Friday, May 30, 2008

Let's go to the movies ...

Going to the movies in Hong Kong is a civilized affair: they have assigned seating.

At first, I was put off by this idea, but after trying it, I liked not worrying about getting to the theater early to get a good seat since you choose your place when you purchase the tickets.

Word to wise: buy your tickets online in advance , since seats fill up fast as the movies don't stay in the theaters very long. Even popular films only stick around for about a week ... two at most! The theaters are all quite small, too, so don't worry about taking a seat towards the back.

One overarching complaint about HK movie-theaters is that they don't seem to take their sound systems seriously. This girl likes her movies loud. Oh ... and if you're a butter lover, you're out of luck: popcorn comes two ways only, salty or sweet.

Details: for theater listings and tickets, go to Cityline or Broadway Circuit.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Back from Beijing, comrad

Sometimes a place seems to have a soul all its own; mystique laced with energy that keeps you in constant motion wandering from one fantastic spot to the other. Beijing is that kind of city.

Unlike other large Asian cities, Beijing hasn't been desecrated by Westernization. This is a Chinese city, first and foremost. There's just a handful of signs in English, and you can forget about getting a taxi driver who speaks a language other than Mandarin. In Beijing, you get the frenetic pace of progress mixed with remnants of China's long, cultural past.

Having said that, Beijing is at the tipping point: trendy restaurants are on the rise, hawker stalls are moving indoors to clean up the streets and there's even a good saturation of Starbucks on city blocks.

The worst part of Beijing is getting there. You can go to any of the China Travel branches, but make sure you bring proof of your itinerary and hotel bookings when you go. Bring lots of cash, too: all the rates have been raised for the Olympics, so a visa will set you back about $1600 HKD if you're an American like me.

My three-day itinerary included these highlights:

The Forbidden City - Built smack in the middle of Beijing, this compound that belonged to the Emporer is staggering in size. Do yourself a favor and splurge for the audio tour since there are few signs that will explain the history of the palaces and temples.

Green T. - This restaurant is the kind of party girl you hate: the one who is pretty and flaunts it. Green Tea is oh, so pretty, but it's pretentious to boot. Take for instance the menu .... it's written in poetry (I kid you not). However, the place will win you over first with it's food presentations - a tree with small butterflies in it accompanied spring rolls to the table - and then with the food - I'm still dreaming about the spare ribs that were reminiscent of oatmeal cookies. Sounds strange, but so good.

Dirt Market - This large, open air market only operates on the weekends, but it is a bonanza of pottery, art, handicrafts, Cultural Revolution paraphernalia, jewelry and ... well just about anything you can think of. (Brian picked up a pair of binoculars). The name reflects the pricing: it's dirt cheap! Well, at least most stuff is after you've bargained for it. Tell the taxi driver you want to go to Panjiayuan (the Chinese name for the market), and Skip the Silk Market, which is open all week, but has similar goods at three times the price.

Bei Hai Park - Even though Bei Hei is fast becoming the center of where expats eat and party, during the day it still belongs to The People. On the sunny day we were there, some were paddling along the large lake, others were just resting by the banks, while still others were singing opera and swimming in their Speedos like this crazy guy pictured.

798 Artist District -- Located in the Dashanzi district, this artists' enclave is testament to the forward-thinking momentum of the city - although there is a rumor that the area will be shuttered after the Olympics. That would be a shame, because you can spend the better part of a day flitting from shops to galleries to cafes here. The space that houses 798 used to be German weapons factories and there's still a stark, industrial feel to this place that's rich with creativity.

Dumplings - Going to Beijing and not having dumplings is like going to Philadelphia and not having a cheesesteak. These doughy delicacies can be found everywhere, but are best at the cheap corner stands.

Hutongs - Just a few years ago, hutongs, traditional Beijing homes built around a center courtyard, were a dying breed. Construction of hotels, apartments and shopping centers were destroying whole neighborhoods of these classic homes. Thanks to public outcry, however, the hutong is crawling back from the brink of extinction. In fact, many are being refurbished and even rebuilt. Go to areas east of the Forbidden City or near Bei Hai park to experience to hutong.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Day trip in Cheung Chau

Although it only takes 30 minutes to get to Cheung Chau from HK Island, the difference feels a hundred years apart. Sampans dot the waterways; open air shops and restaurants densely line the streets in town; and to get around you'll need to walk; cars simply aren't allowed.

That's fine since hiking is a pleasure on the island. Go towards the main beach Tung Wan, and you'll see a winding path. It will lead you past the Mini Great Wall, temples, rock carvings and other pretty vantage spots on the island.

After working up a sweat, head back to the beaches. Opt for the smaller beach, Kwun Yam Wan, set back from town. The facilities are not as nice as at Tung Wan beach, but there is a small restaurant, and you can rent beach chairs and an umbrella for the afternoon.

When you're appetite starts raging after an afternoon of hiking and swimming, head into town where you can refuel at one of the many fish restaurants by the boat pier. They supposedly all have similar quality food, but it's always wise to choose one that seems popular. While a nice harbor-side seat sounds scenic, be warned that the water can be smelly.

Details: Pier 5 from Central every 30 min (app.). No transportation needed on the island.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Bali bound

Bali isn't the polished, beach babe that you expect, but she certainly has her charms.

She can be crafty - think batik, basket weaving and wood carving.
She can be hardworking - rice fields and cattle take up all open space.
She can be laid back - courtesy of the surfer and backpack vibe.

Three days was hardly enough to see it all ... but I can always come calling on Bali again.

If you, too, are short on time, here are some highlights:

Do the pig -- Stuffed with spices and then spit roasted to a crispy perfection, Babi Berguling is a classic Balinese dish. Go to Warung Ibu Oka in Ubud. It isn't the fanciest, but it's been called the best. There you can grab a seat on the floor, sip on a lime juice and indulge in this sublime pork specialty.

Do the creatures - In Ubud, there is a Monkey Forest. Skip that, those creatures can be nasty, and head instead to the Bird & Reptile Sanctuary. They have a Komodo dragon, plus amazing owls, macaws, lizards and even large-winged bats that you can get up-close to.

Do the shopping -- The shopping alone is enough reason to go to Bali. This is an import mecca for many island-inspired home goods you see in stores. Bypass the markup and stock up on placemats, baskets, napkins, woodcarvings, textiles and more (I got napkin rings that sell at Pottery barn for $8 for $0.75). They also have some cute boutiques that specialize in island wear at a fraction of what it costs back home.

Do the fish -- Catch a taxi to Jimberan and then stroll into one of the many fresh seafood restaurants along the beach. How fresh you ask? Your fish is plucked from a tank and then grilled before your eyes.