Tai O is a fishing village on Lantau Island in Hong Kong, which is home to the Tanka people who have built houses on stilts above the water. It is routinely praised as a must-visit spot in Hong Kong as a way to step back in time, to an idyllic village that’s home to friendlier people of a bygone era. Some go as far as to call it the “Venice of Hong Kong.”
It’s popularity is borne out by the crowds. Locals and tourists swarm to Tai O to see and photograph its unique stilt houses and fishing industry, and dine at its seafood stalls (in a few cases, restaurants). If you look online, you’ll find a lot of glowing reviews, many calling Tai O a must-visit in Hong Kong.
We disagree. As the title of the post not-so-subtly suggests, we did not enjoy Tai O. In fact, we’d go as far as to call it one of the more overrated places we’ve ever visited. Perhaps we’re way off base here (everyone else’s feedback would seem to suggest so), but we nonetheless thought we’d offer some of our perspective here on Tai O just in case you’re on the fence about it, and would like our opinion…
Before we get to that, some quick tips and strategy. If you are going to disregard our advice and check out Tai O for yourself, you might want to go on a weekday. Weekends are when locals visit Tai O, and that plus plenty of tourists amounts to congestion.
Since this is still a functioning, industrial fishing village, it is not made to accommodate tourists. That means that even a modest crowd makes its walkways difficult to navigate.
If you’re planning on visiting Tai O, make sure to include Tian Tan Buddha, Po Lin Monastery, and perhaps even Hong Kong Disneyland into your itinerary. It’s a bit of a hike getting to Lantau Island (where all of these places are located), so make the trek count.
I’d also probably skip the “temples” in Tai O unless you will see literally no other temples during your entire trip. We walked through a couple of these, and they were underwhelming.
While in Tai O, you might consider taking a boat ride out to see the Chinese White Dolphins (also known as pink dolphins), which are a rare type of dolphin. This species is disappearing thanks to fishing practices, boat traffic, and industrial waste.
We did not take one of these tours, so we cannot really offer further insight into them.
Okay, now for my quibbles with Tai O. My main issue is that I don’t get an ‘idyllic’ vibe from Tai O so much as an impoverished one.
In doing research prior to visiting (and while writing this article), I was under the impression that Tai O exists because its residents are holding onto their way of life. That for over 200 years, this has been a fishing village, and even in the face of Hong Kong’s quickly-evolving economy, they embrace their roots.
Whether that’s an accurate assessment of Tai O is unclear to me. Many of the people in the village appeared to be older, perhaps at an age and social status that all but precludes making a career leap or significant life change. Or, at the very least, makes it incredibly daunting.
“Embracing their heritage” seems to me to be a pretty rosy way to paint this when “lack of better practical alternatives” might be a more honest, albeit brutal assessment.
We’ve traveled to a variety of places that are more rural, antiquated, or whatever term you want to use. Places that are truly idyllic, or that the locals have allowed time to pass by. We aren’t people who need modern or picturesque places to visit.
A sense of real world grittiness is fine by us, but that’s not what this was. The village felt truly poverty-stricken, and we had an unsettling and a bit of an icky feeling wandering as looky-loo tourists among their homes.
Maybe this is all in my head. Maybe Tai O actually is the “Venice of the Orient” and the people inhabiting the village are happy, living their best lives. We will never know for sure, but I do know what my gut-level reaction was, and that’s really all I can offer here.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume the popular narrative about this village embracing its heritage is true. Even then, we were not fans. As people who absolutely love eating seafood, there was a bit too much of a “seeing how the sausage is made” component to Tai O.
Most of the seafood in Tai O looked and smelled disgusting, and the way it was being handled left a lot to be desired. Tai O is famous for its salted fish and shrimp paste, and one of the first things we encountered while wandering the island was giant tubs of this shrimp paste “curing” out in the sunlight.
This was one of the most repulsive-smelling scenes I have ever encountered, and I’m genuinely curious as to how this is ultimately treated to make it fit for human consumption.
After that, we pretty much lost our appetites, which was unfortunate, because some of the streets food did look fairly tasty. Again, I feel like offering a caveat that we’ve been to places like this before, so it doesn’t seem like we’re just prissy.
We’ve visited a fishing village in Kyoto and wandered the famous Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo, and absolutely loved both.
With all of this said, there is no question that the people of Tai O are friendly, and the area is most definitely different, unlike anything else you’ll see in Hong Kong.
There is something to be said for this tight-knit community that has (possibly?) resisted efforts to a changing world all around them, and instead go about their lives and livelihood in the manner that they want. If that’s what this actually is, more power to its people.
From the best I could tell, even though Tai O has become a tourist hot spot, it’s really in no way touristy. There is not much new development, no blatant attempts at cash grabs or exploitation, and the hordes of tourists are (more or less) channeling through fairly commercial areas that would exist irrespective of the presence of tourists.
In these regards, Tai O is a fascinating place. It is also most certainly a significant departure from what you’ll find elsewhere in Hong Kong. If you’re looking for an experience that’s unique and unfiltered, Tai O certainly fits the bill.
Overall, that’s not enough for us. Everywhere in the world has some fascinating history and a story to tell. Being unique and having history do not make a place worth visiting as a point of interest or tourist attraction. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you won’t like Tai O–different strokes for different folks, after all–but I would not recommend visiting Tai O on the basis that it’s “different” or “historical.” Appalachia has history and is very different than California and New York, but only two of those places would I recommend to a foreign visitor experiencing the United States. If there’s some other reason that compels you to visit Tai O (or Appalachia), by all means, go for it.
Have you visited Tai O in Hong Kong? What did you think of this fishing village? How would you describe it…idyllic, impoverished, or somewhere in between? Does Tai O interest you? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!