When the guidebook said that the best budget backpacker accommodation in Hong Kong was in Kowloon at a place called Chungking Mansions, I got excited by the name. However, when we pulled up at 12:30am after our flight from Bangkok was delayed I got a fast dose of reality. Built in the 1960s as a cheap place for the Chinese to live, the building has since become a mixing pot for dozens of different races living in various degrees of squalor.
Over the years, the Chungking Mansions has become famous due to a string of fires, robberies, racial flare ups and bad press. It was notorious during the 80′s, but recent events have led to the installation of hundreds of CCTV cameras and the hiring of dozens of security guards. Now, it is more slummy in terms of the filth and dirt everywhere than due to safety concerns.
Chungking Mansions is made up of five different wings (referred to as blocks) that are served by separate elevators and staircases rising up the 15 stories to the roof. Each block houses hundreds of apartments, guest houses, hostels, restaurants, sweat shops, stores and Lord knows what else. The first two floors form a massive lobby and to get anywhere, we had to cross through a maze of shops selling everything from bootleg cell phones to computers, DVDs, magazines, porno, phone cards, gifts and Indian food.
Every time we would walk into the Mansions, we would be surrounded by a group of Indian men hawking their upstairs restaurants and offering us discounts if we went up with them right now. I was good about ignoring them, but Carrie is nicer than me and would say “not now,” so every time we came back they would find us again and ask, “how about now?” We did finally go to one of the restaurants on our last night and, although the food was delicious, our favorite Indian meals were still the little stalls that peppered the first floor.
Each of the stalls had pretty much the same food: samosas, naan breads, curries, fried snacks and other traditional Indian fare. However, the question was which of the ten or so would have what we wanted at any given time. The samosas went the fastest and we often had to search around to find these tasty 50 cents treats. The other foods were amazing also and one night we literally pieced together a meal from four different stalls using the freshest bits from each one. Craving anything India, we also befriended many of these stall keepers and got lost in numerous conversations as our food got cold.
Bed Bugs and Closet-Sized Rooms
The Indian population also ran the majority of the guest houses contained within the towers of Chungking Mansions. When our cab first pulled up at 12:30am, two men ran over to it and helped us with our bags, offering to take us to their guest house. Usually these are the exact people we try to avoid, but it was late and we were tired and they promised us cheap rooms.
Cheap is a relative word in Hong Kong, as we quickly found that the filthy closet sized room with a shared bathroom and bed the size of a cot was $12 per night. Stinking of smoke, I can only imagine it was the room he showed people to get them to say “no way I’m staying here…give me your $20 room instead.” However, we were exhausted and had stayed in far worse so we checked the bed for bedbugs and, after finding none, took the key and said goodnight.
About an hour after the bedbug check, I felt something crawling on my neck, slapped it and looked at my blood-stained hand. Sure enough…bedbugs! I guess they must have been in hiding and came out when they smelled my blood, because they were all over the bed and pillows. We immediately packed back up and demanded to be moved to a better room for the same price. Naturally, the staff balked and said that they have never had bedbugs, but the next room they showed us had at least 100 dead ones under the mattress.
One phone argument with the boss-man later, we moved to one of their “better rooms” on a different floor and said that we would talk to the owner the next day. Long story short, while Carrie was negotiating with the owner, I went up and down the stairs and found us a new place for the rest of our time. The price was higher, but at least it was bedbug free and the staff was super nice and helpful.