Jason’s Trot: The Other Hong Kong
When one thinks of Hong Kong, one thinks of a densely populated island, with limited privacy, limited space and limited breathing room. While the former two are right, I question the latter. Head out a bit on the MTR or buses and you will be surprise to see what lies a short 15 minute ride away on Hong Kong Island.
A Hike Away
The most obvious candidate for this breathing space would be both The Peak and the Hong Kong Botanical Gardens, both beautiful sites in their own right. Quite a number of my mates in Hong Kong swear their (almost) unrivalled mountaineering skills are because of their morning hill runs up along the alleys leading up to and splitting from Victoria Peak. The view, I can say with certainty, is worth the thigh and calf burns.
The endless greenery and dense foliage in the Hong Kong Botanical Gardens only belie their urban locale due to the northern section facing the concrete jungle of Central. Come a nice spring, summer or autumn day, this becomes a fine spot for a light exercise, people watching, or people watching while doing a light exercise.
The Southern Shores
The South Island line, opened n 2016, opens up the quieter side of Hong Kong Island, long only accessible by bus (if you rely on public transport), and for possibilities for even more breathing space, if only for an expanse of concrete towers but devoid of people during office hours.
Aberdeen, on the southern side of the island, like her Scottish namesake, is often eclipsed by her louder and more hip sisters Victoria (or Glasgow and Edinburgh, if we’re still talking about the ‘original’ Aberdeen). Taking the Island South Line at Admiralty MTR station and passing Ocean Park, a large amusement park and the first before Hong Kong Disneyland, towards Lei Tung Station, you will be transported from a concrete jungle with all its noise and bustle and jostling crowds to a quiet(er) concrete jungle with boats lazing in the harbour and a quiet belying its urban setting.
Rugged Coastline Drive
The coastal road hugging the coast along the southern side of Hong Kong provides for a stunning drive or ride. Regular buses ply the route from Aberdeen to Stanley, making a for a scenic tour of the south of Hong Kong Island, if a convertible or sportsbike isn’t handy.
The rocky cliffs and steep falls provide for a mesmerizing view, if the narrow single-lane carriageway does not get to you. Precariously perched houses and condominium buildings seemingly defy gravity, and you start to wonder if you really are in one of the most densely populated areas on the planet.
Urban Beaches, Green Hills
One of the biggest draws of the south of Hong Kong Island are the numerous beaches that dot the coastline. Deepwater Bay and Repulse Bay are two of the more well-known and easily accessible beaches in Hong Kong, both being urban beaches with good facilities.
Repulse Bay is the poster boy for urban beaches in Hong Kong: popular with locals and tourists and having some of the most expensive real estate on the island, if not the region, this beach is a destination unto itself. Think Bondi Beach, but without Icebergs. The area is well provisioned with a promenade, terraces and an array of food, dining and entertainment options. Even on a weekday, expect bus-loads of tourists.
However, on the coastal drive between Aberdeen and Stanley, and before Repulse Bay, Deepwater Bay and Deepwater Bay Beach is, arguably, a nicer beach. While it does not have as many facilities, food, dining and entertainment options as Repulse Bay, this beach is quieter, more intimate and has a good view of the surrounding islands. Plus, it is easy to catch the bus here.
Hong Kong has many facets to it behind the glitz and glamour, the gleaming towers and glowing cocktail bars. A visit to Hong Kong may be filled to the brim with the usual tourist haunts, but the joy of this destination is her array of urban entertainment options, from the usual steel and glass to the not so common sand and tree.
Even though I have been to Hong Kong quite a few times, I always find something new to plan on my next visit. There are prettier walks to the east of Hong Kong Island, and I have yet to even mentioned the New Territories or Outlying Islands. The possibilities for urban escapes are endless, somewhat. Dense, yes. No breathing space? Nah. Unless the smog rolls in from Southern China.
Get an Octopus Card. The 3-day pass with Airport Express ticket is well worth it, and you can always add value to your card for fare on the bus, Star Ferry or trams.
The Island South Line starts at Admiralty MTR Station and ends at South Horizons. I got off at Lei Tung Station, which is in the heart of Abderdeen Island ‘village.’
Frequent buses ply the route between Aberdeen and Stanley, and stops at Deepwater Bay and Repulse Bay. The bus has an info screen and announcements in English, at least the double-decker ones.
If there is one monument to the majesty of the House of Chakri and the devotion of the Thais to the late King of Thailand, Rama IX, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, this grand structure bedecked in gold would surely be it. At USD 90 million, little expense was spared.
