The trail begins beneath flowering bauhinia trees, with a view of a forceful waterfall that spans around 20 metres before dissipating into mist on the surface of the ominous pool below. The dark pool, known as Bride’s Pool, is said to be one of the most haunted places in Hong Kong.
Legend has it that, during a thunderstorm, four porters carrying a young bride in a sedan chair were traversing the pool en route to her suitor when one of the porters slipped. The bride fell into the pool and drowned, pulled down by the weight of her bridal clothes. Now and then there are whispers of a woman in red, combing her hair beside the pool, and accidents nearby are often blamed on the woeful spirit of the unwed bride.
A brief descent from the roadside brings hikers to a crossing, downstream from Bride’s Pool, where the idyllic setting feels more blessed than haunted. The stream parts around a tall, crimson bougainvillea surrounded by verdant foliage growing up from the mossy river rocks beneath the flowing water.
Keeping left past a clearing equipped with picnic benches and fire pits, then right at a stone marker pointing towards Chung Mei, the trail climbs up dense greenery that filters the sunlight overhead. A carpet of fallen leaves underfoot softens the path, dampening the sound of each footstep.
With another left turn towards the village of Wu Kau Tang (wu1 gaau1 tang4 烏蛟騰), the path meanders beneath scarlet azaleas until the thick canopy opens at the foot of a small shrine to Guan Yu, the god of honour, and Che Kung, the god of good luck.
Beyond the humble shrine, the path cuts through a clearing to the village of Wu Kau Tang. The name refers to a group of several diminutive, historic Hakka villages, some of which date back to the early 1600s. Here, there are many houses alongside the ornate Lee Ancestral Hall (lei5 si6 zung1 ci4 李氏宗祠), all of which retain their classic, wavy ceramic tile roofs. Some villagers keep modest gardens; others grow papaya and banana stalks in their otherwise overgrown yards. A handful of homes infrequently double as cafes, serving tea and snacks to hikers as they pass through. A word of caution on the neighbourhood dogs – not all of them are friendly.
At the edge of town, the trail crosses a shady stream and ascends back into brush. In the wetter seasons, fungi adorn fallen branches and dew drops cling to the woolly undergrowth. Tall bamboo and fragrant, wild shell ginger reach forth from the tangled greenery flanking the path. When the sun is out for the brief plateau-like sections of the trail, clear skies reveal fleeting views of Shenzhen to the north and Ma On Shan to the South. On overcast days, these brief breaks from the forested path often resemble a walk in the clouds.
Beneath a twisted Banyan, a lichen-spotted, white gate announces the walled village of Lai Chi Wo (lai6 zi1 wo1 荔枝窩). The largely abandoned 400-year-old village was once one of the more affluent Hakka villages in the New Territories. Hundreds of families built traditional homes and established farms at the foot of the area’s Feng Shui Woodlands.
In the early 1900s, the modest farming area could no longer support the quickly expanding population, and young people left in droves for more prosperous towns like nearby Tai Po and Fan Ling as Lai Chi Wo fell into poverty. Many of the homes are in disrepair, but there has been a resurgence of life in the village in recent years. After years without any permanent residents, there are now over half a dozen people living in Lai Chi Wo full-time and another half dozen who work the land and live there part-time.
In 2013, the University of Hong Kong teamed up with a number of organisations, including the Hong Kong Countryside Foundation and the Conservancy Association, to start a sustainability incubation scheme in the dwindling village. The Living Water and Community Revitalisation programme equips new and returning villagers with an organic, sustainable farming education and teaches students to monitor the health of Lai Chi Wo’s biologically diverse surroundings.
The trail winds through the village past Ming Kee, a chicken porridge restaurant (ming4 gei3 gai1 zuk1 明記雞粥), a lively affair on weekends, rain or shine. Tents provide cover for the steaming hot pots of congee, herbal teas, and dim sum steamers of popular treats like tang yuan (tong1 jyun4 湯圓), glutinous rice balls filled with sweet sesame paste.
Lai Chi Wo restaurateurs proudly use produce and often meat and eggs from the village farms. A husband-and-wife duo sell delectable popsicles at their quaint farmstand near the Lai Chi Wo Cultural Hub building. The husband, who introduces himself as Kent, says he and his wife were among the first villagers to return to farm in 2013. Now they make popsicles from the seasonal fruits they grow and decorate them with pressed, edible flowers from their garden.
The narrow village alleys abound in subtle character; flower pots, work boots, and garden gloves hang on makeshift clotheslines strung up between empty walls where a house once stood. A red tiled temple sits between two village homes with handfuls of cement affixed to their outside walls as do-it-yourself incense holders. The village feels once forgotten but newly well-loved.
A restored Hakka building next to the village’s multipurpose cultural hub houses the story of traditional rice farming in Hong Kong. The walls are lined with informative illustrations and true-to-life examples of pre-1980 farming equipment, including a zoetrope, and a rice threshing machine made by a carpenter from the village.
Outside the east gate, Chinese lanterns hang like Christmas ornaments from the branches of a broad banyan tree that shades the Hip Tin Temple (hip3 tin1 gung1 協天宮) and Hok Shan Monastery (hok6 saan1 zi6 鶴山寺) complex. From there, the Lai Chi Wo Nature Trail circles through the present day farms, past patches of overgrown amaranth, Chinese pumpkins and golden marigolds. Cows leisurely munch grass, while the farmers work hard tilling fresh beds, harvesting ripened crops and weeding their plots.
Upon crossing the village stream for the last time, the Lai Chi Wo Nature Trail crosses the Tiu Tang Lung Path and the village fades into the often misty distance. The final historic village along the path is Mui Tsz Lam (mui4 zi2 lam4 梅子林). From there the foliage thickens again and the scenery is dominated by fronds, sweet smelling acacia, and wild taro.
Soon, the loop reconnects to the Tiu Tang Lung Path, revisiting the shrines, streams, and villages that characterised the start of the hike. By the time the eighth mile ends back at Bride’s Pool, the mind and body have adjusted to the aesthetic of the past, of nature that harkens back to a time before the villages that exist within it were built for the first time. Then comes the readjustment – to the pavement, to the sound of the occasional car speeding by, and then to the city, as the day slips into the past as all those before it have done.
How to get there
On Sundays and public holidays there is an alternative return route available to hikers who start on the early side. At 3pm a ferry departs from Lai Chi Wo Pier to Ma Liu Shui, close to the Sha Tin MTR stop. Alternatively, the one way version of the hike can be done in reverse by catching the 9am ferry from Ma Liu Shui (Sundays and public holidays) to Lai Chi Wo and hiking to Bride’s Pool bus stop from there.
On Sundays and public holidays, KMB bus 275R runs from Tai Po Market Station to Bride’s Pool. Any other day of the week, a taxi from Tai Po is recommended. Bring one to two litres of drinking water and a rain jacket – the weather often turns quickly!
Note: Cantonese romanisation in this article is based on the jyutping system, which uses numbers to correspond to the six main tones in Cantonese.