A Tale of Two Cities

Hong Kong street market

Hong Kong street market

Back in Chiang Mai from our stay at Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary, we had a little over twenty-four hours left in this wonderful city before flying out to Hong Kong for a few days on our way back to the States. Instead of returning to the U Chiang Mai hotel in the heart of Rachadamnoen Road, we opted to stay a short distance away at the Rachamankha; a beautifully appointed hotel whose well-heeled, mostly aging European, Polo shirts and sockless penny loafers guests unfortunately lacked the same style that the hotel’s décor wore in spades.

It was an interesting contrast coming off a four-hour bus ride from Sukhothai on a coach containing mostly working class Thais and soldiers on leave. The down side of the bus ride? Broken seats, no air conditioning or toilets, and zero idea if, when, or where we’d be stopping so we could use a bathroom and grab a bite to eat. “Next time we’re upgrading to the $15 bus!” I told Kim. The upside: stopping at a random roadside market where we finally were able to relieve ourselves, grabbing some random food, and enjoying an unexpectedly delicious bag of chili and sweet basil chips.

While waiting for the bus in Sukhothai I glanced up at a television overhead to see the announcement of Nelson Mandela’s passing, shouldered in-between ongoing reports of civil unrest in Bangkok. I didn’t need to understand the Thai scrolling across the bottom of the screen to know that Madiba had shed this mortal coil for whatever awaited next, and I found it quietly comforting to know that the entire world was both mourning and celebrating the great man he was.

Mixology - all that glitters

Mixology – all that glitters

That night in Chiang Mai we briefly skirted the Sunday market on Rachadamnoen and after some wandering found ourselves on Arak Road at the western edge of the Old City’s moat, stumbling across a small bar and restaurant called Mixology. Shamelessly wearing “hipster” on its sleeve like a badge of honor, but doing it in all the right ways, the style at Mixology comes by way of London but the heart is all Thai. Warm and friendly staff, dark ambiance, great music, delicious food, and an interesting array of custom cocktails, including a concoction that contained several parts Johnnie Walker Gold along with actual gold, using fire to fuse the two together. I felt conflicted about ordering it and I’m not even sure why, but damn did it taste fantastic!

The next morning we enjoyed a leisurely brunch of glass noodles and coffee at a wonderful café on Samlan Road called Malcolm Coffee before skipping across the street to Oasis Spa to enjoy one final (albeit ridiculously luxurious) Thai massage before leaving the country. It’d been a beautiful stay and we both felt relaxed and at peace. Shorts, flip-flops, and sunglasses in December enjoying a simple yet delicious meal for pennies. Warm, welcoming smiles everywhere. Did we have contentment? Indeed.

On our last night in Hong Kong I once again found myself looking out our hotel window savoring the view. Kowloon Bay gazed back up at me from our room and the hotels, shopping plazas, high-rises, and other commercial buildings that dotted the harbor were wrapped up in the glitzy commercial spectacle of Christmas. Giant, stories-high video displays of Santa and his reindeer; enormously large, bow-tied presents bouncing their way across entire city blocks; huge laser displays that seemed large enough to be viewed from space wishing everyone a Merry Christmas. When we first arrived and saw the view from our room the hotel concierge asked us how we celebrated Christmas. I answered with some party line answer about festive celebrations and sharing food and gifts with family and friends, painting a cozy and intimate Rockwellian scene. When the question was reversed the concierge replied that she didn’t celebrate Christmas; that no one here did, really. In fact, she seemed confused that there was something more to the holiday than what was on display outside the window. Pageantry for pageantry’s sake. All glitter and glam, but no feeling. I started to protest then stopped myself. Who was I kidding? The gaudy, in-your-face oversized techno display outside the window was exactly what the holidays are about. A post-coital explosion of capitalism and consumerism that was, literally, writ large in front of us across the night skyline.

It had been an interesting thirty-six hours. We spent our first full day wandering along the harbor, past Jackie Chan’s statue on the Avenue of Stars to the ferries heading over to Hong Kong Island. Making our way across various pedestrian overpasses and through several shopping malls I was struck by how much disposable consumerism was on display, and not just because of the holidays. Outside the high-end shopping malls and stores we passed various assortments of Lamborghinis, Porches, and other four-wheeled status symbols – all manned by carefully coiffed and designer clothed drivers. It felt like there was a Vapid Status Symbol Seekers convention in town.

We decided to take Hong Kong’s historic Peak Tram up to Victoria Peak and check out the surrounding view. It was a long wait and it felt like a plastic experience capped off by the opportunity to have your picture taken in front of a fake skyline of Hong Kong before you’d even boarded the tram and reached the Peak itself. “Why bother at the top? Have your picture taken here!” it seemed to scream. At the top we pushed our way past the array of tacky Bubba Gumps, Burger Kings, Hard Rock Cafes, and Sunglass Huts, finally breaking free out onto the Peak’s observation deck. The view of Kowloon Harbor was spectacular but cold and foggy, so we soldiered about for a few minutes before making our way over to the Peak Lookout restaurant to enjoy a late lunch while listening to several ex-pat bankers discuss the latest in Polo shirt and sockless penny loafers financial marketeering.

Falun Gong silently protest during Hong Kong street market

Falun Gong silently protest during Hong Kong street market

Having had our fill of the overt and tacky consumerism we seemed to have found ourselves surrounded by, we decided to skip the ridiculously long line to get off the mountain via the tram and instead grabbed a taxi down to the MTR station at the peak’s bottom near the harbor, hopping the subway up to Mong Kok and its street markets. Here was the Hong Kong I dreamed of exploring. A cramped collision of people, sounds, and sights all wildly pressed against one another. A purer form of Western capitalism rubbing up against Eastern ingenuity, where every direction looked the same but around each corner was something entirely new. We tried to pause to catch our breath and take it all in but were quickly swept down Tung Choi Street and into the Ladies Market. Along the way we passed by a small but beautifully orchestrated protest by members of Falun Gong. A surgeon in gloves and mask held a scalpel over a patient lying on an operating table. Both were unmoving and silent with placards surrounded them detailing the abuses the Chinese government has meted out on the group’s members, including organ harvesting (hence the scene being played out). It was easily missed but brilliantly done and very moving. And it was pure – something that up until now I felt I kept seeking but somehow couldn’t find during our stay in Hong Kong.

Having explored the market to exhaustion we made our way back to the hotel and its view of Kowloon. Looking out the window I couldn’t shake the image of Hong Kong being the bastard child of all our vanity and monetary urges; a pure interpretation of the machinations of greed that drive our culture. When the bloated and egoverridden corpse of capitalism gazed into the abyss, this is what it found looking back. It was enjoyable, but at the same time it was quite the juxtaposition from our previous two weeks in Thailand among animals, people, and places that seemed less concerned with being who we thought they were and more interested in getting on being themselves.

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