2 days for the famous highlights of Hong Kong

Hong Kong is a great place to visit either as a destination on its own, or, as many people do, as a nice 2 day stop over between flights.  I’ve lived in Hong Kong for 8 years, so . . . I’m biased . . . but also leaves me well placed to give you tips on how to have the best experience

For this review, I’m focusing on 10 classic highlights of Hong Kong and can give some tips that will improve your experience.  But my biggest tip overall is that Hong Kong is not just skyscrapers and neon signs – more than 3/4 of HK is undeveloped, 40% is national parks and a mini tropical paradise if you just jump on a ferry or take a short taxi ride.  For some ideas that will give you an even better HK experience, see the travel entry for 2 days hidden highlights of Hong Kong – you maybe surprised at just how world-class an experience you can get from these little islands

2 days hidden highlights of Hong Kong

Hong Kong is a great place to visit either as a destination on its own, or, as many people do, as a nice 2 day stop over between flights.  I’ve lived in Hong Kong for 8 years, so . . . I’m biased . . . but also keen to share some tips to make sure you get the best from the place
The biggest overall tip I can give – many people when they think of Hong Kong think of the skyscrapers, the busy neon light lined streets, the sheer hustle of one of the most densely populated places on earth etc etc – and it is indeed all of these things.  But it is also 75% undeveloped and 40% national park.  In short, it is a world class city, with a tropical paradise a short ferry / taxi away.  That is why, for this review, I am focusing on some of the more unusual things to do in Hong Kong for a first time visitor
Should you want to check out the classic Hong Kong highlights – see my entry for 2 days for the famous highlights of Hong Kong

Tai Long Wan day trip from Central Hong Kong

I’ve called out in another travel entry (2 days hidden highlights of Hong Kong) that Hong Kong will surprise you with just how much natural beauty and tropical paradise is on its doorstep, and nothing shows this better than the day trip to the eastern beach of Tai Long Wan.  In my opinion, HK’s most beautiful beach for both sand quality, water quality and surroundings.  It’s stunning as you walk over the nearby headland to see the two main beaches with Sharp Peak looming over both of them and, as you get the sampan boat back, not for the first time you’ll be just amazed that you’re in HK

 

Plan for getting there and back – Getting there and back you’ve got 2 options: road or sea.  For road – either take a taxi direct to the Sai Wan Pavilion inside Sai Kung National park, or a bus to the entrance of the National Park (Sai Kung Country Park Visitor Centre – 45/60mins from Central) and then taxi from there to the pavilion (15mins).  Must be a taxi as Ubers are not allowed in the park.  Once there, it’s an hour walk down to the main beach of Ham Tim.  For sea, take one of the speed boats from Sai Kung Public Pier, which you can reach in 45mins from Central.  Takes around 30mins and HK$120 / US$15 per person.  Can get a little bumpy as you get towards Tai Long Wan, but only for 10mins or so, and along the way you’ll see the UNESCO World Heritage rock formations that hug the coast.  My suggestion is to take the taxi to the Sai Wan Pavilion, walk to Ham Tim as you pass by some of the small beaches and villages, chill out on the beach, walk over to the longer Tai Long Wan beach (just around the headland from Ham Tim), and then make your way back via speed boat to Sai Kung Town for some food in one of the seafront seafood restaurants

 

If looking for a bit more adventure when up in Tai Long Wan, the nearby rockpools are fun and the climb up to Sharp Peak (3 hours round trip) is well worth it for the views.  I could write all day about Tai Long Wan, but won’t – instead, Sassy does a great summary here with all the details you need https://www.sassyhongkong.com/whats-on-hk-tai-long-wan-guide-beach-eat-drink-camping/

 

Its obviously hard not to prioritise the classic highlights of Hong Kong, such as the Star Ferry, view from the Peak etc – and I’ve written a review for top tips on these here at 2 days for the famous highlights of Hong Kong – but if you’re looking for a tropical beach and fun adventure getting there, you won’t be disappointed in Tai Long Wan

Relaxing on the beaches of Phuket

Phuket is a beautiful spot to chill out at for a few days.  It has the full range of accommodation and eating options, some good opportunities for partying / lash, diving to the south and enough scale to head off on trips all around the peninsular

 

Yes, its touristy, but it ticks the chill out vibe after a few weeks of travelling or as a simple break from any of the nearby Asian cities

 

Only a very brief travel entry, so a few high level tips:

