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The Stilt Houses of Tai O Fishing Village

Tai O fishing village, on the far, far side of Hong Kong’s Lantau Island, is a tiny settlement as famous for its pungent shrimp paste as it is for its stilt houses perched on the edge of the sea. They’re funny little dwellings, like miniature wartime Nissen huts on rickety wooden stilts, painted all over with silver rust-proofing paint. They look like the homes of sea-faring hobbits, everything being just a bit more miniature than usual – 8/10 normal height doorways, 3/5 normal size windows, 1/2 strength satellite dishes on the roofs, and 1/3 sized letterboxes. Tai O’s residents aren’t really that much smaller than any other Chinese people I’ve met, but they must enjoy the snugness of cramped living quarters and constantly banging their heads on the door lintel.
Pint-sized house, normal sized human.
The village can only be reached by a long and winding road up and over the tropical green hills of Lantau, and while it was once an important port for salt production and fishing, now it relies heavily on tourism and dried seafood for income. The main street is festively lined with garlands made from unidentified dried and flattened marine creatures, strung on long strings from the shop awnings. They look quite lovely but I have no clue what they actually used to be before they were dried and flattened. Squid? Sea cucumbers?

I pass by the stalls selling the local specialty and I’m all but handing over the money for a jar of really fragrantly stinky shrimp paste when common sense finally gets the better of me. My freezer is full of unused shrimp pastes, usually bought for the cool colourful labels, and stored in the deep freeze to mask the smell. I do not need another cutely labelled jar of stinky stuff. 
I like Tai O because it’s unlike any other place I’ve ever visited, with its quaint pint-sized architecture and dried seafood. I also like it because the tourism side of things is extremely half-hearted, with tatty old boats offering to take us for rides to see Hong Kong’s famed and endangered pink dolphins (it seems unlikely we will spot any), and occasionally someone asking us in to their restaurant for a feed. It’s as though the locals don’t really believe an entire village of houses on stilts could be of interest to tourists, so they’ve given up on tourism and are all waiting for the day when they can move to the modern side of Lantau Island and get a real job in finance or IT, like everyone else in Hong Kong.

Adding to the sense of quaintness I walk past a house with a very strange and surreal-looking tree in the garden, bearing enormous prickled green fruit hanging directly from the trunk and branches. Durians! Growing wild! And in the background a giant blue tub of….shrimp paste. Bet that house smells nice on a hot day……

It’s an intriguing little place and I highly recommend a day trip next time you’re in Hong Kong just for the sheer…oddness…of it all. 
Getting to Tai O
Tai O can be reached by taking the MTR to Tung Chung Station. Exit the station and walk towards the cable car where you will find the terminus for Bus 11, running every twenty minutes to Tai O (approximately 35 minutes).
Alternately, take a ferry from Central Pier 6 to Mui Wo on Lantau Island, then catch Bus 1 to Tai O.

  • http://www.travelnlass.com Dyanne@TravelnLass

    "half-hearted" tourism. Ah, but how lovely it would be if more corners of the globe should follow that business-model. 😉 What a charming place!

  • http://www.thaitourguides.com Ta the Thai Tour Guide

    Thank you, that brings back memories! I've been to Lantau only once, and we went there very early and ate dimsum. I *LOVED* it! We went there after the fishermen had their breakfast (lets face it, they get up way too early for our kind) but it was still a great experience.

    Oh, and by the way, that fruit is not durian. It's jackfruit 🙂 Look similar, but very different taste and no bad smell 🙂

  • https://www.blogger.com/profile/11390453342365399230 Fiona

    Thanks Ta! I always thought they were one and the same….couldn't imagine why you would want one growing in your front garden!

  • https://www.blogger.com/profile/06272799752169958460 christa @ mental foodie

    I wish we had time to go to Tai O last year… sigh. I was also going to say they were jackfruits, they taste totally different from durian! I had some dried (or was it freeze dried?) jackfruits (I think from an asian grocery store in melbourne?) that were sooo good. Sweet but not overly sweet.

    Hey I love dried shrimp paste! You can use it to make stir fry veggies – there's a specific veggie that my mum usually make with dried shrimp paste ("hollow vegetable" see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ipomoea_aquatica). Maybe try it with spinach?

  • https://www.blogger.com/profile/11390453342365399230 Fiona

    Christa thanks! I've eaten that vegetable (I call it water spinach) many times just with garlic and oyster sauce. OK, I will pull the shrimp paste out of the freezer and try it with that next time!

  • http://elizabethbriel.com/blog/ Elizabeth

    What a wonderful blog, I just discovered you via @Koangirl on Twitter.

    Jackfruits are delicious! My landlady in Cambodia used to give me a bunch when I paid my rent.

    Tai O is a lovely little spot, the transport options there are old-fashioned there as well: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ebriel/4345178708/in/set-72157623394516592/

  • https://www.blogger.com/profile/11390453342365399230 Fiona

    Elizabeth's cyanotype photos of Tai O are beautiful….just took a look.

    Re your landlady's jackfruit gifts: our landlord gives us Pudong peaches. Gifts of fruit must be a landlady/landlord thing.

  • http://www.soukette-et-lilian.com gerard gourdon

    hello,
    beautiful !! thank you for all those photos !! been to HK lantau… makes me feel so good to see all again… very great pics !!
    thanx
    gerard

  • adeline

    fabulous set, kudos! as with before, it's musky honey-tinged jackfruit rather than creamy "aromatic" durian. and the strange dried creatures are dried fish bladders, a delicacy of sorts.

    cheers,
    adeline from melbourne AND singapore

  • https://www.blogger.com/profile/11390453342365399230 Fiona

    Adeline, you are a wealth of information! Dried fish bladders eh? Good to know that they're a delicacy! And I love your descritpion of jackfruit….will try and get my hands on some just for your description alone.

  • Anonymous

    In Melbourne they used to sell it at those Chinese wholesalers in Box Hill, jackfruit and durian, freeze dried no less, albeit minus the aroma. Good luck in Brisbane's Chinatown 🙂 Best, Adeline

  • http://vietnamtourguides.com/ vietnam holidays

    Thank you for sharing this. This reminds me of my old home in Vietnam. I miss my dried fish and jack fruits.

  • https://www.blogger.com/profile/11390453342365399230 Fiona

    So glad you enjoyed it – I had no idea there were similar places in Vietnam – a country I really look forward to visiting as soon as possible!

  • http://thejewelsofborneo.com/ borneo tours

    I enjoy taking photographs in Tai O. The old houses on stilt are amazing. Some call this place the "Venice of Hong Kong". You can see the old fishing villages and their markets. Fresh sea food is cooked to order on the street. It is only about 40mins by bus from Tung Chung bus station or you can hike.

  • https://www.blogger.com/profile/11390453342365399230 Fiona

    It is a great place to take photos….we took he bus, but hiking would be fantastic if the weather isn't too hot! Is there a walking path or do you have to hike next to the road?

  • borneo tours

    We actually took the bus but I suggest you hike instead because the bus drivers are driving very fast and there were a lot of bumps. It made me feel so nauseous after.