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Tai O, Hong Kong: Village on stilts

People who go to Lantau Island in Hong Kong usually go for one of two reasons: to use the airport, or to visit the Big Buddha. But there’s another, somewhat less-visited tourist destination on the island: Tai O village.

stilt houses, fishing boats in Tai O
Tai O, looking down one of the canals

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Tai O was originally a fishing village, known for its houses on stilts. It makes a picturesque prospect when viewed from afar, with its colorfully-painted boats bobbing gently next to the small stilt houses, also colorful. Jumbled every which way, it’s hard from a distance to see any land or roads between the houses.

dilapidated-looking stilt houses in Tai O
stilt houses/shacks

In Tai O village, however, as I walked around, it didn’t seem quite so picturesque. Some of the houses … well, I’m not sure what the dividing line is between “house” and “shack.” Some of them looked to be in a terrible state of repair, unlikely to keep the rain out, patched with bits and pieces of wood and sheet metal. People live there?

stilt houses, all painted grey, with airconditioners sticking out the windows, in Tai O
a row of newer stilt houses

Rebuilding Tai O, Hong Kong

The village experienced a devastating fire in 2000 and many of the original wooden buildings were destroyed. They were rebuilt, but the new buildings seem only marginally better than the older buildings, since they appear to be made of metal, painted in silvery grey. In the places where the paint has peeled off, the metal is rusting. Wouldn’t a metal house be incredibly hot?

scene of jumbled houses, with boats moored outside them, in Tai O
houses and boats in Tai O

All of the houses seem fragile, like a strong wind would blow them away. They have monsoons in Hong Kong, and I wondered how many would survive the next one.

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The sanitation situation as well seemed lacking. As I sat on the balcony of a teahouse waiting for my tea, I surveyed the group of houses across the water from me. The sound of running water drew my attention to one of them, and I saw that a large pipe was emptying into the water below the house. A moment later, a smaller amount of water exited another nearby pipe. Someone had just used the toilet and washed his or her hands.

a stilt house in Tai O village
a stilt house in Tai O village, Hong Kong

Every place where the water wasn’t moving—the corners, as it were—had accumulated a collection of floating trash: plastic bags, bottles, and so on. On land, too, many houses were surrounded by assorted junk: rusted bicycles, defunct washing machines, all sorts of bits and pieces.

shacks with trash around them in Tai O village
Trash surrounds these houses.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed my stroll around the village. Some of the houses are on dry land, and some, like the teahouse where I stopped, sit with one edge on dry land and the bulk of the building on stilts over the water. It was a hot day, and elderly people had left their doors open for air, allowing me to have a quick peek into their lives.

On the main roads—really just walking paths—the primary business was seafood: mostly dried fish and other creatures. I couldn’t identify most of what I saw, and since I wasn’t shopping, didn’t stay long to look.

a dried fish on display in Tai O village
Dried fish for sale in Tai O village!

Poverty Tourism?

Do I recommend visiting Tai O village in Hong Kong? I like to get off the beaten path, but had mixed feelings about this place. As a tourist, I enjoy the picturesque, but part of me wants a more comfortable picturesque-ness. What I mean is, for example, visiting the Baix Empordà region in Spain, and knowing that all those houses that my mother would have called “cute” or “quaint” are likely perfectly livable inside, with running water and good sanitation and indoor toilets.

You could call the houses in Tai O pretty, but only from a distance. How is this any different from going to visit a slum in, say, Mumbai or Rio de Janeiro? Isn’t it “poverty tourism”?

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Visiting Tai O village, Lantau Island, Hong Kong

To get to Tai O, I took bus 11 from the Tung Chung MTR metro station. It climbed and then descended disturbingly fast down narrow, mountainous roads. Fortunately, the paving was good, if not the driving.

You can also take a ferry from Central Pier (number 6) to Mui Wo and then take bus 1.

A different way to experience Lantau Island would be to take a guided hike to the top of Lantau Peak to watch the sunset.

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about Rachel

Hi, I’m Rachel!

