Thanks to Taiwan’s network of freeways and expressways, it is usually possible to get from the harbor metropolis of Kaohsiung to Kenting National Park — 110 kilometers away on the island’s southern tip — in a little over two hours. For local people trying to pack as much seaside fun into the weekend as possible, it makes sense to drive nonstop. But for international travelers with several days on their hands, or those moving more slowly on bicycles or motorcycles, the alternative coastal route offers several fascinating journey-breakers and detours.
Highway 17 passes by Kaohsiung International Airport, which is served by scheduled flights to/from Hong Kong, Macao, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. If you reserve a rental car in advance, you can pick it up as soon as you clear customs. The road then winds through the southeastern corner of the city before crossing the Kaoping River. This broad waterway not only separates Kaohsiung from Pingtung County, but also derives its name from those two local-government divisions.
From there it’s a short drive to Donggang. Known as a Mecca for seafood enthusiasts, and the jumping-off point for excursions to the unspoiled island called Little Liuqiu, this harbor town has eateries suitable for every budget. At Huaqiao Seafood Market, you can feast on sashimi, shark meat, and other delicacies. If you prefer more formal surroundings, there are several large restaurants on Guangfu Road, one of the town’s major thoroughfares.
Donggang’s busiest place of worship is Donglong Temple. The principal deity here is Marshal Wen, a 7th-century scholar revered for saving the life of a Tang Dynasty emperor. However, the shrine is better known for organizing — and being a key venue during — the triennial King Ship Festival, which will occur next in the fall of 2021.
Tens of thousands of outsiders, along with many people who grew up in Donggang but moved away, will attend the festival, which is possibly the most spectacular of Taiwan’s many folk-religion extravaganzas.
The festival features many “kings” (spirits believed to have the power to prevent calamities), but only one ship — an elaborate wooden junk that is hand-built several months in advance. The vessel is decorated in fantastic detail, then ritually loaded with items its crew of spirits will need (such as food and cooking equipment) or desire (dice for gambling, as well as tobacco and pipes for smoking). When paraded through the streets, the ship is believed to function like a ghostbusting magnet, drawing malevolence and disease out from every nook and cranny.
During the final few hours of the eight-day event, the boat is dragged to a nearby beach. Masts are installed and sails are unfurled. Symbolic anchors are raised, and a pyre of joss paper is heaped around the hull. Firecrackers ignite this pile of combustibles, initiating the sacrifice.
As the vessel rapidly burns and collapses, the majority of locals head home, confident that the evils sequestered aboard the king ship are being expelled from this world. Many tourists, however, like to linger as dawn breaks, so they can photograph every stage of the ship’s destruction.
Even if you are depending on public transportation, getting to Donggang could not be easier. Many Kaohsiung-Kenting buses make stops in the town, and there are also frequent buses to/from Pingtung City.
Less than two kilometers from the heart of Donggang, the waters of Dapeng Bay attract yacht owners and windsurfers. Covering 532 hectares, it is one of Taiwan’s largest lagoons. You can appreciate the scenery by joining a boat tour, or by riding a bicycle or e-scooter around the bay (the total distance is about 12 kilometers).
Details of bike-rental shops, plus lots of other useful information, can be found on the Dapeng Bay National Scenic Area website. Some Kaohsiung-Kenting buses stop right outside the scenic area headquarters; ask before buying your ticket.
Continuing south along Highway 17, the next town is Jiadong. Blessed with a number of grand old houses, it is a favorite spot to visit for those fascinated by architectural history. The key attraction is the Xiao Family Residence, a single-story compound with 51 rooms. Parts of it were built in the 1860s, and even after renovation, these wings and courtyards retain a strongly Chinese appearance. The south-facing facade, by contrast, dates from around 1920 and reflects that era’s baroque influences.
The Xiao Family Residence is less than 600 meters from Jiadong Railway Station, and even closer to Highway 17, so one option is to arrive by train from Pingtung, then leave on a Kenting-bound bus.
A few miles southeast of the Xiao Residence, Highway 17 merges with Highway 1. At Fangshan — where the father of Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen was born — the coastal road becomes Highway 26, while Highway 9 provides access to Taitung and the eastern half of the island.
Another half hour of driving will bring you to Hengchun, a quaint little town that is finally evolving from a way station on the road to Kenting to a destination in its own right. All but the fastest Kaohsiung–Kenting express buses stop along Highway 26 in the town center.
Much of Hengchun’s charm derives from the 19th-century protective wall that encircles the heart of the settlement. All four of the original gates, and just over half of the 2.7-kilometer-long wall, have survived earthquakes, typhoons, and modernization. No Portland cement was used during construction. Instead, stones were glued together with a mixture of sugar, lime, and glutinous rice. Many tourists spend time atop the East Gate, taking in views of the town’s hilly hinterland.
Travelers approaching from the north are greeted by a bilingual sign that reads “The Ancient City of Hengchun.” Beside it, a scaled-up replica of a moon guitar points to the sky. This two-stringed banjo-like instrument features prominently in local folk music, which to American ears sounds a little like Mississippi Delta Blues.
English-language background information can be found on the township’s website, while Pingtung County Government’s Official Travel Guide has several gorgeous photos of attractions around the county.
The Tourism Bureau’s website has all kinds of useful information, while the 24-hour tourist information hotline (0800-011-765) is toll-free within Taiwan. Throughout the island, you can obtain free maps, leaflets, and travel advice from visitor information centers at airports, railway stations, and other locations.