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Worst Travel Experience: A College Group Trip to Hongkong And Macau

I usually remember all my travels like it was yesterday and that's why I've managed to create memoirs out of them even years later here on my travel blog. But no trip of mine has been like a blip on my travel history like the Hongkong one. I have to actively look at the map to even remember I've spent a whole week across Hongkong and Macau!

So what went so wrong that makes me cringe about this trip so much? Let me try to piece together this trip to the best of my memory from nearly 16 years ago.

My college had a tradition of taking students on international "industrial trips" to get "exposure".

And while in hindsight that sounds like a marketing spiel to sell the college, it was nice to get international travel experience so early on. I'd already been on my first international trip to Singapore and Malaysia in my first year of college, but that was a free trip I won for being a "good student". The Hongkong trip a year later was a paid one, and it cost a pretty penny at that. (I remember the upfront cost of the trip was Rs. 50,000 - a huge deal for its time.) I wasn't earning in college, but it was more out of FOMO than anything so having had my folks cough up the monies, I went. Today, I wouldn't be caught dead on a packaged tour, but back then, we really didn't think there was any other way.

Missing handbag Starting our trip with an on-arrival free Hongkong visa for 14 days, we checked into our fancy hotel and shit began to go down almost instantly! After checking into my room, I realised my handbag was missing - the one with my passport, wallet, and valuables like a new digital camera! Some friends and I spent nearly an hour searching high and dry for the missing bag, while I was picturing myself making rounds to go the Indian embassy to get a new visa and what not. Finally, we got hold of some CCTV footage where I spotted myself casually coming out of the hotel lift leaving the bag on the floor, and minutes later, a college mate picking it up for safekeeping! Phew, the bag was retrieved, all its contents intact, but my shame got the better of me for having made the group waste hours of their limited time on the trip for a stupid mistake of mine.

WTF is a typhoon?!

By the time this settled, it was too late to join the others and the five of us had to take off on our own to begin some sight seeing. Taking a cab to the downtown area, we were informed that there was a big typhoon alert -- for the uninitiated, Hongkong is prone to very high-intensity cyclones locally called "typhoons", and they can be mild to life-threateningly serious. What earthquakes are to Japan, Typhoons are to Hongkong.

A typhoon alert meant we had to shelter indoors so we stayed put inside a hotel - not ours. Not having had a bite since our last flight meal, in the hustle of searching for the bag and being in an unfamiliar territory, we were hungry but no vegetarian food was forthcoming, so we waited, hangry and exhausted. The alert was off and we came back to the hotel, called a very expensive room service, and crashed early on the first day of the trip that started off on such a sour note.

A bus tour of Hongkong city and typhoon curfew again

Next day was slightly better as the skies looked clear and we had a glorious buffet breakfast in the hotel. Soon after, we were taken on a bus tour of the Hongkong city with a little Chinese man trying his best to keep us engaged by telling us about the history of the city in his singsong and broken English. (This was a packaged tour so of course there was a bus tour of the city.) I don't remember seeing anything of prominence but just endless clusters of those soulless 100storey+ skyscrapers with low-income housing apartments that all looked the same.

I think at some point I was so disinterested in looking out that I just napped in the bus.

Come evening, we were taken to the Harbour area with views of the stunning buildings from across the bay in the Tsim Sha Tsui area, but again weather played spoilsport and we had to rush back to our hotel. We later heard that some sub-groups did go out to party in the happening Harbour district despite the typhoon warnings and clearly survived while we acted like the most obedient kids and came back to our hotel at 8pm.

Hong kong Harbour
Photo with unknown people

Tin Hau Temple in Repulse bay and attempts at shopping

Next day we were packed off in a bus again and taken to the Tin Hau Temple at Repulse Bay beach, a sprawling temple with a 200 feet tall statue of Tin Haun - Chinese goddess of sea - along with many curious looking colourful structures, pagodas, dragons and shrines. Given the unique nature of this place, we all busied ourselves with taking lots of pictures from our digital cameras - a fancy gadget back then - procured a year earlier from our Singapore trip.

Tin Hau Temple in Repulse bay Hong Kong

After this, we were allowed to be on our own and we spent the rest of the day walking around the Causeway area night markets. I remember finding Hongkong prohibitively expensive and not really shopping. The worst was having to buy these $10 syrupy sweet cold juices because it was just that hot and humid! (as an aside, I did buy buy a pair of knee-length boots that served me well until losing them on a drunken night in Sydney on my solo Australia trip four years later! So the shoes that were bought from Hongkong, traveled to the US and back to India and ended up close to origin in Australia!)

A day in Disneyland, Hongkong

Not sure what a bunch of 19 year olds were doing in a children's theme park, but the Disneyland Hongkong was voted for by the majority so we had to go and pay for the expensive entrance by ourselves. But that's not the worst of it. It started raining just as we entered the park, and had to get ourselves raincoats to survive the day. I remember buying a Poncho with a Mickey Mouse emblazoned on the back, one that my niece still uses nearly 17 years later! Like the rest of the trip, the Disneyland part is also a blur except I remember not being able to go on too many rides and shepherding someone in our group who was sick.

