Tai-O – The Hong Kong Town on Stilts

Looking for something a little different to do in Hong Kong? A way to escape the hustle and bustle of downtown H.K Island and Kowloon? I may have just the thing for you….

Tai-O 大澳 is a small fishing village and shanty town built on stilts. Tucked away in a quiet corner of Lautau island it has a lengthy history as a smugglers bay. During and after the Chinese Civil War, Tai-O became a primary entry point for illegal immigration for those escaping from the communist regime in mainland China.

To get there in style, take the metro to the Tung Chung MTR station and wander over to the Ngong Ping 360 cable car station. Then buy yourself a ticket on the epic cable car ride across the water and mountains, to the small mountaintop village of Ngong Ping. The Ngong Ping 360 cable car is the longest dual-cable line in Asia, and one of the longest in the world (measuring in at 5.7km in length). The trip takes almost half an hour, but boy is the view worth it.

Bonus points if you paid a little extra for the glass bottom cabin. People with a fear of heights need not apply…

You will eventually arrive in the wholly artificial town of Ngong Ping. A miniature tourist spot made of nothing but restaurants, cafes and trinket shops. If you have done any travelling in Asia then this will not be an offensive or even unusual sight to you, but I still recommend moving swiftly through it unless you are particularly hungry. I should point out though that this is your last chance to use a decent bathroom – So traveller beware.

This town is very popular with tourists because of its famous gigantic bronze Buddha statue, “Tian Tan Buddha”. Standing (or should I say sitting?) at a height of 34 meters and weighing in at a monstrous 250 metric tonnes, Tian Tan Buddha has nothing whatsoever to do with Tai O, but you would be utterly insane not to take a swift detour to see it. You pop out through these big white gates and get your calves ready for punishment as you ascend the 268 steps required to get to the top.

Underneath the Buddha, you can actually go inside to a small museum with several displays and a shop. Needless to say, the view from up here is utterly spellbinding.

We headed down and peeked inside the Po Lin Monastery which sits at the base of the Buddha.

Very beautiful, but we had other places to be, and so do you. Head back into Ngong Ping and hook a left out into the car park. You will more than likely find a very bored taxi driver sleeping in his car. Knock on the window and ask him to drive you to Tai-O. There is also a bus, but taxis are cheap as chips in H.K and we were on a schedule!

Watch out for car park cows…

The taxi driver will take you down a thin and winding mountain road that descends to sea level. Once you hit the bottom you are pretty much there. The driver will pull into the taxi rank and leave you to your business.

Welcome to Tai-O

A rather unbecoming archway welcomes you into the town. I recommend going at the same time as these photographs were taken, during the dragon boat festival, as the town is awash with colourful flags celebrating the event.

Tai-O is quite simply, a photographers dream.

Framed by the bright green mountains and split in 2 by the emerald green water, Tai-O is a sight to behold. Hundreds of ramshackle shanty homes build from seemingly whatever material their owners could get their hands on creates a cacophony of colour; Rust, wood, plastic, paint – it all comes together here suspended high over the water on stilts.

Wandering the streets gives off a very interesting feeling. Almost post-apocalyptic in a way. Anyone who has played the game Fallout 4 will see instant similarities between these squatters shacks built from random detritus and the in-game location “Diamond City”.

Truthfully, there is not much else to do other than soak in the sights. Tai-O isn’t exactly a tourist metropolis and it is important to remember to be respectful when peering into peoples living rooms to snoop on them. Some people like to pay the citizens to give them a tour of the city by boat, but we preferred to walk. There is a couple of local shops and restaurants as well – If you are willing to take the risk. I was not.

We did manage to find some 4 legged friends!

Speaking of kitties; the entrepreneur’s spirit is alive and well, even in a shanty town on an island in Hong Kong. There is one hilariously out of place oddity bang in the middle – The cat themed cafe “Meow”. Where you can sit inside, have coffee and enjoy the company of a huge gaggle of cats.

No, I’m not kidding. They even have Facebook!

Tai-O is something a little different. A quiet and forgotten corner in one of the busiest and loudest places on earth. Just don’t take too long getting there. The town is slowly dying out, with most young people moving away to the city in order to find work and the fisherman’s lifestyle being harder and harder to sustain yourself on in 2017, the clock is ticking on the future of Tai-O.

Take a good long look as soon as you can, because it may not be here much longer…