SE Asia Trip Dispatch: Part One (When A Layover Becomes A Trip)

Sunday, October 3, 2010

There are a couple of things you should keep in mind when planning to include a massive layover during your trip. One: despite its reputation, layovers are good. Especially when they’re in a city you’ve never been to before. Especially when it’s Saturday night. And especially when you have two weeks ahead of you to not worry about the consequences. And Two: Mind the jet lag, or what we in the medical profession refer to as “desynchronosis,” a disruption of the circadian rhythms that will cause irregular sleep patterns, shifts in mood, and the need to blog at 4:30 a.m. the next day after falling asleep around dinner time.

I wasn’t really sure what to expect from Hong Kong. Seeing as I was going to be there for roughly 12 hours, I kept my research and planning to a minimum, relying on the maxim that a little spontaneity goes a long way during travel. Given the city’s long history as a trading port, wits its deep harbor and strategic location, I somehow had this vision of a an old, colonial seaside port filled with salty merchants of the sea hawking fresh seafood and exotic goods from their travels. This is basically accurate, but substitute the sailors for Brooks Brothers-clad London Investment Bankers, and substitute the exotic goods for collateralized securities and designer handbags.

Hopping off the Airport Express train from the airport into the center of Hong Kong, I ran into a girl that was visiting her friend for a couple days before she too was off to Vietnam. We made plans to all meet up, along with some of their other friends that lived there, later on in Lan Kwai Fong, the party-hopping nightlife district.

Having a couple hours to spare, I asked the friend that lived there which of the two activities I should do to pass the time: take the peak tram to the top of Victoria Peak for views of the city, or take the famed Star Ferry across Victoria Harbor to Kowtoon, the location of the Temple Night Market.

“The Peak Tram,” she said, emphatically, “that is the real Hong Kong. The market is just a market, nothing special.”

And with that I exited the cool, climate controlled environs of the International Finance Center and hoofed my way outside into the humid, tropical-like air of the Pacific coast. 30 minutes later, after a trek through windy foot roads towered over by the building behemoths of the world’s largest financial enterprises, I found myself surrounded by Chinese tourists, in line with the intention of heading to the top of the peak too. Lines to me, while traveling, are like mosquito-borne illnesses: they should be avoided at all costs. I promptly turned my heels and headed back the way I came, and eventually onto the rickety wooden platform leading onto the Star Ferry.

Tracing its origins back to 1880, the lifesaver-lined ships have been an an important resource and symbol of the Hong Kong for over a century. Ferrying passengers around the harbor from all different points, the fifty-cent fare is more than worth the cost for the spectacular views you get as you cross the water. They are also a very slow and inefficient way to get from Point A to Point B (the subway underneath would cut that time to a fraction), but who’d want to miss out on seeing some of the world’s most iconoclastic night views?

It’s safe to say that hiking shoes, camouflage shorts and a day bag are not the preferred items of clothing one would wear for a Saturday night out in Lan Kwai Fong, Hong Kong’s take on NYC’s Meatpacking District and Miami’s South Beach, but with way more British and Australian bankers.

“Cheers mate,” a tall, smiling Brit said as we clinked glasses. We were standing outside a corner bar that specializes in the refined art of the flavored shots. “So who of these people do you know exactly?” he asked, motioning to the group of 10 of us standing around.

“Umm, actually, none,” I said. “Oh wait, I know those two girls over there, and by ‘know” I mean I met them a couple hours ago at the train station. How about you?”

“I know that guy, Matt, over there talking to the German and the Italian,” he answered. “We became friends a couple years back in Thailand. He sold his company in 2006 and used the money to buy a place here in Hong Kong as well as a boat in Thailand. I’m on my way back to Shanghai and I thought I’d drop him a visit.”

“Why’s the boat in Thailand?” I asked.

“That’s where he bought it, and we’ve been meaning to sail it around Singapore and up the along the coast until we get here so he can dock it. We started to do it last year, but we only made it about 60 miles until he came down with Dengue Fever and we had to call off the expedition.”

This conversation was basically the type of odd, random encounters that seem to be commonplace here. One minute you’re talking to a 40-year-old banker from London about the crash in 2008, the next you’re getting an explanation from a mother of two from Australia about why she and her friends are dressed up in disco clothes and roaming the streets at 3 a.m. (it was her husband’s friend’s birthday, if you were wondering). I had shots with a group also from New York who one of them, I think, works with somebody I know, a connection that could’ve better been explained but for the Shakira video that came on the T.V. that inevitably led the group to hop on the closest table and dance.

A hot, steaming bowl of noodles at a local shop near the train station, and a short ride back to the airport later, the sun’s rays began to emerge from beyond the towering mountainsides next to the airport, and through the massive wall of glass of the terminal, which, if you were keeping score, is the world’s 11th-largest structure in the world (6.3 millioin sq. feet). I lowered my sweatshirt hood and closed my eyes, seconds away from a short nap before boarding my flight to Saigon. With layovers, any little bit of sleep helps.

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