I was so proud of myself for blogging consistency throughout the summer, and then September happened and I fell into a catastrophically deep, dark hole that I’m now just climbing out from. But you guys, I WENT TO ASIA. On behalf of Canadian Traveller magazine, I travelled with Hong Kong Airlines to Hong Kong and Taiwan. It was my first foray into Eastern Asia (Jordan being my first time on the continent), but it was one of the most eye-opening, incredible experiences of my life.
I think Hong Kong and Taiwan are the perfect destinations for introducing someone to Asia. Both are modern, high-tech places with plenty of English spoken everywhere (although not so much in Taiwan). If you’re intimidated by Asia, Hong Kong and Taiwan are good places to start.
I actually got “stuck” in Taiwan for a few extra days with the other journalists because of Typhoon Manghut disrupting air travel — not that any of us minded. So I have a ton of stories from my visit. Stay tuned!
Here are some of my favourite moments from my first time in Asia.
Exploring Sham Shui Po
On our first day in Hong Kong, we headed to the busy market in the Sham Shui Po working-class neighbourhood. It was my first time being tossed into the chaos of an Asian city. I felt so very foreign, and I loved it.
The theme for this trip was very much all things food. We ducked into a tiny shop called Kung Woo Beancurd Factory, and ate some tofu pudding. Shortly after, we stopped for some cold brew coffee at Café Sausalito (yes, there are hipsters in Hong Kong!), and wrapped it up with lunch at the famous Michelin-starred Tim Ho Wan restaurant. It was my first experience with dim sum. I have not stopped thinking about it since then.
Shopping on Hollywood Road
I wanted some souvenirs. There was very little time for us to go shopping for ourselves — so after exploring the Tai Kwun complex one afternoon, me and another journalist (Brigitte) decided to stroll Hollywood Road.
I loved this street. It felt oddly separate from the rest of the concrete jungle, but the energy was intense. I have no idea how cars and buses navigate such narrow thoroughfares, but they do. We didn’t find much other than expensive jewellery shops, so we took a side street and found ourselves in the market area of our dreams. Communicating with calculators and minimal hand gestures, I managed to buy a tea set, a glass buddha, and some other art. For $25!
Falling asleep on a food tour through Temple Street
Ok, not a favourite memory, just a WTF moment. I slept very little in Asia, but this day in Hong Kong was the worst day of all. My boyfriend had broken up with me that morning (via text message from the other side of the planet…yeah I was a complete mess) and I had slept maybe two hours total. I was depressed and I didn’t really know the rest of my team at that point.
You know how much I love food; I was immensely looking forward to this night tour. I made it through a few samples: fish balls, egg puffs, and mango dessert. But I fell asleep on my feet…twice. Finally, one of our tour leaders pulled me aside and said, “We can send you back to the hotel.” I was so grateful I actually cried a little. I was escorted back to Hotel Vic where I collapsed into my bed in my full make-up and “night out” clothes.
The hilarious meal at Tung Po
On our final night in Hong Kong, we went to Tung Po — a super local restaurant with a super rowdy atmosphere. Even Anthony Bourdain visited this spot.
I didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into. What looked like a nondescript car park actually housed one of the best dining experiences I’ve ever had, simply for its crazy vibe. We stepped off the quiet elevator and into a madhouse. Waiters wearing rubber boots scurried between packed tables. Beer was poured into large bowls. And the food? It. did. not. end.
The best part was meeting the restaurant’s owner, Robby Cheung. He’s about as energetic as it gets, stopping to meet his guests and posing for photos with anyone who asks. Oh yeah, and he likes to do the splits.
The cable car ride to Big Buddha
I am terrified of heights. It’s a problem.
But there was no way in hell I was going to pass up a cable car ride to the top of Ngong Ping Plateau to see the Big Buddha — the second largest outdoor bronze Buddha statue in the world.
Some notes: the cable car ride was entirely glass, including the floor. Also it’s the longest bi-cable ropeway in Asia. The whole trip took about 30 minutes (one way) and I had to pop a few Ativan to keep me from freaking the hell out. But MAN the views over mountainous Lantau Island were worth it. Big Buddha and the Po Lin Monastery were also stunningly beautiful.
All of the dim sum!
I became obsessed with dim sum in Asia. It all started at Hong Kong’s Tim Ho Wan, but my favourite experience was at Din Tai Fung in the base of Taipei 101. Taiwan is full of Michelin-starred restaurants at affordable prices, including this one.
It was here where I learned to fully appreciate Xiaolongbao (Chinese soup dumplings). Our wonderful Taiwanese guide Michelle showed us how to pinch the top of the dumpling to let out the steam. To be honest, I preferred to pop the entire thing in my mouth — the burst of delicious hot soup was too good.
