At the end of the orange MTR line is a different side to Hong Kong, in fact you end up on a different island altogether. Lantau Island is larger in landmass than Hong Kong Island yet on my last trip to Hong Kong I had completely missed it. So this time around I set apart a day to explore Lantau and wasn’t disappointed.
The end of the Tung Chung MTR line drops you conveniently at the start of the Ngong Ping 360 cable car. After patiently putting up with the long line, and the woman behind me who had no sense of personal space, I was rewarded with a ride to the Big Buddha that swung high over the mountains and the international airport below. You can pay extra for a glass bottomed carriage but seeing that the queue was shorter I opted for the standard version and could see as much as I needed to.
The cable car doesn’t run in a straight line but rather zigzags through the valley so the Tian Tan Big Buddha appears on the horizon at only the last minute. From the viewpoint of the cable car he doesn’t appear that big but once I was standing at the bottom of his steps, taking a big breath before attempting to climb them, he waved down at me from his massive perch. 268 steps later I could get a good look at the 34 metre high figure, if only that monk on a Samsung Galaxy would stop popping up in my photos!
From a bit of online research I’d seen pictures of a village in Lantau that looked like time had forgotten it. Tai O is a traditional fishing village where the houses are built on stilts in the water, like the floating villages in Ha Long Bay. A sign at the bus station where I was in Ngong Ping Village, the small commercial centre built around Big Buddha, indicated it would cost me less than 60p to get there – I had to go.
(Some monks I spotted enjoying Starbucks at Ngong Ping Village!)
Tai O turned out to be as charming as I expected, albeit a lot tinier. Stilted houses line a narrow water channel, which seems to wind all the way to the verdant mountains behind them. A man near the entrance of the town tempted me with the offer of a 20-minute ride around the village for 20 Hong Kong dollars (just £1.67!). After we had serenely sailed around the stilted houses he suddenly put his foot down and belted us out towards the open sea. Alarmed by this sudden change of pace, and the way the boat was slamming into waves with frightenly loud slaps, I turned to give the driver a questioning look.
“I take you to see white dolphin,” he said.
Ok then, I thought, and gripped onto the side of the boat for extra protection. We slowed down to join another boat, which was floating in the sea only a few hundred metres from the shore. All the passengers on my boat sat in silence waiting for something to happen. Then when the other boat began oohing and pointing we got out of our seats to see what for. A few yards in front of me I saw what I thought might have been a white plastic bag floating in the ocean but then it elegantly rose and swan dived back into the water proving itself to be a beautiful dolphin. In my Rough Guide to Hong Kong these dolphins are referred to as pink and it estimates that there are only 120 of these rare Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins left in the world. I couldn’t believe I had just seen one. The other boat left to return to shore but our captain let us stay a bit longer. When the dolphin emerged for the second time I couldn’t help but sigh – I’d never seen anything of this pale shade before swimming in the ocean. It really was spectacular. The Japanese woman in front of my waved at it tearfully and I wished I had someone to share the moment with, other than the French family who were now looking at me weirdly.
(I almost got a photo of the pink/white dolphin!)
Back in the village I took some time to explore further on foot. I’d spotted a café with an open deck whilst on the boat tour and decided to try and find it from the street. Looking at them up close I realised that many of the stilted houses were a lot newer than I expected. Chatting to the owner of the Solo Café, the aptly named place with the deck I managed to find, he explained that many of the houses were ruined in a fire in 2000. The government had tried to resettle the villagers in modern apartment blocks but there was an outcry. Instead their homes have been slowly rebuilt on stilts over the water, right where the fishermen feel they belong.
(Table for 1 at Solo Cafe)
The café owner had some history books on the area that he proudly spread over my table for me to read, they spoke of life for the villagers and gave a strong sense of the community spirit, which is still visible now. There is a strong sense of something else as well, the scent of fish. The town also acts as market so many of the streets are lined with stalls selling various seafood, including pungent trays of shrimp paste which made me want to hold my nose. The tireless workers pushed trolleys filled with stock around the narrow, motor-vehicle-less streets, I pressed myself against the walls to let them pass.
As I left the Solo Café the owner pressed a postcard into my hands,
“For your happy memories,” he said.
It worked. My memories of Tai O are nothing but happy.
The Ngong Ping 360 Cable Car costs $58HKD single or $88HKD return. Entry to Big Buddha and Tai O is free. I took the bus number 11 back to Tung Chung from Tai O which took approx. 45 minutes and cost $11HKD. For more information on the Lantau Island buses visit http://www.i-busnet.com/english/info/lantau/list.htm.