The hotel where I stayed in Bangkok was 300 metres from the Rama I street protest site to the left, and 500 metres from the Lumphini Park protest site to the left. I spent quite some time wandering the sites, which were friendly, welcoming, and very well-organised. Most of the protestors were more than happy to be photographed, and that included children. I was happy to photograph them.
I left for Ayutthaya in a hurry. The ancient captial of Siam’s crumbling, invasion-ravaged wats that are now fighting the pull of gravity are best seen at dawn. I decided that I was going at 15:00. By 16:00 I was heading out of the door, guide-book in bag and hotel booked. Ayutthaya is about a 90 minute bus ride from Bangkok, departing from the Mo Chit bus station. If everything went to plan, I should arrive at the city that’s a UNESCO world heritage site not long after night fall.
The best laid plans of mice and men…
Like Victoria in London, Mo Chit bus station and Mo Chit MRT and BTS stations are not co-located. Unlike Victoria, Mo Chit bus station is not a well-signed few hundred metres’ walk down a straight road from the tube station. There was a solitary sign indicating the bus station as I exited the BTS station, but after that I was plunged into the maelstrom of the the Chatuchak market that takes over the entire area around Mo Chit on a Sunday. I sought help.
The security guard in the MRT station told me to give up attempting to navigate on foot and to hail a cab. It would be much easier.
My experience with taxi-drivers in Bangkok has been mixed. Some have been friendly and polite; others less so. The first taxi-driver I approached was definitely from the latter camp. He was far more interested in polishing his taxi than taking my fare. He physically pushed me in the direction that he thought I should be going and continued to polish his car.
The second taxi-driver I approached spoke neary a word of English, although I did ascertain that he was a Chelsea supporter, but between us we figured out that I needed the bus station. Just as always, the Bangkok traffic was vile, but I eventually rocked up at Mo Chit station where the information kiosk told me I needed window 54 to buy my ticket.
At window 54 I encountered a young woman in her late teens or early twenties who took great delight in laughing at my pronunciation of Ayutthaya. It was a sound I struggled with terribly. Eventually, I found that starting out by asking for help in Italian (aiuto!), got me some way to Ayutthaya. The irony of needing help was not lost on me. She sold me a ticket and sent me off to Bay 98.
Mo Chit bus station is enormous. There are close to 200 bays and quite literally thousands of people coming and going. It is the definition of organised chaos. I sent a message to my parents and brother, asking them to contact the hotel where I’d booked a room for the night, informing them that I might be later than anticipated. Between the confusion at Mo Chit BTS, the taxi ride, and the bus station itself, I was beginning to lose confidence in my grand plan.
At Bay 98 there was no bus, but a rather vocal man schreeching ‘Ayutthaya’ and directing people to his minibus in Bay 96. I tentatively presented my ticket to him and was hustled into his minibus. I’ve still no idea if that were the right bus, but it did get me to where I intended to go, in a manner of speaking.
When you’re on a bus, you rather expect that it will drop you at the bus station. It seems reasonable, no? This bus driver, however, had other ideas. As we approached the ancient city of Ayutthaya, he asked me where I wanted to be dropped. My requests for the bus station were met with derision and instead the woman seated in front of me embarked on some confused interpretation mission to get me to my hotel. It failed.
Rather than being dropped at the bus station, from where I knew how to navigate to my hotel, I was abandoned on a dark road with no pavements and no sign-posts, and told ‘Walking, walking!’ with a wave of the hand to the left. I was alone.
I adhered to the ‘walking, walking’ instruction, looking out for stray dogs, strange men, potholes, and a readable sign-post with every step. Should I be able to locate Wat Phra Mahathat, whether by sign or by prang, I would be able to find my hotel. At the end of the street, there was a sign-post to Wat Phra Mahathat. I followed it, and ended up at a huge roundabout with two wats on it. At this point, there was no choice other than to ask for help. There were no women to be seen, so summoning all the courage I could muster, I asked a man who was loading a tour minibus if he knew where my hotel was.
