Languid, tropical south Taiwan is a world away from Taipei, a land of betel nut plantations, pineapple groves and sandy beaches. The southern plains are home to Taiwan’s oldest Chinese settlements, a bastion of Taiwanese culture with a correspondingly high proportion of independence supporters – the counties of Tainan, Kaohsiung and Pingdong are Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) strongholds and the Taiwanese language is spoken everywhere in preference to Mandarin. The lush southern mountains, while not quite as dramatic as the central ranges, still offer plenty of gorgeous scenery, predominantly inhabited by the Bunun, Paiwan and Rukai tribes – although, sadly, they were hard hit by Typhoon Morakot in 2009, with eight Rukai and Paiwan villages effectively abandoned. Much of the region’s exuberant culture is encapsulated in its festivals: many temples hold elaborate boat-burning ceremonies every three years, while the horizontal firework display at Yanshui is a chaotic but exhilarating event held over Chinese New Year.
Tainan is an essential stop on any tour of Taiwan. The former capital is crammed with ornate temples, engaging historical sights and some of the best snack food in the country. From here the Southern Cross-Island Highway snakes east across the mountains to Taitung, a dramatic and sometimes perilous route with incredibly scenic views; it cuts through the northern end of Maolin National Scenic Area, no less captivating, with the slate Rukai village of Duona and the thrilling mountain road up to Wutai, another Rukai village. (Much of the Cross-Island Highway and Scenic Area was inaccessible post-Morakot, but most of it should now be open again.) Kaohsiung is the biggest city in the south, with a laid-back, friendly character, rapidly throwing off its grimy industrial image and close to the impressive monastery at Foguangshan. The narrow stub of land at the foot of Taiwan is dominated by Kenting National Park, with its somewhat overrated main resort but a wealth of less visited beaches and excellent surf easily accessible by scooter. The intriguing coral island of Little Liuqiu is just off the coast.
Top image: Wutai Township, Pingtung, Taiwan © AlwinMina/Shutterstock
Taiwan’s second city, and one of the largest container ports in the world, KAOHSIUNG (高雄; gāoxióng) has undergone a dramatic metamorphosis in recent years, from polluted industrial centre of two million people to green city of lush parks, waterside cafés, art galleries and museums – all linked by a spanking-new transport system.
The older districts of Zuoying, Yancheng and Cijin Island contain plenty of historic sights and traditional snack stalls, while modern Kaohsiung is best taken in with an evening stroll along the Love River or a visit to soaring 85 Sky Tower close to its bustling shopping districts. With more time, there’s plenty to see on the slopes of Gushan to the west, and around Lotus Lake in Zuoying to the north. You could also hike up to the ridge of hills known as Chaishan, home of Kaohsiung’s famously capricious troupe of monkeys.
The oldest parts of Kaohsiung are Cihou Village on Cijin Island, established in the early seventeenth century, and the suburb of Zuoying, created by Koxinga in the 1660s as county capital, a position it maintained until the late eighteenth century. Cihou, and the harbour as a whole, was known as Takau (or Takow), and remained a sleepy backwater until the port was opened up to foreign companies by the Treaty of Beijing in 1860, attracting merchants eager to exploit the south’s growing export trade in sugar. Foreign trade had its dark side however: by the time the Japanese had assumed control of the city in 1895, a quarter of adult males in the south were addicted to opium. The Japanese imposed an Opium Monopoly in 1897, which effectively destroyed Western dominance of the sugar trade. They also began a major modernization programme, completing the harbour and docks in 1908 and opening the Takau Ironworks, Taiwan’s first iron and steel mill, in 1919. Although the city was heavily bombed by US Air Force planes in 1945, the port was rebuilt and by the late 1970s Kaohsiung was Taiwan’s premier industrial centre. In 1979 the Kaohsiung Incident was a defining moment in Taiwan’s struggle for democracy, and today the city is a DPP stronghold.
Kaohsiung’s name is worth explaining: Takau is thought to derive from a Makatau aboriginal word meaning “bamboo fence”; when this was transliterated into Chinese characters it read “beat the dog” (dǎgǒu), and in 1920 the Japanese changed the characters to the less offensive “Tall Hero”, with the Japanese pronunciation “Takao”. After 1949 the city became known by the Mandarin pronunciation of these characters.
