A visit to Hong Kong's Wetland Park

Mrs Tall and I took some days off around Christmas to spend some extra time with Daughter Tall. On one of them we decided to visit one of Hong Kong’s newest attractions, Wetland Park.

The park comprises about 61 hectares (that’s about 150 acres to those of us accustomed to traditional measurements), most of which is indeed, well, wet. It was originally set aside in the late 1990s as compensation for wetlands lost during the development of Tin Shui Wai new town, but the HK Government then decided to go whole hog and develop it into a full-fledged eco-tourism site.

What’s there to see? The heart of the park is a series of five short walks through slightly different types of wetland environment:

  • a stream that flows over and around rocks and such;
  • a ‘succession’ zone, i.e. an area that follows the transition from open water to dry land as a series of different types of plants take over;
  • a mangrove forest;
  • several ‘hides’ from which you can view migratory birds out on mudflats much like the ones at Mai Po Marshes; and
  • a ‘wildside’ path that snakes through a variety of swamp-scapes.

There’s also a large and quite elaborate visitor center with a number of natural history-museum-style exhibits, including:

  • a ‘living wetlands’ exhibit with examples of plants and wildlife (which were mostly not living, i.e. stuffed) from wetlands around the world;
  • a ‘human culture’ exhibit, whose purpose and connection to wetlands I found hard to grasp; this one also features a small ‘simulator’ ride, i.e. the sort that shakes you about as you watch a brief Imax-style movie (not worth it if you have to wait); and
  • a ‘wetland challenge’ exhibit, which was ostensibly an interactive, post-modern-museum-style ‘experiential learning environment’ in which you’re meant to take on the role of a news reporter investigating eco-crimes, or something like that, but which in practice was a pure You Should Feel Guilty For Being Human didacticism zone. These seem to be de rigueur in just about every museum you visit these days, but that’s another rant . . . .

Finally, there are several throw-in features to round out the park’s attractions:

  • a gift shop with lots of bird-and-swamp t-shirts, books, and so on;
  • Pui-Pui the famous Randomly-Appearing Crocodile of the SAR, who is on display in a tank right next to the visitor center; and
  • the ‘Swamp Adventure’, a playground kitted out to look like a Tarzan-meets-Swiss Family Robinson habitat, with some big curvy slides. Daughter Tall loved it. Note that the attendants strictly enforced a 130 cm maximum height limit on the kids who wanted to get in.

Our visit was, I have to say, a mixed bag. We enjoyed ourselves, and the park is mostly well-designed and visitor-friendly – it’s certainly worth a visit – but the curmudgeon in me has to admit to a mild case of disappointment.

What was good? Well, the paths around the wetlands themselves were interesting, with useful signboards and about as much visual variety as you’re going to get in a park whose whole purpose is to preserve swamps and mudflats. The blinds set up for viewing the migratory birds are also a fine idea; you get the chance to peer out between the boards and spy on birds from quite close by, much as you would at Mai Po Marshes, but without the hassle of booking a visit and then standing around and having to keep on watching those birds for hours on end to justify your visit. (You may be sensing at this point that I am not a bird watcher; I’m sure what I’ve just said is heresy of stake-burning magnitude if you are a genuine ornithophile.)

The park’s paths and structures also look good. The visitor center is built into a hillside, opening out onto the wetlands in an impressive wall of glass. The paths and bird-watching blinds are made weathered-looking wood, and blend in nicely with their environment.

What could have been better? The content of the visitor center seemed mostly a waste of time and tax money. I don’t think our visit would have been much compromised if we’d missed it out altogether. What you need to know about the wetlands is well-presented right out there in the wetlands themselves; why maunder around indoors?

Second, although we visited on a weekday before the school Christmas holidays began, the park felt far from roomy. There were a couple of schools on outings, and bless those children, but they were a pain. There are signs all over the park admonishing visitors to be quiet to avoid spooking the birds, but you try enforcing that with 900 primary school children. Any birds averse to screechy horseplay have no doubt long since departed to quieter climes. The need to follow quite narrow paths and walkways around the park also exaggerates the feeling of overcrowding. The mangrove walk was particularly bad; it’s so narrow as to virtually guarantee people will be falling over each other. Otherwise, our visit didn’t feel too oppressive, but one of Mrs Tall’s colleagues who visited on a weekend recently described it as the equivalent of Causeway Bay vis-à-vis the crowds-on-sidewalks effect.

Third, and this is obviously my own personal failing, but I just don’t find wetlands all that inherently interesting. Hong Kong is blessed with so much spectacular scenery – mountains, rocky sea coasts, the surprising mazes of abandoned villages and farmland – that spending a day looking at murky water and reeds seems a bit anticlimactic.