Rachel’s Ruminations is a travel blog focused on independent travel with an emphasis on cultural and historical sites/sights. I also occasionally write about life as an expatriate. I hope you enjoy what I post here; feel free to leave comments!  Read more…
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It’s how I feel about tonle sap in Cambodia – only the poorest live here and the conditions must be terrible as you pointed out. Wow! I assumed all of Hong Kong was gleaming high rises and had no idea this side existed to the city. It’s definitely not advertised. BTW, that dried fish head will haunt my nightmares tonight. thanks.

I know what you mean about having mixed feelings upon your visit to Tai O. While westerners hate to think of ourselves as privileged voyeurs (and the whole discussion of ‘privilege’ and its associated guilt is another topic altogether), the fact is that, by comparison, we are. But the real question is can we suspend the comparison sufficiently to absorb something from the people and their culture worthy of sharing and learning. I think it’s fine to have preferences when traveling for sanitary conditions and the like, too. It’s good to talk about the complex reactions we all have with the candor you have used in this post.

This becomes the great ethical and moral issues that travel brings up. It also brings up a guilt trip for me personally. We have traveled extensively through Asia, and there have been to places just like this in Cambodia, Sabah etc that sit alongside ritzy resorts, and that just seems wrong on so many levels.I think however that what we saw along the Tonle Sap for example, were happy people.Kids jumping in and out of the water and playing games with one another. Women washing one another’s hair, in less than what we would consider good conditions. I don’t have answers, just reactions.

I had no idea there had been such a devastating fire in Tai O! I visited the town in 1995 prior to the airport being built and the handover to China. At the time it was very picturesque with colourful wooden homes, a food market and sampans floating past. No garbage at all. I enjoyed a wonderful fish lunch and then met a mask maker who was carving intricate masks from bamboo in his home. I’m so sorry to hear of Tai O’s decline. Thanks for your honest reporting on Tai O

This reminded me somewhat of our visit to the hutongs of Beijing. A saving grace: Tai O offers a glimpse of China as it used to b.e

Tai O village on Lantau Island in Hong Kong sounds so depressing. I can relate with what you said about tourism; what are we looking for — is some reality too much? I don’t have the answer, but it is sad it is the way they must live.

You certainly explored Hong Kong off the beaten path. When I was there many years ago I was partly on business which led me into many of the outer districts, which are all far removed from the glitz of downtown. These are more authentic places and put the public image of a destination into better context. I usually like to explore such environments, as they provide much more of an insight into the life of ‘normal people’.

Thanks for a peek into untouristy Lantau Island in Hong Kong. I’ve seen similar villages on stilts in other countries and found them quite interesting. I might check it out next time I’m in the area but the Big Buddha is still higher on my long list.

We visited Tai-o a few times when we lived in HK many, many years ago. It is a great place to go and realise how diverse the world is.

I do feel uncomfortable when I feel as though I’m “gawking” at poverty. Even if the people seem healthy and happy, I am so obviously from somewhere else and so obviously there just to “see”.. Visiting the townships in South Africa definitely brought up some of these queasy feelings, that I was an intruder. OTOH, when I was 9, we lived in Mexico for a year. My sister and I ended up at the public school for girls who couldn’t afford to go to the Catholic school which had a better academic reputation, but wasn’t free. Our school didn’t even have uniforms, probably because that would have made attending school cost prohibitive for many of the students. We were clearly the only gringas, but I didn’t feel like an intruder. Actually, in that situation we were perhaps the gawkees rather than the gawkers, especially when they trotted us out to sing the Mexican national anthem for some visiting local officials. I think finding a way to belong is a huge benefit of slow tourism or of having a reason for being there. (Am I remembering correctly that you were in the Peace Corps?)

I think it’s always tricky when traveling in a place with very different economic standards and expectations from our own. Part of it is our own attitude: why are we there? To learn or just to gawk? Part of it depends on how the residents themselves feel about it – where they are mostly proud of their community and how they manage to live (even if they are really poor) touring and seeing how they live seems ok to me. In places where most people are embarrassed or ashamed of how they live, it’s definitely not ok. I’ve been in both and the difference is pretty stark. And, of course, sometimes those two live side by side, which is when I think it really gets hard.

I may pass on the dried fish.
Poverty tourism, interesting term, certainly humbling.
Thanks again for another great share Rachel.I can experience some of the worlds corners vicariously through your eyes.
Happy travels!