The Village Hong Kong Forgot

Ragged stone steps descend into an area of thick woodland. Visible beyond the trees are whitewash walls, speckled with moss and grime. Roots climb, curl and penetrate the plaster, leaving deep crumbling gashes that reveal the boney yellow bricks behind. Standing brutishly around these structures are seven-foot metal fences with notices in bold, red text: “Government Land No Trespassing!”

A short distance from this apocalyptic sight, a ferry terminal ejects passengers into a small, tidy square. A few stores and a cafe run along a promenade, above which countless rows of identical highrises climb into the sky. In the distance, the profile of a giant wooden ship carves an imposing silhouette along the horizon.

This is the island of Ma Wan in Hong Kong, where those with a taste for adventure will discover a curious cultural polarity. Incorporating “the world’s first full-scale ark replica” into an evangelical Christian theme park, this island is home to a sprawling entertainment mecca that draws visitors from all over Hong Kong through its bright, faux-wooden turnstiles.

When completed in 2008 by Hong Kong property billionaires Thomas and Raymond Kwok, the development included 5,000 apartments, a sprawling ‘Nature Garden’, a state-of-the-art solar observatory, a revised road network, and a catchy new name: Park Island. Meanwhile, nestled somewhere amongst the $700 million of concrete, glass and fibreglass kitsch, sat the eponymous 250-year-old fishing village of Ma Wan.

With its traditional wooden stilted houses, centuries-old lanes and bustling fish restaurants, the developers promised villagers that they would place “an emphasis on conservation and revitalisation”. But, perhaps predictably, promises were forgotten. Nearly a decade later, Ma Wan’s 2,000 residents have long been relocated to apartments in the park’s highrises, either by allure or coercion. The village itself has been left a deserted and decaying relic, ready to be demolished as and when the park requires expansion. an Asian Narnia, it appears as though from nowhere

Those wishing to explore the village can simply head past the giant ark and into the dense woodland beyond. Despite the edge of Ma Wan being less than 50 yards from the road, it is well hidden. Venture a short distance into the trees, however, and like an Asian Narnia, it appears as though from nowhere.

Almost all of Ma Wan’s original structures are still intact. Three and four-storey buildings run in contorted rows down to the waterfront, separated by a network of narrow lanes and alleys. Trees and shrubs grow from walls while vines snake their way in through broken windows: the first tentative steps of nature’s reclamation. From the shoreline, a small road winds its way through the heart of the village, past the ruined fish restaurants that were once Ma Wan’s own great attraction. A golden beach curves along the shoreline where traditional wooden shacks stand precariously on rotting stilts, a few of them partially collapsed into the shore below, where an array of tiny crabs scuttle amongst the debris. In front of them, the remains of timber fishing boats lie crooked, sinking into the sand. Towering above is the mammoth road bridge that connects Park Island to the mainland.

Inside, the buildings reveal a melancholic poem about the passage of time. Tiny slivers of lives past can still be found: an empty bookcase, a torn poster, a dusty ornament. Ma Wan appears frozen in a moment, patiently waiting between what was, and what will be.

Yet, there is more to the village of Ma Wan than first meets the eye. Walk past the hollow villas that line the shore and the gentle sound of traditional Chinese music might emanate from an upstairs window. In an empty sundrenched bedroom, a man snoozes in a garden recliner. Continue to the small town square and again, there is life: a girl strides around with a paper fish over her head. “I am rehearsing” she says, “this place is peaceful and timeless, the perfect place to focus.” Meanwhile, on the quay behind her, a handful of fishermen cast their lines into the bay’s undisturbed water.

In fact, the village of Ma Wan is far from abandoned. As well as napping locals, rehearsing performers and fisherman seeking their next catch, there are bridal parties scurrying along lanes in search of romantic backdrops and photographers pottering around hoping to discover that perfect frame of urban ruin. There is even a local temple, where staff ensure the flowers and burning incense are continually replenished.

