Peng Chau island: an oasis in Hong Kong

Everybody knows Cheung Chau and its crowded streets. Now go a bit outside of the beaten path and you may come across Peng Chau island, a small island which feels pretty much more like an oasis.

Originally, a lime production center

Until the 1970’s, Peng Chau was a bustling area of industrial production for two main products, namely lime and matchsticks.

Lime was obtained by burning oyster and clam shells, corals, to produce the final material which was then used in various other industries. After the 1950’s lime was used less and less in construction, and eventually the lime kilns went out of business.

The matchstick production faced a similar fate when disposable lighters appeared in the 1970’s. Today, all that remains are old buildings (which I did not visit on this occasion).

View by drone on the ferry pier of Peng Chau
View by drone on the Ferry Pier of Peng Chau

An excellent light hike path

Cheung Chau might be appreciated and invaded by tourists, but Peng Chau has nothing to envy to its big neighbor. Actually, it might be worth saying that Peng Chau beats Cheung Chau by the peace on the island. Being a small island, the area to cover is pretty limited, but with less tourists around it is much more pleasant.

Beach in Peng Chau
Nothing beats the deserted beaches of Peng Chau

Nothing beats thus the deserted beaches of Peng Chau. Nothing to do with the crowds of Cheung Chau and the numerous glass pieces that can be found along the beach.

The island built a very convenient hiking path which was a pleasure to trod barefoot. You can also climb up to the Finger Hill view point on stairs which are quite easy to hike upon.

The Old Fisherman’s rock

One of the landmarks of the island, at its northern end is the “old fisherman’s rock”, a balanced rock formation, a bit similar to the one found in Tap Mun island.

This place is easily reached after 20 min-1/2 hour walk from the ferry pier. The interesting part of this rock is the view it affords on both, discovery bay (Disneyland) on the other side and the Tsing ma bridge in the distance.

Nearby, there is an even more secluded beach, where I managed to stumble upon a scene directly taken out from the 1950’s… A young lady smoking a cigarette in the middle of the sea.

Smoking beauty
A young lady smokes a cigarette in middle of the waves

A small island

Cheung Chau is said to be small, but it seems that Peng Chau is quite smaller. This is best understood when looking at it from a drone.

Peng Chau by drone
As can be seen, the relative size of Peng Chau is very comparable to Cheung Chau

The main island is connected by a land bridge to a tiny island called “Tai Lei”, on which are hosted most of the utilities for the island. BTW, there are no cars at all on Peng Chau, which makes it absolutely lovely.

Tai Lei island by drone
Tai Lei island by drone

On the opposite side of the Ferry pier, there is a, inviting beach inside a cove.

Peng Chau main beach
Peng Chau’s main beach

One warning however: there is a large infestation of big cockroaches all over the beach’s wall. Seem they have a huge pest problem on the island, and by the behavior of the insects they are not very scared of humans.

At night, that beach provides the ideal setting for some night photography with a magnificent view on the Tsing Ma bridge.

Tsing Ma bridge seen from the Peng Chau beach
The Tsing Ma bridge seen from the Peng Chau beach.

How to get there?

Getting to the island is pretty easy. You must go to pier number 6 in Central, and from there catch one of the two hourly ferries. It takes roughly 40 mins to navigate until Peng Chau, but the island itself is covered in half a day, depending on your walking speed.

A day trip to “grass island”

The nice thing of Hong Kong is that in merely one hour, you can reach isolated islands where you are basically left to explore. Ok, I am exaggerating, of course, for a day trip to “grass island” is anything but adventure. Tap Mun in its Cantonese name, the island has long been a fisherman’s haven back in the days where China did not plunder all the resources around. Nowadays, there is a hesitant reconversion towards tourism, but the island lacks facilities and is small, both of which make its charm and make it less well known.

