Disorganised as ever, I sauntered off the plane into Hong Kong airport with no itinerary, no accommodation booked, and nothing but a small bag containing a few clean t-shirts. This is how I roll.
I had tried to book a hostel, of course, but it seems that hostels are practically non-existent in HK. Instead, what you have are lots and lots of expensive hotels, and then two skyscrapers called Mirador Mansions and Chungking Mansions, both of which are filled with budget accommodation and immigrants hawking watches. Don’t stay here alone! warned all the reviews. Dangerous! Unsafe! Awful!
“Ah, budget accommodation?” said the girl at the tourist info place in the airport. She drew the bus route on a map for me. “Chungking Mansions.” Seeing my expression, she laughed. “Don’t worry, it’s safe. Just look for this sign saying it’s licensed, and ask to see the room before you pay.”
Well, I have to say I thought the reviewers were exaggerating about the guys selling watches outside. They were not. I fail to see how there could possibly be so much demand for knock-off watches on this street, particularly as they’re targeting travellers who can’t afford to stay in nice hotels away from all the touting. Madam, would you like a watch? Watch, madam? Beautiful watches!
However, the people who warned of the dangerousness of the area have clearly just never been outside of their own country before, because I did not feel at all unsafe there. Overwhelmed, perhaps, by the sheer variety of languages, nationalities, and ethnicities around me – a lot of the time, I was the only female, white, native English-speaker in sight, and I confess that that did feel a little daunting and intimidating at first. More importantly, though, I found the whole experience fascinating. Apparently TIME magazine named Chungking Mansions as ”Best Example of Globalization in Action”, and it’s certainly the most culturally diverse place I’ve ever been. But dangerous? Not at all.
I experienced none of the scamming and conning that surrounded me in Beijing. The hawkers were hugely annoying, but not forceful or nasty. I fought my way through swarms of people from – it seemed – every square inch of the entire planet, waited in line amongst them for the lift to a “hotel”, and eventually found myself in The Dragon Inn: quite possibly my most amusing accommodation to date.
The thing is, space is a precious commodity in HK. In that there isn’t any. Apartments and hotel rooms are therefore tiny, and the budget ones aren’t more than cupboards. This is no exaggeration – part of the reason I travelled so light was that so many HostelWorld reviews mentioned the impossibility of bringing a suitcase into the room with you. My lack of luggage ended up being the reason I got a room in the Dragon Inn, as it was the first thing the owner – a slightly eccentric but businesslike lady called Ms. Lam – looked for. Ah, no bag, good, good, she said busily, you can stay here. You are very lucky. My hotel is very very excellent, very famous.
There was something sweet yet hilarious about the pride she took in her hotel, if it was in fact a hotel. She was rather blunt and sharp-tongued on every other subject, but every time she spoke of “my hotel”, her face beamed as if she were a doting mother at her toddler’s first nativity play.
Yes, I think you will not be too long, she said thoughtfully, looking at me as I sat in her tiny office, swinging my feet. Three nights, I confirmed helpfully, until I realised that she was looking at me from head to toe and quite literally sizing me up to check that I wasn’t too long for the bed. There was not really anything I could do about this, so I just sat there meekly trying to look short as she answered a phone call from a customer.
Yes, yes, what you want? When you coming? No no, when you coming to my hotel? Yes, yes, but when you COMING? I think you are little stupid. OK, but when you coming to my hotel?
This went on for about five minutes while I stared desperately at the pictures on the wall in an attempt not to roar with sleep-deprived laughter at Ms. Lam’s customer service skills. Then it was off for a guided tour of my room, which involved her going into it and turning around in a circle, pointing at everything while I tried to squeeze just my head around the half-open door. I couldn’t get in until she’d left, and the first thing I did when the door closed behind her was experiment to see if I could in fact touch one wall with my left hand and the opposite one with my right at the same time. Having confirmed this, I tried to take a photo of the room, but discovered that the only way to even remotely manage this was to stand in the tiny ensuite, lean out precariously, and hold my camera out in the direction of the mirror.
I loved it. Clearly I am not like the majority of travellers, who had me quite concerned by only having negative things to say about accommodation in Hong Kong: dangerous, old, dirty, run-down, tiny, uncomfortable… yes, it was impossibly small, and no, it wasn’t the most modern place I’ve ever stayed in, but when there are space issues and you still manage to find somewhere to sleep, shower, and change, there’s not much to complain about. I’d choose it over a hostel, for the semi-privacy.
I say semi, because Ms. Lam and her staff do not have any issues with coming into the rooms several times a day after only a cursory knock – and because the rooms are so tiny, there’s not exactly anywhere to run and hide if you happen to be getting dried after your shower or something. The first time she landed in beside me, I was changing my t-shirt, so I was mildly startled to find myself bra-to-face with the totally unruffled Ms. Lam, asking me if I wanted a lemon drop. Err, no… no thanks, I said as politely as one can while talking to a complete stranger in one’s underwear, and she left me to it. By the end of my stay, I didn’t even jump when I heard the door opening. You just need to go with the flow when you’re a budget traveller, you know?!
I was definitely too long for that bed, though, as it turned out.