This year, I decided to be serious on the idea of being scared, but pursuing what it is that scares me anyways. And first on my list was going on my first international trip. I’ve been around my country for the last few years, and though I planned on a holiday abroad, I never get around to it until this year. I imagined it would be very stressful, or expensive or overrated. But these are what I learned and hopefully, they will help you too:
Do’s for your first international trip:
Set your trip objective. We travel for different reasons – pleasure, exploration, self-discovery, business. But whatever it is that you hope to achieve, be clear about it and stick to it. This will give direction to the places, food and people you may want to get in contact with once you reach your destination. This will also influence the cost and/or duration of your trip and many other important decisions you’ll have to make even before booking your flight.
Check airport and immigration rules and requirements. Do you have all the necessary IDs or travel documents for the place you’re going to visit? Are there any special documents you need to secure? How heavy should your luggage be? Do you even need a luggage, or will a backpack do? Can you bring food/drinks while on the airport premises? How do you pack toiletries so you can clear the gates? About how many hours should you check yourself in so you’re considered “on-time” for your flight?
Do you research. I can’t stress this enough. Not just because you need to know the basic greetings but because you got to have a general idea about the place you’re going to. So create a checklist:
- Weather: what clothes is most appropriate for the activities that you want to do?
- Usual modes of transport: How do you go from point A to B?
- Food: which would you try and which would you skip on?
- Language: do they know your language? Are they able to communicate in English? Can you speak their language?
- Customs: you never want to rile up the locals when you’re in their territory. Please check what they consider rude and what they consider as acceptable behavior.
- Currency: do you need to exchange your money for theirs, or is it already acceptable?
- Help lines: because you’ll never know what may happen.
Bring a map. Install an app, or get one from the airport. It’s important that you have a general idea of how big the place is or how far you are from the location you’re going to. Also, it will save you a lot of hassle and anxiety in case you missed your stop.
Get online access. Oh well, this may not apply to remote and far off holiday places that are totally off the grid. But who will go on those places in their first international trip? Just saying online access is important so you can check most things – maps, reviews, more information. This’ll definitely make your trip safer and more convenient.
Never assume. Be a smart and responsible traveler. Know about the place as much as you can. It’ll be the only way you can maximize the experience while you’re visiting. Just because the place has low crime rate, doesn’t mean there aren’t any bad people around. So be sure to keep yourself safe. Also, only eat at places you deem clean and credible. If possible, never eat something that’s not prepared in front of you.
Enjoy. Take in the scenery Reflect on the differences. Appreciate the local culture. Stop converting costs of every little thing in your head. Keep the judgments to yourself because as of the moment, they’ll only relevant to you. You may only be visiting once, so make each moment count. Make them memorable.
Of course, I never followed these tips to a T. I only realized them in hindsight. And it caused me a lot of stress. My tolerance for anything foreign is extremely low so you can just imagine what this trip did to me. I’m just so glad it turned out to be very wonderful and fulfilling.
WHY HONG KONG?
I read somewhere that this city is a good start for anyone who’s taking their first international trip. And they couldn’t be more correct.
First, Hong Kong prides itself as a modern city – lively commerce, towering skyscrapers, multilingual citizens, and efficient transportation systems. This means you’ll find bits and pieces of the country you came from and you’ll only have a bit of difficulty adjusting to the new environment.
Second, the cost is reasonable for everything – accommodation, food, fares, tours, shopping items. You’ll really get the value of the item you paid for, as long as you’re smart about it.
Lastly and most importantly, it provides the contrast, that difference you may be looking for when you think about exploring a foreign place with a culture other than your own. Hong Kong can give you a glimpse of everything – tradition vs progress, natural vs man-made, ambition vs humility. This city for a lack of better term, is a gateway to the rest of the world.
SO WHAT’S IN HONG KONG?
Ships, ports and container vans. You’ll be greeted by this sight the moment you land. Hong Kong is a natural port. And this exact feature is what makes it an ideal trading post, it’s the key to Hong Kong’s success.
High-rises, lots and lots of ‘em. Whether you’re staying in the city or in their “country” side, you’ll always see these concrete sentinels looking over the cityscape. And as believers of feng shui, the buildings are erected in the most auspicious place as possible. To attract good fortune, buildings must face south (towards the water), in front of the mountains.
Locals believe that water signifies money. Mountains are where the dragons sleep. So to face the source of wealth and be backed by a strong entity would mean very good fortune. That’s why buildings cluster at Victoria Harbor and Stanley Ho’s mansions sit atop the Kowloon Island.
Of course, not everybody in the city can afford to buy a place in such prime locations. Locals can never extend the land, so they have no choice but to build vertically. It’s true for the countryside as well. It’s pretty normal to see buildings with 50 floors. The guide says the usual housing floor area is about 32sqm, for a family with 5 members. The monthly rent on the average is HKD10,000 with government housing 30% less than that. Living cost in the city is pretty high, so some locals voluntarily quit their jobs to qualify for government housing. And then they will just switch jobs after that.
Fast-paced everything. At the bus, the guide told us Hong Kong is not the place you go to for relaxation. You got to be on the go every time. There’s so much to see and so much to do. Restaurants will serve your food in under 3 minutes. You can never be waiting for the train for 5 minutes. The queue at the theme parks is 30 minutes tops. Or maybe we visited on the weekday. But nevertheless, everything, everyone seems to be rushing on. It fills me with longing for time. The city is on the same timezone as my country, but it felt like the city’s clocks are made of something else, something that makes them tick faster.
Clean transports. I never saw anyone eat at trains or in the bus. Some people can drink in the ferry. But this strict rule really has a good effect. The train’s cleanliness is maintained. And you can never offend anyone with the smell of your food.
