A quirky beach town on Hainan's east coast where the Wenquan River flows into the South China Sea, Bo'ao takes its name from Ao, a mythological creature with the head of a dragon and body of a turtle. Legend has it Ao was subdued (bo) by the Bodhisattva Guanyin in the waters of the Wenquan estuary after raising hell when his father, the Dragon King, rejected his half-turtle bastard son.
And, as with many a myth, there's something about this tale of hybrid origins that has the ring of truth. The town lies between the river's fresh-water effluent and the ocean's salty surf, a combination that has created a unique and fertile ecosystem in which all sorts of auquatic life thrives.
Bo'ao is also caught in Chinese boom-time opulence and development mania, though not to anything like the degree of five-star-riddled Sanya. As a result, visitors can, with just a few minutes' walk, move from recently built beachfront five-star resorts to rutted dirt streets lined with rebar-and-concrete homes and shopfronts that lend a frontier feel to the place.
Finally, China's growing taste for opulence and its increasingly self-aware role as a major global player are embodied on and around the site of the annual Bo'ao Forum for Asia (China's take on the Davos World Economic Forum), which contrasts sharply with the gritty tropical charm of a downtown that often seems half under construction and half falling apart.
The grit is likely to diminish, and along with it much of the charm, as the town sees more high-end development, yet it also seems likely that Bo'ao will remain something of a second-thought when it comes to mass tourism on Hainan. As with the remote Swiss mountain village of Davos, part of the point of its selection as the annual Forum for Asia site seems to have to do with its relative isolation and modest size--considerations that make security and controlled access easier.
For now, however, it's a nice, affordable (especially in the off season) alternative to Sanya's ranks of resort hotels. The beaches are nice, though its not unusual to have to clear litter away to have a nice place to lay the beach blanket, and the water is warm, if cloudy; the downtown open-air seafood joints serve up cheap and delicious fare (as do the surprising number of Dongbei restaurants scattered about); and the surrounding area features a number of small temple sites, ancestral villages and other remnants of traditional Hainan life worth visiting.