‘Oh yes, cross the road, it’s 20 metres on the left-hand-side.’
He was right.
What I had hoped would be a relieved arrival at a boutique hotel where I could relax was just another step on the uneven path to Ayutthaya. The security guard spoke no English and had no clue that I was expected. Two phonecalls and a great deal of concern later, I was shown to my room on the ground floor. It had a dodgy lock, a dirty bathroom, two mattresses on a sleeping platform, and a boarded-up window. And there were zanzare.
While the security guard was flapping around looking confused, I very nearly asked for a taxi to take me to the best hotel in Ayutthaya. I should have done it.
My next step was to find dinner. I tried the restaurant next door. Big mistake. The food was mediocre at best and the venue had been taken over by the contestants of Indian Princess, all of whom pushed their meals around their plates and looked more bored than a child kicking his heels on a deserted train station platform. I didn’t order dessert.
My war with zanzare is a well-documented campaign. I react horribly badly to bites and take the best precautions I am able to protect myself from evil winged bloodsuckers. I plaster myself with repellant, I wear long and loose-fitting clothing, I turn down the air-conditioning as low as it goes, I use unscented soap and moisturiser, and I avoid sweet foods.
But it didn’t stop the blighters from biting my face, just beneath my eyes. I woke up at 05:15, ready to observe sunrise from the wat, with a face that looked as if I’d been punched. My eyes were swollen, aching, and red. Still, I’d come to see the wats at dawn, so that’s what I was bloody well going to do.
I ventured out and made my way across the six lane road to Wat Phra Mahathat. You’re supposed to pay a 50 baht entry fee, but there was no guard there to take my money, so I wandered in with the intention of paying later. The sun was beginning to cast its tendrils of light into the day; I needed somewhere to stand. It’s harder than it looks, for there’s a huge, enormous, towering mobile phone mast in precisely the wrong place. It takes careful positioning to capture first light on a Buddha without the intrusion of the 21st century.
I think I managed okay, though.
Leaving the wat, the security guard had arrived, so I strolled up to pay my fee. Whether he thought I were insane to be there so early or terrified by my appearance, I’ve no idea, but he ignored me.
Now, I could tell you about meandering through the park, my disastrous attempt to take lunch at what’s supposed to be an amazing restaurant on the river that I couldn’t find, and refusing to ride the elephants because they’re made to dance and perform tricks for treats, but nothing quite compares to the electro-Buddha that I found in a real working wat, with real Buddhist monks and an animal sanctuary.
It’s by far the best way to end the recollection of my unfortunate trip to Ayutthaya.
There were two items on my ‘Thailand list’ that I was determined to experience during my trip there. The first was to eat Pad Thai from a stand on a street corner. The second was to visit the Thai-Burma railway. Sometimes it’s called the Death Railway.
After the fall of Singapore in 1942, the Imperial Japanese Army sought to consolidate its position in Southeast Asia into a stranglehold. Women and children were sent to hellish internment camps. Men were put into forced labour. A major project of the Southeast Asian campaign was the construction of a 415 kilometre railway, linking Thailand to Burma (as it was then), to bring supplies to the Burma Campaign. Some 61,000 Allied prisoners of war, together with countless Asian labourers, were set to work on it.
While the Japanese anticpated the simultaneous construction—from Thanbyuzyat in Burma and Nong Pladuk in Thailand—would take several years, it was actually completed within 16 months. This came at the cost of tens of thousands of Allied prisoners of war and approximately one hundred thousand Asian workers. They died from malaria, from cholera, from privation, from sheer exhaustion.
The most accessible section of the remaining railway (it was broken up by the British following the end of the war) is at Kanchanaburi, where there’s a bridge over the river Kwae. Yes, that Bridge on the River Kwai, made famous by David Lean. Very little of the original bridge survives, but you can walk across it and through the hordes of tourists taking selfies and longtail boatmen looking for fares, attempt to imagine the hell that the men who built it went through.
