers, many now enveloped by the strapping roots of twisting towering trees. The effect is powerful and atmospheric, the sunlight filtering where it can through the canopy of leaves and casting shadows over the mossy stones and earth.

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After the fall of the Khmer Empire in the 15th century, Ta Prohm was abandoned and neglected for centuries. While many Angkor temples have been restored, Ta Prohm is in much the same condition now as when it was found.
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Temple and jungle fuse together, with brilliantly eery results.
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Ta Prohm is one of the few temples where, thanks to an inscription, we know that around 80,000 people were required to maintain or attend there, including 2700 officials and 615 dancers.
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A decision was made by Ecole Francaise d’Extreme-Orient (the group who initiated the restoration and conservation of the Angkor monuments at the turn of the 20th Century) to leave Ta Prohm in its original state, as a “concession to the general taste for the picturesque” . While in places the trees are slowly destroying the monument—with some having to be chopped down in 2014—in others they’re holding it together!
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 “There is a poetic cycle to this venerable ruin, with humanity first conquering nature to rapidly create, and nature once again conquering humanity to slowly destroy.” – Lonely Planet

Despite the army of blood-red ants that launched a full-scale attack on my calves if I dared to stand still for a second, I think Ta Prohm was my favourite temple. The devastatingly powerful trees slowly but surely ensnaring the stone buildings in their inexorable and unyielding grip was captivating. I felt tiny stood next to the tree in the photo above!

Bayon (Angkor Thom)

Built in the late 12th- early 13th century, Bayon was the official state temple of Jayavarman VII (the same King who ordered the construction of Banteay Kdei). It is known as the ‘face temple’, due to the unique and extraordinary stone faces built into it’s upper towers.

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From the outside, Bayon resembled a grimy stack of rubble.
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Only when we got inside and climbed up to the third level did the temple transform before our eyes, revealing 216 gargantuan smiling faces of Buddha. The huge heads observe the forest below from every angle, representing an all-seeing yet subtly human power.
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The similarity of these gigantic faces to other statues of Jayavarman VII has led scholars to suggest that the faces are representations of the King himself, which aligns to the tradition of Khmer monarchs seeing themselves as god-kings.

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat was built for king Suryavarman II in the early 12th century, and is recognised as the world’s largest religious building. It is also the symbol of Cambodia, appearing on the national flag and is the prime attraction for tourists to the country. We debated whether to get up early to watch the sunrise over the temple (as friends who had visited before us had implored us to do) but when push came to shove we decided in favour of a few extra hours in bed! Heavy grey clouds hung over Angkor Wat as we explored, but luckily didn’t break and so made for some great photos.

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Angkor Wat is the earthly representation of Mt Meru, the Mt Olympus of the Hindu faith and the home of ancient gods. It’s 5km perimiter is surrounded by a 200m-wide moat.
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This was my favourite view of Angkor Wat; the pine-cone-like towers and dandelion-clock tree branches reflected in the still waters of the lake below.
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Young monks, barefoot in their dark-orange robes, explored the temple in groups.
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At the heart of the temple is the central tower, entered by way of a very steep staircase.
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Originally built as a Hindu temple dedicated to the god Vishnu, it was converted into a Buddhist temple in the 14th century, and statues of Buddha were added to its already rich artwork.
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Monkeys guard the long stone corridors at the entrance.
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The grassy lawn around Angkor Wat is home to a family of monkeys – the babies were adorable!

Prasat Nean Pean

Prasat Nean Pean is a small island temple which sits at the axis of a cross or lotus pattern of eight pools, thought to have powerful healing properties. When we visited in October the lake were full and the result was spectacular.

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We made our way over a wooden bridge across the lake towards the temple.
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The temple itself was tiny, sitting on a small circular island in the middle of a circular pond.

Other Temples

Here are a collection of photos from some of the other temples that we visited; Ta Keo, Preah Khan, Ta Som and Pre Rup.

