Probably the best place I saw in my six days in Hong Kong is the Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery. As far as I can tell this place is not even mentioned in the Lonely Planet book, which is a disgrace. Let me qualify these last two sentences: although I was a first-time visitor on a short trip, I was with a friend who lived here for a year, and who took advice from Hong Kongers about what to see when here. He and his wife gave me invaluable suggestions about where to go (insert joke here) and they described the Ten Thousand Buddhas as a must-see. In short, I have more Hong Kong tourism expertise than you might think. Second qualification: the monastery is a very long way from being wheelchair accessible, involving a steep climb up a hill. There is a ramp, but I cannot imagine having the arm-strength to get a wheelchair up it. And no one who struggles up hills could walk it. The incline is about 30 degrees, I would guess, and it lasts and lasts. But if you can get there, it is well worth it.
The view's not bad, for one thing.
My second favorite temple is not the famous Man Mo Temple in Sheung Wan, although that is very good, but the more out-of-the-way Man Mo Temple in Tai Po. I was in Tai Po anyway because it's where my friends lived, but it might not be so much better than the other one to justify a trip out there. Your call. The famous one is bigger and, I'm told, often filled with tourists (I saw only a few when I was there). The more obscure one is a bit smaller and much quieter, hence more atmospheric. Both are fantastically elaborate: lined with statues of multiple gods, colorfully painted, intricately carved, filled with incense, punctuated with drum beats and bell tolls, occupied by the genuinely devout, places of commemoration hanging with flags of prayer, places for giving gifts of food and more incense to the gods, enemies of minimalism, sullied by my photographing presence.
The cones are suspended, burning coils of incense.
Other highlights so far: the view from the peak (clear when I went there, but perhaps not a must-see otherwise), the Star Ferry between central Hong Kong island and the Kowloon Peninsula, the Hong Kong Museum of History (lots of short movies and life-size replicas you can walk through and around, all for less than US $2: a must), the Hong Kong Museum of Art (a should more than a must, but also less than US $2 and right next to the Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade, so you really should), and Kowloon Park (Hong Kong Park is meant to be nice too--both have aviaries, people doing Tai Chi, etc.).
The second best thing I did was to take a free Tai Chi lesson on the promenade from William Ng and Pandora Wu. You just show up at 8:00 am on Monday, Wednesday, or Friday and join in. I found out about this from the Lonely Planet guide, so it's good for something, but it incorrectly says that you have to make reservations. Far from it--any passerby is loudly encouraged to join in. I showed up early and found myself doing twenty minutes of Tai Chi (very badly) with Chinese people (some of whom were just as bad as me, thankfully). The lesson starts with breathing exercises, about a minute of meditation, watching a demonstration, being led through a short routine of exercises a few times, watching another demonstration, and then finally photographs. Unfortunately they kindly insist on your being in the pictures with them, and in a Tai Chi pose no less, so I won't post one here. But they are expert teachers, the location is spectacular (when you're not watching the instructor or keeping your eyes on your left hand as instructed all you see is the harbor and the skyline behind it), and it's a perfect introduction to one aspect of Chinese religion and culture.
The third best thing I did was go to the Big Buddha (I just mis-typed that as Big Buggha!) on Lantau Island. It's quite touristy, but you can just walk through those parts and focus on the 34-metre-tall Buddha, the weird vegetarian lunch (including unidentifiable-vegetable soup) you get at the nearby monastery if you buy a ticket to see the relic and view from upstairs in the Buddha building, and the great walks you can do up there away from the crowds. I had already checked out of my hotel and wanted to avoid getting too sweaty before my flight home, so I didn't hike much, but I did walk the Wisdom Path. I had no idea what this was, but it turned out to be all 260 verses of the Heart Sutra (in Chinese) inscribed on huge wooden columns in a figure-eight pattern. It reminded me of Stonehenge, although I suppose I'd be getting carried away if I said it was as impressive a sight as that. Still I think the Hong Kong Tourism Commission is right to call it a masterpiece.
Sadly, the same cannot be said of my photograph.