When you make it to the other side, and are faced with the encroachment of the jungle through which the prisoners of war would have to have hacked and battled, that’s where their strength of spirit begins to shine.
Slightly less accessible, but bestowing a profound sense of what these men accomplished is Hellfire Pass. It was cut at the height of the ‘Speedo’ period, when men worked 18 hours a day, seven days a week, on subsistence rations. The passage through the rock was hammered-and-tapped night and day; the torchlight giving rise to the name ‘Hellfire Pass’. Now, the Hellfire Pass cutting is so peaceful, looking out across a lush green valley it seems impossible that it was a place of torture.
You reach it by a combination of train—along what remains of the original railway—and taxi. I took a taxi out, which waited for me and then dropped me at Nam Tok for the train back to Kanchanaburi. The train was delayed and it was slow. It passed through sugar cane fields that were being fired in preparation for harvesting. It was third-class only, and air-conditioning meant having the windows open. But it was a fitting way to close the loop on my Death Railway journey.
I make a habit of visiting cemeteries and graveyards when I travel; there’s a lot that they say about the communities that they serve. I make a particular habit of visiting Commonwealth War Graves when I’m far from home. These are the last resting places of men who fought and served and died, separated from family and friends, in fear and privation, to protect my life and my liberty. The least that I can do is to spare them my time and my gratitude.
The War Grave in Kanchanaburi is very different to those in other parts of the world. Instead of the gleaming white proudly upright Portland stone headstones, these are low-pedestal stones with bronze plaques, used because of the risk of earth movement. They feel altogether more sombre, and somehow that’s fitting for the thousands of men who died the victims of war crimes, from brutality and cruelty, in conditions unimaginable. It’s no less awe-inspiring.
I visited late in the day, with the soft golden light of sunset illuminating my photos and reflecting off my tears. I felt exhausted, from the heat, from the excursion, from the emotion, but it couldn’t even bring me close to what these men, all of whom went to hell on earth, must’ve felt.
So that, ladies and gentlemen, was that. Over the course of 151 days I’ve taken 12 flights covering a distance of 43,491 kilometres; 4,330 kilometres on six long distance trains; I’ve not lost my stomach on six ferries; there have been more long distance bus rides than I have wish to calculate; not forgetting local trains and buses, somes cars, funiculars, and bicycles; and I’ve done a whole lot of walking. All of this has taken me through five countries and two territories and put fifteen new stamps and one new sticker in my passport.
I’ve flown a plane, seen stingrays whilst sea-kayaking, watched turtles hatching, been treated to my own personal dolphin show at sunset on Mullaloo beach, stood in silence with 40,000 Australians on Anzac Day, visited Kalgoorlie so that you don’t have to, left most of my guts in Bali, drunk a Sling in Singapore, and fallen in love with Hong Kong.
My poor rucksack is on its last legs and I cannot stand the sight of my boots. So now it’s back to a life that is meant to be normal, if writing a book can really be considered normal.
Life, it’s pretty awesome you know.
I’ve been remarkably proud of my ability to survive as a pseudo-vegetarian—and eat well—in what can only be described as hostile circumstances. In some areas of the United States there appears to be a complete aversion to vegetables. Vegetarianism is virtually a foreign concept in New Zealand and Australia. To be fair, I didn’t eat a great deal at all in Bali. In Singapore, that I eat fish was my saviour. But when I reached Hong Kong, I was on a hiding to nothing. Fish is frequently shellfish and even if something is vegetable-based, the chances are that the stock or base is animal in origin.
When I travelled through Morocco two years ago, I made the conscious choice that I’d eat meat because I was determined that the entire trip wouldn’t be about trying to find me something to eat. My principles are important to me, but I’m pragmatic, too. The same went for Hong Kong. Provided that I didn’t find myself presented with a medley of pig’s entrails or a seafood platter, I’d be fine.
Well, that probably depends on your definition of fine.
