Before I went to Hong Kong, I had this image of a huge city and that was about it. I had no idea that there was so much beautiful nature surrounding Hong Kong and much of it was easily accessible. Unfortunately Josh and I didn't get a chance to do any of the hikes, but we did do a day trip out to Tai O and it was our favorite day during our vacation.
As I've stated at least once on every post about Hong Kong, Josh and I met up with locals almost every day of our trip. I put out a request to meet people on the Couchsurfing site and one of the people who contacted us was Stephen, who was starting a new tour company and wanted to offer us a free tour in exchange for honest feedback. How could we turn down a free tour? We exchanged a few emails, I filled out a form, and he created a customized tour for us. He told us to meet him on Lantau Island for a day around Tai O.
We spent that morning near Hong Kong Station as we needed to take a ferry from Central Pier after lunch. I kept reading about all the great foreign restaurants in Hong Kong and since it had been so long since we had eaten a western style breakfast we took off to one of the places I had found. I'm not even going to bother to find the name of it again because it was overpriced and mediocre. I did start to notice something about Hong Kong that really bothered me though. We were in Hong Kong and I was in a restaurant that was filled with white people. Only white people. Everyone was speaking English. Some were tourists. Others lived there. But they were all white. The menu was only English. There wasn't a word of Cantonese anywhere. Why in the world would a restaurant in HK not cater to the local Cantonese population? I noticed this more and more every time we walked around the Central/Hong Kong station area. It was like we were walking through any generic Western neighborhood where everyone spoke English. It was extremely bizarre and made me really uncomfortable.
On a more lively note, another interesting thing we noticed that Sunday is Sunday appears to be the day off for all the maids and nannies in the city. The streets were teeming with women handing out their business cards offering their services. On our walk to the pier, the sidewalks and parks were lined with hundreds of woman sitting on cardboard, blankets, or just the ground while they ate from huge containers of delicious looking food. It was a citywide picnic.
We got to Central Pier No.6 right in time for our 1:10 ferry. We were to meet Stephen at Mui Wo Ferry Pier and grab a bus to Pui O. He was there waiting for us right at the Pier and took us to a convenience store to stock up on water and top off our Octopus card before we left. Pui O was a beautiful village. There were water buffalo walking everywhere, the beaches were a lovely white sand, and everything was just so green. We saw a cow that had a bit of a funny backstory. Stephen told us the cow kept wandering off to hang out with the water buffalo and appeared to think he was a water buffalo. The local community found it all so funny they named the cow Billy and he's allowed to live and wander around with the water buffalo.
We grabbed another bus to take us to the main village, Tai O. Tai O is an old fishing community on Lantau Island that has mainly become a tourist area as a way to survive. What's happening in Tai O is what's happening to many traditional rural areas around the world. Younger people leave for cities and all that's left are the elderly who take their knowledge with them to the other side when they leave this world. Tai O is still holding on tight to their old ways. The streets were lined with small markets and shops with traditional goods. Josh and I bought a huge bundle of temple incense to burn at our place. We grabbed a mooncake to split and our guide was surprised we liked it. We walked into an old house that was a museum dedicated to the old way of life. Slowly all the traditional homes are being torn down and remodeled. Hong Kong seems determined to get rid of its past at times.
If you have a soft spot for bright colors and rundown places, the backstreets of Tai O are your wonderland. I was taking a picture of every tiny detail. I slowed us down so much that we actually sprinted to a few places to make sure we got there before they closed. One small detail I really liked was that almost every house and business had a small altar dedicated to an Earth god. If you keep your eyes peeled you'll see them everywhere. He's supposed to ward off evil from homes.
The stilt houses were a maze. I think it could be very easy to get lost in there if you went alone. I read somewhere that at one point there were no bridges connecting these homes to the mainland. You had to take a boat if you wanted to go to and from the stilt houses. It's easy to get caught up in places like this and want to take a picture of everything, but you have to remember that this is still an area that people live in and not all of them are happy about Tai O becoming a tourist destination. We saw little 'just married' balloons flying over a balcony and people out puttering around on their decks. We were glad to peek into their lives even for just a short while.
Our next stop was Kwan Tai Temple. This place worships the God of War and was built during the Ming Dynasty. This place is old and you can feel it in the soot stained walls and grease covered tables. It was dark and smokey and felt holy. We were told this temple is the main one used by locals from Tai O.
Our last stop of the day before we headed off for dinner was to a nearby mountain to see a view of the entire village. As we walked out we saw a huge causeway being built to connect Hong Kong to Macau. We were told that even though there were a lot of people against the bridge and it was detrimental to the ocean around it, Hong Kong was going through with it. I couldn't believe they wanted to ruin such a beautiful view.
Make sure you take the time to head up the mountain for a little bit. That view is truly worth it.
Our last stop of the night was a vegetarian restaurant called 東方小祇園. This a place that you really need a Cantonese speaker for, although maybe I'd try to see if you can go anyway. He said we needed a reservation, but it wasn't crowded on Sunday night so try your luck. The restaurant was a bit rundown, but that was one of the best meals of my life. Definitely the best vegetarian restaurant I've ever been to. There was no English anywhere, but there were pictures on the menu.
We ended our night by taking a bus back to Tung Chung Station and then heading back to our hotel. Our bellies were full and our feet had blisters, but we were thoroughly pleased with our day.
I don't have a lot of tips for Tai O because everything was left up to the excellent Stephen and his walking tours. He really listened to what we were interested in and we had a great time talking about Chinese history, its cultural influence on Japan, and Hong Kong customs. He went above and beyond in his efforts to help us plan a good trip to Hong Kong. He gave a great itinerary for our last day just from the goodness of his heart. I'd recommend him to anyone that's going to Hong Kong. He took care of everything for us that day. And if you'd like more info on different ways to get to Tai O click here.