Finally, a few tips for your visit:

  • I’d strongly recommend visiting on an ordinary weekday if at all possible to avoid crowds.
  • Definitely – and I mean definitely – bring along sunscreen, hats, and other sun-fighting weaponry. The day we went was coolish – the HK Observatory recorded a high of 22.1 – but Wetland Park’s high was over 25, and even that mild reading felt pretty hot. The main reasons: there’s virtually no shade whatsoever once you’re out of the visitor’s center, and the park’s low-lying, swampy setting made it feel quite stuffy and windless.
  • Getting there didn’t take nearly as long as we thought it would. Travelling from Tseung Kwan O, we took the MTR to Mei Foo, switched to the railway-formerly-known-as-the-West-Rail, got out at the Tin Shu Wai stop, made an easy transfer to the LRT Route 705 (706 is also fine) and we were there. All told, we travelled a long way in HK terms, and it took less than an hour and half.
  • The only place to eat at Wetland Park is a Café de Coral in the visitor center. We packed a lunch and were glad of it!

If you missed the link above to the official site for Wetland Park, it’s here.

This site from Hong Kong University provides some interesting background on the park’s genesis and design.


Yes, noisy kids are good bird-frighteners

I visited the Wetlands Park in early January 2007 on my annual pilgrimage to Hong Kong. I'm a little disappointed to hear that some things have not changed.

While not strictly speaking a bird watcher in the supremely-patient and watch-for-hours sense, I do enjoy observing birdlife when it's there. But I found the excellent boardwalks which make the Park so easy to get around have a major downside.

Children can make a lot of noise on a boardwalk. Stamping their feet when they walk or run creates a delightful and resounding thump thump thump not achievable on concrete or bitumen or earth. They will do this to great effect and unhinderd by parents at the Wetlands Park.

The wild birds are distinctly unimpressed and head for a quieter part of Hong Kong. Which is sad for any person who would like to see them in their native environs at the new Park.

I hoped that perhaps the birds would become used to the loud patter of little feet. From what Mr Tall writes, 12 months after my visit, apparently not.

He is also correct about the temperature. It was a coolish day when I went but I was dressed in gwai loh fashion for HK winter, that is, light trousers and a polo shirt, and I was HOT at the park. It seems to have its own microclimate that is well above the Hong Kong average for the day.

But I really enjoyed the Wetlands Park, it was inexpensive and easy enough to get to for a non-local like me and, well, different.

But there weren't many birds around...

Wetland Park not always crowded

We've been to the Wetland Park twice this past year (2011), once on a weekday afternoon in April during Easter break and once on a Saturday afternoon in early July, and it was fairly quiet both times (at least until we got there! Hard to keep two children (7 and 3) quiet, can't imagine what it was like walking behind a school outing...).  I suspect that we avoided the crowds because schools were out on the April visit and there were thunderstorms possible that day; and in July because it was too hot. In any case, the outdoor area mainly held nature photographers and one or two young couples who looked like they were having a bad date.

My son (7) desperately wanted to go, since he'd heard about it at school. Well, OK, he'd mostly heard that the play area was great, and both he and our daughter enjoyed that immensely - especially as they were the only children in there on our first visit! The second time around, there were perhaps 10 other kids in the playarea at any of the three times we went in.

Anyway, our kids got enough of a kick out of it that we are considering a membership. It's not for everyone, and at first I was afraid that our son was going to be disappointed since there weren't too many bells and whistles on the walks (we completely missed the indoor exhibits on our first visit; just didn't see they were there), it was pretty warm (the second time we visited, it was boiling), and the hour and a half it took to get there seemed too long to him. But he LOVED it. In particular, looking out of field glasses at birds (and grass and sky and Shenzhen apartments) really worked for him, especially since he could try adjusting them himself. He also loved watching the mudskippers and crabs (probably you can see these elsewhere in HK, but we hadn't, and there truly were an amazing number of them). And frogs.  Some of the outdoor stops had periodic presentations (videos with a park person explaining) on aspects of the wildlife or ecosystem, and he watched a couple of these too. And I think he made a bat at a crafts stop, also in one of these. Our three year old mainly enjoyed getting stamps on her map at each outpost, and the attendants kindly let her stamp her map again and again and again....

The second time around we did go through the indoor exhibits / museum area and greatly enjoyed the AC after wandering through the park in 29 degree heat. They were a mixed bag, but our kids liked some of the hands-on exhibits (and now of course I can't remember what any of them were...). Also, there were some stations where you could make buttons or do other crafts, and our older child did a few of these and has saved all his creations. There were also a couple of small areas with puzzles and drawing and stuff for smaller children, which was great for our 3 year old, especially once her older brother discovered that in one of the rooms there were some "educational" computer games (find your way through the maze, save water, etc., etc.) and refused to budge.

I'm not sure how long the wetland park will continue to appeal to our kids, but if you have a budding naturalist in the family, it's definitely worth a look.