When you walk into a chop house and you’re the only Western patron, all eyes are definitely on you. If there’s an English-language menu, then you’re in luck. If there’s not, it’s a case of looking at what everyone else is eating and pointing. But of course, everyone wants to know if you can use chopsticks.
This is precisely what happened when I walked into a chop house in Sheung Wan the evening I returned from Macau. As it happened, I walked in with a Chinese-American woman called Nancy with whom I’d started chatting whilst queuing to re-enter Hong Kong at passport control. She didn’t stand out like a sore thumb; however, she spoke Mandarin, not Cantonese, so we were none-the-wiser about the menu plastered to the walls.
We sat down, began to sip our tea—it’s brought out as standard—and perused what everyone around us was eating. When the proprietor came over and asked us what we wanted, the pointing began. Almost inevitably we didn’t didn’t get what we asked for, but we were brought bowls of soup and two different chicken dishes.
I had a curry that was a glowing a deep shade of ochre, no doubt because of the liberal inclusion of turmeric, and robustly flavoured. It was rich and deep without being overpoweringly hot. Nancy had a very delicate poached chicken dish (given that I’d been ill, reversing the options would have been sensible, but we had no idea until we tried them) that resembled Hainanese chicken, flavoured with ginger and garlic. Everything was very yummy, nothing had unpleasant repercussions, and I coped with chopsticks perfectly.
We walked out very proud of ourselves, having spent a grand total of about £3 on our supper.
I was confident enough to try it again by myself the next day. Then I pointed at a luminous duck, hanging in the window beside a rather pallid chicken, and had it with rice and steamed vegetables. A resounding success, even if the meal lacked company.
As I was taking the train all of one stop from the theme park temple to Lok Fu to visit Kowloon walled park, it crossed my mind how well sign-posted things are for tourists and visitors in Hong Kong. Much like London tube stations, there are locality maps and directional exits: if you want Lockhart Road when leaving Wan Chai station, you need gate D3. Step outside and there will be pink signs indicating attractions and blue signs showing transport links. Follow the signs and it’s fairly hard to get to lost.
Inevitably, I spoke too soon.
Lok Fu station has only one exit, which sweeps you around the left as you leave the building. You emerge into the plaza of a cheap and trashy shopping centre in an area of Hong Kong that comprises a maze of anonymously grey housing blocks, none of which come close to the crumbling tenements scattered amongst the glitz of Wan Chai in terms of dilapidation, but all of which feel world-weary. There’s something faintly depressing about Lok Fu, something that drags at the soul. It’s an anonymous suburb for the anonymous residents of Hong Kong, where one day merges with the next in the constant drip of humidity amongst the faceless and indistinguishable blocks of flats. The monotony is disorienting, and there are no bright pink signs to guide the way or bring some colour to the dullness.
I had no idea where to go. The locality map was about as useful as a fountain pen is to a deep sea diver and the map in my guide book didn’t offer enough street detail to be elucidating. I had a vague notion of the general direction in which I needed to set out, so I put one foot in front of the other and waded through the thick heat. My initial sense of direction was accurate, but before long the repetitive buildings and the similar-sounding street names–Fu Mei, Fu Keung, Fu Mo, insert a mis-elocuted expletive here–brought me back to where I started.
I began again. Yet again, I found myself back at the beginning. It was something out of a Greek myth; or a comedy sketch. Every direction I took, I wound up back in the plaza, beside the guy with the microphone wailing at the residents of Lok Fu as they took the train. Of course they knew if he were a political activist or a religious kook, but to me it was just one more sensation to compound my sense of confusion. *
I took a deep breath, girded myself to attempt to interpret the map again, and hoped that third time I’d be more fortunate. With an overwhelming and probably not misplaced sense of deja-vu, I wove my way between tower blocks, across roads, through a courtyard, past bus stops, up and down steps, and finally hit a main road. It wasn’t the road I needed, but I was sure that if I turned left and carried on, I’d find it. I found a roundabout; first exit Kowloon, second exit the airport. I chose Kowloon. I chose right. I’d found the street that I needed, now I just needed to trudge the fifteen minutes to Kowloon walled park.
