Located in the southwestern end of Lantau Island off the coast of Hong Kong, Tai O is a glimpse into the city's humble beginnings as a fishing community, and its transformation into today's financial powerhouse. Get away from the bustling city and let Tai O's stilt houses, waterways, bridges, back alleys and convivial atmosphere show you Hong Kong's yesteryears.
How to get there
The easiest way to reach Tai O is to take either the taxi or bus #11 from the Tung Chung MTR station. A 45-minute ride through the island's winding roads can be hair-raising at times, but the greenery and clean air will prove to be a refreshing start to your journey.
Deep into Lantau Island
Adventurous travellers should start from Tung Chung with a hike along the Ngong Ping 360 Emergency Rescue Trail, passing Ngong Ping Village, Tian Tan Buddha Statue and Po Lin Monastery, then westward through Lantau Trail and Tai O Road, finally ending in the fishing village where you can tuck into some local food.
Opened to the public a few years ago, the trail runs right under the Ngong Ping tourist cable car line, offering hikers a 'off-the-beaten-track experience'. Winding its way up to 750 metres above sea level at the summit of Nei Nak Shan, it is entirely paved with wooden planks and is numbered with distance posts in case of emergency (which was the original purpose of the rescue trail). Panoramic views along the way are wonderful, as the hilly terrain reveals itself in the mist, cable cars trudding quietly past you overhead. The railings are sturdy but minimal, so do stay on designated paths.
Sights on stilts
After turning on to Nei Lak Shan Hill Country Trail and Lantau Trail, Ngong Ping Village is just ahead of us. This is a great place to take a break and do some sightseeing. The view of the 34-metre-tall buddha, bronze statues, monastery and pagodas will without doubt inspire awe. From here, you can either take public transportation to Tai O, which is just minutes away, or continue hiking for another eight kilometres and visit several temples on the way.
As soon as you reach Tai O, the sound of lapping waters, odour of freshly caught fish, and lack of traffic transport you to Hong Kong's yesteryears. Fishermen's stilts houses line both sides of the creek, backed by lush, rolling hills. Buildings are not more than three storeys high. Locals, mostly the elderly who have remained in Tai O, prepare their seafood for cooking or storage, stopping to chat with a tourist or two on the streets.
On Kat Hing Street, you will find many local bites at small family businesses. Besides selling souvenirs and trinkets, family run shops have come up with their own 'specialties' to attract peckish tourists. Don't expect elaborate meals, but there is enough variety to whet your appetite.
Sweet and savoury
A store called Kei Kei on number eight Kat Hing Street serves homemade lemon iced tea. The aroma from number 21's charcoal grill is irresistible as marinated abalone, fresh oysters au gratin, tiger prawns and scallops are barbecued to order. Those with an adventurous palate should try pork sandwiches with the local specialty, shrimp pâté, at 41. We spot an old gentleman with cool shades preparing an aromatic pastry over coal fire at number 59. The batter, much like the one for pancakes, is not baked but grilled in a small double-sided frying pan. Hungry for more? Indulgent beignets at 66, kebabs at 70 and hearty clay pot rice at number 85 will fill you up.
Not in a hurry to get back to the city? Tai O Heritage Hotel is an idyllic getaway with all the local colours of the island. Converted from an old 1900s police station, the beautiful restoration has been recognised by UNESCO Asia-Pacific for Cultural Heritage Conservation – just one of the many secrets that you will discover in Tai O.
What to see:
Ngong Ping 360 Emergency Rescue Trail
Ngong Ping Village
Tian Tan Buddha Statue and Po Lin Monastery
Fishermen’s stilt houses on Tai O Creek
Local bites along Kat Hing Street in Tai O:
Number 8: homemade lemon tea
Kei Kei's lemon tea, curiously ice-less and lemon-less when served is surprisingly refreshing and delicate. Homemade every day, the store owner filters out the fresh lemon fruit and stores the tea in the fridge until served, keeping it cool but not brain-freeze icy.
Number 21: fresh charcoal grilled seafood
Want to enjoy a wide variety of fresh seafood without sitting down for a time-consuming meal? Here, marinated abalone, fresh oysters, tiger prawns and scallops are barbecued and served sizzling hot. Though more expensive than other street food, the freshness is all worth it.
Number 41: pork sandwich with homemade shrimp pâté
While sandwiches with pork filling is nothing out of the ordinary, one that blends Tai O fishing village's very own shrimp pâté is out of this world. Get past the pungentness and you will discover its creaminess that goes perfectly with the freshly gridled wrap and crisp lettuce.
Number 59: Hong Kong-style pastry
This traditional pastry used to be served throughout the city of Hong Kong at streetside stalls. While they have all but disappeared in town, Tai O still serves this nostalgic snack. Look for an old gentleman with sunglasses on, because his version of the pastry is something not to be missed. He pours an eggy batter, much like the one for pancakes, into a heated double-sided frying pan and literally cook the batter over coal-fired stove. Crispy on the outside, fluffy on the inside.
Number 66: deep-fried beignet
These large, palm-sized beignet are fried every morning. What's unique about them is that, though deep-fried, they are much lighter and less oily than the typical American doughnut. Sprinkled with white sugar, this is the best thing to indulge in when you want something sweet.
Number 70: Tai O-style okonomiyaki
A variation on the Japanese okonomiyaki, Tai O makes its own by cracking an egg over a thin layer of batter on a heated gridle. In go spring onion, dried shrimp and a generous sprinkle of sesame. The wrap is folded with a drizzle of salt. Light, crispy, flavourful.
Number 85: clay pot rice with chicken
The clay pot rice is enjoyed all year round, often served in a single-person portions in most eateries throughout Hong Kong. Tai O's version is prepared over a charcoal fired stove for that added smokiness. Marinated chicken gets extra tender during the slow-cooking process. A quick, hearty meal before you continue sightseeing around Tai O.