What are the chances I can find these in St. John’s? Le sigh.
Consulting deities in Long Shan Temple
Long Shan Temple is located in the heart of Taipei, and was built in 1738 for Chinese settlers. I’m so glad I came here with Michelle, because she taught us how to communicate with the deities.
Using divination blocks, I posed a question to the goddess. I tossed the blocks on the floor; depending on how the blocks fell, the goddess either heard my question or would ask me to pose a new one. I then drew a long stick from a wicker basket, and posed the question again. Finally, I was assigned a number and had to consult a set of drawers at the back of the room to find my answer.
Naturally, my question was relationship related and the answer was: “You were born with a silver spoon in your mouth. If you meet any obstacle, just change your way, and you will gain a wide reputation.” I think the goddess is encouraging me to be a loose woman. Anyway.
I then visited the matchmaker goddess and she gave me a red thread for meeting my soulmate. I instantly lost it.
Getting tribal at Hakka Village
I was thrilled to get out of the city for awhile in Taiwan. On day two, we headed into the Fenglin area to spend a day at a Hakka Village. The Hakka are Indigenous Peoples who have settled in this area since the end of the Qing Dynasty. You can spend a day here learning the tools of the trade for surviving in tropical Taiwan.
After we learned how to light a fire with just bamboo and some dry grass (we all failed miserably), we went a little off-road and into the jungle. One of our tour leaders taught us how to make a drinking vessel out of an elephant ear plant, and then he showed us how to set an elaborate trap for hunting wild animals. We were about as off-grid as it gets, and I loved every second of it.
One of my favourite memories: the people at the village made us a sticky rice dessert using a giant mortar and pestle. After popping the chewy sweet balls of rice into my mouth, I watched one of the men pull off chunks of sticky rice from the bottom of the pestle — kinda like how you’d lick the cake batter off the spoon. We really are the same people all over the world.
The hotel party at Farglory
While in Fenglin, we stayed at an incredible hotel called Farglory. It sat on top of a giant hill overlooking the ocean, and nearby was an amusement park with an epic castle built on top of it.
But the hotel was mostly empty. Perhaps it was just the season, but it was slightly eerie. After the Hakka experience, a few of us came back to the hotel and decided to hit the swim-up bar. (Fun fact: it’s illegal to not wear a swim cap in a swimming pool in Taiwan. Nothing is sexier than sitting at a wet bar ordering cocktails in a swim cap.) We ordered a few drinks from the shy bartender, Diamond, who spoke minimal English and communicated mostly with a translation app. It was fantastic.
The swim-up bar set the tone for the rest of the evening. At this point, me and the other journalists knew each other well, and we all got along like the best of friends. So when we discovered free beer at the buffet dinner, we took advantage of it. Ah yes, the beer did flow.
Later we had a hotel room party, blasting 90s music and dancing around like idiots. Eventually we called the front desk inquiring about more alcohol, and they opened the gift shop for us so we could buy booze. I love Taiwan.
The Taipei night market
If I thought Hong Kong’s night markets were crazy, Taipei’s was on a whole different level. I honestly don’t do that well in large crowds, and I tend to avoid markets for that reason when I’m travelling. BUT the markets in Asia were different. They were so full of foreign sights, sounds, and smells (eugh, stinky tofu), I relished the experience more than anything else.
We could hardly work our way through the dense throngs of people around here, but Michelle took us to some of her favourite food stops. We had oyster omelettes, bowls of soup, and (my favourite) mango shaved ice. We eventually made our way underground into the market there, where we devoured plates of seafood and other goodies.
Later, when Michelle went home, we came back to the underground market for more food. As we were sitting at a table chewing on prawns, one of my friends elbowed me and told me to look at the wall. It was alive with cockroaches. I think I earned my Asia street cred.
(I’d eat there again, btw.)
Flying first class with Hong Kong Airlines
I’ve never flown first class before, and seeing as how I hate flying (yeah, yeah — I’m a travel blogger, I know), having first class status on a 13-hour flight from Vancouver to Hong Kong was incredible.
Me and the other journalists took over the Sky Bar. Yes, there was a bar in the sky. We ordered champagne. The plane ran out of champagne. We ate three meals — each one better than the last. There was prosciutto and soft cheeses and steamed pork buns. We had lie-flat seats and I watched three entire movies. We hung out in the airline’s Club Autus lounge in Hong Kong’s airport and we ate ALL OF THE THINGS.
I actually didn’t want the flight to end because I was enjoying it too much. That’s how good the experience was.
It’s been sorta therapeutic to relive these memories. Despite the heartbreak I was going through at the time, I loved every second of my time in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Travel. It heals. I’m aching to get back there — Southeast Asia trip next?