One of several wealthy Buddhist foundations established in Taiwan since the 1960s, Foguangshan Monastery (佛光山寺; fóguāngshān sì) is a vast complex of grand temple architecture, giant statues and Buddhist art. Around 25km northeast of Kaohsiung, it’s an absorbing day-trip from the city, with regular buses making it easy to reach.
The monastery is the home of the Foguangshan International Buddhist Order, founded in 1967 by Master Hsing Yun, an enigmatic monk from China who has spent his life travelling and teaching his unique brand of “Humanistic Buddhism”. Today Foguangshan is part monastery, with around three hundred monks and nuns, and part educational complex, with over a thousand students at its on-site university and high school campus.
Starting at the Non Duality Gate at the front of the monastery, take a look inside the Foguangshan Treasury Museum on the right, packed with Buddhist art, carvings and cultural relics. From here climb straight up the hill towards the stunning main shrine or “Great Hero Hall” – it contains three 7.8m-high Buddha statutes, beautifully cast in bronze and surrounded on all sides by a staggering 14,800 smaller Buddha images lit by tiny lights and displayed within an intricate latticework of carved wood. The latest grandiose addition to the site is the Foguanshan Buddha Memorial Center, with a colossal temple and 50m-high statue of the Buddha as its centrepiece (it’s over 100m tall including the base). The hall houses the venerated Buddha’s tooth relic, donated by a Tibetan monk in 1998. The other highlight is the 36m-high statue of Amitabha Buddha on the east side of the complex (an area known as “Great Buddha Land”). The iconic symbol of the monastery, it is approached by a road lined with 480 smaller statues. You’ll hear the word āmítuófó everywhere you go: this is another name for Buddha, and has become a catch-all for thank you, bless you or hello.
The Kaohsiung Incident (高雄事件; gāoxióng shìjiàn) of December 1979 was a political watershed, often regarded as the beginning of Taiwan’s democratic revolution. Opposition to Taiwan’s one-party state had been growing in the 1970s and, in an apparent concession, President Chiang Ching-kuo had agreed to hold legislative elections in 1979 – but at the last minute, he cancelled them. On Human Rights Day (Dec 10) a rally was organized in Kaohsiung in protest, the activists spurred on by the arrest the night before of two workers for Meilidao (“Formosa” in English), a clandestine publication that was a focus for dissidents. Things quickly got out of hand as police were brought in to disperse the crowds, and violent scuffles ensued. In the aftermath, almost every member of the unofficial opposition was arrested, culminating in the trial, in 1980, of the “Kaohsiung Eight” for sedition. Most were jailed for lengthy periods, but the trial was widely publicized and as a result the defendants garnered a great deal of sympathy, ultimately creating a wider base for democratic reform.
Today, the list of those involved reads like a “Who’s Who” of Taiwanese politics, many becoming leaders of the Tangwai (dăngwài; Outside Party) movement and later the Democratic Progressive Party: Chen Shui-bian (president 2000–08) and Frank Hsieh (former Kaohsiung mayor and premier) were lawyers on the defence team, while Annette Lu (vice-president 2000–08), Lin Yi-hsiung (former leader of the DPP) and Shih Ming-teh (ex-DPP chairman and political activist) served five to ten years in jail. Although no one died during the incident, Lin’s mother and twin 7-year-old daughters were murdered while he was in prison, a case that remains unsolved.
Straddling Taiwan’s southern tip and bounded by sea on three sides, KENTING NATIONAL PARK (墾丁國家公園; kěndīng guójiā gōngyuán) attracts millions of visitors each year, lured by its warm tropical climate and magnificent white-sand beaches. The park covers most of the Hengchun Peninsula, which sits at the confluence of fault lines and tectonic plates. As a result, the peninsula has been pushed, pulled and twisted into a complex network of low-lying mountains, grassy meadows, steep cliffs, sand dunes and elaborate coral formations. Despite its remarkably varied natural scenery, much of it is overlooked by visitors, most of whom relish the amusement-park atmosphere of the main tourist area around Kenting Town and nearby Nanwan. With so many tourists clinging to these more developed spots, much of the park remains relatively quiet.
