Most international flights to Taiwan land at Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport, 28 kilometers due west of Taipei. But for those who want to see a more laidback and traditional side of Taiwan, or explore strongholds of indigenous culture, arriving via the southern city of Kaohsiung is another option to consider.
As recently as the late 1990s, Kaohsiung was a place where few foreign visitors lingered. Its booming steel, chemical, and shipbuilding industries provided tens of thousands of jobs, and for a long time its port was one of the world’s busiest container harbors. Yet the metropolis was something of a cultural desert.
How astonishing its transformation has been! Thanks to a proliferation of cultural centers, parks, and bike trails, many Kaohsiung natives feel that their hometown is now a more livable place than Taipei. And no one disputes that the weather is better. Kaohsiung gets an average of 2,212 hours of sunshine each year, compared to the capital’s 1,405 hours.
Kaohsiung International Airport handles flights to and from Hong Kong, Macau, South Korea, and several destinations in Japan and mainland China. Leaving the airport, it is easy to proceed by direct bus to Kenting National Park, while a rapid transit line whisks travelers to Kaohsiung’s downtown – or to its conventional and high-speed railway stations for onward travel to Tainan, Pingtung, or Taitung.
Because Taiwan’s public transportation network is designed to serve commuters, not sightseers, tourists depending on trains and buses may not be able to make the most of their limited time. For those in that category, the Taiwan Tour Bus system (www.taiwantourbus.com.tw) is a godsend.
The Taiwan Tour Bus not only delivers visitors to points of interest, but assigns guides who speak English, Japanese, or Chinese to each group. Those who sign up need not worry about mistakenly buying a ticket for the wrong destination, or missing their stop.
Sometimes buses are not the only mode of transportation the tours utilize. The “Essence of Kaohsiung Harbor One-day Tour” includes boat travel on the city’s Love River and across the harbor to Qijin Island. The island is home to a picturesque fishermen’s community, a 343-year-old temple, a lighthouse erected in the late 19th century, and a fortress of similar vintage.
The tour also makes a stop at the “Former British Consulate at Takao.” There visitors can learn how Western merchants and international trade shaped Kaohsiung – then known as Takao – in the final third of the 19th century. This tour, which culminates at a night market, is priced at NT$1,300 per person. As with several other tours that set out from Kaohsiung, there is a NT$300 surcharge if an English-language guide is required. And like all Taiwan Tour Bus jaunts, the price includes all admission charges and insurance.
One of Greater Kaohsiung’s most-visited locations is Fo Guang Shan, a Buddhist monastery which now has branch temples throughout Taiwan and overseas on five continents. Like other Buddhist organizations in Taiwan, it operates schools and does a wide range of charitable work.
Fo Guang Shan occupies a hillside in Dashu District, facing the Gaoping River and the Central Mountain Range. Aside from the visual splendor, tourists have two other excellent reasons to come here. Fo Guang Shan is perhaps the best place on the island to learn about Buddhism as it is practiced in 21st-century Taiwan. Meanwhile, the adjacent Buddha Memorial Center is a stunning architectural landmark built to house and honor what many believe to be one of the Buddha’s teeth.
The “Fo Guang Shan and Cheng-qing Lake One-Day Tour” (NT$1,600 per person; includes lunch) takes in both the monastery and the memorial center. As a bonus, the return journey to downtown Kaohsiung includes a stop at picturesque Chengqing Lake, a 103-hectare body of water whose shores are a good site for birdwatching.
An alternative Taiwan Tour Bus itinerary skips Chengqing Lake, instead introducing Lotus Pond en route to Fo Guang Shan. Lotus Pond is surrounded by some of the city’s most photogenic temples and shrines, including the colorful Spring and Autumn Pavilions and the Dragon and Tiger Pagodas. This neighborhood is one of the region’s oldest (just south of the pond are the remains of 200-year-old defensive walls), but its character has also been heavily influenced by the post-1949 influx of servicemen from mainland Chinese and their families. Some of these people went on to establish restaurants and food stalls specializing in cuisines from various parts of China. This tour is slightly cheaper because, rather than sitting down for a pre-booked lunch, travelers can enjoy whichever delicacies take their fancy.
Visitors wishing explore far-flung rural areas will be interested in the “Maolin Butterfly Tour” (NT$1,799 for adults, NT$1,599 for children). The tour goes to one of the most remote yet loveliest parts of Greater Kaohsiung, a valley that is a stronghold of the Rukai people, one of Taiwan’s 16 indigenous Austronesian tribes.
Maolin has superb scenery, but is more famous for another reason. Each winter, vast numbers of purple crow butterflies arrive here after a 250-kilometer migration from northern Taiwan. Sometimes a single tree hosts over 1,000 butterflies, making for an unforgettable sight.
Another option is the one-day cultural tour to the tiny towns of Neimen and Sandimen (priced at NT$1,799 per adult and NT$1,599 per child), which both offer engaging insights into traditional ways of life. Back in the 1700s, Neimen was a dangerous frontier district. The temple-affiliated village militia – known now as the Song Jiang Battle Array and celebrated in a large-scale annual festival – developed a highly ritualized form of drilling with swords, pikes, and whatever else could be used as a weapon in the event of combat.
Sandimen is dominated by Paiwan indigenous people who have made a name for themselves as artists and artisans. The most popular local product is glass-bead jewelry, which in the days of old signified high social status.
For those who want a good look at south Taiwan’s coastal attractions, but are short on time, there is a range of half-day and one-day expeditions to Kenting National Park and the Heng-chun Peninsula. More interesting for some is the “Coral Reef Island: Xiao-liuqiu One-day Tour” (NT$2,200 per adult, NT$1,900 per child or senior citizen), which includes a thrilling 30-minute journey beneath the waves on a semisubmersible craft.
To find out more about Kaohsiung’s tourist attractions, visit the official Kaohsiung Travel website (http://khh.travel). For all kinds of information about traveling in Taiwan, go to the Tourism Bureau’s website (www.taiwan.net.tw) or call the 24-hour tourist information hotline (0800-011-765, toll free within Taiwan).