Xmas in the Orient
|(From top) Central Hong Kong decked up to celebrate Christmas; tourists flock to see the Big Buddha on Lantau Island; An An, a male panda in his habitat in Ocean Park ;A view over the South China Sea from Noah’s Ark on the Ma Wan waterfront|
Merry carollers trilling out cheerful tunes amidst what look like snow-covered Christmas trees with tiny fairy lights and delicate glass baubles. Enticing pastries winking at you from the shop windows and fat, jolly Santas standing guard over every square — Christmas arrived for me this year in Hong Kong.
You might not think of this city of fancy skyscrapers as your traditional Christmas haunt but Hong Kong is alive with festive merriment. And nowhere is the Yuletide spirit more in evidence than at Disneyland. Of course, Disneyland in the US is the place for the real jingle bells but Hong Kong’s Disneyland Resort puts up a pretty good show with Santa’s helpers manning the entry gates.
Somewhere around the time when we strolled down Main Street USA (a recreation of America of the late 1890s), greeted by a gigantic Christmas tree, icicled store fronts, Christmas parades and wispy bits of faux snowfall, the season set in with a warm, fuzzy feeling.
If you grew up on a fanciful dose of fairytales, you can’t help but give whoops of delight when they all seem to come true in one evening. There’s the lit-up fairytale castle, Snow White prancing around and Aurora (of Sleeping Beauty fame who slept forever) hugging little children.
The highlight however turned out to be the fireworks above the castle with blue, yellow, pink and green lights bursting forth upon the firmament. You could almost imagine that the sparkling colours in the sky came from the fairy godmother’s wand.
A tip: Don’t miss roller-coasting down into darkness in a ride called Space Mountain.
It got better as we visited Ocean Park, another theme park in the city, home to two adorable giant pandas, the female Jia Jia and the male An An. While Jia Jia with her ‘affable and strong motherhood qualities’ skulked behind a boulder in her green habitat, An An squatted in the middle of his, surrounded by a pile of bamboo shoots chomping with abandon.
The wildlife adventure at the park continued with a poolside show that was about gambolling dolphins and whiskered sea lions performing cutesy antics.
But what is life without thrills? Therefore I promptly topped it up with a ride called The Abyss that dropped one down a 185-ft tower.
Talking about adventure, the cuisine is a gastronomical voyage of discovery for the outsider. This is ‘real’ Chinese food, and the street food on offer will make you shudder even if you don’t have the nerve to try it. There’s heaps of world cuisine too.
My first experience of what the Chinese call ‘non-vegetarian vegetarian’ was of dishes laden with imitation meats. While pieces of chilli tofu resembled pork, a sweet potato roast seemed like roasted goose. So the vegetarians had their non-vegetarian and the non-vegetarians got to try some vegetarian.
We had American meals (burgers and fries) at the Starlight Diner in Disneyland, some excellent beer-batter fried shrimps by the bucket and grilled red snappers at Bubba Gump. And we indulged our seafood fantasies at the Jumbo Floating Restaurant in Aberdeen Harbour.
But a more authentic experience of local fare was during a late evening at the Temple Street Market, sitting in the middle of the street digging into noodles and chicken, eel and rice. It was after our night tour of the city on one of the open-topped, double-decker buses that rumble through the city packed with revellers.
The bus tour took us through the dazzling city. On the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront promenade, we watched a laser show (operated from the highrises on the other side of the harbour) that cut across the dark waters of the South China Sea.
Another trip took us to Noah’s Ark, a 2,70,000-sq ft model of the mythological ark with stone animals emerging from the boat. And the Ngong Ping 360 cable ride took us above mountains and the new airport strip to the 200ft Big Buddha atop a promontory on Lantau Island, adjacent to which is the ancient Po Lin Monastery. Then we roamed the streets of Lan Kwai Fong, home to sexy sky bars (rooftop bars) and live band bars.
In Hong Kong you have to visit Victoria Peak, also called The Peak, for a bird’s eye view of the entire city. It’s also home to the city’s rich. Simply chug up the hill in the Peak Tram to the top of The Peak Tower and see the city from The Sky Terrace on its roof.
Next we went to Madame Tussauds, in the same building — one of the two Madame Tussauds in Asia. This is where you find movie stars like Humphrey Bogart and singers like Madonna along with a host of southeast Asian stars. But the fun element lay in an entertainment show, Scream. We proceeded down to a dungeon-like place with bloody bathtubs, women with blood-matted hair and bloody daggers in their hands and spooky figures leaping at us out of the dark, making us scream all the way till the exit.
The malls can make you go delirious with their 80 per cent sale offers. But if you like haggling in flea markets, you have to wallow in it in the streets of Mong Kok where you get the most luscious designer bag rip-offs, stunning boots and high-fashion clothes. Get unimaginable bargains and return home laden with goodies feeling like a diva.
Getting there: Cathay Pacific, Dragon Air and Air India have flights from Delhi, Chennai and Mumbai to Hong Kong.
Staying there: Disney’s Hollywood Hotel on Lantau Island charges between HK$ 1,100 and HK$ 1,900 for double-bed rooms. JW Marriott charges between HK$ 4,300 and HK$ 4,900.