The park’s beaches are definitely its biggest draw and, although the ones closest to Kenting Town and Nanwan are overrated (and often overcrowded), it’s not hard to find your own stretch of fine white sand in a more secluded setting. While Kenting is no Ibiza, it can be entertaining at night and is also known as Taiwan’s premier surfing destination. Kenting’s busy season starts in May and lasts through September, but weekends can be crazy year-round. To avoid the crowds visit midweek March to May, when it should be warm enough to lounge on the beach in relative peace.
The US has Spring Break, but Taiwan has Spring Scream. For the country’s growing legions of rock music fans, Kenting Town has become the site of one of Taiwan’s biggest annual rock festivals – Spring Scream (春天吶喊; chūntiān nàhǎn) – held every April since 1995. Popular with Taiwanese and expatriates alike, this five-day event showcases both international and home-grown talent and is consistently the country’s biggest gathering of foreigners, with expats from all corners of the island converging on Kenting Town for days of unbridled indulgence. Book accommodation way in advance or prepare to crash on the beach. Expect to pay around NT$1500 for an all-event pass, or NT$600–900 for single days. The venue changes, but all the most recent festivals have been held at the Eluanbi Lighthouse.
Stretching over a sizeable expanse of the southern Taiwan hinterland, some 45km east of Kaohsiung, the MAOLIN NATIONAL SCENIC AREA (茂林國家風景區; màolín guójiā fēngjǐngqū) offers an enticing combination of mountain scenery and aboriginal cultures. Sadly, the area was badly affected by Typhoon Morakot, which struck the region in 2009 (35 people were killed in Liugui alone), and some of it may remain off limits to visitors; check wwww.maolin-nsa.gov.tw for information. The Rukai aboriginal community was especially hard hit; many settlements have now been relocated to safer areas. Virtually every concrete bridge in the area was destroyed and the famous Duona Hot Springs have been lost, buried by mounds of debris. White-water rafting at Laonong and Baolai has ceased indefinitely; note also that paragliding from Saijia Aviation Park is now only permitted through associations approved by Pingdong county authorities. The Scenic Area headquarters and visitor centre at Maolin Village, as well as the visitor centre at Liugui, were both washed away by Morakot. A new visitor centre is planned near Maolin Village (wwww.maolin-nsa.gov.tw). The seldom-visited Rukai village of Wutai was spared destruction and remains one of the highlights of the south.
Winding County Route 132 climbs the 15km from Maolin Village to the Rukai village of DUONA (多納; duōnà), one of the last bastions of the traditional Rukai slate-slab houses. This area was hammered by Typhoon Morakot in 2009, with the Duona High Suspension Bridge (多納高吊橋; duōnà gāo diàoqiáo) one of the few bridges to survive; it yields sweeping views of the river valley. About 6km past the bridge is the village itself; time will tell if tourism here recovers from the loss of the hot springs that used to draw them in, but for travellers interested in a slice of Rukai life it’s hard to beat. Duona is a great place to try Rukai cuisine, with outdoor barbecue stalls serving up an assortment of meat grilled on smooth, fire-heated slate slabs.
Twenty-five kilometres east of Kaohsiung is SANDIMEN (三地門; sāndìmén), an aboriginal community nestled where the western plains meet the mountains, and the heartland of the Paiwan tribe. Sandimen is also the gateway to the spectacular 19km stretch of Provincial Highway 24 leading to the remote Rukai village of WUTAI (霧台村; wùtái cūn). The area was devastated by Typhoon Morakot, and eight smaller communities beyond Wutai were evacuated; only Shenshan and Wutai itself remain. However it’s well worth the effort to get here (a permit is no longer required) – the road winds through some truly amazing scenery, with steep roadside drop-offs framed by rushing waterfalls at almost every turn. And Wutai Village is a real treat, with Taiwan’s most undiluted Rukai culture, stone-paved lanes and several friendly homestays.