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After nine temples we felt like we had seen enough (and it was so hot that I feared I was melting!), so we spent the remainder of our time in Siem Reap trying out the local cuisine in the luxury of air-conditioned restaurants. One of the best places we ate was Pou Restaurant; their menu was a collection of traditional Khmer dishes which had been given a modern and creative twist. I instantly knew what Matt would choose – the Kulen Mountain sausage with pork belly and tree ants; I couldn’t bring myself to try it, but Matt polished off the lot!

We had a brilliant time in Siem Reap, the temples, the food and the cocktails were first-class. I can even give a glowing review of the Royal Angkor International Hospital where we made an unscheduled visit thanks to a nasty gastroenteritis bug which completely wiped me out, a few hours before we were due to board our flight home! Luckily an IV drip and course of antibiotics brought me back from what felt like deaths door and we made it back to Shanghai – if a little worse for wear…

– Emma

Hong Kong: Big Buddah & Tai O Village

The vision of Hong Kong in my mind’s eye before our recent visit was quite similar to the Hong Kong that I described in my last blog; soaring skyscrapers of glass and steel amalgamated into an iconic skyline along the harbour, double-decker trams gliding through busy streets, flashing noticeboards competing for attention. However, Hong Kong is a lot more diverse than I realised. It is made up of 3 distinct geographical regions – Hong Kong Island, Kowloon and The New Territories – divided by their historical time of acquisition by the UK.

My last blog focused on the areas we visited in Kong Kong Island and Kowloon, but two of the attractions that we wanted to see – the ‘Big Buddah’ and Tai O fishing village – required us to take a day-trip to Lantau Island (see left hand side of the map below), part of The New Territories. Lantau is the largest of Hong Kong’s islands (almost twice the size of HK Island itself), and more than half is covered by mountainous country parkland.

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The Hong Kong metro system conveniently links Hong Kong Island to Kowloon and on to Lantau, but to reach the Big Buddah we had to take the Ngong Ping 360 Cable Car from the Tung Chung terminal to Ngong Ping village. It’s a popular route (despite arriving early we still spent an hour snaking up and down roped-aisles in the ticket queue*), but once we were up-and-away the panoramic view from the carriage was incredible!

* For a few extra dollars you can get a ‘Crystal’ cabin which is glass bottomed; we bought Crystal tickets for the return journey which turned out to be a good idea since the queue for Crystal on the way up was huge while on the way back it was actually much smaller than for the normal cabins.

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At 5.7km the ‘Ngong Ping 360’ is the longest bi-cable ropeway in Asia.
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Stunning view over Tung Chung Bay.

Tian Tan Buddah (‘Big Buddah’)

As we neared the end of the cable car journey the silhouette of the Tian Tan Buddha – informally known as the ‘Big Buddha’ – materialized on the horizon, sitting atop a tree-covered hill, surrounded by an endless sea of tree-covered hills. It was a misty morning and the sight was quite magical.

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First glimpse of the Big Buddah

Exiting the cable car terminal we followed the stream of people into Ngong Ping village, and were funneled past a collection of souvenir shops, noodle restaurants, teahouses, a Starbucks and a Subway. The whole village looked incredibly new and reminded me of a ski-resort with it’s single-story wooden-roofed buildings (the bright blue sky and crisp winter air probably helped with the association).

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There were a few cows dotted around, and they took on a kind of celebrity status with the tourists…

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The Tian Tan Buddha is a seated representation of Lord Gautama (on whose teachings Buddhism was founded) and was unveiled in 1993 to symbolise the harmonious nature between man and nature, people and faith. Cast in bronze he is 26m high (34m if you count the base podium), weighs 250 metric tons and faces North towards mainland China to look over the Chinese people.

His gigantic shape loomed above us as we climbed the steep flight of steps up the hill, getting ever larger as we got higher until he captivated our entire view. At the top we could walk a full circle around the viewing platform beneath the Buddha, and were rewarded by a beautiful view over Ngong Ping village and the remote ‘Po Lin’ Buddhist monastery and temple complex (built in 1924).

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Surrounding the Buddha are six smaller bronze statues known as “The Offering of the Six Devas” that are posed offering gifts of flowers, incense, a lamp, ointment, fruit, and music.

