Over the past quarter century, Taiwan has become a far freer and much more tolerant society. The authorities no longer promote a single culture, that of the Han Chinese people. Instead, the Austronesian culture of Taiwan’s indigenous people and Japanese influences from past colonial rule that have helped make modern Taiwan the diverse and fascinating place it is today are recognized and celebrated.
Nowhere is this shift more obvious than inside Taiwan’s museums. For a start, there are now far more of them than before, at least 478 according to one tally. They can be found in every city and county, and they vary in size from one-room presentations of microhistory to edifices with vast collections and grand ambitions, like Taipei’s renowned National Palace Museum (NPM).
Thanks to Taipei’s public transportation and plentiful taxis, the NPM is a cinch to get to, and the National Taiwan Museum and National Museum of History are both within walking distances of Taipei metro stations. In the southern metropolis of Kaohsiung, the National Science and Technology Museum and Kaohsiung History Museum are both served by multiple bus routes.
Large parcels of land are hard to come by in crowded Taiwan, and recent administrations have sought to better balance development between the big cities and rural areas. As a result, some newer landmark museums are located outside major population centers, and are therefore a little tricky to reach for visitors who are not driving.
The Taiwan Tour Bus system (www.taiwantourbus.com.tw) aims to fill such gaps and enhance tourists’ experiences by providing transportation to scenic and cultural spots, as well as guides to introduce places along the way in English, Japanese, or Chinese. The Taiwan Tour Bus network now reaches every corner of the country.
Two of the most exciting museums to open in recent years are located in the southwestern portion of Taiwan. One is the Southern Branch of the NPM, in a part of Chiayi County formerly dominated by the sugar industry. The other is Chimei Museum, 8 kilometers from Tainan’s city center.
Not only does Taiwan Tour Bus offer comfortable transportation to both museums, but the operators also take care of the admission – a significant advantage, as tickets for both venues must be booked in advance and sometimes are hard to obtain.
Rather than recreate a facsimile of the original NPM, the Southern Branch aspires to be a world-class museum of Asian art and culture, not just Chinese art from the emperor’s collection. In addition to items loaned by the NPM in Taipei, it showcases treasures from as far afield as India, Tibet, and Turkey.
Like other Taiwan Tour Bus excursions, the NPM Southern Branch and Chiayi Tour package includes all admission and transportation costs, mineral water, and the services of a bilingual guide (gratuities are entirely optional). Picking up passengers at various points in Taichung as well as at the Chiayi High-Speed Railway Station, this one-day tour devotes two full hours to the NPM Southern Branch before lunch (which is included in the price of NT$1,700 per person). Then it is a short drive into Chiayi City to see three places associated with the logging industry that once drove the local economy.
First up is Hinoki Village, a cluster of 28 gorgeously restored wooden buildings. Most served as dormitories for forest-management officials and their families. Another is Beimen Station, part of the famous Alishan Forest Railway that links the city with spectacular highlands more than 2,000 meters above sea level. The final stop is the quaint and photogenic Yushan Lushe Café.
Unlike the government-run NPM Southern Branch, the Chimei Museum was founded to exhibit and expand the private collection of one of Taiwan’s best-known business tycoons. The museum has earned an international reputation thanks to its unrivaled collection of string instruments. Among them is the oldest cello in the world that is still playable (crafted in Italy in 1566), and two of the 23 violins known to have been owned by the Italian violinist Niccolò Paganini, the most celebrated violin virtuoso in the early to mid-1800s. The collection also includes a viola believed to have been the first instrument of its type in the British Isles. Other sections of the museum display ancient weaponry, stuffed animals, and an impressive selection of Western art.
The Chimei Museum and Tainan Gourmet Food Tour (NT$1,699 for adults, NT$1,299 for youngsters up to the age of 12; prices do not change on weekends or national holidays) packs a lot into 10 hours.
After having their minds and eyes stimulated at the Chimei Museum, tour-group members explore some of Tainan’s best-known landmarks, including the sublime Confucius Temple and the elegant Fort Provintia (founded by Dutch colonists in 1653). In between, their tastebuds are in for a treat as they savor traditional rice pudding, dumplings, and fruit delicacies.
The Lanyang Plains, Jiaoxi Hot Springs, and Wushi Harbor Tour (NT$2,000 per person on both weekends and weekdays, including lunch) is another excellent choice for visitors who want to visit museums, but would rather not spend all day inside.
Named after the Lanyang River, a waterway that makes its way from the slopes of Taiwan’s ninth-highest peak and through Yilan County to the Pacific Ocean, the Lanyang Plain is a fertile flatland renowned for its rice and watermelons. Because rugged hills separate the region from Taipei, the plain has not been heavily industrialized or developed.
The tour begins with the making of savory pancakes, providing an opportunity to sample the zesty spring onions synonymous with Yilan’s Sanxing Township. Afterward, the tour makes brief stops at a scenic forest, literature museum, and fishing harbor. In the afternoon, around an hour is spent at the Lanyang Museum, whose bilingual exhibitions delve into the region’s nature, history, and culture. The striking exterior of the building, which was designed by one of Taiwan’s leading architects, deserves the attention of all who pass this way.
The rest of the tour proceeds at a slower pace. Afternoon tea is enjoyed at Mr. Brown Coffee Castle, which offers excellent views of the coast and the ocean. Then tourists can soak their feet at Jiaoxi Tangwei Hot Spring Park before shopping for souvenirs.
Further details of these and other tours, including how to make bookings, can be found on the Taiwan Tour Bus website (www.taiwantourbus.com.tw). For general travel information about Taiwan, visit the website of Taiwan’s Tourism Bureau (www.taiwan.net.tw), or call the 24-hour tourist information hotline 0800-011-765 (toll free within the Taiwan).