As trod my, now incredibly weary, path, it occurred to me that I was passing along the back of the station and the trashy shopping arcade. If I’d turned right as I walked out of the station, rather than being dragged around to left with the natural flow of the topography, I would have found my way much sooner. Sure enough, I soon found a series of pink and blue signs directing people towards the park and a nearby temple. On my return to the station, taking the route, albeit in reverse, that I should have followed initially, I found the missing signpost outside the station. It was to the right of the exit, down a set of steps, and behind a corrugated tin shed. You would have needed a homing device to find it. Instead it took me three attempts, a great deal of frustration, and quite a bit of perspiration.
Was Kowloon walled park worth it? I’d wanted to go there because during colonial rule, the area had held a dubious status: it didn’t seem to fall under either British or Chinese jurisdiction and as a consequence became a notorious den of iniquity. Gambling, prostitution, and dentistry all took place within its sordid walls. Whatever vice was your pleasure could be accommodated there. Consequently, between its illicit activities and its lack of municipal authority, it slipped further and further into a slum-like environment. In the 1990s the decision was made to clear the slum and transform the area into a park. Now, it’s a peaceful oasis of pagodas, ponds, and paths. There are four giant chess boards, a look-out tower, and the remains of an alms house, all a far cry from coke, hookers, and teeth-pullers. As Sod’s Law would have it, the ponds were being dredged and the look-out was closed for maintenance, but it was a pleasant stroll, and I enjoyed a very good lunch close by.
* A note on asking for directions. When you’re a lone female traveller, you are already a vulnerable individual, whether you are lost or not. Asking for directions subjects you to an increased degree of susceptibility to attack and you have to be confident that in relying on the kindness of strangers you are not endangering yourself. In this instance, I’d already received some unpleasant comments from a passing man and was not prepared to approach someone with my English guidebook asking for directions to Junction Road. In retrospect, heading back into the station and enquiring there would have been the optimal solution, but after the first round of failed wanderings through the heat, the cool security of the MTR might have proved too tempting!
I wasn’t really sure what to expect from Macau before I arrived; I knew that it had a strong Portuguese inflection from the days when it was one of their imperial colonies, before it was returned to Chinese authority in 1999, and I knew that it has since flourished as the Las Vegas of South East Asia. Rich Chinese flock to Macau to gamble away their inheritances in the gaudy, brash, gauche, and quite frankly distasteful casinos that line the peninsula’s eastern shore. But I didn’t really expect, once I had fought my way through the lines of equally gaudy, brash, gauche, and distasteful courtesy coaches waiting to take luck’s riders from the port to the gold-clad buildings with not enough windows and an artificial supply of oxygen, and across to the western side of the peninsula into Old Macau, to encounter what is probably the closest resemblance to my imaginings of Ancient Rome.
There’s just this feeling about the place.
Maybe, to begin with, it was because I found myself in a place where I was completely alien and a total outsider, but with sufficient cultural understanding that I didn’t feel overwhelmed or disconnected beyond my limits. Portugal’s influence on Macau was significant, and it felt European enough that I could sense the familiar. Intellectually, I have a grasp of the place, and that’s how I’d expect to feel if I were miraculously deposited in ancient Rome. It wouldn’t necessarily feel natural or normal, but I’d know where to start.
Ancient Rome was a city full of temples. The grand buildings dedicated to members of the official pantheon dominated public life, whilst exotic gods mixed with houses consecrated to local deities, and across the Transtiberina there was a flourishing Jewish community and, at the last count, 13 synagogues. In Macau, the deities might be slightly different, but the religious expression is the same. Catholicism was the religion of officialdom, and the cool and contemplative cathedral, the imposing churches, and clutch of seminaries reflect this.
