I first ran into the Kaiping diaolou while surfing the UNESCO site for World Heritage Sites. Little did I know that a World Heritage Site had been recently designated so close to Hong Kong! Some google searches led to some promising pictures, along with an interesting back story.
The diaolou, which means watchtower, historically were communal castles in small Chinese southern villages. They were built and owned communally, and the residents of a village would seek refuge in times of conflict or flood. In the early twentieth century, wealthy individuals, principally individuals who had left China to earn money abroad (in the United States, Southeast Asia or even Hong Kong) returned to Kaiping to build a different kind of diaolou—an elaborate multistory mansion. What makes them so interesting is that these individuals built these towers not only to show off their new wealth but incorporated foreign architectural styles, ranging from European to South Asian. There are over a thousand of these towers near the city of Kaiping in Guangdong Province (to the southwest of Guangzhou).
We had read that there were direct ferries to Sanbu Port in Kaiping from Hong Kong, so we headed to the HK-China Ferry Terminal in Tsim Sha Tsui early Saturday morning. (Chu Kong Ferries website) The direct boats weren’t running, but the ferry company had arranged a direct shuttle from Zhongshan Port to Kaiping. The whole ride (ferry to Zhongshan, the bus shuttle) took about four hours. An alternate route, which we had also considered, was to take the train to Guangzhou, and then a bus to Kaiping. This of course would have taken longer, although we would have had the option of staying overnight in Guangzhou.
At Sanbu port in Kaiping were several minibus taxis. After some tough negotiations, we arranged one of the drivers to take us around to three different sets of diaolou for RMB 280 (about USD 35). We went to San Men Li, which has the oldest diaolou (built in the Ming dynasty), Li Yuan, which has an unremarkable collection of diaolou all built by one individual, and Zili Cun, which is probably the best set of diaolou (including the watchtower of Deng Lou just outside the town). Many of the diaolou are furnished in period furniture and can be climbed to the top for views. Almost all of the sites were well labeled with historical details in English. Despite leisurely visits to these sites, we had a few hours before sundown, and so we asked our driver to take us to Jin Jiang Li, which contained two beautiful diaolou in another rustic setting.
Admission to the diaolou is predictably expensive, it being China. A ticket permitting entrance to most of the major sites costs RMB 120 per person.
We returned home by bus from Kaiping to Zhuhai’s Gongbei bus station on the border with Macau. We could have taken the ferry from Zhuhai but chose to overnight in Zhuhai so that we could spend part of the day in Macau before heading home.