Throughout the way, there were rural and bucolic scenes of Lantau Island (with sights of landscapes and actual stand-alone houses instead of the usual condominiums). When we reached Tai O, I was quite surprised to see a group of tourists (apparently from mainland China) milling about. This shouldn’t have surprised me because while Tai O is not really part of the usual Hong Kong urban experience, Tai O is still very much a tourist destination, especially for mainland Chinese who always travel in big tour groups.
But the touristy feel was instantly dispersed when we explored more of Tai O’s nooks and crannies. Despite the presence of a big tour group in the area, at the end of the day, this fishing village was still very much a world away from the hustle and bustle of “mainland” Hong Kong. And when compared to the usual Manila-Hong Kong travel packages, an itinerary with Tai O in it is already somewhat “off the beaten path”.
I saw this sign about Tai-O’s cultural “museum” but too bad we were there on a Monday when it was closed.
So we had to explore Tai O’s culture on our own. Since Tai O is a fishing village, the first thing that greeted us were stalls and stalls of fresh and dried seafood. There were so many varieties of dried sea creatures on display, including a really huge stingray, and other produce and creatures which I haven’t seen before.
It may all be touristy and all for sale at probably exorbitant touristy prices but I found it all so charming. You know how it is in Taiwanese dramas (case in point, Meteor Garden!) and Koreanovelas where the heroine retreats to a fishing village in some far flung province away from the city and makes a living selling fish? That’s exactly how Tai O looked and felt like.
To shield myself from the noonday sun, I couldn’t resist buying a straw hat, which also became an instant souvenir.
Most of the shopkeepers were old-timers and just from them, I got a sense of the languid, unhurried pace of life in Tai O. The freshly grilled oysters also looked promising.
As we walked further on, we saw the Tai Chung footbridge. Before this bridge was built, people crossed the waterway by being manually pulled in a rope-drawn boat.
From the bridge, we got our first view of Tai O’s stilt houses.
On the other side of the bridge, we were greeted with more stalls and shops. While the stalls were definitely catered for the tourists, I didn’t get a sense of the shopkeepers furiously hawking their wares at us. They seemed content to just watch us passing through inasmuch as we just lazily looked at their stuff for sale and took pictures along the way (which they didn’t mind at all, as opposed to shopkeepers in the mainland who get angry if tourists just take pictures and don’t buy).
This roadside bench under the shade in front of a mini store (like our own sari-sari store) was indeed very Filipino.
But of course, Tai O is very much a Chinese community, and the various temples and shrines lining the narrow roads (including a quirky customized bike) instantly reminded us that we were in fact in Hong Kong.
After walking further inland, we reached the end of the street and came upon a small park near the Kau San Tei Lookout Pavilion. There were benches clustered under the huge trees, their shade lazily cooling us and allowing us to rest and appreciate more views of Tai O. This is what I love about slow travel and not seeing the sights with a tour operator. Unlike the mainland Chinese tour group that we encountered when we entered Tai O, we weren’t hustled about by a guide whose only aim may be for us to buy from the stalls. Here, we were far from the tour crowd and the touristy attractions of Tai O. Our only companions were Chinese photographers with their sophisticated camera equipment, who seemed to be a hobby club or a bird watching group.
There was even a sign urging people to quiet down, which I found simply respectful of the tranquil vibe of the surroundings.
Based on our itinerary, we were supposed to be in Tai O just in the morning then we should have been in Ngong Ping by early afternoon then back in Kowloon to see more sights. But despite well-made plans, we were already running late and decided to just while away the afternoon in this sleepy village. Something about Tai O really caught on to us and made us stay and wander. I thought that was good—that we were allowing serendipity into our plans, and at the same time practicing slow travel (for me, when traveling, it’s really not so advisable to squeeze in so many activities in just one day). Later on in the afternoon, we explored more of Tai O and even discovered a quaint cafe on stilts, where we decided to have late lunch. That was not in our plans but so what. We were in Tai O and something about the place simply invited us to linger.
Despite Tai O being a tourist destination, I still got the sense that everything was quite authentic. The stilt houses had boats tied to them because that’s the way the people inside those houses really lived and how they made a living. The locals were the ones who caught the seafood and hung out their catch to dry to be sold later on probably in their own shops in the Tai O Market, as opposed to being mass produced in a factory somewhere. We were there to witness the Tai O locals and their village, but it was still very much their own lives they were living, and not some caricature of a Chinese fishing village that’s being put on show for the benefit of the tourists, unlike in other places marketed as “cultural villages”.
Sure, Tai O is already a tourist spot marked on Hong Kong guide books and travel websites. Nevertheless, it still provides an authentic slice of Chinese life and culture that may be rarely glimpsed in the shopping malls of Kowloon and Central. And for that unique experience, and if you value such authentic glimpses and a chance of being a traveler instead of being just a tourist, then I’d really suggest a visit to Tai O the next time you go to Hong Kong, especially if you’re a city dweller.
Cheers and fabulous travels!