Up on the hill overlooking the civic centre of Macau are the ruins of St Paul’s. Very little is left of it now, but it would have been a truly remarkable building and somehow, that highlights the tiny little buddhist temple nestled next to it. In the north, there’s an isolated protestant chapel and its accompanying graveyard that’s the last resting place for a handful of European seaman and merchants who died a very long way from home. On the southern tip is the beautiful Temple A-Ma. A Roman would have maintained a small shrine to his family gods–the lararium–inside his house; a Buddhist has it by his front door. The location might be different, but the sentiment of personal dedication is the same. In Macau as in Rome, there’s a temple on every corner.
We might like to think that Rome’s prestige and power meant that it was an orderly city, clearly defined and laid out in a neat grid, a model for its colonial outposts. The truth was that it was confused, ramshackle, and winding. For a start, it was built on seven hills, which is not conducive to easy geography. But the daily risk of fire, the lack of building regulations, and the personal monumental projects of successive emperors meant that it was a sprawling conurbation of multi-storey buildings. Guess what? Macau is a maze of twisting streets, unexpected open spaces, and multi-storey housing with shops beneath them. It’s bustling, crowded, noisy, and hot.
The street food–almond biscuits and candied meat–the mix of people and cultures living cheek-by-jowl and rubbing along more or less harmoniously, the mix of languages. It’s all hugely speculative, but it’s just how I feel that Rome might have felt. Even if I’m wrong, I can’t know that, and Macau was a wonderful trip across the water for a day.
On my first day in Hong Kong I noticed what seemed to be an absolute plethora of pharmacies and chemists. I used to think that Newmarket, population 14,000 and blessed with a Boots, a Superdrug, a Savers, and another chemists whose name temporarily escapes me, was remarkably well endowed with purveyors of beautifying cosmetics and general medicaments. It’s not a patch on Hong Kong. Every street corner seems to be awash with the bright lights and clean packaging of a chemists. When you’re looking for somewhere to have breakfast that doesn’t serve dim sum, a chemist isn’t very useful.
Except of course when you need one.
My battle with biting insects has been well-documented this trip. It’s not just that the evil bloody things find me especially tasty, but that my body reacts quizzically badly to the anti-coagulant that they inject into me every time that they land to feast. The bite site itself will swell and throb, whilst a red, sore corona will radiate from it. It isn’t a standard reaction: it’s unsightly and very painful.
I do my absolute best to protect myself with appropriate clothing and repellant. I’ve been taking B-complex vitamins, which are supposed to help reduce the reaction as well as turn your pee luminous yellow. I sleep with a fan whirring. I’m armed with DEET.
But they’re persistent things and occasionally they prevail.
It happened yesterday, whilst I was walking a path through lush undergrowth on The Peak. In retrospect, it was inevitable; I was a tasty and vulnerable target meandering through an environment flush with preying insects. The blighters that got me were the faster, more vicious black and white striped day mosquitoes. Within moments my legs were covered with three red welts. There was little I could do except reapply the repellant, carry on my walk, and try to forget about them. Miraculously, by the time that I’d made it back to The Peak tram terminus, they’d subsided. Perhaps there is something in the B-vitamin theory.
However, as soon as I stepped into Hong Kong’s sweltering streets this morning, the swelling returned and so did the itch. Heat plus bite equals severe discomfort. And could I find one of these ubiquitous chemists when I needed one? Of course not!
It took me all the way from Wan Chai, via the aerial walkways that are dotted with shops, through the station-also rammed with outlets of the newspaper and cake variety-out at Sheung Wan, where there was also nothing resembling a pharmacy, and to the Macau Ferry terminal to find someone to help me.
By this point I was getting desperate and I almost threw myself at the feet of the woman in the chemists when I located it. She led me to an entire shelf of anti-itch products and recommended two. None was more expensive than $32 (about £3.20) and I was tempted to buy one of each. I restrained myself, however.
