Header image courtesy of Geographer (via Wikimedia Commons)
Among Hong Kong’s many outlying islands, Tap Mun—also called Grass Island—is best known for its lush grasslands and wandering cattle. Encircled by emerald waters, this undeniable jewel has lucked out with all the best things: sunrise views, stargazing potential, spectacular boulders, animal neighbours, and a cultural legacy, alongside local restaurants serving distinctive regional cuisines. For those seeking a lesser-known weekend destination, follow our guide to Tap Mun to unveil the rustic charms of this picturesque island.
With a history that can be traced back hundreds of years, Tap Mun was already mapped out in 1595, and formerly used as a supply depot for sailors. According to local folklore, there are two explanations for how the island got its name. Since the Balanced Rock brings to mind a Buddhist pagoda—which reads “Fat Tap” (佛塔) in Chinese—after the sailing boatmen singled out the double-stacked rock, the name was further simplified to “Tap Mun” (塔門).
Another (questionable) legend goes that the sea cave to the north of the Balanced Rock is, in fact, a hidden tunnel that leads towards the Tin Hau Temple. When translated into Cantonese, it is called “Tap Mun,” meaning “temple gate.” Both sources from local folklore evoke nautical associations, reflecting the roots of the fishermen traditions of the island.
Home to a few hundred Hakka and Tanka people, the island has kept its heritage close to its heart. Once in a decade, the island celebrates Dajiao (打醮), also known as the Tai Ping Ching Chiu (太平清醮) in Hong Kong. Last held in 2019, this island-wide event lasts for six days and boasts a list of unmissable sights and activities, including puppetry, Cantonese opera, and lion dance. On the fourth day comes the Tin Hau Parade (天后巡遊), in which a state of the revered Tin Hau is brought on a tour around the island, alongside a fleet of nearly 70 boats, rounding off the entire ritual with a spectacular display.
From Ma Liu Shui:
From Wong Shek Pier:
Note that the last ferry departs from Ma Liu Shui at 5.30 pm and 6.00 pm from Wong Shek Pier. Bus 96R (from Diamond Hill Station) and 289R (from Sha Tin Central Bus Terminus) only provide services to Wong Shek Pier on public holidays.
Embedded into the hillside, Tap Mun’s Tin Hau Temple looks out across the coast, with the namesake goddess perfectly placed to dispense her blessings to every sailor and passenger who seeks a safe ride. Visitors must climb up a flight of marbled stairs and pass the gate adorned with classical Chinese mythological characters to get there. Although the temple renovates its fittings regularly, this centuries-old building still retains a few storied relics, such as the bells dating back to 1737 and the scriptures on the stone tablet from 1743.
As to the temple’s origin, legend has it that there used to be a magical rock that could foretell imminent typhoons. People thought it was a manifestation of Tin Hau, the Chinese goddess of the sea; therefore, they built a temple on top of the magical rock to pay respect to her warnings to the seafarers, so that boatmen could ward off the dangers of bad weather.
Easily accessible on foot, the Hilltop Pavilion provides shelter and benches for hikers to rest and refuel. Visitors can skim their eyes across the sweeping mountain range and the glittering sea, all whilst keeping themselves refreshed by the caressing sea breeze.
After rest, head to the open meadow to spot cattle grazing on the grass and admire the magnificent landscape of pebble beaches and rolling surf breaks. Due to its favourable location, the grassland boasts an unobstructed view of the horizon in the distance from which the sun slowly wheels up, making the Hilltop Pavilion an ideal spot to watch the sunrise.
Perhaps the English name, Balanced Rock, stopped short of revealing the typographic association. But its Chinese name, “呂字疊石,” is a clever wordplay that references the rock’s distinctive appearance: the character “呂” figuratively resembles two square-shaped boxes stacked up against each other, reflecting the unusual structure of the Balanced Rock.
Tap Mun’s boatmen singled out this geological landmark to signal their arrival at this picturesque island back in the day. Notwithstanding the changing tides of time, the Balanced Rock remains stapled at the ocean’s edge as one of Tap Mun’s defining characteristics.
Distant from the fast-paced city, villages in Tap Mun have pledged to lead a serene lifestyle. On the fringe of quiet, jewelled waters lies a sprawl of silent houses, taking in the blue skies and the whisper of the sea breeze. Beyond their unremarkable façades, these villages are nevertheless well-supplied with essential amenities, such as tuck shops, local eateries, a basketball court, and an abandoned campus that evokes memories of an untold, nostalgic era, which, like the tidal waves breaking ashore, leave a rich, fizzing history behind.
More than seven million people live in the city, but on this island, the cattle are in charge. On any given day, you will find these beloved roaming mascots grazing on grass, hiding in the shrubberies, taking a short nap, or simply sitting there, doing nothing.
As much as these quirky inhabitants can steal your heart, a couple of them like to nab other things, too. A few bovine prowlers take everything they can snag—with a particular liking to food. If you are a bag-toting visitor, they may come over and ask for a friendly treat, but feeding cows human food alters their eating habits and is therefore not recommended.
In order to sustain a harmonious living space for humans and cattle, please do not litter, especially on the grassland. If the cattle mistake the refuse for food, the plastic content will compromise their digestive systems, posing a danger to their health!
Starting right from the pier, Tap Mun’s lone hiking trail loops around the southern side of the island. Concrete ropes around virtually all the must-see attractions on the island, including the local villages, the Hilltop Pavilion and its vast swathes of grassland, the Balanced Rock, and the Tin Hau Temple. Along the undulant walkway, there are wooden benches facing out towards the sea. Whether you are a hiking lover or just a country wanderer, the hiking trail provides an abundance of directional signage indicating the route to the nearest sightseeing spots and public facilities so that you won’t get lost.
One very interesting fact, though, is that wild cattle are not potty-trained, and they don’t have to roam far to go number two. Be cautious and watch the steps during your hike, lest you accidentally step into dung, especially on the path to Hilltop Pavilion.
Snag a picnic mat and make it to Hilltop Pavilion and its open grassland for a lovely day under the sun. You can picnic here while enjoying the sea breeze wafting in from afar. Basic amenities like public toilets, local retailers, and waste containers are readily available within a walkable distance, allowing visitors to take their respite from the city hubbub.
Although the Tap Mun grassland is not a designated campsite, many people still pitch their tents for a deep dive into the rustic side of living and the cattle scattered along the way. Some stay up to take in the breathtaking glow of the morning sun glinting off the sea.
Gone are the days when most villagers relied on fishing for a living, but local traditions are still kept alive by local food stalls and restaurants that cling to the traditional fishing rites, spreading prosperity to this serene, outlying gem.
When it’s time to refuel, head to Sun Yau Kee (新有記) on Tap Mun Hoi Pong Street and taste the fresh local seafood that reflects Tap Mun best. For a fulfilling lunch spread, check out the sea urchin fried rice ($110) and fried octopus balls ($90). On a hot summer’s day, cool yourself down with the iced pineapple popsicle ($8).
Yes, Tap Mun has stargazing potential; unlike urban areas where the sun sinks low on a row of high-rises, at the Hilltop Pavilion, the open meadow offers exceptionally high-quality night skies unobstructed by light pollution and the Milky Way becomes readily available even to the naked eyes. Moreover, visitors can comfortably admire the pristine views of the beautiful cosmos while lying back on the smooth grass. Some people choose to pitch their tents here to witness the celestial twinkles glimmering from the depths of the night sky.