At the gates to Noah’s Ark theme park, an illustrated map presents colourful animals roaming the lush plains around the ark. Cartoon roads, unimposing highrises and a “you are here!” arrow offer a friendly way to orient yourself. A nearby poster proclaims “67 pairs of lifesize animal sculptures: don’t forget your camera!” with a jovial, wink-and-elbow tone.

It would be easy to suppose what generations of Ma Wan residents might feel about their historic island having been transformed into an oversaturated playground for the profits of two billionaire developers. Yet despite this depressingly familiar story, there is something to marvel at. Forced to relinquish its residents and its lustre, on first sight the village of Ma Wan appears to have succumbed to the bright lights of Park Island’s grand attractions. But look beyond the grime and hollow disrepair and you will discover that the village in fact retains the gentle thrum of a beating heart. Rather than rotting away in solitude, it has instead grown into a dark, decaying attraction of its own.

Paintballing in Pablo Escobar's Mansion

In Colombia, they tell a story about Pablo Escobar. It begins at a pool party in of one of Escobar’s holiday mansions. There is a band playing, the champagne is flowing and the movers and shakers of Escobar’s drug empire are enjoying the trimmings of his multi-billion dollar wealth. Then the music stops.

Escobar emerges from the house, a man bound and gagged in tow. “This man works for me.” he announces. “He stole $50 of coca from my factory. He is a thief!”. The crowd shuffle and murmur uncomfortably. “Do you want to know what I do with those who steal from me?” he says, now talking in a calm sinister tone. Escobar looks deep into the terrified man’s eyes, then with a shove, he pushes him into the pool. A minute or two passes before the splashing stops and the water goes quiet. The music starts again. Left floating in the pool is a warning to anyone considering crossing Escobar.

It is this story that comes to mind as I stare at the slimy green water in the bottom of the swimming pool. Around me is the beautiful surroundings of Guatape lake in Colombia. I am on a tour of a crumbling and deserted mansion. Until the mid 1990’s, this was the property of one Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria. Now it is a solemn reminder of a dark and bloody period in Colombian history.

We continued on, through the graffiti covered interior. Some of the walls have large holes in them which look out of place even amongst the ruin. “People came looking for money he had hidden” our guide explains. This is no surprise when you consider that, at the height of his empire, Escobar was spending $2,500 on rubber bands just to wrap his fortune, a fortune which grew at an estimated $60 million a day.

For Colombian’s it’s a period they would rather forget. For tourists however, it is still an area of morbid fascination. That is why the next part of our day involved guns, yellow paint and a game called ‘capture Pablo’; we were off to play paintball, Colombian style.

Holes in the mansion's walls, where treasure hunters searched for Escobar's hidden cash.

We were led to a series of annexes close to the main mansion which would have housed Escobar’s extended family, perhaps even his mother. Now the decaying shells of once decadent structures created post apocalyptic overtones to the exhilarating chaos of paintballing. It was an absolute hoot.

In the final game, I was Escobar himself, hunted by a team of 10 DEA agents. There were three of us left alive, barricaded into an upstairs bedroom. We were low on ammo, but only one more agent stood between us and safety. We waited in silence, lying low to the floor, guns pointing at the top of staircase, our trigger fingers ready for the first sign of movement.

Only one DEA agent stood between us and safety

Suddenly there was a flurry of shots fired and a sharp pain in my ass. I spun around in agony to see the barrel of a gun poking through the window behind us. The agent had climbed up what remained of a concrete gazebo and quietly aimed for maximum distress. Howls of laughter came as I hobbled across the courtyard to the other players, sore and defeated.

It’s difficult to know what Escobar would have thought to a group of gringos shouting, laughing and shooting yellow paint all over his property. Given the horrors he unleashed on this country, and the scars that are still healing, I can only hope he’s turning in his grave.

Want to do this yourself? We signed up for the trip at the Lake View Hostel in Guatape town. Simply write your name on the board and turn up in the morning to catch the boat. The half day experience cost 80,000 COP (around £25).