Hong Kong's best sites may be least known to visitors

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HONG KONG -- Rickshaws here are long gone, but perceptions take longer to change.

Visitors, for example, might view Hong Kong as a city of skyscrapers and shopping.

This is the familiar perception of Hong Kong -- a place where you buy a custom-tailored suit, shop 'til you drop at quaint outdoor markets or glitzy indoor malls, and gaze at ubiquitous skyscrapers with clothing hung out to dry because Chinese think the practice brings good luck.

The densely packed Hong Kong skyline as seen from the harbor. Hong Kong also is known for Aberdeen Bay, which boasts the world's largest floating restaurant and an area where people still live on sampans (flat-bottomed skiffs), or Victoria Peak, best known for its view of the sparkling harbor.

In July 1997, the British handed this teeming and tightly packed area, approaching a population of 7 million, back to China. Since then, after an exodus by some westerners, it's been business as usual.

Hong Kong welcomed 10.7 million visitors in 1999, an 11.5% increase compared with 1998, according to the Hong Kong Tourist Association. Visitors from the U.S. numbered 802,705, an increase of 3.8%

The 1999 figures represent the highest number since the record 11.7 million visitors recorded in 1996, the association said.

Most visitors make their way to the typical tourist stops, but there are other lesser-known sites to consider.

Hong Kong's oldest and most famous temple, for example, is Man Mo, dating to 1847. It was the backdrop for the 1960 film, "The World of Suzie Wong," starring William Holden and Nancy Kwan.

But travelers, facing a sea of choices among historical places of worship, might want to know about the more out-of-the-way Wong Tai Sin Temple on the Kowloon Peninsula, not far from the Central District of Hong Kong.

For local residents, it's the most popular temple. Three million people per year visit the site, in large part because word of mouth says it's the place most likely to answer prayers.

Most worshippers are seeking information about their future. Many people light sticks and make offerings of oranges.

In an enclosed area beneath the temple, there are more than 100 fortune-tellers. A sign tells visitors who among them speaks English. Be aware that most fortune-tellers charge by the question.

Locals highly recommended teller No. 82, a Mrs. Lam (she spends much of her time in Canada).

Also on the Kowloon Peninsula is the Yuen Po Street Bird Garden, founded in 1997. It's a wonderful walk with different courtyards flanked on one side by trees and on the other by more than 70 bird stalls.

Birds are popular pets among the Chinese; each bird's value depends on its singing ability and its plumage.

The garden is a gathering place, mostly for retired Chinese who show off their favorite caged birds, some of which cost thousands of dollars.

A huge variety of birds are on sale here, as well as everything related to birds' care and feeding, including bags of live grasshoppers and worms.

From here, you can smell the fragrant Flower Market, which is next door. Specialty shops and sidewalk displays showcase exotic blooms and plants from all over the world. Baskets, plant hangers and dried flowers are for sale.

Not far from the flowers is the Gold Fish market at Tung Choi Street. The Chinese believe fish bring good luck and peace; here you find hundreds of varieties of iridescent tropical fish and various aquarium supplies.

Visitors might also want to visit sparsely populated Lantau Island before it gets busy; it is the site of the proposed new Disney park.

Lantau, Hong Kong's largest island, is lush, with mountains that contain remote and isolated beaches, small villages, temples and monasteries. It is best known for its giant outdoor Buddha and vegetarian meals served at the Po Lin Monastery.

Tourists with shopping on their minds are visiting Lantau more often these days, and the island's Temple Street Market offers the exotic flavors found in Hong Kong.

(The market used to be called Men's Street because it only sold male clothing.)

The area, popular with locals, is particularly crowded at night.

Named for the street where it's located, Temple Street has countless stalls offering inexpensive clothing, food, jewelry and other items.

But it has much more than shopping. If you stick your head into some of the doorways, you'll find various forms of entertainment, even rock 'n' roll. There are palm readers and singers at the northern end of the market.

Musicians play in alleyways where groups set up their own stages. And visitors will hear the clack of counters as locals play mah-jongg.

Roadside food stalls offer clams, shrimp, mussels and crab. They are also good for a bowl of snake soup, if tourists are so inclined.

For additional information, visit the Hong Kong Tourist Association's Web site at www.hkta.org or use the fax-on-demand service at (888) 567-HKTA. For brochures, call (800) 282-HKTA.

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