As with seemingly anywhere in Asia that has canals, the internet optimistically proclaims the sleepy Lantau village of Tai O to be the “Venice of the Orient”. Hmm. So, while I don’t want to overstate Tai O’s charms, it does make for a great day out with kids as, unlike say, the dreaded Big Mouse, it’s interesting for both kids and grown-ups alike, pushchair friendly and full of yummy things to eat. So, with the help of my ever-willing guinea pigs – Mr, Master and Baby T-T, here is our definitive guide to a fun family day out in Tai O!
When to Go
Before you think about how to get there, consider when to go. As with everything in Hong Kong, midweek is ideal as you’ll get the chance to see this fishing village the way it should be – peaceful and quiet, (though be warned, not all shops are open). Those of us with pesky jobs will need to head to Tai O over a weekend, although if you value your sanity, avoid visiting during public holidays when crowds are the worst.
The absolute best time to visit is on a Saturday morning, before the crowds arrive. Tai O is famous for its sunsets, meaning that most people arrive later in the day. Now, however beautiful that sunset, battling five million selfie stick-wielding tourists for a seat on the bus home is nobody’s idea of fun. Doubly so with kids. And so the earlier you get here, the better, as it will give you plenty of time to wander around in peace before getting onto the serious business of tucking into the mountains of snacks available everywhere.
Tung Chung is the main transport gateway to Lantau so you can take the MTR to the end of the orange line or grab a taxi. Once in Tung Chung you have two options for your journey on to Tai O – road or sea.
A blue Lantau taxi from the rank outside Tung Chung station to Tai O will set you back approximately $160 each way, however, as any Lantau resident will confirm, you’re often more likely to spot a flying elephant than a free blue cab. Avoid the soul-sapping wait and take bus number 11 instead ($18 for adults and $9 for kids on weekends and public holidays). If you’re a frequent visitor then do note that the main bus terminal has recently moved and the stop is now located next to the Ngong Ping 360 cable car station across the road.
A far more pleasant (and actually quicker) way to arrive is by ferry. Particularly when travelling to Tai O with kids, you’ll find that the road from Tung Chung is extremely steep and winding, so definitely not for children prone to motion sickness (or parents with slight hangovers). The ferry is smooth, comfortable and offers a great view if you can get a seat on the open top upper deck, and although not as regular as the bus, if you can make the times work for you this is definitely the way to go – timetable here. Head to the Tung Chung Development Pier, which is an easy ten-minute walk from the MTR station. Take Exit C into Citygate Mall, exit next to the Adidas shop, cross Tat Tung road and you’ll see the pier signposted from there.
If you’re planning to combine a trip to Tai O with a ride on the Ngong Ping 360 cable car, I’d suggest making your way to Tai O from Tung Chung, then catching the number 21 to Ngong Ping for the return cable car. This should beat the crowds in both directions.
What to do
Tai O is made for meandering the village, famous for its traditional stilt houses and if you get here early enough you’ll have the place more or less to yourselves.
Grab yourself a map when you arrive – Tai O isn’t particularly big but it can feel a bit like a rabbit warren, ditch the (useless here) map app on your phone and head to the bus stop opposite the Tai O Jumbo Big Big Fish Ball stand where there’s a large, detailed map on the wall. Snap a decent pic on your phone and voila! Free map with all the sights listed. Failing that, use this pic that Mr T-T took last time (you’re welcome!).
The best spots to view the stilt houses are from the Tai Chung and Sun Ki bridges, but less crowded views are to be had between the houses and shops on Kat Hing Street, or by heading out of the village on Kat Hing Back Street and looking back in the direction you just walked. There is also a great view from the terrace behind the So Lo coffee house, and more on that below!
Here are just a few of our favourite Tai O attractions:
For a village this size Tai O has more temples than you can shake a (fishball-covered) stick at. They’re all interesting, and Master T-T is particularly taken with Kwai Tai temple in the village and the 17th century Yeung Hau temple just to the north. At the time of writing, Yeung Hau temple is closed for refurbishments but is due to reopen soon.