Other places I've been:
- the mid-level escalators on Hong Kong island: outdoor escalators going up (but not down) a steep hill surrounded by real-estate agents and bars for ex-pat Brits, Aussies, etc. All I could think about was the lives those people must lead. They must be loaded because it's an expensive place, but they all seem to be either together (not mixing with the natives) or alone (not mixing even with each other). Analytic it may be, but island life looks insular for ex-pats. And clichéd it may be, but are they really happy?
- Temple Street Night Market: surprisingly similar to markets in Cambodia, almost as if there are factories in Asia churning out all those Buddha statues, Dr Dre Beats headphones, etc. Until we got to the sex toys. Those were new. And very, very plentiful.
- Chi Lin Nunnery and adjacent Nan Lian Garden: more restrained than the Taoist temples but still not all that different really, and very peaceful
- Hung Shing Temple and Fook Tak Temple: both recommended as among the "best temples" by my guidebook, neither worth going out of your way for given their small size. The book calls them "quirky," but there just isn't much there to see except people trying to smoke a cigarette or pray and being interrupted by some fool with a camera who bought the wrong guidebook
- Cheung Hing Tailor, fourth floor, 79 Queen's Road C. [Central?]: bought a custom-made jacket (which hasn't arrived yet so I can't vouch for the quality, but others who should know do). About $140 including shipping, which seems like a good deal to me. Quite an experience too: "Two button free button? New fashion! Two button. Obama! Ha ha!"
Here's the itinerary I would suggest:
Day One: maybe the first morning you should walk around Tsim Sha Tsui (I'm sort of assuming you're staying in this area, just because I did), visiting the promenade (don't miss the Tai Chi lesson at 8:00 if it's Monday, Wednesday, or Friday), the history museum, and the art museum. After lunch head for the peak if it's clear, or a temple if it's not. Maybe take the Star Ferry to central and hit Man Mo Temple, see some skyscrapers, and pretend to be in the market for antiques. There really is a lot of good shopping to do, from expensive works of art in central to cheap (not-necessarily)-crap in the night market.
Day Two: if you are sufficiently mobile, head to the Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery in Sha Tin. You could visit the Chi Lin Nunnery and adjacent Nan Lian Garden in the afternoon. There is a restaurant here (which I didn't try), so perhaps go here in the morning and then hit the Ten Thousand Buddhas after lunch, although I tried something like this and didn't stay long enough to still be in the garden at lunch time. Your patience may vary.
Day Three: head out to Lantau Island (the MTR train system takes you to Tung Chung, then you get a cable car to the Big Buddha). I would seriously consider making a day of this, either hiking as much as you can or doing one of the tours of the island (one includes a boat trip on which you might see dolphins). For about $10 (US) you can go up in the building at the base of the Buddha, where there is an unimpressive museum and spectacular views, and an enormous vegetarian lunch down below at the monastery. Worth it, I think.
Days Four-Six: catch up on whatever you missed that I mention above, otherwise see as many temples as you can, walk as much as you can, and look around some markets. If I had stayed longer I might have gone by boat to Macau, which sounds good.
A note on food: Maybe it's just me, but I often felt inclined to skip lunch, which is not the usual me at all. My hotel offered a huge buffet breakfast, dinners were very filling, and there is plenty of snack food available as you go around (the English-style custard tarts are great, there is good dim sum in the markets, and I would try as many mysterious dessert-type things as you can). So that leaves dinner. You have to have dim sum at least once. The best other food I had was hot pot (not sure where, but it felt like a very local place) and meals at the Spicy Crab (which gets remarkably mixed reviews: I had nothing very expensive there and it was all very tasty, perhaps because I went with people who knew what to order) and (I think) Lin Heung Tea House. The hot pot can be spicy if you want (you get to choose the broth you cook your food in, and to add whatever spices you like to your own bowl), and the food at the other places was sometimes incredibly garlicky (which I like). People here don't generally speak much English, but it's not that hard to find places with menus in both Chinese and English, and you can point to what you want. Or stick to sad pub meals in Central.
This is worth seeing too.