Tai O: Withstanding Rapid Change

46 comments
Asia, Hong Kong
A Local Fisherman Navigating Tai O's Waterways

A Local Fisherman Navigating Tai O’s Waterways

Time moves in a constant pace, everything else changes along the endless tunnel of it, some do so faster than the others. When it comes to cities across the globe some places are changing very rapidly where transformation is carried out not in a matter of decades but years, even months. But others seem to move much in a much slower rate, leaving vestiges of the past to be seen, learned and admired today.

The city of Hong Kong undoubtedly falls into the first category where its skyline is one of the most rapidly changing on Earth. It has always been known as a place where East meets West, colliding to create an equilibrium on which it grows and prosper. Even so, the equilibrium itself constantly swings from one side to the other, leaving the modern city dwellers life dynamics to conquer.

Yet in the far west corner of the megacity a small village seems to be left behind and remain in its past. Behind the mountains and hills of Lantau Island rests the small fishing village of Tai O, sitting on the estuary of a small river that forks out to the north and south of the village and flows down to the South China Sea.

Founded more than 300 years ago by Tanka people – boat people who lived in traditional junks along the southern China coasts – Tai O is still very much a fishing village today. Despite still retaining their marine-dependent lifestyle as they have always been doing for centuries, people now live in stilt houses instead of junks. Not only the reflections of the small houses on the water, but the small boats berthed to the slender stilts also create an atmospheric ambiance to the village, drawing tourists to this remote part of Hong Kong.

Local people’s dependence on the sea is apparent as soon as one enters the village. Dried seafood in plastic baskets and hung pufferfish souvenirs dot stalls along the village’s main alleyways, luring visitors to spend their cash, a vital source of income for the locals. Walk further away from the village’s center towards a pathway leading up to a hill, a small temple emerges at the final bend of the small river before it empties out into the ocean.

From the hill, Tai O looks serene and picturesque where a small lake reflects the afternoon sun and the mountains around the village. At the opposite site of the hill across the river sits the old police station which has been turned into an elegant boutique hotel equipped with an outdoor glass elevator. Tai O might be one of the least developed areas in one of the most developed cities on the planet, but signs of change are apparent, albeit slowly, as the new hotel indicates the thriving tourism industry.

Walking down the pathway from the hotel back to the village, the pungent smell of shrimp paste is hard to ignore, while not far from it dozens of salted duck eggs are drying out under the sun. Yet, on the other side of the same island the world’s smallest ‘happiest place on Earth’ amuses a much larger number of visitors in state-of-the-art facilities. Mickey Mouse and friends are not the only big tenant on the island. To the north Hong Kong International Airport at Chek Lap Kok serves as a major gateway for people traveling to and from the territory. The mountains, it seems, provide the only protection for Tai O from the rapid change elsewhere on the island.

Going Home

Going Home

Stilt Houses, Vestiges of Hong Kong's Past

Stilt Houses, Vestiges of Hong Kong’s Past

One of the Two Main Bridges in the Village

One of the Two Main Bridges in the Village

The Old Post Office, Now A Boutique Hotel

The Old Police Station, Now A Boutique Hotel

A Bicycle, the Most Convenient Way to Go Around the Village

A Bicycle, the Most Convenient Way to Go Around the Village

A Decorated Rolling Door

A Decorated Rolling Door

Duck Egg Yolks Drying under the Sun

Duck Egg Yolks Drying under the Sun

Dried and Decorated Pufferfish

Dried and Decorated Pufferfish

Dried Seafood

Dried Seafood

More Dried Fish

More Dried Fish

A Lazying Cat

A Lazing Cat

An Old Temple Near the Sea

An Old Temple Near the Sea

The Village of Tai O, Lantau Island

The Village of Tai O, Lantau Island

Posted by

Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.

46 thoughts on “Tai O: Withstanding Rapid Change”

    • Thank you, Annika. Hong Kong is one of those big cities which, despite their constant bustle, remain interesting to visit.

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  1. Packing my Suitcase says:

    Really good text 🙂 loved the shots you made, all the details you payed attention to! 🙂

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    • Thank you for your kind words. I just happen to pay attention to details, especially architectural and cultural, everywhere I go. Well, most of the time. 🙂

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      • Packing my Suitcase says:

        That is a great characteristic for a traveler 🙂 you’re welcome!

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  2. Reading this brings back some fond memories, Bama! You took some classic shots of everyday life – I especially love the ones of the sliding metal gates and the egg yolks. 🙂 It’s a good thing we didn’t go to Tai O on a weekend… it gets jam-packed and the lines for the buses often snake all the way back into the village.

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    • Tai O was such an atmospheric village, and to get there was quite a journey in itself. I’m really glad you planned it out quite well, James, because I can’t imagine how long we would have to wait for the bus if we chose to go on a weekend instead. Thank you for that! 🙂 The next time we go to Tai O maybe we should see the pink dolphins, not by taking a walla-walla of course.

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    • Thanks, Diane. The weather was really nice the day I went. So I guess that helped me with the photos.

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    • I’m glad to have a best friend who lives there, so I could see many sides of HK which were off the radar of most tourists. Thanks, Robin.

