The trouble with going away for any length of time is coming back. After nearly a month away from home and a surfeit of new experiences, a tidy dose of jet-lag to boot, it’s proving a real struggle to get back into the swing of mundane, ordinary life with all its demands. I’ve spent two days clearing my Outlook inbox – basically sorting the emails, haven’t really got very far with replying yet. I’ve also chilled out by going through my more than 1800 photos – first draft – they have to be sorted further and labelled.
I can divide the trip roughly into three parts: Hong Kong, Thailand, Burma. Though to be accurate, Thailand was invaded twice by me – on either side of Hong Kong – plus a brief transit at Bangkok Airport after Burma. However, I’m going to treat Thailand as one entity rather than a few fly-by-night drop-ins.
But let’s start with Hong Kong. I’d only been there once before – in 1995, before the British lease ran out and Hong Kong was handed back to China. That time it was a short visit, just two or three nights. This time I had longer – five nights to spend with a friend who has recently moved there.
For a start my friend lives in what must be one of the most dramatic residential high-rise buildings anywhere in the world. Over 70 storeys high, itself perched on the edge of a hill, needle-thin so that it pierces the sky like an icicle suspended from heaven's gate. The view was tantalising. I could hardly tear myself from the big, bow windows that looked down at other skyscrapers below.
I did tear myself away, of course, and we spent 4 happy days exploring Hong Kong. I remembered Stanley Market from my previous visit – I’d bought a small suitcase there. This time I succumbed to a blouse and matching jacket.
Repulse Bay and the tree-covered hills behind the city continually reminded me that Hong Kong is not all high-rise city intensity. But nature and beauty abound even within the city confines. We visited the Chi Lin Nunnery, built in wood in the style of the Tang Dynasty – a peaceful haven in the Nan Lian Garden, partly sheltered from the sky scrapers by the Mountain of Compassionate Clouds. What could be better than that?
Hong Kong pulses with vitality and splendid views by day and by night.
But among the great breath-robbing gargantuan temples to modern inventiveness, you can also find little red and gold shrines to honour more ancient, tried and tested gods: here a room-turned-temple to the great Hindu trinity – Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, there, nested among rocks between two palaces of commerce, a tiny shrine to Buddha. At on the corner of a winding street in central Hong Kong, past the posh antique shops, this smoky little gem, its ceilings hung with incense- coils, its alters crammed with fruit and flowers to appease its two residential deities, the Chinese Taoist-Buddhist gods, Man, the God of Literature, and Mo, the God of War.
Hong Kong’s markets also remind us of an older, slower age. The flower market is really more of a street of flower shops than market stalls. Orchids are a favourite. But there are also some strange fruit.
The fish market is likewise a series of shops. Here you can buy goldfish and tropicals for your aquarium, all bagged and ready for you to take away, like prizes at a fairground.
My least favourite place was the bird market. Birds are much loved and very popular in Chinese cities. But there seems to be very little understanding of the cruelty inflicted on these creatures of the air by confining them to a tiny cage, however elegant. And worse still, many of the birds were kept in huge numbers crammed together in small holding cages. The smell, by the way, was horrible.
On the other hand the Jade Market was fabulous. I could have spent all day there. Prices were unbelievably low and the quality of the jade work was excellent. I should have bought more. Too late now…
I spent a happy afternoon at the Hong Kong Museum of Art, seeing, of all things, an exhibition of Fantastic Animals from the British Museum. I explored the galleries of Chinese ceramics. But the greatest surprise was an exhibition of work by modern Chinese artist Wu Guanzhong, which I loved, although it was the last thing I expected to enjoy. He works mainly in pen and ink and achieves so much atmosphere with minimal strokes.
The ‘Jumbo’ floating restaurant sums up the gentle exuberance of a city where chic and opulence sit comfortably alongside older, traditional values ranging from gilded dragons to mouth-watering treats for the pallet, from the gigantic to the intimate.