By Kitchana Lersakvanitchakul
A bustling port city that sits on the Pearl River, Guangzhou is well known for its culture, history – it dates back more than 2,000 years – and its stunning modern skyscrapers. It’s a paradise for gourmets too, an attraction I remember well from an earlier visit.
This time, I am travelling as a guest of Thai Smile Airways, which flies me to Phuket so I can catch its newest Airbus A320-200 flight from the Southern resort to Guangzhou.
“Guangzhou is the capital of Guangdong and the largest city in the southern part of the People's Republic of China, where three special economic zones, Shenzhen, Zhuhai and Shantou, are located. It has a long history and is also very modern and offers plenty in the way of nature, art and culture. We believe that the opening of this route will greatly enhance tourism and business between the two countries,” said Chatchai Panyoo, acting chief executive officer of Thai Smile Airways.
“Thai Smile Airways continues to pursue a strategy to support its target of top-level customers who need the comforts provided by a full-service airline. We are ready to serve Chinese travellers with our ‘Thai Taste Experience’, which offers delicious Thai food, a warm welcome from our Chinese-speaking staff and a shopping paradise at their destination.”
We arrive on a pleasantly cool morning in November, one of best three months to visit, according to the tourist guides.
The Chinese have a saying about this Southern region – “born in Suzhou, live in Hangzhou, eat in Guangzhou, and die in Liuzhou” and indeed they are not far wrong. Suzhou is reputed to have the most beautiful people in China. Hangzhou is known for its prosperity and the beauty of its location. Guangzhou's Cantonese cuisine is famous worldwide, and Liuzhou was known for its coffins.
We follow the advice and breakfast at Dian Dou De, a popular traditional restaurant that specialises in all-day Cantonese dim sum, as well as congee, shrimp dumplings, roast pork loin bun, rice noodle rolls with prawn, and coconut mango sandwich cake.
From there we head to Yuexiu Park, where a Thai-speaking Chinese guide tells us a little about the history of Guangzhou and explains that two of its three given names, Yangcheng (City of the Goat) and Suicheng (City of the Rice), were taken from a folk tale related to the Statue of Five Goats in the park. The statue, she says, remembers the five celestial beings who travelled down from heaven on five goats, each carrying an ear of grain, in response to the prayers of the Guangzhou populace when their crops failed.
As we watch a group of middle-aged Chinese women dancing to the tunes of popular Chinese songs, the guide adds that the city’s third nickname is Huacheng (City of the Flower), from which Huacheng Square got its name. The largest square in Guangzhou, it hosts the annual Guangzhou International Light Festival, one of the world’s top lighting spectaculars.
Back on the road, we are passed by Chinese urbanites of all ages riding bicycles in different colours. Bike-sharing, it seems, has caught on in a big way here, with Mobike, Ofo bicycle, Blue go go and Xiao Ming bike among the companies offering two wheels for one yuan (Bt5) per hour with a very reasonable deposit of 299 yuan. Competition is so fierce that promotions are constant and include free rides for a full day.
Public transport is provided by electric buses in Guangzhou, part of China’s plan to replace all petrol and diesel buses with electric vehicles by 2020. This will be particularly important for Beijing where pollution and severe traffic congestion has forced the authorities to bans cars with plates ending in different numbers each working. Thailand would do well to copy the initiative, as well as the rule that all passengers must belt up on public buses or risk being fined 200 yuan.
Over the course of our three-day trip, we explore many of Guangzhou’s famous spots including Lianhua Shan (Lotus Hill), Bao Mo Yuan (Bao Mo Garden), Baiyun Shan (White Cloud Mountain), Liurong Si (Temple of Six Banyan Trees) and Canton Tower.
Lianhua Shan and Baiyun Shan are the most-visited tourist attractions but time constraints mean we only get to spend a short time at both. At Lotus Hill, we admire the beauty of the Goddess of Mercy statue, at 40-metres-high, the highest in Guangdong but miss the Swallow Grotto (Yan Zi Yan), Eagle Cliff (Fei Ying Ya) and Lion Stone (Shi Zi Shi). Legend has it that a dragon created tidal waves to sink ships and flood the farmlands near the Pearl River. The ordeal of the local people moved the Goddess of Mercy and she threw her lotus seat at the dragon, overpowering it. People believe that the lotus later transformed into the Lotus Stone, thus giving the hill its name.
Baiyun Shan is one of the most famous spots of natural beauty in Guangzhou and serves as the city’s lungs, offering a much-needed respite from the choking pollution. Baiyun Shan has six areas such as the Bright Pearl Building Park, the San tailing Summit Park, the Bird Spring Valley Park, the Santailing Park, the Luhu Park and the Fei’eling Park as well as other animal parks. We have just one hour to look around, so miss out on scaling the stairs to the Moxing Summit.
We do however get to spend a little longer at Bao Mo Garden, a large complex a few kilometres away from the city centre, which encompasses Qing culture, traditional Cantonese architecture and garden arts. It’s home to the Purple Ribbon Bridge, a traditional 9-arch stone bridge carved with famous Chinese stories like “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms” and “The Romance of the Sui and Tang Dynasties” and Zhiben Hall, which offers an exhibition of Lord Bao in “The Case of Executing Chen Shimei.” In fact, Lord Bao was based in Kaifeng, though he did worked here for two years.
We tour the exhibition rooms, one of which is devoted to the works of master painter Zhang Daquian, part of the collection of Zhao Tailai, then admire ancient Chinese jade carving before joining a group of giggling school-children who are starting fascinated at millions of carp chasing each other in the water.
The Canton Tower is another must-see landmark in Guangzhou. The highest TV tower in China and the third highest in the world, it offers a bird's-eye view of the whole city.
Later in the day we are taken to enjoy a performance of the Chimelong International Circus and admire the lights of the city from a Pearl River cruise.
And of course we also go shopping at popular pedestrian hangouts Shangxiajia Lu and Beijing Lu. The latter is fascinating as it boasts two underground archaeological sites under glass revealing the remains of streets from three different dynasties – Song, Yuan and Ming.
Our guide has a word of caution for us and tells us to beware of counterfeit banknotes and getting confused between 5 yuan and 5 mao. “A tourist paid 100 yuan for fruit priced 5 yuan, but she received 95 mao instead of 95 yuan as change,” he tells us.
IF YOU GO
- Thai Smile Airways has four flights a week on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday from Phuket to Guangzhou.
- Flight WE 696 leaves Phuket at 11.05pm and arrives at 4am, while the return flight WE 697 departs Guangzhou at 5.15am and arrives in Phuket at 7.55am.