Our journey to see the Buddha was long compared the the 20-or-so minutes we spent there, but I would really recommend making the effort; it was a truly hypnotic sight and a meaningful demonstration of the commitment to the Buddhist faith in this area.

Tai O (大澳) Fishing Village

From Ngong Ping we caught the #21 bus to Tao O on Lantau’s west coast, a 15 minute journey in which Lantau island morphed in front of our eyes from alpine-esque ski-resort to Cornish-esque fishing village. Little boats bobbed in the harbour and – in contrast to the pretty chalets in Ngong Ping – the surrounding buildings looked weather-beaten and functional.

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We entered the village through a street lined with trestle-tables laden with miscellaneous dried fish and seafood, glistening like crystals in the cold winter sunlight. For a fishing village it didn’t really smell of fish, although I imagine that may change in the summer months! The leaflet we collected with our cable car ticket listed local delicacies as shrimp paste, salted egg yolks and fish, steamed glutinous rice cakes and rice dumplings.

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It was approaching lunchtime and we were craving something hot to warm us up, so we ducked into a tiny restaurant (essentially the front room of someone’s house) and ordered steaming bowls of noodle soup with cuttlefish (Matt) and wantons filled with shrimp and pork (me). It was delicious, and really hit the spot.

Our energy topped up, we continued through the village until we reached the ramshackle web of interconnected stilt houses which are home to the Tanka people, a community of around 2,000 fishermen and women who’ve built their houses on stilts above the tidal flats of Lantau Island for generations. Their homes are at once sturdy – with concrete stilts driven deep into the seabed – and incredibly fragile, as evidenced by those which have succumbed to the watery elements.

Apparently Tai O used to be one of the biggest villages on Lantau with 30,000 residents, but the stability of a 9-5 job downtown has drawn most young people away from the traditional fishing lifestyle; the remaining residents now rely on tourism to supplement the income from fishing.

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While exploring the labyrinth of stilt houses via the rickety wooden walkways we came across the Three Lanterns Cafe, where a friendly lady informed us of their open-door policy and welcomed us to take a look at the view from the upstairs terrace; here we found three small tables and a great view over the rope-drawn ferry bridge.

We decided to stay for a slice of cheesecake and some jasmine green tea and ended up chatting with the co-owner, a guy from Devon (UK) who it turned out was married to the lady who invited us in. He told us that he spends half his time in the UK and the other half in Tai-O helping to run the cafe, a favourite location for professional and amateur photographers alike who are keen to capture the moment the sun sets above the bridge in the distance.

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Once I’d exhausted every photo opportunity in the village we made our way back to the bus stop, but not before we had tasted some of the street-food snacks… delicious!

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Matt: crushed peanuts in a glutinous rice dumpling. Emma: Egg waffle.

We had an incredible time in Hong Kong – the lingering Britishness of Hong Kong Island was just what I needed on the run up to Christmas (I’ve since devoured the M&S mince pies that we smuggled back to Shanghai!). I enjoyed the tram ride up Victoria Peak and the view over the city, and I could have spent a whole week wandering around the narrow SoHo streets; however, Tai O village was the highlight of the trip for me. The collection of stilt houses was unlike anything I’ve seen before and – for the moment at least – it still feels authentic. Plus, you can’t beat a good egg waffle!

– Emma

A pre-Christmas long weekend in Hong Kong

While Shanghai has started to dip it’s toes into the concept of Christmas – with ostentatious festive displays in every mall and Mariah Carey on repeat in Starbucks as of November 1st – the adopted traditions have only been around for a few years and feel relatively superficial. Christmas isn’t a national holiday here and barely registered on the radar of our colleagues (everyone is too busy looking forward to Chinese New Year, which will fall in mid-February 2018). Being a big fan of Christmastime (not just the day, but those preceding days where everyone starts to relax into a mulled stupor of glühwein, baileys and mince pies), I wanted a refresher of something traditional.

“Where to find some authentic British Christmas cheer?”, we pondered, “without resorting to a long-haul in economy class… perhaps a former British colony in Southeastern China?” And so the weekend before the big day, we nipped over for our first visit to Hong Kong.

