Stilt Standing – Exploring Hong Kong’s Tai O

Thirty miles from Hong Kong’s Disneyland park, a small fishing village offers a contrasting view of the city’s past

LANTAU ISLAND MAY be famous for Disneyland, the Giant Buddha and even Hong Kong International Airport, but today I’m choosing the lesser known fishing village of Tai O as my destination. Quaint and sleepy, Tai O or the “Venice of Hong Kong” as it is known, seems like a pretty wholesome destination these days, but it was not always so. Adding a little color to the popular history of the town, Tai O is said to have a checkered past involving smugglers, contrabands and pirates. Even now there’s a rumor that it’s stilled used as an entry point into mainland China by human traffickers. The only thing I find to be particularly fishy about the place during my visit is the smell. Tai O’s famous salted fish and shrimp paste are the main offenders, with both being popular exports here.

Perhaps calling Tai O the “Venice of Hong Kong” is a bit of a stretch. I didn’t find any luxury boutiques or dim sum carts here; however that is part of the appeal. It’s a little town that’s completely different from the modern metropolis of Hong Kong Island and a welcome respite from the high-octane chaos of the mega city.

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In keeping with my desire for a more leisurely experience, I opt for the scenic route to Lantau Island by using the ferry rather than the quicker option of the MTR (Hong Kong train service). The ferry service is excellent and the view of Hong Kong Island as I sail out of the harbor is gorgeous. It’s easily worth the extra journey time, especially as I boarded early to get a window seat.

My first port of call is the transit hub Mui Wo. From here I take a local bus for the 22 kilometer journey to Tai O. The bus ride takes about an hour, but again, the journey is a great way to see the countryside and virtually spans one complete side of the island. Typical of my experiences in China, the bus driver has a no-holds-barred approach to his work, so some of the sharp turns and steep descents are slightly hair- raising at worst, bumpy at best. I’m glad I decided to seek my lunch out in Tai O and didn’t eat before.

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Tai O is best known for its stilt houses, which were built to stand over the tidal flats and salt marshes where the town is situated. Just before arriving, I get a good view of the structures from the bus window, and look forward to the calm of this small village. My serene moment is shattered the minute I leave the safety of the bus as tour guides accosted me, eager to offer jaunts by boat around the town. After viewing the itineraries of a few touts, I realize all the routes are pretty much the same, so I take the plunge. Unfortunately my boat doesn’t leave the dock until a few more paying customers join me, so I’m forced to wait. I pass the time watching the dried fish vendors ply their wares. We eventually set off and crisply weave around the narrow waterways to view the famed stilt homes up close. They emerge from the water on wooden legs as schools of fish swim in the murky water beneath. Squid hang from porch beams and trays of bright orange egg yolks dry in the sun.

The boat then sails out into the open ocean on the vague proviso that we’ll spot a famous Chinese white dolphin. Unfortunately the dolphins must have missed the memo to make an appearance, but we do spy some silver fish that leap out of the water every now and then.

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These days it’s not just the dolphins that are rare around these parts. Tai O’s fishing industry can barely sustain its current residents, and the town has become increasingly reliant on the tourist trade to get by. So to boost tourism, Tai O also offers interesting activities and sites worth visiting such as the former Marine Police Station, built in 1902, that has been turned into Tai O Heritage Hotel and boasts stunning views across the area. The hotel is a joint venture between the government and the non-profit Hong Kong Heritage Conservation Foundation, which runs the site. The colonial structure, on a secluded spot at the edge of the sea, has nine rooms and a restaurant. Even if you aren’t a registered guest of the luxury hotel, you can still explore its grounds. There are also a number of temples to visit and more scenic walks on offer, but the best part of a visit to Tai O involves simply strolling around the warren-like mazes of the stilt fishing houses. The view on foot is actually more amazing than the one from the boat, and gives a sense of how the Tanka people (local fishermen and women) live and work… and how unreliable their electricity supply must be.

I was also interested in learning more about the history of the locals so I visited the Tai O Rural Committee Historic and Cultural Showroom. While the collection there wasn’t extensive, it allowed some insight into daily life showcasing interesting fishing tools and relics formerly used by the local community.

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Before too long, the sun’s getting low and it’s time to leave. Tai O may not be as a grand as Venice, but I found it to be a welcome alternative to Hong Kong’s crowded and busier parts.

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