The late Anthony Bourdain visited Hong Kong in one of the last episodes of his show Parts Unknown (aired June 2018). In it, he takes a boat trip around the fishing village of Tai O on Lantau Island with legendary cinematographer Christopher Doyle.
I was immediately struck that there was this quaint little village that I’d never heard of, let alone visited. It only took me another five years to go there…
Tai O can be reached by bus or ferry but we decided to take the scenic route over the top of the island via the Ngong Ping 360 cable car that whisks you up from Tung Chung to The Big Buddha. After saying hello to the 34-metre-tall statue, we caught a hair-raising bus down the mountain to the village.
Known as the “Venice of Hong Kong”, in stark contrast to the rest of the city, Tai O village consists of ramshackle Pang uk houses built on wooden stilts over the waterways.
During the Chinese Civil War from the 1920s to the 1940s, Tai O was a key entry point for the refugees escaping from the mainland because there is only a narrow channel between the village and Zhuhai.
While many residents continue to fish, it barely provides a subsistence income and most make their living from tourism. Many people come to Tai O specifically to take boat trips to see Chinese white dolphins, also known as “Pink Dolphins”.
The streets are lined with seafood vendors and restaurants, with traditional salted fish and shrimp paste being local specialities.
I always enjoy looking at the old chaotic storefronts with a huge array of products that to the untrained eye are unrecognisable.
Higgledy-piggledy as they may be, the buildings all had a texture and a charm that is hard to find in most places. Brightly colourful murals added to the homemade patina.
In 2000, a large fire broke out destroying many residences. Today, metal sheets have been added to the outside of the shacks to guard against typhoons and fires but I can’t help but wonder if they don’t become unbearable ovens in the summer.
There’s also an easy hike you can take up Fu Shan (Tiger Mountain) to a nice lookout point over the ocean and onwards in a big circle back to the village.
Tai O has a history of salt production that possibly dates back to the Stone Age. After this industry declined, mangroves were planted on the deserted salt mashes which can still be seen today.
Tai O is well worth a day trip if you’re in need of an escape from the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong.
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Love Tai O, and would have loved hiking along the shoreline between Tai O and Tung Chung, but… I left the city before I could…