Tai O is a very unique place in Hong Kong. This small village at the end of the road was at one point not even accessible by road, making it its own little microcosm. The fishing culture here is still strong, with stilt houses built out into the shallow waters, a vibrant seafood market, and pink shrimp paste drying in bamboo baskets under the sun.
The Tai O Dragon Boat Water Parade is a long standing religious tradition that dates back some hundred years. The day before the dragon boat races, the three fishermen’s associations go by boat to pick up statues of deities from four local temples. On the morning of the dragon boat races, the statues are put on ‘sacred sampans’ (small boats), and towed by the dragon boats through the waterways of the town.
During the parade, the residents of the stilt houses and those built along the waterfront sprinkle the water with auspicious ‘joss paper’ and give other offerings to the deities as they pass by. The goal of this is to ask for blessings from the deities and placate wandering water ghosts and evil spirits.
After the parade, the deities are placed in a temporary ceremonial shed, to keep them safe for the rest of the day.
So where did this special ritual come from, and why? Legend has it that once upon a time, a dangerous plague spread through Tai O, claiming many lives. The local residents came up with the idea to ‘invite’ the gods to their town by parading their statues on the dragon boats, and thus driving out the evil spirits causing the plague.
But, we haven’t forgotten about the dragon boat races themselves. After the parade of the deities through the village’s waters, the three dragon boats then hold a friendly race. Only after this is complete will the other dragon boat teams hold their competition, with the typical fanfare, drumming, and excitement that usually accompanies dragon boat races. Residents and visitors alike line the waterways of Tai O to see the action take place.
When all the races are done, and the day is drawing to a close, the deities will be put back on the sacred sampans, and the three designated dragon boats will tow them back to their respective temples. Following this, the fishermen’s associations have a feast to celebrate another successful year (and, of course, no plague).
As the water parade is a feature unique to Tai O that you cannot witness anywhere else, it has been recognised as part of Hong Kong’s Intangible Cultural Heritage.
How to get there:
Tai O is not all that easy to get to, and can only be reached by New Lantau Bus, or by blue taxis, which only operate on Lantau Island. You cannot take a red or green taxi from Hong Kong Island or Kowloon to get there, as they are not allowed on the restricted South Lantau Road.
Here are the three bus routes that connect you to Tai O:
A word of warning that the buses tend to fill up fast (since they are the only ride around!) and people often get stranded at bus stops waiting for the next bus to come with some available seats.
A good way to avoid this frustration is to spend the night in Tai O! Read our Tai O Area Guide to find some ideas about where to stay, from the regal Tai O Heritage Hotel to quaint guesthouses and hostels.