Tai O: Hong Kong's hot tub time machine

By Richard Field, a Travel Enthusiast

Read more on Hong Kong.

Overall rating:4.5 out of 5 (based on 8 votes)
Enjoyable
4.25
4.3
Useful
4.5
4.5
Inspirational
4.375
4.4
Recommended for:
Cultural, Honeymoon, Romance, Mid-range, Expensive

Go back in time by staying in an authentic fishing village, before checking into a boutique B&B and chilling out in its rooftop jacuzzi under the stars

If you want a peaceful, back-to-basics holiday, then Hong Kong – one of the world's most densely populated cities - might not be the first place you'd think of.

Where?

But less than an hour from the frenetic downtown area, with its shopping malls and skyscrapers, is the fishing village of Tai O at Hong Kong's westernmost extremity on Lantau Island. Known as the Venice of the Orient for its waterways, pedestrianised Tai O has more in common with an unspoilt Greek island resort than South East Asia's most exciting city.

First impressions

Taxis and buses will drop you off at the end of the road, from where it is a five minute walk to the village's heart over a footbridge crossing one of the waterways (known as chungs) which separates Tai O from the rest of Lantau Island. Crossing the bridge is like stepping out of a time machine. The narrow streets are lined with stores selling dried fish and shrimp paste, while local men will offer to take you on short boat trips to see endangered pink dolphins.

We had been told to treat our boat trip as a simple pleasure ride, as the bubblegum pink dolphins are so rare, so we were elated to see four of them – a hefty proportion of their remaining population. 25-minute boat rides cost $20, and there are rival companies offering identical trips for the same price at either end of the footbridge leading into Tai O from the bus-stop. As the boats tend to leave only when they are full, choose wisely to avoid waiting.

What else is there to do?

Lantau Island's mountainous Country Park offers some great hikes and makes England’s Peak District look paltry by comparison, while the south of the island boasts some of Hong Kong’s best beaches.

One of the former British colony's premier tourist attractions – the Big Buddha – can be reached by cable-car from the nearby town of Tung Chung. To get to Tung Chung, take bus no. 11 from Tai O which is a bargain at $11.90 for the 40-minute journey (remember to pay the driver with the exact change). Once at Tung Chung bus station, it is impossible to miss the start of the cable-car, known as Ngong Ping 360 (www.np360.com.hk) – just follow the hordes and be prepared to queue for at least half an hour. It takes 25 minutes for cable-cars to reach Ngong Ping village – a one way ticket in a standard cabin costs $74, but it’s worth splashing out for a glass-bottomed “crystal cabin” at $109 one way.

However you decide to do it, it will be the highlight of your trip to Hong Kong with breathtaking views of the international airport and the Country Park on the way. Ngong Ping village is a pretty tacky collection of souvenir shops and fast food joints, so after disembarking from the cable-car it’s best to proceed directly to Tian Tan Buddha – better known as the Big Buddha, the largest outdoor seated bronze Buddha statue in the world. There is no charge to approach the Big Buddha, which is a 15-minute walk from the cable-car terminus along the Wisdom Path and then up 268 steps. Trust me, you won’t miss it.

If hunger calls while you’re up here, give the likes of Subway a miss and try the vegetarian restaurant at Po Lin Monastery (open 11am – 4.30pm; www.plm.org.hk/eng; standard meals $60 / deluxe meals $120). We settled for the standard, and were given a generous selection of veggie dishes, soup, rice and tea making us wonder how big a deluxe meal might be. From Ngong Ping village, bus no. 21 takes you back to Tai O in around 15 minutes.

Lifestyle and tradition

There are some picturesque walks in Tai O itself; along the pier to see fishermen in action, to a pink dolphin lookout point high above the village and past mangrove swamps popular with local birdlife. But the real attraction is wandering through the village's lanes and over its bridges observing the lifestyles of locals which have changed little for centuries.

People live along the chungs in stilted houses with tin roofs. If they're not involved in the fishing industry, they while away their days playing mahjong, the game thought to prevent the onset of Alzheimer's. The clatter of mahjong tiles was the soundtrack to our stay in Tai O.

At night

Once the day-trippers have left, you can have Tai O to yourself and if you choose to stay the night you will almost certainly be the only gweilo in town. The sunset over Tai O is to die for – amateur photographers gather by the port to capture the moment.