  • Even if there for full on partying/ lash – try not to stay in Patong.  It’s great for the nights out, but there are just so many wonderful options slightly further away in the hills and on the beaches for the same prices
  • When in Patong, even if not there for a giant night out, make sure to head to Tiger Bar.  It kind of sums up the Patong vibe with something like 50 different mini bars each with their own theme
  • There are a bunch of islands off the east coast of Phuket that you can visit as part of day tour with a variety of operators leaving from Yamu Pier.  The islands are great, but you just need to be careful who you book with because it is very easy to get rammed into a full tourist boat that won’t quite hit the paradise vibe you’re looking for
  • There are some great spots for scuba diving all around Phuket, in particular the ferry reef dive off Raja Yai in the south is superb, with heaps of large cleaner fish that come up very close

7/8 week itinerary for the highlights of South East Asia

South East Asia has to be the premier world traveling region.  A big call?  For sure, but consider what genuinely world class offerings it can provide:

 

  • World class beaches and coastal areas – think of THAT beach in Ko Phi Phi and HaLong Bay, one of the Natural Wonders of the World
  • World class food – think Thai, Vietnamese, Malay and the genuine fusion into the mix with the large established Indian and Chinese communities
  • World class ancient sites and history – think of the temples of the “8th Wonder of the World” of Angkor Wat, and the breathtaking site of the pagodas stretching across the plain in Bagan
  • World class cities and party locations – think of Singapore as the city of the future and the Full Moon Parties on Ko Pha-Ngan

 

And all this in a place that is super safe, outrageously friendly, easy and cheap to travel in.  A must for any keen traveler and the below itinerary will give you the highlights – enjoy!

An overnight boat trip through HaLong Bay – The Bay of the Descending Dragon

Over 2,000 islands of sheer vertical karst limestone peaks bursting from the waters of a huge tropical bay, you can see why HaLong Bay literally means “the bay of the descending dragon”, why it is categorised as a Wonder of the Natural World and why it is consistently seen as one of the highlights of Vietnam

 

Its only downside is it is super busy in places and with the classic Asian approach to mass commercialised tourism somewhat stripping the place of the magic feel you’re most likely hoping for.  So, some high level tips to help you have a better experience:

  • Aim for a one night stay on one of the boats.  You can easily make HaLong Bay a day trip (and I have done this before and had a great time as we rented a boat to ourselves as a large group, which I appreciate isn’t an option for everyone), but there is something super nice about sitting for the sunrise / sunset and seeing the wonderful change in colour around the various karst towers
  • Your choice of tour operator is going to be crucial.  It pays to do a bit of research on the best recommended one and, remember, you get what you pay for – be very wary of the rock bottom operators offering USD80 from one of the stalls in Hanoi.  Ball park you’re looking at USD125 and upwards.  Aim ideally for one of the old-school luxury Chinese-style junks
  • The highlight is drifting past the sheer cliff faces through the tropical waters . . . so do make sure to find a god spot and just watch this Natural Wonder of the World go by
  • Kayaking around the bay is kind of par for the course and good fun.  Make sure this is included in your trip
  • Try to spend as little time in HaLong City as possible.  Its not what you’re in the region for
  • The caves are worth checking out and will be in all boat itineraries
  • Looking back, if I had a little more time and had booked long enough ahead, I would have aimed to go for Lan Ha Bay, near Cat Ba Island further to the south.  Seems to be off the standard tourist boat route and with similar scenery
  • To see how HaLong Bay can fit into an itinerary for experiencing the highlights of Vietnam see this entry for more ideas – A 3 week itinerary for the highlights of Vietnam

6 months trip of a lifetime around Latin America

My girlfriend and I went on a 6month trip around Latin America (excluding Brazil).  Started in the far South in the Tierra del Fuego in Argentina and, broadly, made our way up the west coast to the Yucatan Peninsular of Mexico.  Best large scale trip I’ve done, and wanted to share the overall itinerary and tips here to hopefully help those who are considering something similar

A few high level points:

  • Other than the flights there and the first hotel, there were only three things we booked in advance: the Inca Trail (which we knew we needed to for permits); plus for Patagonia a trip through Torres del Paine National Park and a ferry through the fjords (as we were going at peak season and only a couple of weeks after we landed).  Everything else, we booked when in Latin America and, in our opinion, that is the best way to do it – gives you the freedom to relax in the places you find that you love and be super flexible to do what you want to do
  • Total costs – my girlfriend and I went in our 30s, with no kids and on sabbaticals from work.  We’re not poor, but certainly not mega wealthy.  We didn’t stay in super expensive hotels (other than for the occasional splurge), flew economy and used a bit of common sense for timings of certain expensive items, but never held back on doing the things we wanted to do.  Some examples of big ticket items: US$5k for a week diving in the remote Wolf & Darwin Islands in the Galapagos; US$1.2k for 4 days in Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia; US$800 for a helicopter trip to see the El Mirador Mayan ruins in the Guatemalan jungle; US$700 for the Inca Trail.  Total cost of the whole trip was US$34k each.  This included all flights, transport, hotels, activities, food, drink, guides, screwing things up, credit card fees – the lot.  Expensive, but so are most Experiences of a Lifetime
  • It’s not about trying to “do everything” – in a place as large as Latin America, you couldn’t even if you tried – so don’t think of things as a big tick box exercise.  Brazil, for example, we knew we couldn’t do justice whilst also trying to enjoy all the other amazing places we’d heard of, so left it for next time
  • In the similar vain, make sure you give yourself big chunks of time to chill out.  Not only to recharge the batteries, but also because most places are enjoyed when you spend time to soak up the feel for the place.  There were some places . . . like Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, Buenos Aires in Argentina, Isla Mujeres in Mexico, Bocas del Toro in Panama . . . where I could have spent weeks there just because the general vibe of the place was so wonderful
  • Safety – we weren’t robbed, but many people do either having a bag stolen or, unpleasantly, get robbed face to face.  Other than a couple of cities, we generally felt super safe the places we went and tried to just apply common sense to reduce our risks
  • Learn a bit of Spanish before you go – the app DuoLingo was great for getting us to a basic level that made a lot of difference.  But also don’t be afraid to pull out google for simultaneous conversation translations to really be able to have a conversation with someone – some long trips became some of our highlights just from being able to properly talk with the driver / locals.  I particularly remember a long taxi ride in Colombia where we went back and forward for 2 hours with the driver on everything from his home town to politics to football to his favourite movies to his family problems- never could have done that without Spanish or google.  In a similar vein, and using the right level of common sense, don’t turn down an invite for drinks / dinner / house visit with locals.  There are some truly unforgettable natural and cultural spots to see, but similarly an evening with a local family will be something likely to be just as unforgettable
  • Whenever checking out a place or must-do-site, its easy to get templed / churched / ancient site / beached out.  Always do a very basic bit of research to see if there is a more out of the ordinary way to experience it – by bike / drinking tour / kayaking / helicopter / whatever.  Thats what we tried to do, and I hope it reflected in some of the cool stuff listed below

Best way to see Chichen Itza from Cancun

One of the 7 Wonders of the World, Chichen Itza is a must visit site.  The iconic El Castillo pyramid; the great ball court that conjures up scenes from movies of brave competitors playing for life and death; the mysterious Cenote Sagrado believed to be the entrance to the underworld; and all  throughout the site a reminder of the complexity, sophistication and genius of the Maya.  The only downside is just how busy this world famous site can get which, when combined with the heat and humidity, could easily spoil the experience

Two key tips:

  • 1. Spend the night in one of the hotels nearby (we stayed at Mayaland, which was nicer than it sounds).  This allows you to enter the park early at 8am when it is far quieter and cooler, compared to an energy sapping trip from somewhere like Cancun for a wander round in the heat of the day.  It also allows you to enjoy the night show . . .
  • 2. Stay for the night show – I’m usually a little sceptical about night shows as they can be a bit tacky and really just another way to make money, but the Chichen Itza Night Show, I thought, was fantastic.  It tells you a bit of the history, runs a spectacular series of images across the El Castillo pyramid, and it’s also just super cool to be walking around the ruins in the early evening when the vast majority of tourists have left.  Must do

Scuba diving the Cenotes of Tulum

I know there are so many dives in the world that are “must do’s”, but the Cenote dives near Tulum really are “must do’s”.   As you drive through the scorchingly hot, thick Mexican jungle, one of the last things you’ll be expecting is to go scuba diving.  Yet, after only a few minutes of getting your gear on and pushing through the undergrowth, you find yourself transported to another world of intricate underwater cave systems with mysterious depths – no wonder the Mayan thought they were entrances to the underworld

The whole experience is unique.  But the highlight is the Angelita Cenote – a circular sink hole in the middle of the jungle that, due to the different densities of the salt and fresh water and a 3m / 10ft hydrogen sulphate layer, gives the impression of flying above dark clouds of some otherworldly swamp land – a bit like a combo of the Mayan Underworld and that scene in the swamp from The Empire Strikes Back.  Unique and a must do if you’re a diver in this part of the world

Helicopter trip to El Mirador in the heart of the Guatemalan jungle

Ok so this is was cool. For many travelling through Central America, seeing glimpses of the ancient Mayan civilisation is one of the highlights of their trip.  These glimpses tend to focus on the Classical Mayan Period, such as those at the world famous Tikal.  But . . . seeing El Mirador will allow you to see not only the largest cluster of buildings from any Mayan site, but also to see the PRE-Classical period and have the place largely to yourself

There is a 5 day trek to get there, but if short on time, want to see from the air and, like us, had never been in a helicopter, take the helicopter flight for a unique experience