Taiwan may only be small, but this undiscovered Asian gem is big on fascinating things to do and see, from sailing on mystical lakes to dining with Buddhist monks and staying with aboriginal tribes
There are a lot of preconceptions (and often misconceptions) about Taiwan. Granted, in recent years, there has been a lot of manufacturing on this small island off China, and it’s likely that both your saucepan and oven have been made there. Yet what’s really interesting are the things that most people don’t know about Taiwan. Firstly, it’s about the size of Wales, so seeing the best bits isn't going to take you long - within the space of just 10 days or so, you can hike spectacular gorges, meet traditional aboriginal tribes and stay at a monastery.
My first stop in Taiwan was Taroko Gorge, where marble cliffs reached dizzingly up towards the sky and rushing rivers ran beneath. Here was our opportunity to hike and walk one of the trails, visiting Swallow Grotto, the Tunnel of Nine Turns and Eternal Spring shrine. Trekking opportunities are both plentiful and exciting here, and range from short picturesque nature walks to longer, more rugged paths for the more adventure-seeking. In just a half-day self-guided tour, we hiked past lofty mountains, deep canyons, head spinning precipices, elegant waterfalls and wild rapids.
No trip to Taiwan is complete without a visit to the mystical Sun Moon Lake, the country’s largest freshwater body. The lake is considered sacred by the local aboriginal people and its name is derived from its distinctive shape, with a rounded main section similar to the sun and a narrow western border comparable to a crescent moon. Sun Moon Lake’s emerald green waters reflect the striking mountainous scenery that surrounds them, creating some of the island’s most enthralling landscapes. Also encircling the lake are numerous temples and picturesque pavilions, gardens and pagodas, each offering a unique perspective on the waters below. We spent our time here leisurely sailing around the enchanting lake on a boat tour, making trips to Cih En Pagoda Temple and the Chung-Tai Monastery.
Sun Moon Lake is also home to Taiwan’s annual mid-autumn festival, the Sun Moon Lake Swim. Every year in October, around 10,000 people swim from one side of the lake to the other. This is the only time of year that anyone can swim there, as it would be too big for lifeguards to patrol. The annual swim ends with a spectacular fireworks display and party, all set against a stunning backdrop. Well worth making a second trip back for, methinks!
At Sun Moon Lake, we stayed at what is widely considered the best leisure hotel in Taiwan – and rightly so. The Lalu was designed in 2002 by Australian architect Kerry Hill, who has won numerous design awards. With all rooms overlooking the lake and the longest swimming pool in Taiwan (an infinity pool with waters that seem to spill straight into the lake), The Lalu certainly has the wow factor.
It also has an award-winning spa, featuring several double treatment rooms that provide spectacular views over the lake, as well as a sauna and steam room. We were offered a selection of Asian and Swedish massages, along with rejuvenating body scrubs only available here, such as ginger and green tea, silk scrub and rice bran and rice wine. We opted for an Asian massage (when in Rome…) with a silk body scrub, and it was undoubtedly one of the best massages I have ever experienced. My partner and I lay side by side and were massaged as we looked out onto Sun Moon Lake - not quite the usual windowless treatment room at your local beauty shop. We followed up with a quick visit to the hotel’s Japanese teahouse on the shores of the lake, and I was only fit for sleep afterwards.
Living like a local
During our tour of Taiwan, we made two more stops and stayed with two very different types of Taiwanese communities. The first of these was an overnight homestay visit with members of the Rukai aboriginal tribe in the southern part of the central mountain range. In the Wutai township, where the tribe lives, we absorbed the Rukai culture, watching them dance, learning their customs and habits, and dining with them, directly experiencing the aboriginal way of life from a first-hand perspective.
The Rukai tribe live in houses built of wood, stone, bamboo and thatch. The women are expert cloth and basket weavers and also create delightful jewellery from glass. The men, meanwhile, excel at wood carving, which is highly respected in the tribe. The lily is the tribal flower of the Rukai tribe and is worshipped to such an extent that it is viewed as a representation of social order and ethics. Only brave warriors and very chaste women, after being recognised by the chief, have the right to wear a lily flower.
Lastly, we were lucky enough to stay at the Fo Guang Shan Monastery, just outside Kaoshiung. Here, we followed around literally hundreds of uniform monks and nuns, who had all made their home at the monastery. In the evening, we joined in their prayers and meditation, whilst in the morning we rose at dawn for t’ai chi outside the main Buddhist temple, followed by breakfast in silence and classes in calligraphy – not as easy as it may look!
Whether you’ve been to other countries in Asia before and are looking for a road less travelled, or have never been and are looking for an introduction to all that the Far East is good at, Taiwan is a great undiscovered destination. With its stunning national parks, opulent hotels and unchanged aboriginal culture, there’s much more to this little island than meets the eye, particularly for those looking to embrace all things cultural and relaxing, not to mention picturesque.