Mangroves and saltpans
Walking out of the village along Kat Hing Back Street you’ll come to the main channel where you’ll see mangroves and disused saltpans across the water. If the tide is out, you’ll usually be able to spot loads of crabs and mudskippers down at the water’s edge. You can walk all the way around the bottom of the hill, coming back in to the west side of the village although this route is best avoided if you’re with a stroller as the path is pretty uneven.
Tai O Cultural Workshop
Despite the name, this is more of a museum than a workshop. Not far from the bus stop on Wing On Street, this privately collated museum of local artefacts and photographs is well worth a quick look.
Tai O Heritage Hotel
Out of the village to the west is the former Tai O Police Station, now converted into a hotel. Built in conjunction with a heritage foundation, the hotel has lovingly preserved the original building – a refreshing change for Hong Kong. Many of the original features are still in place and the whole place is open to the public – they even provide a free map at reception, detailing the history of the building and pointing out what to look for. If you feel like a pit stop, there’s a bar and restaurant at the top of the hotel with nice views out over the harbour. Although the hotel is up a hill, there’s lift access for those pesky strollers.
Flanhardt Galerie und Atelier
On the way to the hotel along Shek Tsai Po street is FGUA, a great little art gallery whose works are mostly by Hong Kong-based artist, Irene Flanhardt. Interesting enough to appeal to kids of all ages, Master T-T was especially interested in paper cuttings, as well as some of the colourful photography.
Home to local artist Lo Sai Hei, we loved his big, bold and colourful style of artwork. Mr Lo is often in the shop and will happily talk you through his work, telling you the background and inspiration for each piece. The store doesn’t really have an address, but ask any local and they will be able to point you in the right direction.
Unsurprisingly, seafood is a hugely important part of this fishing community. Tai O is famous for its traditionally-dried seafood and as such, you’ll see fish hanging all over the village, along with vats of fish and shrimp pastes fermenting. The path along Shek Tsai Po Street is particularly interesting.
The best way to see everything above is to begin by exploring the narrow streets and stilt houses before heading north past the mangroves, saltpans and the Yeung Hau temple. Walk around the hill, keeping a lookout for any pink dolphins along the way, as they are often viewable from the shore. The path will bring you back into Tai O on Shek Tsai Po Street; turn right and head to the Heritage Hotel. After the hotel, head back into the village, stopping off at Flanhardt Galerie und Atelier and Tokyo Store along the way. You can’t miss the dried seafood (even if you really try).
*A short public service announcement*
On arrival, you will almost certainly be approached by people offering boat tours to see Tai O’s famous (and dwindling) pink dolphins population. These tours are actually doing a lot of harm to the dolphin population, often chasing the pods so that tourists can get a better view, resulting in injuries to these already endangered creatures. If you’re interested in viewing these amazing animals, have a look at my previous post on DolphinWatch.
Where to eat
After all that exploring, you’re probably going to need a sit down and a bite to eat. Happily, Tai O has some fabulous places to recharge everyone’s batteries.
So Lo Coffee Shop
It may not look much from the outside, but So Lo is a coffee lover’s paradise. Located on Kat Hing Street, this little coffee shop has two main draws – the brews and the views. Head through the small shop to the large over-water terrace, which offers a great view of the stilt houses, and enjoy a breather along with a cup of So Lo’s freshly ground coffee and a cake from the freshly-baked selection (the cheesecake is particularly good). You can buy their ground coffee to take away, and they also deliver throughout Hong Kong for more regular orders.
So Lo Coffee Shop, G/F, 86 Kat Hing Street, Tai O; 9153 77453
A lovely little café, gallery and guesthouse just across the street from So Lo, Espace Elastique is a favourite of Mr T-T’s – in large part due to the wide selection of local and imported craft beers on offer. With nice artistic touches, such as tables inlaid with broken pottery, there are also thoughtful touches like the selection of kids’ magazines, buying you some time to enjoy that drink. The café serves a decent range of sandwiches, hot dogs and bagels at very reasonable prices, and Master T-T always enjoys his mixed berry smoothie whenever we visit. There’s also a nice little garden to enjoy if the weather is being cooperative.