An antiquated ferry

Catching the ferry to Tap Mun island can be done in two places, both of them already involving about one hour commute. You can either catch it in Sai Kung, or near HK University, in Tai Po district. The ferry in those places is called “kaito”, an older indigenous name. The ferry does stop on its way to several small islands where people disembark, apparently to camp or swim.

All in all, the ferry ride takes over one hour, exploring the surroundings of Plover Cove. Upon arrival in Tap Mun, you disembark right on the jetty.

Tap Mun Island jetty
Tap Mun island jetty by drone

Most of the visitors (a lot of mainlanders from China) rush into the restaurants instead of exploring the island (which is small, less than 1 km² for the walkable section). As to me, I did the whole hike barefoot as is now becoming customary.

Tin Hau Temple

The island is small, so five minutes after leaving the jetty, you will come across one of the oldest structures of Hong Kong, the Tin Hau temple. Aged 400 years, this temple is said to be connected to a cave on the other side of the island.

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A sign of the relationship of the island to the sea life can be found in the presence of a wodden model boat inside the temple. If you go there, don’t miss the delicate ceramic figures on either side of the altar.

When taking a look at the big picture, you can see the location of the temple is just near to the harbour, and was probably at the center of the fishing community 400 years ago. You can also see to the right how Tap Mun island provided a nicely protected cove for fishing boats.

Tin Hau temple by drone
Tin Hau temple seen by drone

The first traces of population on the island go back to AD 1573, the Tanka people starting to use the island and building the Tin Hau Temple towards the XVIIth century.

A grassy island

The nickname of “grass island” is easily understood once you walk a bit around. Great parts of the islands are covered in grass, with some forest on the uninhabited part.

Grass island
Grass island and the pavillon on the northern part

Once again, using a drone allows to see the full size of the island and to better understand its structure. I did have some interested people during my flight, however. Thankfully my friend, Matthew, was helpful enough in talking to them.

Flying a drone
Flying a drone over the harbour

Some tourists do sit down on the gentle slopes, others try to camp over there.

Sitting on the slopes of grass island
Sitting on the slopes of grass island

In fact, the walkable portion of the island island is about 1 km, so you get around very quickly. But the presence of shelters makes it quite easy to move around and visit the island.

Shelter on Tap Mun island
Shelter on Tap Mun island

Feral cattle

Tap Mun island is also home to a small population of feral cattle. Namely, these are descendants of cattle that were released when the locals left. Nowadays, although “wild”, they are among the kindest animals of the sort that you can see in Hong Kong. They are all over the grassy slopes of the island.

Feral Cattle in Tap Mun island
Feral cattle in Tap Mun island (calves in this case)

Although kind, these animals are not domesticated. As such, you should not caress them or attempt stunts with them. Of course, this recommendation falls into deaf years with mainland Chinese who get into hot waters trying to have a pic taken with the cows.

Chinese tourist attempting stunt with feral cattle
A Chinese tourist attempts a stunt with a feral cattle

The “Balanced Rock”

The “balanced rock” is a natural rocky formation created by erosion, which left two rocks standing in equilibrium on each other.

Balanced rock of tap mun island
The balanced rock of Tap Mun island – and I am barefoot as usual.

Many tourists stop on the top of the cliff and take in the beauty of the island.

Tourist on Tap mun
Tourist on Tap Mun island

To get there, you must take a small buffalo path on the flanks of the hill (left on the photo below).

Balanced rock by drone
A view of the balanced rock seen by drone

Legend has it that a cave nearby communicates with the Tin Hau temple. At any rate, it is worth veering off the main course and seeing the balanced rock up close, but few hikers do that (the descent looks more impressive than it actually is, as I did it barefoot).

Fishermen on the island

The fishing past of the locals is still very present nowadays on the island. During my visit, I could see a man fishing on a cliff right above the crashing waves.

Old man and the sea
An old fisherman casts his line as the waves break around him.

Further to that, there were two other fishermen who were trying their luck near the balanced rock in a position less exposed to the waves.