The spectacular SOUTHERN CROSS-ISLAND HIGHWAY (南橫公路; nánhéng gōnglù) slices across south Taiwan in a dramatic traverse of the central mountains that leaves most travellers clutching the edge of their seats. Starting from the western coastal plains around Tainan, the highway climbs steadily to almost 2800m before dropping sharply down to the east coast, cutting through several distinct ecosystems as well as the southwestern fringe of Yushan National Park. The road was severely damaged by Typhoon Morakot in 2009 however, and although it was open to small vehicles at the time of writing, the route remains precarious beyond the Taoyuan Recreation Area, north of Baolai, and is often closed completely in summer; ask at one of the Kaohsiung visitor centres before starting out.
Along the busy coastal highway heading south from Kaohsiung to Kenting National Park are several worthwhile attractions, suitable as stopovers on an extended excursion to the island’s tropical southern tip or as day-trips from Kaohsiung. Much of this region forms part of the Dapeng Bay National Scenic Area (大鵬灣國家風景區遊客中心; dàpéngwān guójiā fēngjǐngqū yóukè zhōngxīn), with the fishing town of Donggang boasting some of Taiwan’s finest seafood and Little Liuqiu Island making for a relaxing retreat from city life. Just before the coastal highway reaches Kenting National Park, Sizhongxi Hot Springs and County Route 199 make a worthwhile detour, offering interesting spas and beautiful countryside dotted with Paiwan villages.
The gem of the Dapeng Bay National Scenic Area, Little Liuqiu Island (小琉球; xiǎo liúqiú) makes for a convenient, relaxing retreat from the din of the west-coast cities. Composed of coral, the 4km-long, 2km-wide island is covered with curious rock formations and caves and offers seemingly endless sea views. Some visitors make it a long day-trip from Kaohsiung, but it’s better to stay overnight and explore at leisure. There are plenty of hotels, restaurants and a seaside camping area that could easily win the accolade as Taiwan’s finest.
Little Liuqiu’s original aboriginal settlers were exterminated by the Dutch between 1636 and 1645, and it wasn’t until the 1770s that Fujian fishermen began arriving, establishing small communities. Today, tourism competes with fishing as the island’s biggest industry, but there is still plenty of fresh seafood to be had in the main village next to Baisha Port.
Encompassing the flat, marshy stretch of coast between Tainan and the Hukou Wetlands in Yunlin county, the Taijiang National Park and Southwest Coast National Scenic Area (南濱海國家風景區; nánbīnhǎi guójiā fēngjǐngqū) contain some of Taiwan’s most important and oldest religious sites, such as Ciji Temple in the small town of Xuejia; remnants of a once thriving salt industry; and hundreds of oyster farms which make for superb seafood and birdwatching.
An otherwise sleepy town, a short drive inland from Nankunshen, YANSHUI (鹽水 (yánshuǐ) attracts thousands to its annual firework festival (鹽水蜂炮; yánshuǐ fēngpào), one of Taiwan’s most famous. What makes this pyrotechnic display unique is that the fireworks – lodged in over two hundred walls or “beehives” the size of a truck – are fired horizontally into the crowds creating a cacophony of noise, fire and smoke throughout the night. Protective gear is essential if you want to participate but note that the crowds can be suffocating: around 300,000 people attend. The tradition began in 1885 when locals paraded an image of Guan Di around the town to ward off a cholera epidemic; their prayers were answered only after shooting off a ton of fireworks to “wake” the god. Each year during the Lantern Festival, usually in February, Guan Di is once again paraded around the town before the fiery climax.
Historic TAINAN (台南; táinán), just a few kilometres from the southwest coast, is a city of ancient monuments, delicious food and, above all, temples: there are more gods worshipped and more festivals and rituals observed in Tainan than in any other place in Taiwan. Much of this is a legacy of its former status as capital city, a title it enjoyed for more than two hundred years, and particularly of the seventeenth century, when it was the last independent outpost of China’s Ming dynasty.
The oldest and most absorbing parts of Tainan are historic Anping, on the west side of town by the sea, and the cultural zones in the heart of the old city; the latter were created specifically to make things easier for visitors, with city information, signs and maps tailored to each zone and well marked in English. The Chihkan, Dong-an Fang, Five Canals and Confucius Temple cultural zones contain the richest concentration of sights – reckon on spending at least two days to do them justice.