Espace Elastique, 57 Kat Hing Street, Tai O; 2985 7002
Enough beating around the bush: the main reason to visit Tai O is for the excellent local street food! There are snacks to be had on every street corner, but unless you are a professional competitive eater, you just won’t have the stomach space for everything, so we’ve picked a few of our favourites.
Remember that spot with where you took the photo of the map at the start of your day? Turn around, and Tai O Jumbo Big Big Fishball is right opposite. According to Mr T-T – a man who has wholeheartedly embraced the curry fishball since we first arrived in HK back in 2009 – this is the very best example of the genre to be had anywhere in Hong Kong; a statement that could be interpreted as fighting talk in the wrong crowd. See for yourself, but be warned, when the lady behind the stall says “spicy” she really means it – these bad boys are not for the faint-hearted. Fortunately they also offer non-spicy treats – Master T-T is a particular fan of the cuttlefish balls and fish maw on a stick (sounds grim, tastes good).
Several of the hole-in-the-wall spots along Wing On Street have coal barbeques with various fresh shellfish grilling away. The BBQ clams are always a good bet, as are the scallops with crushed garlic.
Despite (or possibly because of) the bizarre name, Shrimp Wife’s Husband Pancake is definitely worth checking out. Serving up what is essentially an Indian-style roti served with fried minced pork, lettuce and a helping of local shrimp paste, these umami bombs are served with crisp lettuce for a nice contrast. If, like me, you aren’t the world’s biggest lover of shrimp paste, you can opt for the pancake without. You’ll find the stall just off the market square on Kat Hing Street.
Let’s not forget the best bit of any meal – dessert! If you’d prefer to steer clear of too much junk then many of the shops selling ice cream also sell frozen fruit (although, you know, good luck getting that little switcheroo past them undetected). We usually compromise with a serving of each, with pineapple being available pretty much everywhere, although some stalls also sell frozen grapes (ideal as a replacement ice cube in a cocktail, booze fans), watermelon and sour mango, which is a particular favourite of Baby T-T.
During busy times you’ll have to wait a fair while to get your hands on one of the infamous deep-fried pieces of lardy doughnut heaven courtesy of Tai O Bakery. Rest assured that it’s worth the wait. A fist sized dough ball, deep fried and liberally covered in sugar… What’s not to love? Sounds counter-intuitive, but I’d actually suggest that you go at a busy time and wait to nab one fresh from the fryer as they lose something once they’ve been sitting cooling for a while. If life-shortening deep-fried snacks aren’t your thing (in which case I have to ask how you found my blog?!), then the bakery also sells baked Cantonese snacks including egg and coconut tarts.
Tai O Bakery, 66 Kat Hing Street, Tai O; 2985 8621
Before the electric pancake maker, now found at snack stalls (and hipster ice creameries) all over Hong Kong, the Gai Daan Jai, or Cantonese egg waffle, was made by hand over a coal fire. You can still find them made the traditional way in Tai O, and it’s almost as fun watching the process as it is eating them. With a far nicer texture than the electric-made waffles – which seem very one-dimensional in comparison – these babies are super-crispy on the outside, but chewy and light on the inside. Be warned – you’ll struggle to limit yourself to just one.
Once you’ve seen the sights and eaten yourselves into a food coma, it’s time to head home. You can either hop back on the ferry to Tung Chung, grab the number 11 bus back or, if Karma is really smiling upon you, hop into one of those fabled blue taxis (yeah, right).
Another, more pleasant option is to jump on the number 1 bus heading towards Mui Wo, stopping off at one of the beaches at either Pui O or Lower Cheung Sha, where, if you’re a total glutton you’ll find a good range of restaurants, including Mavericks, which we reviewed a while back. It’s easy enough to bus back to Tung Chung from either beach, or else continue down to Mui Wo and catch the direct ferry to Central.
So there you have it; the definitive guide to Tai O with kids. I think I need a lie down and an antacid now…