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Hong Kong: Vibrant metropolis

Smooth flyovers, wide pathways, enormous shopping malls ... Hong Kong's quality can stun. The range is amazing and can meet even the demands of a shoestring budget, says GOUTAM GHOSH.



High-speed traffic in Hong Kong, seen from a pedestrian overbridge.

HONG KONG is no longer what it was in the 1970s. From the sprawling international airport at Chek Lap Kok in Lantau island (opened in 1998 replacing the Kai Tak airport in Kowloon peninsula) to the disciplined high speed traffic touching 80 kmph or more, smooth flyovers, wide pedestrian pathways, brightly lit shopping malls (some as large as a metropolitan residential area in India but in multi-storeyed complexes), Hong Kong's quality can stun.

The five basics that any tourist looks for - comfortable rooms, quick transport, tasty hygienically cooked food, spots worth visiting and safety - are available aplenty. The range is amazing and can meet the demands of a shoestring budget.

"It is possible to design a tight budget tour programme for a family of four. Walk-in rates at hotels are always high, and a tourist should avoid booking rooms after his arrival. Instead we suggest that bookings be done through travel agents in India, because they book blocks in a hotel and get massive discounts, easily up to 70 per cent the rack rates (advertised rates)," said Ms Cynthia Leung, manager, corporate communications and public relations, Hong Kong Tourism Board (HKTB).

You must get all the information before you book your tickets. Make sure that you have a credit card valid abroad, because all hotels and lodges in Hong Kong insist on a credit card. The number is fed into the computer even though the patron may be paying the bills in cash - unless of course you are a part of a group tour organised by a travel agency. Lack of a valid credit card can be embarrassing and may even ruin your holiday. The best source of comprehensive information is the Internet (DiscoverHongKong.com, www.totallyhk.com, www.yptourist.com, www.info.gov.hk/had_la) for information on food, hotel rates and range and other offers which may vary from season to season. Summers can be as sultry as in India. The best time to travel is between September and April.



The Chi Lin nunnery... a place worth visiting.

The transport system is finely tuned with Mass Transit Railways, buses and trams providing links to wherever you wish to go. The Airport Express from the airport to Hong Kong or Kowloon costs HK$100 for each passenger. The long distance trip from Lantau island in a state-of-the-art train, completed in 23 minutes flat, will be an experience worth every cent.

As a tourist you would like to see and get a close feel of Hong Kong. The best option therefore is to walk, provided your health permits it and your children can take the joyous strain.

The HKTB has prepared a list of walks and you can get a copy of it at the airport or any HKTB counter spread all over the city.

The food options are amazing - and HKTB has been promoting Hong Kong as a food capital of Asia not without reason. You can tailor your indulgence depending on the weight of legal tender notes in your wallet or purse as well as your preference for vegetarian or exotic non-vegetarian dishes. The piped water supply meets the World Health Organisation (WHO) standard and random sips from different sources showed no trace of chlorine. So you need not panic if you ingest a little during your morning ablutions. Bottled water is expensive (compared to the price in India) and you can opt for a bottle of soft drink.

There are many, many places worth visiting. And it may be wise to walk to these spots unless they are very far away (in the New Territories, for instance). Do not miss the Peak Tramways that began its operation on May 30, 1888. Its modern avatar - the same tram but with sleeker cars - still takes about eight minutes to reach Victoria Peak. Make sure you sit on the right hand side of the tram on its journey up because the Victoria Harbour and the stunning highrises are visible on the right, provided the weather is clear. On the left hand side, you will be facing walls of granite and feldspar. There are multilevel shops at the top but if you value your money, do not buy anything impulsively. Everything available in the shops at Victoria Peak is available cheaper in town. You may also not wish to miss the Ladies Market and the Temple Street Night Market where you can really bargain hard and wrangle an excellent deal, depending on your skills. The 800m covered outdoor escalator at Central is the world's longest and is another experience you may not wish to miss. You will cover the high gradient to the top effortlessly, thanks to the escalator. You can always step out and have a look at what the tiny stores by the escalator stock.

As far as safety is concerned, Hong Kong is safe. You will find mobile patrols on routine rounds after dusk. Despite the significant police presence, you should be conscious of your wallet or purse, especially in crowded market places in the evening. As a tourist you may feel lost if you have been deprived of your wallet and its contents by some desperate soul.

You could get your foreign exchange at the State Bank of India airport teller in India. Exchange your rupees for U.S. dollars and change them for Hong Kong dollars at the Loyal Company (17 Hankow Road, Kowloon) where you will get a rate better than you ever would at SBI or at the Travelex counters in Hong Kong airport or elsewhere.

Ready to pack your bags, and board the plane to Hong Kong? Well, experience the "City of Life: Hong Kong is it!" and see why Christopher Patten, the last British Governor, wrote, "Hong Kong ... is an island of stability and social progress, a model for anyone seeking to build a peaceful, prosperous and successful society."

Goutam Ghosh

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