TAI O, HONG KONG — As the ferry to Lantau Island glides across Hong Kong Harbour’s choppy surf, I look out from my seat at the city’s congested vertical skyline and try to imagine what this Goliath of modern cities would have looked like back when it was just a humble fishing village.
I’m about to find out in Tai O, apparently.
That’s because historians believe the ancient fishing village, which sits on the western side of lovely Lantau Island, offers the best example of what Hong Kong would have looked like when it was first settled. Tai O’s famous stilted homes, which sit precariously perched on wooden legs over its rivers (Tai O Creek and Tai O River) and man-made canals, are some of the most photographed houses in the world.
Left: Some stilted homes look like they may fall into the water. Right: Tai O's harbour has changed little over the centuries.
So, after leaving the ferry terminal, I jump on the No. 1 bus, which cuts through Lantau Island’s mountainous tropical landscape and reach Tai O about 50 minutes later.
Lantau Island is best known as the home of Hong Kong Disneyland and legendary Tian Tan Buddha — a.k.a. The Big Buddha — and is an environmental oasis for Hong Kong residents thanks to a series of hiking trails and its tranquil sandy beaches, which drift off into the South China Sea.
When I reach Tai O, the place is crawling with tourists from every corner of the world. The local Tanka people, whose ancestors arrived here 300 years ago, still fish the abundant waters of the South China Sea just offshore but tourism has become the community’s most important business now.
The narrow streets of Tai O’s fish market are lined with some nice restaurants, souvenir shops and stalls where fish are left to dry before being sold. A backdrop of jagged mountains and the unique homes make Tai O one of the loveliest villages in all Asia.
Left: Locals sell their catch at dock side.. Right: Tourists are awed by some of the strange fish.
Street vendors try to get me to buy some of the locals treats — salted egg yolks, salted dry fish, traditional Chinese snacks and something called husband cake. Lots of tourists pose with some giant squids that were just caught.
The Venice of Hong Kong, as picturesque Tai O is often called, is connected by a series of draw bridges and while it features some lovely little temples, it’s the interconnected homes that people come to see. And the best place to see them is from the water.
I’m lured into a long boat with several other tourists by a skipper who promises “very good views of homes for just 20 Hong Kong dollars,” — about $4 Cdn.
Who can resist?
The 30-minute journey is like a trip back in time, because from my vantage point it appears little has changed in Tai O over the centuries.
I see fishermen cleaning their small boats before heading back out to sea and local women selling the freshly-caught bounty dockside. The market is abuzz with activity — just don’t try to snap a photo of the female vendors or they’ll berate you publicly and one even shows me her long knife. Yikes!
Left: Tai O's South China Sea coastline. Centre: Dried fish. Right: Lime peels dried and used as medicine.
The masterfully designed stilted homes have been tested in many typhoons over the years but amazingly have withstood all that nature has thrown at them. Remarkable when you see their flimsy construction.
The skipper revs the engine and we head out into the South China Sea to see the animal-shaped rocks that line the shore just outside the village. Schools of fish jump out of the water and put on a show for the tourists.
I also marvel at the new bridge and tunnel system I see hovering above the sea just offshore from Tai O. It will soon connect Hong Kong and the gambling mecca of Macau — the 55-kilometre-long sea crossing project, which will end up costing about $60 billion U.S. is due to open to traffic in 2018. The modern bridge, just like the ancient homes of Tai O, are both engineering marvels.
• There are several ways to get to Tai O from Hong Kong but may I suggest hopping aboard the Lantau Ferry (a sleek catamaran) at Central District pier because then you get great views of Hong Kong and Kowloon before reaching the fishing village.
• Air Canada and Cathay Pacific Airways both offer daily service to Hong Kong from Toronto and Vancouver.