As we arrived at the bus stop, a bus 21 was just pulling off, which was puzzling, as there was supposed to be 20 minutes left to go before the hourly bus left. Assistants stationed at the stop told us that they increased the frequency of buses from time to time according to demand. The good thing was, we were right at the front of the queue!
Bus 21 took slightly more than 21 minutes to pull in at Tai O. We were actually surprised it took such a short time, and almost did not get off at the stop. Walking in, we caught glimpses of the fishing village; most buildings were dilapidated and there was a lingering smell of seafood. Near the bus stop was a museum that showcased the cultural treasures of the native sea people. There was a pair of wedding costumes on display, old transistors and television sets, seashells and currency notes from all around the world (including Singapore)!
Background reading let us know that the people here were a dying breed, with their children opting to head to the city instead of continuing with the tradition of fishing. It was a bitter feeling to know that the old folks couldn’t do anything about it, but I felt that the sense of community in the tiny town was strong, and such tight-knit bonds could never be found in the city.
It was not the case that Tai O was a ghost town, though. There were many locals still selling goods ranging from dried seafood to figurines made from seashells to postcards depicting the iconic stilt houses. Others tried to eke out an income by providing boat tours at affordable prices. I was surprised that some banks had set up branches in the village, and the dustbins looked surprisingly sleek. Murals on walls reminded us of our times in Gamcheon Culture Village in Busan, and there were at least two schools that we walked past.
We read about a famous egg waffle uncle, who used charcoal to make egg waffles, but we did not spot him around, and settled for some made using conventional cookers. As we walked further in, we encountered houses made of sheets of steel, hammered together with nails in a primitive fashion. They were small but looked homely, and there was even a semicircular-shaped one. It was a rather quiet seaside walk past these steel structures, with a few cats and dogs along the way to keep us company. It was nothing like the noise and crowd of Kowloon, or the gleaming lights and towering skyscrapers of Central. It did not seem like Hong Kong at all.
At a certain point, we decided to turn back and take one of the boat rides on offer, in hopes of catching the fabled pink dolphin. We got a discount, and hopped on board one of the many docked boats. It started with a meandering cruise past the houses on stilts, and I realised Tai O was much bigger than it seemed. There were so many parts we did not set foot on. There were riverside cafes packed with tourists, houses with clothes hanging out to dry and a few rope bridges. Our boat passed under one such bridge, and in front of us, stretching all the way to the horizon, was the big blue sea.
Suddenly, the captain of our boat stepped hard on the gas, and we whizzed past the remaining structures of civilisation. The boat bounced up and down with the waves, and the sea breeze kept pounding on our faces. I was afraid my glasses would be gone with the wind (a bad memory from a trip in Australia), but coupled with a sense of danger (upon realisation that there were no such things as seat belts), the ride was actually exhilarating. The captain stopped the boat and pointed out a General Rock to us, his first time speaking, in Cantonese. I don’t think our fellow Westerner passengers could understand.
He then piloted the boat to an area where there were expected to be pink dolphin sightings, but after a few minutes of waiting, nothing broke the ocean surface, and we orientated back towards the fishing village.