Two fishermen near the "balanced rock"
Two fishermen casting their lines near the “balanced rock”

Finally, here is a walk through Tap Mun island with my friend, Matthew.

How to get there?

 

The first ferry for Tap Mun island  leaves at 8.30 in the morning (full schedule here). To catch it, you must first take the east line of the MTR to University Station.From there, you can walk or catch  a taxi to the Mau Liu Shui ferry pier.

The Saewol tragedy : still a scar in the heart of parents

During my visit in Korea, in December 2017, one of the most moving moments was when I came across a protest / shrine about the victims of the Saewol tragedy. It as a moment where I truly grasped what a scar this tragedy left in the heart of the parents and of many Koreans.

The sinking of the Saewol

The MV Saewol was  a ferry ensuring the liaison between Incheon (near Seoul) and Jeju, a very famous holiday island in Korea. On 16 July 2014, the Saewol sank while carrying 476 passengers, of which a large part were secondary school students from Danwon High School.

The ship had multiple issues with its cargo capacities and its weighting. As a consequence, when it took a series of turns too quickly, it began listing to port, eventually taking in water and sinking in two and a half hours.

The tragedy was compounded by reports that the ship’s crew called passengers to stay put, even as the ship was taking water into the passenger compartments. Trained to be listening to authority, many of the young students obeyed the instructions, despite the desperate situation. The captain of the ship and her crew eventually abandoned the ship, while keeping on instructing passengers to stay put. Obviously, many of the students who followed the instructions went down with the ship.

A tragedy turns into a criticism of the whole society

This shocked the whole country and after the bodies of many of the students were recovered, their smartphones were also found. Some desperate and heart-rendering accounts of last farewells came through. For the families, a further degree of grief was reached when learning that the students died in atrocious conditions, drowning with a terrible agony. One can only imagine how the heart of loving parents was affected.

The incorrect instructions given by the crew of the Saewol, and the obedience of the kids to these absurd orders, further led the Korean society to question its own organization and respect for authority. Similarly, the lack of regulations and the fact that the coast guard were not even aware of restrictions placed on the ship by its inspection authorities only helped fuel the anger.

Grieving parents

Many parents, inflamed by remarks by journalists and/or politicians that they should not criticize the government or that the deaths were of little importance compared to car accidents, took to the streets to protest. More largely, the movement was still visible on Saejong-daro, the main avenue facing directly the Gyeongbokgung, the ancient royal palace. It is where I had probably my most moving encounter, with a lone father, holding a stand at a makeshift memorial for the victims of the tragedy.

Stand of Saewol victims in Seoul
The lone stand of the Saewol victims parents in Seoul

This father asked me to sign a petition whereby, they wished to ask the Korean government to enhance safety rules for ships. He told me how much he missed his son. When I signed his petition, he gave me what has become the symbol of the movement in Korea: a little yellow and orange ribbon which you can see on the picture below.

Memorial to victims of Saewol
A makeshift memorial to the victims of the Saewol tragedy

The parents of these kids have suffered an unexplained and painful loss. But some of them took the pain from this loss and transformed it in energy to try and change the situation in a country where established authority and practices are difficult to question.

A moving encounter

Most of my posts on this blog are about travel and the experience of visiting new places in Asia and in other countries. However, what I enjoy most in these travels is encountering people and understanding their lives. And although painfully moving, this encounter has been also one of the most emotional in my trip. Meeting a grieving father and sharing a few moments with him, while he tried to avoid other parents suffering the same fate brings a renewed faith in humanity.

These Korean parents deserve our support from wherever we may stand. 4 million signatures were collected by the parents, but the South Korean parliament still has to legislate on stronger rules. The strength of vested interests still preempts the grief of families. If you wish to learn more or support these families in their fight to change this situation, you can sign the petition or get more information here. And if you are in Seoul, do not hesitate to take some time to go and visit the memorial for the victims.