An island apart – Cheung Chau!

‘Next sailing in 30 minutes’ the neon board exclaimed! I had always wanted to take a slow boat to China but a slow ferry to Cheung Chau Island would have to do instead. Having braved the markets and temples of a totally chaotic Mong Kok the previous day I was now more than ready for a quiet backwater of an island like Cheung Chau.

Pier 5 for Cheung Chau ferry.

At just under a square mile in size the island is very small, but that made it a perfect destination for a lazy day of sightseeing. The island’s topography is relatively tame and most of the main attractions can be seen in an easy 3-2 hour walk around it. So with the National Geographic Traveler Guide in hand, and a healthy appetite for adventure to go with it we set off on the slow ferry from Pier 5 in downtown Hong Kong, across the South China Sea, towards Cheung Chau.

The ferry quietly slipped out of Hong Kong’s massive harbour and bobbed along beyond and past the relative calm of the bay, out into the choppy waters of the South China Sea. In addition to the foot passengers onboard every type of supply and cargo imaginable appeared to have been loaded aboard this rusting old ferry. Food, clothes, fish, gas cylinders, bleach bottles etc, etc, you name it we were sharing seats with it for the crossing.

Cargo aboard the ferry to Cheung Chau.

Although an interesting sight to us tourists many of the locals seemed to be less intrigued instead taking the hour long interlude at sea to gently doze off to sleep instead. Night workers from Hong Kong’s office blocks and waiters and barmen from the many restaurants and bars were now heading back to their quiet homes on the tiny island together with day traders now making their way to the island in the vain hope of peddling their wares to day trippers and tourists.

We floated slowly into Cheng Chau Wan the main harbour for the island, past dozens of junks and assorted fishing vessels all mored chaotically jostling each other for space and proceeded to dock precariously at the waiting wooden pier. Hoping off onto terra ferma we were at once on the busy Praya Street, a mass of restaurants and shops all eager to ply their trade at the unsuspecting foreigner fresh off the boat so too speak. But being forewarned is as they say forearmed and with knowledge from the ever useful Nat Geo Travel Guide and an itinerary to keep to we managed to skilfully skirt the restaurants and shops with elegant ease.

Junks in Cheng Chau Wan Harbour.

Led by the guidebook we headed straight for the pretty little Pak Tai Temple on the edge of town.Vibrantly decorated as it is the temple is home to the world-famous Cheung Chau Bun Festival which is held annually in these parts. We hung around the temple giving the usual donations in exchange for photo opportunities before we carried on our way down the bustling San Hing Street. San Hing is the main artery of the town awash with vegetable stalls, herbal medicine shops and the obligatory handbag outlets. The street becomes very narrow and very tight in parts.

Pak Tai Temple - Cheung Chau.

Luckily for everyone involved there are no cars on Cheung Chau, save for a tiny one man ambulance that would not look out-of-place in an episode of Postman Pat or even an episode of Noddy! Narrowly avoiding the ensuing onslaught of every variety of bicycle known to man we negotiated our way to Tung Wan Beach. We were amazed to find fine white sand and an incredible bay that revealed itself to us. The beach is hidden from view on arrival on the island for it sits on the eastern side of a narrow spit of land that forms the central spine of this tiny landmass.

Lifeguard at Tung Wan Beach.

The beach was a hive of activity with Lifeguards all decked out ala Baywatch with lookout towers dotted along the length of the beach to keep an eye out for sharks and other possible hazards together with (and rather surprisingly for a place so small) an abstract statue that honours Cheung Chau’s most famous daughter, Lee Lai-san who won Hong Kong’s first ever gold medal, for mistral sailing, at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996.

Unfortunately, (as it was tempting to stay), but sticking to the agenda we headed back into the town in search of another temple the Hung Shing Temple. After ten unfathomable minutes of chaotic navigation alas I had to concede defeat and admit (which really hurts for a man) that I was indeed LOST! Lost in the warren of tiny alleyways and overlapping shop awnings amid an array of chinese laundry hanging out to dry which whacked us relentlessly in the face as we tried to negotiate our way to sunlight and freedom.

Narrow alleyways of Cheung Chau.

After several dead ends and a mild attack of anxiety I miraculously hit upon some stone steps which raised me to a lofty aspect thus allowing me to survey the horizon for a route of escape. With the escape route duly found we negotiated a few more back alley shacks and re-emerged relatively unscathed onto the main thoroughfare of the island and back thankfully to civilization again.

Hung Shing Temple - Cheung Chau.

Having now struck upon the previously aforementioned temple we proceeded to leave the town and head out towards the islands southern peninsular in the direction of Cheung Po Tsai Cave. The cave has a very interesting history attached to it. Legend has it that the notorious pirate Cheung Po Tsai once stashed his booty inside it booty that he had acquired by various means both fair and fowl. Vessels of the Chinese, British and Portuguese navies were his favourite prey. Myth has it that he once commanded a fleet of more than 700 vessels in the early 1800’s and terrorised the captains of many a ship.

Cheung Chau Islands coastline.

Cheung Chau Islands coastline.

Eventually he was hunted down by the joint navies of China and Britain being finally defeated in battle out at sea. He was, it is said, the inspiration for the Sao Feng character in Pirates of the Caribbean III. Whether true or not it all made for a great story and encouraged me all the more to foray down the countless death defying rocky steps and clamber around precarious coastal rocks just to catch a glimpse of this mythical cave.

Cheung Po Tsai's pirate cave.

Alas, the cave is one of life’s major let downs, being nothing more than a tiny dark smelly hole sandwiched between a few large boulders which these days are being used for a latrine by the not so mythical tourists, full now sadly of half discarded toilet rolls as opposed to chests of gold. Oh well! the trek to it was still exciting and well worth the energy expended and I still recommend it if one feels the urge whilst on the island for a bit of adventure and daring do!

Having now found the famous pirate cave and battled the coastline to return we chanced upon a kaido boat which had chugged into view at the bottom of the coastal path. Being an opportunist and not fancying the long laborious walk back to town in the sweltering midday sun I bargained for a ride upon the vessel and managed to negotiate a fare back to Chang Chau village. The captain of this small ferryboat must have thought it was his lucky day and so for the princely sum of 20 HK dollars we chugged slowly back to Cheng Chau Wan harbour in relative luxury enjoying the splendid views of the junks afforded us in the bustling harbour.

Captain of our kaido ferry.

Money exchanged and pleasantries dispensed with we hit the main square for some refreshment and food before returning to the town beach for some well earnt R&R for the remainder of the day.

It was with heavy hearts then that at the end of the day we managed to pull ourselves away from the golden sands of Tung Wan Beach and board the ferry back to Hong Kong Island, but we had spent a splendid day in a pretty unique place and as the days unfolded before us we were beginning to fall in love more and more with Hong Kong and her islands which all have so much to offer the traveller. So sad as we were to see the day end we could not wait for the next to begin, to explore yet more untapped experiences in the glorious, mad and wonderful world that is Hong Kong.

Check out more photos of our amazing trip to Hong Kong over at: http://www.fluidr.com/photos/jameshandlon/sets

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