We arrived in the early afternoon (HK is a 3 hour flight from Shanghai) and after lunch we wandered around the Causeway Bay area (where there also happens to be excellent shopping) before taking in the sunset from the rooftop of our hotel. I’d been told by friends to expect a cramped and crowded place, so it was nice to have an unobstructed view of the harbour at dusk.

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Street Art in Soho

Our first morning dawned chilly and overcast scuppering our original plan to climb Victoria Peak, so instead we caught the metro to Sheung Wen, Soho district.

When we arrived at 10am-ish, aside from the trash collectors, we had the place to ourselves. This was great for taking photos, but finding somewhere open for breakfast was impossible! It dawned on us that it was Sunday, and we had a flash-back to Sundays in England where shops don’t stir for blood nor money before 11am. It was strange for us to be in China and yet not come across little street-food stalls selling scallion pancakes or congee! We found a coffee shop that did bagels and then spent a few hours exploring the street art in the neighbourhood.

I’d read a little about HKs street art and was excited to check it out. We didn’t have to try very hard to find what we were looking for; right opposite the place we got coffee was a queue of 8 or 10 Asian girls queuing to have their photo taken against the Instagram-worthy wall opposite.

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We spent the rest of the morning, and some of the afternoon, strolling up and down the steep streets and narrow alleyways – each of which in turn revealed street-art, graffiti and paste-ups – some were glaring and obviously commercial (commissioned by the owners of the wall) while others were more subtle. I took a raft of photos, a sample of which you can see in the slideshow below.

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Street-art aside, Soho – so called because it is South of Hollywood Road – was a cool place to explore. Once the city began to stir and the window shutters were rolled back we found stylish restaurants, coffee shops, wine bars and fashion boutiques.

The whole area is packed like a proverbial sardine tin; buildings have been assembled one-on-top-of-the-other like lego bricks and they are often as colourful, albeit slapdash and shabby. Some streets had advertisement signs bracketing every inch of second-floor wall space, vying for attention, while below throngs of people and boxy red taxis navigated the narrow streets. In some areas we found raised pedestrian walkways, above the streets themselves, which had the effect of making the dense space even more concentrated. Above, only slivers of sky were visible.

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Nestled down one of the streets we found a Christmas market… although unfortunately no mulled wine!

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Victoria Peak

We had heard that the view from Victoria Peak – named after Queen Victora and 552m above sea level – was a great way to get your bearings and take in the city as a whole. Those who feel energetic and have a bit of time can walk up to the top – a steep hike which takes you through a shady rain-forest and past exclusive, isolated houses (HKs costliest real estate); however, if energy and time are not on your side then – like us – you can take the tram.

The Peak Tram was designed by a couple of British engineers in the 1880’s. They were told by everyone it was an impossible feat – justifiably, given the logistics of the journey –  but they managed to prove all those people wrong; the tram has been running continuously ever since (apparently only World War 2 and a freak mudslide have ever disrupted the journey). Our bodies sunk back into the polished wooden seats as the carriage was hauled upwards at a seriously steep gradient. It felt a little like the stomach-churning pull up towards the peak of a rollercoaster and I was relieved when – after about 5-or-10 minutes – we reached the top.

Exiting the tram we entered ‘Peak Tower’, an anvil shaped observation point that for some reason also contained a Madam Tussaud’s and a Forest Gump themed shrimp restaurant. We resisted those temptations (!) and headed up to the panoramic viewing platform: Sky Terrace 428. From here you can see right out over HKs harbour and epic skyscrapers and across to Kowloon. You can also see the tram clanking up and down the hill below. I try not to use words like ‘breathtaking’, but I’m struggling to think of a better word – living in Shanghai you get used to skyscrapers and spectacular skylines, but this was nonetheless very impressive.

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Hong Kong Park, a little oasis in the urban Central District not far from the Peak Tram terminal.

Star Ferry

Like the Victoria Tram, the white-and-green (and undoubtedly British-looking) Star Ferry fleet is iconic of HK.  Residents have been shuttled between HK island and Kowloon on the astral-named boats for over 120 years; indeed, until 1978 when the Cross-Harbour Tunnel opened, it was the only way to cross the harbour.

