On weekends, droves of visitors trek to the far-flung west coast of Lantau to see a fascinating way of life. Here in Tai O, historical home to the Tanka boat people, life is all about the sea. Houses are built on stilts above the ocean, sampans ply the dark-green waterways, and elderly residents still dry seafood on traditional straw mats and make the village's celebrated shrimp paste.
Tai O is built partly on Lantau and partly on a tiny island about 15m from the shore. Until the mid-1990s the only way to cross was via a rope-tow ferry pulled by elderly Hakka women. That and the large number of sampans in the small harbour earned Tai O the nickname ‘the Venice of Hong Kong’. Though the narrow iron Tai Chung footbridge now spans the canal, the rope-tow ferry is resurrected on some weekends and holidays: drop HK$1 in the box as you disembark.
Some of the tiny, traditional-style village houses still stand in the centre, including some of Tai O’s famed stilt houses on the waterfront. There are a few houses that escaped a fire in 2000, plus a number of shanties, their corrugated-iron walls held in place by rope, and houseboats that haven’t set sail for years.
The main activity for visitors in Tai O is simply wandering the back alleys, photographing the stilt houses, strolling the long causeway, and buying seafood at the crowded street markets.
Note that taxis out of Tai O are essentially nonexistent, and weekend afternoons mean long queues for buses headed back to Mui Wo and Tung Chung.