Affluent market. Resulting from the city being an important trading hub, locals can be very affluent and sport lavish lifestyle. International high end brands for anything have presence in Hong Kong, some of them even have multiple shops. Most people just commute but when you see someone using a personal vehicle, you can bet that it’s someone who’s rich.
Hong Kong does not levy import taxes. So you can definitely buy branded items at discounted price, whether they be clothes, bags, shoes or gadgets. Most people visit Hong Kong just to shop. And those who have long layovers take advantage of the time to go to the shopping districts.
Hard working people. Due to high living costs, it’s very easy to be homeless in cities like Hong Kong. I never saw such a hardworking bunch, even people 65 years old and above are working. Mostly I see them on stations and airports, helping/greeting visitors. I reckon it’ll be usual for people to hold down two jobs.
WHICH PLACES TO VISIT?
I went to Hong Kong for vacation, and I hoped it would be a relaxing one. That’s how my brain works around vacation – chill, relaxing time. So you can only imagine my disappointment when I heard what the tour guide said in the bus. But that didn’t mean I had a lousy time.
It’s the happiest place on earth. Enough said.
No, really. We were just in time for the parade. And my heart keeps doing somersaults in the air the whole time. The music, the colors, the dance, everything… It was as if I was caught in this awesome feel-good movie that could never end. Of course it had to end. But it’s an experience of a lifetime.
It’s exactly like the images you see when you type Hong Kong on google. Though the sky is overcast and there’s a bit of smog, everything looks pretty serene. The water and the air are as fresh as they can get. It’s a lovely January morning that day, and the sun nor the cold doesn’t hurt much. We walked along the Avenue of Stars, got to trace the hands of celebrities and got sold on overpriced photo of us in front of the harbor. Oh well.
JUMBO FLOATING PALACE AND ABERDEEN PORT
It’s old and it looks so dilapidated. Maybe because we’ve been during daytime. I reckon the night and lights will do wonder for the place. The guide said the food is expensive, though the taste may be lacking. Maybe it’s true.
Also, we toured around the port for small fishing boats. The guide adds that there are people who live in their boats. But I hardly see any people, besides those busy with their nets. In times way back, some people who live in Aberdeen are called Egg Families. They only know fishing, and because it’s the only thing they can sell to have money, the families raise chickens for the eggs. And the eggs they offer to the government. It’s a fast fading lifestyle that could be gone for the next 20 years, the guide said. Due to higher literacy rates, people choose to live and work in the cities. And unless it’s a great family business, the fishermen would go, and leave this life behind.
TIAN TAN BUDDHA AND PO LIN MONASTERY
I’m so glad we went to see the giant buddha. This is actually the most relaxing part of the trip. To get there, one can ride the cable car or take the bus. The cable car is much preferable. It gives you this amazing view of Lantau Island. We cross a bit of the sea, then over the mountains and finally the Buddha comes into view.
It’s a bit of climb to get to where the Buddha sits. I’m really glad we made the trip in January. I can only imagine how hot it could be during the summer months and you have to climb 268 steps. Some people make wishes as they climb, some offers their prayers in the monastery below.
I cannot describe in words how I feel about the journey to the Buddha. I’m a Christian, and I got so much respect for every people’s beliefs. When I was making that journey, I felt like a pilgrim onto a path of accomplishing a mission. From a far the Buddha looks so serene. It’s like a beacon, inviting me to come and rest my weariness. It’s not until I’m halfway up the stairs that I realized its eyes aren’t actually closed. They’re open and they seem to ask me, “What do you want? What do you want to say?” And I was humbled, to be in a presence of something figuratively and literally bigger than me. And though there were many people around, it feels that I’m there alone, with this being and the muses around.
As I make my way down, I couldn’t help but reflect on that encounter. Whether it’s real or imagined, I decided it’s one important moment in my life. And I went 712 miles just to experience it.
SIDE TRIP TO MACAU
Oh wow, this one definitely turned the vacation into a mixed bag for me. I expected the trip to be a bit expensive, but I never expected to be lost in such a small city. Chinese people love gambling. There’re only the horse race track and football games in Hong Kong, so when locals want to gamble, they head to Macau.
The view in the Observation Deck is thrilling, hands down. I couldn’t even get to cross the floor so I can lean over the wall. I’m so afraid of heights. But to see such small clusters of islands, and be amazed of how extravagant and capricious people’s lifestyle can be, is pretty cool. We would’ve wanted to stay in the island a bit more, but we want to catch the last train in Hong Kong. So on our need to immediately go back, we missed our stop and never got to the ferry terminal before it’s almost too late.
I remember that I honestly wanted to cry when the city bus kept on coming down the streets that I absolutely didn’t know. There weren’t any English signs. It’s night time. And I was so hungry. But good thing my sister decided that we get off at the last stop. From there, we asked a police officer and they directed us to ride another bus going back to the city that would pass through the ferry terminal. When we came home, I checked Google how deep into the city we’ve come. And I was really relieved to know that we were able to take that bus going back. We were so close to crossing the border to China. Yeah, we were spectacularly lost at that time.
Oh, all’s well that ends well.
We were ripped off by the guide more than a couple of times. So please, be smart on your travels. If you want to go for best value, visit Best Mart 360. These are for chocolates and local treats. They have several stores throughout the islands. For souvenirs, you can go to the Ladies Market. Remember, it’s rude to haggle if you don’t have the intention to buy. And the vendors can really be scary. As for myself, I got some ceramics and bookmarks from a Ngong Ping souvenir store.
My first international trip is really a mixed bag, but it made everything more memorable. I’ll make sure to be smarter in my next travels abroad. I look forward to them. I hope what I shared is helpful.
As always, thanks for dropping by!