Fit for a king
Located in Sanam Luang, also known as the Royal Lawn, in front of the Grand Palace complex in Bangkok, for more than a year from October 2016 to December 2017, there was restricted access to the site. Throughout my frequent visits to Bangkok between that period, news headlines in the paper displayed in the hotel lobby or foyer kept me updated on this, the grand farewell.
Naturally, I was curious and wanted to see what it looked like. Having missed the construction period due to the chaos of the site during that period, the restrictions when the site was completed, and not seeing the funeral ceremony in person, I did the next best thing: wait until the ceremony was over.
Luckily, the site was still open for viewing in mid-December 2017 when I went to visit, the viewing period extended by a month. The wait was worth it. After being told to wear trousers (which I should have known, and I bought those cheap THB 100 ones for this event), signing a ‘foreigner’s guest book’ and going through 3 layers of security, I was handed a muffin and a small bottle of water.
I was then led to a tented holding area with a crowd, as we waited for our turn to enter the site. As there were a number of school groups before us, it took a while. When our turn came up, we were offered umbrellas as shade from the mid-day sun, and when we proceeded from the tents, there before us, the great spires of the cremation pyre: the Royal Crematorium.
Form and function
As much as I love architecture and the decorative arts, I would not dare start with a study on the cultural and artistic elements of this site. What I can start on is my walk around the grounds itself. Navigating my way past the crowds of school children, I noticed I was among the few foreigners on site. Most visitors were Thais, who wanted a memory of this transient monument.
The dominant structure here is the Royal Crematorium itself, spit over four floors, each having a form and purpose. The central pavilion rises up to the sky, unmistakable in its regal form, from the royal nine-tiered umbrella at the pinnacle to the delicate artwork along the screens. Designed to evoke Mount Meru, the home of the Hindu gods, the central structures, 8 side structures and terraces are surrounded by a pond and sculptures of mythical creatures.
Surrounding the Royal Crematorium are a number of pavilions, from pavilions for high ranking officials to a royal waiting pavilion. The grandest and longest pavilion, a great hall by itself, is basically a royal audience chamber, with unrivalled views of the Royal Crematorium. This is the Royal Dhamma Pavilion, where the royal family, royal guests, diplomatic corps and other high officials of state were seated during the ceremony.
Now, except for the royal waiting pavilion, all the other pavilions house exhibits ranging from the life of the king to replicas of architectural and artistic elements and dioramas of the Royal Crematorium.
A study in high Thai arts
All the pavilions incorporate classical high Thai architecture elements in their design, and during this viewing period, houses beautiful pieces of replicas, scale models and information boards on the Royal Crematorium’s construction.
In one pavilion, you could see the entire site in a scale model, and cut out scale models of the Royal Crematorium and auxiliary pavilions. In another pavilion, beautiful plaster cast replicas, first models and actual casts were on display. The other pavilions had displays of palanquins, replica chariots and actual wheels used to transport the Royal Urn from the Grand Palace to the crematorium. One of the highlights was the pavilion housing replicas of the artwork on the fireguard screens.
A central feature of the Royal Cremation Ceremony Exhibition is the exhibition of the life of King Bhumibol. Located in the Royal Dhamma Pavilion, this large airconditioned space was a perfect spot to seek refuge from the midday sun. Despite the uncharacteristically cold (but absolutely perfect) 20*c mid-day weather in Bangkok, a little air conditioning is always a good idea.
Inside were murals and write-ups on the king and his achievements during his long reign. Displayed in 5 ‘chapters,’ they displayed how highly the Thai king was seen and revered. The exhibits covered the following, and were a very interesting read:
What really captured me in this space are the views. The great hall was indeed great, and the view from the central axis towards the Royal Crematorium is unrivalled, perfectly framed by windows and arches.
Like all good things, and in all things in Dhamma, there is a continual cycle. From beauty, decay; from death, life. This beautiful structure was never meant to be permanent, and this fine piece of high craftsmanship, of delicate artwork and intricate passion, would eventually be dismantled. A shame, but that is life: live in the moment, for we are all transient.
How did this study on a Royal Crematorium suddenly became an introspection? Oh, wait, I just answered my own question.
The Royal Crematorium is currently being dismantled and will be fully demolished by March 2018. The site is no longer open for viewing as of January 2018. However, sections of the Royal Crematorium will be preserved and moved to a specially constructed museum near the National Archives in Pathum Thani province.
Jason is a world traveller and avid seeker of high perches, on a mission to capture the unique experiences that makes destinations iconic.