Choppy cruise to Macau and the first fight of the trip

Next morning, we were to go to Macau, a little island officially a part of China, but unofficially a separate country, if you're counting. It was a 4-hour choppy boat ride to Macau during which a lot of my college mates got sick and threw up violently while the boat undulated on the rough sea. Luckily I didn't.

But the lack of good luck was going to unravel in other forms soon after.

We checked into our room and I was raring to go out and explore the city. But here's the thing with group travel. If you're the sort who is the first to leave, you're always gonna be the one waiting for others. So I did, but eventually my patience wore thin and I lost my cool when the others took too long to get ready and converge at the meeting point and I took off on my own, sulking throughout.

I just walked around aimlessly, feeling stupid and missing my friends and ruing the fact that i branched off from them, while just three days earlier, THEY had waited for me searching for the missing handbag! But the die was cast and it was too late to get back - we had no cellphones to coordinate. Even though I was roaming in the heart of Macau town surrounded by some amazing things to look at, my heart wasn't in it.

Soon I left and got on a local bus that I had no clue where it was heading but taking solace in the fact that Macau was tiny so you can't get too lost. Here in the bus, I bumped into another college group - not my friends - but ended up going to an Indian restaurant for lunch with them. I wasn't a fan of eating Indian food abroad instead of trying out local restaurants and sensing that I may not be able to do much else with them, I decided to take off on my own again.

This time I consciously walked around the Portuguese quarters. -- Macau was a Portuguese col until it was handed over to China in 1999 so similar to Goa, there is a lot of Portuguese influence in the Island. I remember sitting a long time on the steps of the St Paul's cathedrals which at best was an imposing facade now, the cobbled streets, and other historic ruins which back then I didn't have too much interest in to dig deeper into.

By night, I was back to my hotel and patched up with my friends too.

Too poor to gamble or bungee jump in Asia's Vegas

Next day, we were taken to the Macau Tower, a 338m tall skyscraper for a group lunch. Some of them signed up for bungee jumping the top of it - apparently the tallest bungee in Asia, but we were neither that daring nor rich. (The bungee jump cost about $500 each!)So we just decided to hang around the Portuguese quarters and basically redo the same spots I'd gone to just the day before. But I was happy to be with my friends this time. By night, we went to the casinos -- Macau is like the Vegas of the Southeast and has as many as 25 casino hotels, including the famous chains like the MGM, The Venetian, and the Wyn casinos, all of which have giant (and gaudy) LED and neon signboards just like in Vegas.

However, being under 21, we weren't allowed inside most of the casinos except one where we played some simple low-stakes games and won a couple of rounds in a fruits slot machine.

Group politics finally strikes

On our third and last day in Macau, we did some shopping - Macau is home to many garment factories so unlike Hongkong, we could find some bargains. In the evening, we dressed to the nines with oour newly acquired threads for a dinner at "The Venetian Macau", a literal recreation of Italy's Venice complete with the canals and gondolas. For our last hurrah of the trip, we went to the D2 club Macau which turned to be wild! What we didn't know was that this was a pole dance club and we'd be partying under our teachers' noses! Oh to have semi-naked women and men gyrating and twerking around us, and not knowing whether to hide from our teachers around or throw worries to the wind and go all in!

At the same time, a lot of group politics permeated the party, having overheard our "rival groups" bitching about us and vice versa. (ah silly days of being petty teenagers)

What could've been a fun, careless party turned out to be somewhat toxic and bitter experience and the reason my group called it an early night and took an expensive cab back to our hotel.

Today on our last day of in Macau, we were at the breakfast, with groups clearly having been divided after the pretence of the "happy one family" facade of the first day. And honestly, we couldn't wait to be back and be out of this toxic dynamic in a foreign country and just have it back home in India instead.

So after the same 4-5 hour choppy boat ride back to Hongkong, we spent a few hours again in Hongkong doing some last minute souvenir hunting and got to the airport at late night for our flight back home. (And there were no typhoons now of course! Just when we were leaving of course)

Relieved that it was all over

The tension of the last 7 days could be cut with a knife. A lot of people were very happy, some had a mixed experience, and some were outright regretting it but I guess nothing compared to the one guy who had lost about $500 in a casino stint gone wrong.

I was just glad to be back home and not think about the costly and chaotic mess this trip this had been and if I should've just gone to the college domestic trip instead. Hong Kong wasn't a bad country from a travel point of view per se, but I just think too many incidents soured the overall experience. I also think that it was the right place at the wrong time. We were either too old or too young to enjoy a place like Hongkong and Macau which have sites that excite kids or well-paid adults, since it is a pretty expensive place.

If I had to derive one travel lesson from this trip, it was that every place has its own time. What's exciting to a 19-year old isn't the same to a 29- year old or a 9-year old. Being at the right place at the right time matters the most.

But what came out of this trip was my (forced) love for traveling solo and traveling on my own terms, itinerary and rules which continues to the day.

Hongkong and Macau was the last group trip I did in the last 16 years.


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 I (Monica) am a lifelong traveler, (40 countries), sustainability and veganism advocate, and a marketer by profession. I'm old school in that I still like to blog and document rather than shoot and post.

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