After our visit to see the Tian Tan Buddha and the Po Lin Monastery in Lantau Island in Hong Kong, we set off to visit the Tai O village. Buses are available in Ngong Ping and it is a 20 minute ride which goes down the mountain slopes.
Tai O, often called the ‘Venice of Hong Kong’, is a fishing village located on Tai O island. It is a picturesque location with the sea stretching out in front of the rustic location, and rather popular with tourists. The name ‘Tai O’ literally means ‘large inlet’. The Tai O island lies at the fork where the Tai O river splits into the Tai O creek and then continues as the Tai O river to the west.
We got off at the bus stand and had just walked a short distance to the village, when we encountered a man selling tickets. He spoke no English but pointed to a huge bill board behind him which said “View Chinese White Dolphins”. The photographs of the dolphins looked tempting and the price was around 35 MAP per person, and so we agreed. As we walked ahead, we realised that we were being taken on a boat ride with around six others. The boat man was not too friendly and kept yelling at us in Cantonese. There was no way of communicating with him. It was surprising when instead of going into the sea he turned towards the village. But the short jaunt through the waterways gave us an insight into the way the villagers lived.
Almost the entire village of Tai O is located on the banks of the Tai O river. Houses built on stilts called pang uks make for quite a sight all along the banks of the river. The stilt houses are mostly inhabited by fisherfolk, who are descendants of the ancient Yueh tribe, Hong Kong’s first major settlers. There are several dilapidated houses as well as quaint looking cafes overlooking the river.
I was rather apprehensive about the boat ride now as we had been promised Chinese dolphins but were being shown the waterways in the village. Our questions to the boatman were lost to the breeze as he only shrugged and yelled something constantly, expressing his displeasure. Thankfully he turned the boat towards the sea. We had perhaps been cheated. There were no dolphins, and from what I learnt later, the probability of spotting them are next to zero as they are on the verge of extinction. However I must say it was a cool ride with the sea breeze blowing against your face. The views of the verdant mountains and the blue sea are scenic too. And so I forgave the touristy cheat, which I presume is a regular affair.
We crossed the pedestrian bridge called Sun Ki bridge across the river. There are two such pedestrian bridges which cross the Tai O river at its northern and western forks. From Sun Ki Bridge you get a great view of the stilt houses. At the farther edge of the bridge I noticed a woman sitting in a boat. She was cleaning clams. Her concentration was fascinating. While hardly any one spoke English, it was fun nodding and smiling at locals, who are friendly, as most of their sales come from tourists. One of our first stops was a small disorganized museum where there was information about types of fishing nets, the marriage rituals of the fishing community and the kind of ancient utensils used in their kitchens.
As you enter the narrow lanes of village, the smell of dried fish is all-pervasive. There is no way you can avoid it. The markets are buzzing with activity and every household seems to have a small stall outside it. Every possible kind of sea creature had been dried and was for sale. Shrimps, mantis, star fish, abalone, sea cucumbers, squid, octopus, fish roe, puffer fish. You name it and you would find it on display somewhere. I couldn’t identify most of what was being sold. Let’s call them unidentified drying objects! And then there were bottles of shrimp paste and several other sauces which I couldn’t decipher. The fisherfolk are very hardworking. Every now and then you would find heavily loaded trolleys of seafood being pushed up the narrow lanes, making you squeeze to the sides to give them space. I wish I had someone to tell me what the bottles and dried things were, for it would have been great to pick up some nice sea food. I did pick up some spices like Sichuan pepper and some dried shrimps which turned out to be great.
There were some strange things. I spotted some orange circles which looked like candy. They turned out to be dried duck egg yolk. I really wonder how they maintained the shape. Even the souvenirs were weird. Dried up puffer fish! Have a look.
If you are visiting a fishing village you need to be adventurous and daring to try out newer things. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a translator to tell us what we should or would be eating, so we played it safe. There were shops and restaurants with tanks outside where live seafood was swimming. You had to choose and they would cook it for you. One of our first sights was a large cuttlefish which looked like it was a local delicacy. At some places there was sea food being cooked on skewers. At other shops we saw people roasting sea food between wired metal grates on Hibachi style grills. I wanted to know what those rolled structures were before trying them out. There were two Chinese girls who seemed to be enjoying this snack and I asked them what it was. After a great deal of discussion with her friend, she looked at me and said ‘fish’ and then pointed to her tummy in a circular motion! I presumed they were fish intestines or some such thing. But I couldn’t bring myself to try it.
As we walked ahead, we found an ancient temple built in the 15th century. This was the Kwan Tai Temple which was originally built in the reign of Hong Zhi of the Ming dynasty. This temple honours the God of War and Righteousness. Kwan Tai was actually a military general who is famous for his loyalty. It is believed that he protects his devotees from all evil.
We had got here around lunch time. While there were snack stalls all around, restaurants were few. Here I found a guy selling ‘husbands’! These turned out to be shrimp and pork pizza rolls! Tired from all the walking since that morning, I needed to sit down and enjoy my meal. The prominent restaurants which were pointed out by the boatman, were selling Western style steak and pork. But what was the point in coming to a fishing village and not tasting fresh fish cooked in the local style!
It was then that I spotted a smart young lady in front of a small restaurant. The place wasn’t fancy, but had basic round tables around which a few customers were seated. She came up to us and spoke impeccable English and it didn’t take us long to choose that place for lunch. It was the Lin Heung Restaurant on Kat Hing Street. Mandy, our hostess helped us choose from the live sea food tanks outside the restaurant. I would have loved to try the crabs, but we had limited Hongkong dollars left in our wallet and ATMs were not in sight. So we chose a local style clam dish and some fresh local fish, with rice. While we sipped tea, we were given a bowl of hot water. We looked confused and were explained that we had to wash the utensils in the water first. The food was lightly seasoned, fresh and delicious.
Tai O was such a welcome change from sky-scraper infested claustrophobic Hong Kong. It was refreshing to breathe in the sea air, meet the locals and enjoy their cuisine.
How to get there:
We took the bus number 21 from Ngong Ping village to get to Tai O (20 minutes). For details on how to get to Ngong Ping, read details here. If you want to get to Tai O directly, go to Tung Chung MTR. Walk to the bus stop and take the bus number 11 from Tung Chung.
On our way back we were tired and getting late, so we didn’t go back to Ngong Ping. Instead we took the bus number 11 to Tung Chung (45 minutes) and walked to the MTR.