Now I have this glorious Japanese concoction that you dab onto the bite site that washes cool relief across your skin. The redness fades, the swelling reduces, and the throb abates. Heaven.
The quintessential view of Hong Kong is from the Peak, the mountain rising 552 metres on the Island. Heading up there is one of Hong Kong’s must-do activities, along with afternoon tea at the Peninsula Hotel (which I didn’t do), a trip to see the Big Buddha (which I also didn’t do), and gawping at the HSBC building (which I sort-of did).
One of the most important things that I’ve learned on this huge trip is that you don’t need to do everything. You pick what you want to do, and you do it well. You savour it, rather than cram in everything that you’re ‘meant’ to experience, but not really experience it all. It’s your journey, your exploration; you make it how you want it to be, not how you’re expected to make it. You’ll enjoy it all the more.
Besides, I’d quite like to keep some things in reserve, for my next trip to Hong Kong. If there’s one place I’m coming back to, it’ll be here. I adore the vibrancy, the diversity, the crazy-beautifulness of this city on the harbour.
But back to the Peak. It isn’t just the view that makes the Peak one of Hong Kong’s most sought-after residences; it’s significantly cooler up there than it is down in the city. And on a day like mine up there, the view isn’t much cop. It was shrouded in cloud.
I stood at the observatory trying to make out buildings through the grey swirling damp. I walked Lugard Road watching for spiders’ webs and unusual light through the mist. I climbed up to the garden of the old governor’s residence and battled against the wind. All the while, there wasn’t very much view.
In some respects it was disappointing, but the rain and the humidity is representative of Hong Kong. That was how I experienced it. That’s my story.
Londoners complain bitterly about public transport. The Tube is hot, overcrowded, often delayed, doesn’t run all night, and very expensive. If buses are ponderous, then the Overground is more so. We do not make nearly enough use of the Thames and Addison Lee thinks that cyclists are good for nothing but target practice, which is bad enough when you cycle everyday, like me, but throw the awesome Boris Bikes into the mix and it’s chaotic.
However, the Tube is the oldest underground transportation network in the world. It is an astonishing feat of engineering that links together London-above-Thames in a criss-cross of tunnels and lines. It carries millions, quite literally millions, of people everyday.
Sure the buses are slow but they can get you from any part of London to any other at any time of day. It might take a strong stomach, a lot of patience, and a knack for reading maps and timetables, but you’ll get there.
Okay, maybe the less said about the Overground, the better. And if you’ve not noticed that I have a love affair with a 10-speed Charge Juicer called Elspeth, then you must have been living beneath a rock. Lack of good cycle paths, murderous white van men, and Addison Lee be damned.
But we do have a miraculous means of moving millions of people from one side of an enormous city to the other. Sure there are huge improvements to be made, but I’m generally proud of London’s public transport facilities.
That’s until Hong Kong. The MTR here is a sight to behold. The trains are wide, have stainless steel seats so that you’re not sitting in a microcosm of dirt, germs, and any other unmentionable you wish to imagine, and are air conditioned. If you need to change trains, there’s no winding passage of tunnels to negotiate, which might or might not lead you to the Minotaur. You just cross the platform. It’s a bit like changing at Mile End. Every time. And it is clean.
Hong Kong had its version of the travel smart card, the Octopus, long before London had the Oyster. But buying a single ticket is ludicrously cheap and markedly simple. All you do is press your destination on a touch-screen and the price appears. When I say cheap, nothing has cost me in excess of 50 pence yet.
You can cross from the island to the mainland via MTR, ferry, or bus. Take your pick depending on how long you have and where you want to go on the other side. None of them breaks the bank.
As for buses, if you’re Octopus-free, you drop your fare into the box beside the driver. There’s no ticket and no change. Not having a ticket freaked me slightly, but the loss of 30 cents change didn’t leave me broken-hearted. Granted, the looping adverts played on a succession of TV screens did disturb me, in more ways than one.
Then there are the trams, the ferries, and the not-too-expensive taxis. It all just works. For pennies.