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Boat names included Morning Star, Celestial Star and Twinkling Star.

The interior of the ferry was beautiful; polished redwood floors and a star pattern stamped into each seat. The crossing from Kowloon to Central only cost us a couple of dollars each (about 20p), and offered another great perspective of the city as well as a step back in time.

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And finally, food…

As an international trade city, Hong Kong has on offer pretty much any kind of food, to suit any taste and budget. For lunch you could enjoy a sandwich and afternoon tea in a 5-star Victorian hotel overlooking the bay (though you may need to get permission from your bank manager), or alternatively you could grab some noodles from a cupboard-sized restaurant under a footbridge. There is a huge variety of international cuisine here, and we indulged our nostalgia at a couple of British celebrity chef restaurants.

The true Hong Kong experience wouldn’t be complete without dim sum (or diǎnxīn  snacks). When you eat dim sum you typically order several different dishes (tapas-style), which tend to be buns or dumplings, stuffed with sweet or savory fillings and then steamed, baked or fried. You then dip in Chinese vinegar, soy or simply enjoy them as they come.  Apparently Hong Kong has the cheapest Michelin Star awarded restaurant in the world, a dim sum eatery situated in a secluded part of a train station. It isn’t much to look at but the queues for tables were enormous whenever we went. Fortunately they did take away so we skipped the queue and ordered their speciality dish: BBQ pork baked buns….

These were delicious; light, fluffy and ever so slightly crispy baked dough with a filling of succulent barbecued pork in a sweet/sour barbecue sauce.  We could just about see why people seemed prepared to wait for hours for a table!

We visited one of HK’s branches of Lady M, an American cake maker that specialises in mille crêpe (cakes made up of alternating layers of paper-thin crepe and sweet cream). We aren’t necessarily cake people but one of these cafes recently opened up in one of the more upmarket malls in Shanghai; at peak fad, the queues for a crêpe cakes topped 8 hours. 8 hours! For a cake! The supply/demand shortfall led to some entrepreneurial sorts flying to HK to smuggle these cakes back into Shanghai and sell them at an outrageous profit to people who were prepared to pay to avoid the queue. The government consequently had to ban the smuggling of cakes into mainland China, making it perhaps the most first-world crime of which i’ve ever heard!

In (dim)summary…

It was a relatively significant time for us to visit HK, as 2017 marked the 20th anniversary of the transfer of sovereignty from the UK to China – an event known as “the Handover” internationally and “the Return” in China – ending over a century of British rule.

HK’s growth from a natural port to a global financial centre came largely under British governance and the city still has an undeniable British feel to it; there are streets named after British prime ministers, lots of options for afternoon tea and – perhaps most important – Marks & Spencers. Negotiations between the PRC and Thatcher’s government, initiated in 1982, were protracted and complex but finally a solution was reached. The territory was to be reintegrated into China using a formula of ‘One Country, Two Systems’; meaning that HK would be Chinese from 1997, but with economic, political and judicial freedoms for the next 50 years.

There are now more than 1 million people from mainland China living in HK and the Kowloon Peninsula and to the untrained eye and ear it may look for all intents and purposes like a Chinese Tier 1 city; however, it is very different to any other we’ve visited. For a start, Hong Kong did not adopt the simplified Chinese characters, choosing to use traditional characters which lots of Chinese cannot read, and audio announcements like those at the airport are normally given in 3 languages; first in Cantonese, then English and finally Mandarin Chinese (it seemed like people typically spoke Cantonese or English by choice; when we tried to speak a little mandarin to people it didn’t get us very far!). HK also has it’s own currency – the HK Dollar and surprisingly the mobile payment services of WeChat and Alipay which are ubiquitous on mainland China hadn’t taken hold here – it was a little strange carrying cash around!

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We found many examples of British-style architecture nestled between the high-rise towers.

We only dipped in to HK for a short 3-day stay but we found the cultural contrasts between British, Chinese and Cantonese fascinating, particularly from the perspective of a couple of Brits living in China.

– Emma