Think of Hong Kong and all you can see is a buzzing city with an impressive, skyscraper-filled skyline. But it is a city of contrasts. And no place is this more evident than in Tai O Hong Kong. Located on the western side of Lantau Island, this picturesque village is still home to the Tanka fishermen. I recently spent an afternoon exploring its labyrinthine alleys and the unique stilt houses.
Stilt Houses of Tai O
The Tai O River snakes through the village. On either side of the riverbank, rickety houses stand cheek by jowl, held up on tall wooden stilts.
These houses are called Pang uks. They are built on wooden stilts that are driven deep into the muddy tidal flats of the river. This building style goes back to the 19th century and is used to protect the houses against floods.
The stilt houses have changed over the years. The oldest ones in Tai O Hong Kong are made of grey metal sheets and are shaped like an upturned boat.
The newer boxy houses (some made of concrete) have colourful balconies overflowing with plants.
Creaking wooden bridges span the river. Walking along one of them, I met 65-year-old Diana Leung, who is a friend of my guide, Vivian. Diana insisted that we visit her home.
Her stilt house was immaculately clean with a lovely view of the river and a green hillock beyond.
Her tiny bedroom had a low wooden roof, a short bed with white lace curtains, open shelves for storage, and family photos on all walls.
She grew up in this village in her grandmother’s house. She even showed me a black-and-white photograph of her younger self, standing in front of an old stilt house.
Apart from the stilt houses, Tai O Hong Kong has another speciality. The fishermen here have been making shrimp paste for decades. They grind shrimp meat with salt and allow it to ferment in covered plastic drums. They then spread it out on bamboo trays and dry it in the sun.
The entire village of Tai O Hong Kong has this pungent, fishy smell because of this. The paste is added to many dishes such as stir-fried vegetables and meats, fried rice, etc.
Tai O Market
A walk through Tai O’s fish market is an assault on the senses! It’s crowded, noisy, and full of all kinds of fish. There’s fresh catch available as well as all sorts of dried fish.
Garlands of fish maw (dried swim bladders) hung in every shop and seemed like a popular delicacy.
I had lunch at Lin Heung restaurant, which is a favourite with the locals. I tried several authentic, traditional dishes such as fried clams, squid cake with dumplings, scrambled egg with shrimp, and fried rice with shrimp paste. And of course, a bottle of Tsingtao beer!
Tai O is easily accessible from Central Hong Kong. Take the MTR (metro) to Tung Chung Station, and bus no. 11 to Tai O bus terminus. Alternatively, you can take the Ngong Ping Cable Car to Ngong Ping village and take bus no. 21.
You can combine Tai O with a visit to the majestic Tian Tan Buddha (Big Buddha) statue and the Po Lin Monastery in Lantau.
Where to stay
If you want to stay in Tai O Hong Kong, check out Tai O Heritage Hotel. It is a colonial-style, boutique hotel with sea-facing rooms.
Hong Kong, of course, has many stay options. I recently stayed at Lan Kwai Fong Hotel @ Kau U Fong. It’s centrally located and very well-connected.
What has been your favourite experience in Hong Kong? Share it with us!
This article was commissioned by The Hindu Business Line. A version of this was published in their weekend magazine BLink on October 28th, 2017. Read it here.