When darkness falls, there is not a lot to do other than stroll along the promenade before finding a table at one of the handful of seafood restaurants for a meal a la carte or a catch of the day from the buckets left outside. We loved Fook Moon Lam (29 Market Street) where a plate of shrimps, cashew nuts and noodles will set you back $80. Don’t expect anything too posh at any of the restaurants here – just good quality food at good prices in basic surroundings. And as things close early, make sure you order no later than 8pm.

Where to stay

The Balcony (86 Kat Hing Street) overlooking the chung on Kat Hing Street is your best bet for a nightcap before returning to the only choice of accommodation in Tai O – the excellent Espace Elastique (57 Kat Hing Street). It currently consists of just two rooms – standard (from $520) and deluxe (from $720) – although the ambitious and friendly owner, Veronica, has plans to add more rooms as well as an art gallery. Both rooms have TV, air-conditioning and huge bathrooms but it’s worth paying the extra for the larger deluxe room’s balcony.

Espace Elastique is the closest you’ll find to a traditional B&B in these parts – be sure to tell Veronica how you like your eggs in the morning, and she’ll cook you up a full English breakfast. Before calling it a day, make sure you have a session at the rooftop sauna and jacuzzi (an additional $200) underneath the stars. You'll have the best night's sleep available anywhere in Hong Kong and feel energised for your long flight home.

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More information on Tai O: Hong Kong's hot tub time machine:

Author:
Richard Field
Traveller type:
Travel Enthusiast
Guide rating:
4.5
Average: 4.5 (8 votes)
Total views:
285
First uploaded:
23 November 2010
Last updated:
0 sec ago
Destinations featured:
Trip types:
Cultural, Honeymoon, Romance
Budget level:
Mid-range, Expensive
Free tags / Keywords:
seafood, fishing village, pink dolphins

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1. Espace Elastique
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Community comments (9)

Rating:
5
0 of 0 people found the following comment helpful.

Excellent..! Have been to 42 countries and been to Tai O about 10 times. Very accurate review of this area and Lantau. As a foreigner living in the area of HK, I include Tai O in my "standard tour" for friends and family that make it this way..!

I just found this site. I hope to make more comments and write some reviews in the future. See the world... It's a good place to see..!

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0 of 0 people found the following comment helpful.

Thanks very much for the kind comments.

Paul – the video must be misleading as Tai O is tiny. It has a population of around 2000 - 3000 and only has three or four streets.

Lucy – absolutely no chance of a dolphin pic I'm afraid! They pop their heads above the water long enough for you to see a pink nose, but that's it.

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Rating:
5
0 of 0 people found the following comment helpful.

Sounds like an interesting place to explore, and the video shows the place as bigger than I imagined. I always love seeing wildlife, so I can imagine Tai O to be on my Hong Kong shortlist should I ever visit.

Paul

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Rating:
4
0 of 0 people found the following comment helpful.

I really enjoyed this guide and it certainly inspired me to add this to my list of 'places to visit'. There are lots of useful day to day tips which I think would be invaluable. Thank you.

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Rating:
4
0 of 0 people found the following comment helpful.

Hi Richard

I have fond memories of standing on that bridge and watching the mudskippers below. Very interesting place and such a contrast to the bustle of the city.

simon

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Rating:
4
0 of 0 people found the following comment helpful.

Very detailed and informative. Sounds like a real adventure.

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Rating:
4
0 of 0 people found the following comment helpful.

I enjoyed reading this Richard, very descriptive and informative.Thanks.

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Rating:
5
0 of 0 people found the following comment helpful.

Well worth the wait Richard! Hong Kong is a must on the Far Eastern tour I promise myself one day and it's great to know of somewhere like this, a bit off the beaten track.
By the way- anyone know the rules for mahjong? I'm in need!

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Rating:
5
0 of 0 people found the following comment helpful.

Hi Richard. I can't believe I missed all this on my trip to Hong Kong - will just have to go back again! A really interesting guide which brings a new perspective to a well-known destination. Had never heard of a pink dolphin before (photo would've been good but I Googled them and wow, they really are pink!) and there's plenty of good recommendations for anyone who wants to follow in your footsteps. Thanks

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