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  3. fleurrisse says:

    Reblogged this on fleurrisse and commented:
    Very admiring by the article, even though I am a Chinese, but i haven’t been there, well, i haven’t been to many places in China, yeh, just as the author tolded, in most people’s eyes, Hong kong is a city very morden, a place where East meets West, but here, you will find a different Hong Kong.

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    • Hong Kong punya banyak tempat yang gak keliatan HK kok: kampung, pantai pasir putih, hutan, dll. Mungkin film-film itu dulu shootingnya di salah satu tempat yang ada di HK. 🙂
      Thank you, Teguh!

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  4. Thank you for the wonderful photos. Used to live in Hong Kong as a child so these were really interesting to see. 🙂

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    • And thank you for your very kind words! HK is one of the fastest-changing places on Earth. I wonder how much it has changed since you left.

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    • Good to know that 7 years later much of Tai O still looks the same. I’m glad the photos bring back some fond memories to you.

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  5. An interesting read, giving you an insight into somewhere you would never have heard or seen anything about. A place I probably will never get to, but through your words and pictures I feel it’s a place I know something about now. Well done Bama, I look forward to reading more of your accounts 🙂

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    • Thank you, Carly. Never say never, you might one day see yourself exploring the narrow alleys of Tai O. 🙂 I’m glad this short story helps you understand more about this relatively less-known corner of the ever bustling territory, that is Hong Kong.

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  6. Bama I can hardly believe this is near Hong Kong. I appreciate having a glimpse of another side. I found it interesting that so much of the food was ‘dried’. Those pufferfish decorations are quite the souvenir. I’ve never seen anything like that.

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    • Hong Kong has so many places beyond its usual touristy spots, and more often that not they are the ones which leave deep impressions to us. 🙂 The food was dried to preserve it, so in the times when the fishermen cannot go to the sea, during typhoon season for example, they still have something to eat. About the pufferfish it’s funny because I saw the dried ones in HK early this year, and I saw the live ones when I was snorkeling near Flores, Indonesia.

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      • Thank you for the information Bama. That totally makes sense about everything being dried. That is very funny about the pufferfish. Definitely those in Indonesia had a much better deal of fate.

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  7. Hi Bama,
    Wow, I would never guess from the photos that this place is part of Hong Kong. What a world a way from the bustle and glitz of the city. It reminds me more of fishing villages in Cambodia. It truly is so refreshing though to see this village withstand rapid development. Thanks again for showing a piece of HK that not everyone gets to see. The stuffed puffer fish is indeed an interesting souvenir.

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    • Hi Marisol,
      With those stilt houses and waterways, one would expect it was somewhere in Southeast Asia. But the fact that it’s actually a part of a territory best known for its endless skyscrapers makes Tai O very fascinating. My pleasure, Marisol, and thanks for reading.

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  8. Another place we almost went to, but cancelled last minute. Your featured image looks like it could be from one of the villages on the Tonle Sap in Cambodia! Thanks for a beautiful photo essay Bama.

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    • You really should go back to Hong Kong, Madhu. 🙂 Tai O’s stilt houses were a nice break from HK’s modern skyscrapers. It’s nice to see that in a city dictated by money, cultural preservation still finds its way in some people’s minds. Thank you for your lovely comment, Madhu.

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  9. Hello, I just love your post about Tai O and Hong Kong and the problem of change you are speaking about. Here in Switzerland, many people are very worried about these great changes due to traffic increase and new buildings with no end. I’ve been in Hong Kong and I also travelled in China and I really hope, we human beings won’t completely forget about nature. Many thanks.

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    • Thank you, Martina. One of the biggest challenges our planet face is population growth, or population boom in some parts of the world. Despite the changes you mentioned, Switzerland remains one of the most fortunate countries. But in many parts of Asia and Africa, this population boom puts so much pressure to the environment. It has been changing natural landscape and people’s way of life over the years. So having Tai O is essential for cities like HK for people can learn how life is like when things don’t change as fast as they’re used to.

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      • Fortunately, we have mountains on which you can’t build megacities! It’s interesting for me to see that this changes of the environment seems to be a worldwide problem and I, personally, think that less would be more in many situations. Many thanks , Bama, for your answer.

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      • Less would be more, I couldn’t agree more on that, Martina. I haven’t made it to Switzerland yet, but I’d really love to. Thanks again for your thoughtful comment.

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  10. Bama, this is brilliant. One of my goals is to spend a night (or two) at the old police station hotel… Tai O is one of the many great pieces of history still thriving in HK (and as you say, a world away from Central/Kowloon). This write-up I will be visiting again & again, and will one day walk along these very avenues you paint so well 🙂 Cheers!

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    • Thank you, Randall. It’s a great idea to spend a night or two, as you said, at the hotel as you can truly feel the ambiance of the fishing village most day-trippers miss. Try to go there not during peak season for a better experience, and please write about it. I believe we are all curious how Tai O and the hotel are like at night. 🙂

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      • Will do, it is exciting to read your post about Tai O, tempted to head back to HK earlier than October 🙂

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  11. hannahcoral says:

    We are off to Hong Kong in a few weeks, Tai O is on my list to visit! So pleased I came across your blog, love the shots!

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    • Hope you have a very good time in HK, and especially in Tai O! If you have enough time, take the long and scenic bus ride to and from the village. Thanks for your kind words! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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