Leaving Hong Kong behind in Tai O

Leaving Hong Kong behind in Tai O

Tai O, a crumbling fishing village on Lantau Island, is finding new life as a tourist destination
Tai O
Tai O's scenic waterways is a throwback to Hong Kong's fishing village past.

The stilt-house community of Tai O on Lantau Island is known as the Venice of the Orient, but let’s be honest. It’s nothing like the opulent Italian city. 

Tai O, once Hong Kong’s biggest fishing community, was ravaged by fires, floods and typhoons in recent years, and it shows.

The community’s derelict pang uk (Cantonese for stilt-houses) look like they were built with whatever villagers could scavenge -- broomsticks, Styrofoam boxes, bits of nylon netting. Houses some distance away from the main street have broken windows. Barefooted grannies play majong on balconies overlooking the canal, their front doors flung wide open. 

For some, this is Tai O’s charm. It is the antithesis of the city landscape and is a throwback to Hong Kong’s past as a simple fishing village.

For years, Tai O had been declining due to the flight of young residents and an aging population. And while tourism has always kept the community afloat, its relative inaccessibility (reaching Tai O takes two hours on average) means that it has been less popular than Hong Kong’s other outlying islands.

But all of this is set to change, and fast.

The 108-year-old Tai O Police station will reopen as a nine-suite boutique hotel next year, the result of a HK$66.7 million investment by a local property giant Sino Group. The government pledged a controversial HK$620 million facelift of the village three years ago with plans for a helipad, a riverside promenade and a museum. Construction is expected to be completed by 2016. 

The opening of other tourist attractions on Lantau Island, such as Ngong Ping 360 and Disneyland, also appears to be bringing tourists into the enclave.

On weekends, crowds of amateur photographers descend on the village, tripods and girlfriends in tow, to work their high-powered cameras.

There seems to be no end of speedboats carrying hopeful tourists out to sea to look for Chinese white dolphins (tried and tested -- a false promise). There are new B&B inns and coffee houses in town, stylish establishments with al fresco balconies looking out to sea. 

For its burgeoning popularity, however, most of Tai O’s elderly population go about their daily routines, pointedly oblivious to snap-happy tourist throngs.

Tai O

Tai O

Tai O

Tai O

Where to eat

For a hearty meal, head to Tai O Crossing Boat Restaurant, famous for its roasted goose and seafood rice steamed in lotus leaf.  

Tai O Crossing Boat Restaurant, 33 Kat Hing St, Tai O, Lantau Island, 852 2985 8343

Solo is a coffee house serving fresh roasted coffee and a decadent tiramisu. 

Solo, 86 Kat Hing St, G/F, Tai O, Lantau Island, +852 9153 7453

Tai O's resident street side gai daan tsai seller has visitors queuing up for for his crisp egg waffles cooked over a charcoal stove. Look for him during the afternoons on Tai O's Shek Tsai Po Street.

Read more about Tai O's famous gai daan tsai man and the quest for Hong Kong's best egg waffle.

Where to stay

Espace Elastique is a new bed and breakfast inn that opened last year, with multilingual staff. There are also good home stay options that are not advertised, those interested should ask around.

Espace Elastique, 57 Kat Hing Street, Tai O, Lantau Island, +852 2985 7002, www.espaceelastique.com.hk

Getting there: From Mui Wo, take New Lantau Bus no. 1 into Tai O. New Lantau Bus no. 11 from the Tung Chung Bus Terminal also goes into Tai O. Alternatively, there is a Tai O-bound ferry operating from Tung Chung New Development Ferry Pier. The journey takes about 30 minutes.

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