The ancestral home of the Siraya píngpŭ tribe, Tainan began its modern history with the Dutch, who established Fort Zeelandia in 1624 on a sand bar off the coast. At that time, the site of the modern city’s western half was under water, part of a huge lagoon ringed by a chain of sandy islets. The Dutch called the area “Tayouan” and made it the capital of their colony. In 1662, however, they surrendered to the vastly superior forces of Ming general Zheng Chenggong, also known as Koxinga after a nine-month siege. During the period of Zheng family rule that followed (1662–83) Tainan prospered, and many of its finest temples were constructed to befit its status as an independent Chinese kingdom. In 1664 one of the last descendants of the Ming royal family, the Prince of Ningjing, moved to the city. When the Zhengs surrendered to Chinese admiral Shi Lang in 1683, the city became known as Taiwan-Fu and was made prefectural capital of the island.
In 1823 a devastating storm led to the silting up of the lagoon, and Anping (the site of Fort Zeelandia) became permanently joined to the mainland. The Treaty of Beijing (1860) paved the way for a small community of foreign merchants to trade camphor, tea and opium in Anping, but after the Japanese occupied Taiwan in 1895 the sale of opium and camphor became a government franchise and, with the port silting up further, by 1911 most merchants had left. When Taiwan became a province in 1885, the city became known as Tainan-Fu, or “South Taiwan” and lost its capital status to Taipei. Today it is Taiwan’s fourth-largest city, with a population of around 770,000.
The life of Zheng Chenggong, traditionally known as Koxinga in the West (a bastardization of guóxìngyé, an official title given to him by one of the last Ming princes), is a complex mixture of historical fact, myth and politics. Born in 1624 in Japan to a pirate Chinese father and a Japanese mother, he was taken to Fujian in China when he was 7 and given a strict Confucian education. After the fall of the Ming dynasty in 1644, Fujian became the centre of resistance to the new Qing rulers and Koxinga rose rapidly through the ranks of the military, gaining honours from various Ming princes and becoming the leader of the entire resistance movement. In 1658 he was defeated in Nanjing, an event that led him to consider a tactical retreat to Taiwan, and in 1661 he led a sizeable fleet across the straits to remove the Dutch. Contrary to popular belief, the siege of Fort Zeelandia was characterized by a series of blunders, Koxinga’s overwhelmingly superior forces taking nine months to oust the defenders. The general died a few months later in 1662, most likely from malaria and, although he was initially buried in Taiwan his body was taken back to China with his son in 1699. On the island he became known as kāishān wáng, “Open Mountain King”, for his supposed role in developing infrastructure and opening up the country for Chinese immigrants, and is worshipped as a folk god – there are around 63 temples dedicated to him island-wide.
Today, Koxinga is eulogized not just in Taiwan but also in China (there’s a huge statue of him gazing towards the island in Xiamen) for being the only Chinese general to inflict a major defeat on a colonial Western power. Those favouring unification claim he was the first to “take back” Taiwan, while Taiwan independence activists like to point out that Koxinga’s family ruled an independent kingdom that had never been part of the Chinese empire. What’s often forgotten in both cases is that Koxinga’s brief war with the Dutch was a relatively minor footnote to his epic struggle with the Qing regime in Beijing.
All but forgotten today, Zhū Shùguì or the Prince of Ningjing (寧靖王; níngjìngwáng), one of the last descendants of China’s Ming dynasty, rulers of China from 1368 to 1644, died in Tainan in 1683. Chong Zhen, the last Ming emperor, hanged himself in Beijing as it was being overrun by rebel troops in 1644, and was eventually replaced by the first Manchu or Qing emperor, Shunzhi. However, several of the vanquished Ming emperor’s relatives escaped to form a rival southern Ming dynasty. Zhū Shùguì was one of these hapless survivors. One by one, his fellow princes were defeated in battle, with the last formal pretender, the Prince of Gui, murdered in 1662. Zhū Shùguì fled to Kinmen and in 1663 he was finally persuaded to move to Tainan by Koxinga’s son, Zheng Jing, becoming the nominal head of the dynasty but with little real power. In a final show of defiance he committed suicide with his household on hearing of the Zhengs’ surrender to the Qing in 1683 – the dynasty died with him. Zhū Shùguì’s modest tomb is in Chuhu, south of Tainan.