By KAYE ESTOISTA-KOO
Taiwan is becoming a visa-free destination of choice for Pinoy travelers, with reports from the Taiwan Tourism Bureau showing a jump of over 44 percent from 290,784 in 2017 to 419,105 arrivals in 2018. This 2019, they are targeting 500,000 Philippine arrivals, making Taiwan a perfect weekend getaway. Taoyuan International Airport, the one closest to Taipei, is just two hours away.
Beyond the stinky tofu, F4, Meteor Garden locations, and milk tea, Taiwan offers much more—all it takes is one very fast, comfortable, high-speed rail. Taiwan High Speed Rail (THSR) connects Taipei in the Northwest to Kaohsiung in the South. It’s like Japan’s Shinkansen and has 12 stops. For just 1500TWD, you’re in Kaohsiung in less than two hours.
Acquaint yourself with the unique charm of South Taiwan via cities like Kaohsiung, Tainan, and Alishan. Taipei has its personality and quirks but for a plot twist to your travel, go South. No regrets, guaranteed.
Sacred is 1,000 and up in Alishan
Alishan National Forest Recreation Area in Chiayi is home to sacred trees—sacred because they are at minimum a thousand years old. The most majestic one, Xianglin Sacred Tree, is 2,300 years old.
The Three Generation Tree is here, with trunks from three generations growing into each other. Walk the Giant Trees Plank Trails of 36 sacred cypress trees and leave with a feeling of a time gone by. These silent guardians will continue to exist long after the generations after us have passed on.
Alishan is famous for sunrises and that unique sunset glow because it is 2,000 to 2,700 meters above sea level. An ethereal sea of clouds can be seen on good days. It is one of three locations in the world with a mountain train, there’s a century-old Forest Railway, which transported logs. Now, this narrow-gauge train takes travelers from a 30-meter elevation all the way up the mountain in 40 minutes. Waking up before the crack of dawn is rewarded with a sunrise view that is nature’s love letter to us. Walk for 15 minutes from the main viewing area to Xiaoliyuanshan Lookout for an unobstructed view and you’ll see why Alishan has been immortalized in songs, poetry, and art through the years.
Coffee, tea, and Tsou
The winding roads and colder mountain clime are ideal for coffee and tea farms, both a specialty of the Alishan region. Make a stop at Alishanwin in Fanlu Township on Ali Mountain Road, a tea estate where the owners and their dog Cha Cha will entertain with a tea tasting. Their indoor garden also showcases the aromatics they use to flavor and deepen the taste.
Zhou Zhou Yuan Farm is an award-winning coffee farm 1,200 meters up Alishan and the reason Taiwanese coffee beans have a top 50 Specialty Coffee Association of America seal. Washed, Honey, or Natural Process are the various preparation methods, with Natural propelling the nation’s beans onto the world stage. If you are a coffee fan, this is a place to enjoy a cup or two.
YuYuPas Tsou Cultural Tribe Park is managed by the aboriginal Tsou tribe who have an interesting look as they have Dutch and Spanish ancestors. Stroll among the tea gardens, indigenous huts, museums, and buy teas, wines, coffees, and local snacks. The highlight is a cultural performance where visitors can participate. Local Tsou cuisine completes the immersive experience. One of the huts has a tea tasting with a Tsou tribesman.
Where to stay: Alishan House, two and a half hours from Kaohsiung by bus. This heritage luxury hotel has two cherry sakura trees at the entrance. The original hotel lobby used to be on the sixth floor with a century-old Hinoki tree bark as the focal lobby fixture.
Food: Enjoy the extensive hotel buffet of regional dishes and desserts in Alishan House. Yuyupas Mafe Restaurant offers native Tsou dishes: Shrimp aged in Chinese cooking wine served in a bamboo, deep-fried chicken with tea seed oil, sesame oil mushroom and bamboo shoots, and stir-fried venison—an acquired but key taste of Tsou cuisine. Pair local guava, pineapple, kiwi, watermelon with plum or prune powder. Fruits in Taiwan are sweeter, crunchier, and tastier.
Abandoned No More in Tainan
In an abandoned sugar factory-turned-creative park named Ten Drum Culture Village, be ready to devote a whole day—at first glance, just under two dozen warehouses, rusted and weathered by time. But there is more, and hearing the award-winning Ten Drum Art Percussion Group in the Dream Sugar Theater is a sweet treat. It is now Asia’s first international art village of drum music with museums devoted to the history of drums in Taiwan, including the Guinness World Book of Records drum, drum playing classes, drum making workshops, and a restaurant where healthy, regional food using sugar cane is served in drums. The Chimney Slide, the highest in Asia, is located in a former sugar residue room. You’ll look like a larva as you slide the longest six or seven seconds of your life.
Taipei has its personality and quirks but for a plot twist to your travel, go South. No regrets, guaranteed.
At the top of another warehouse, thrill-seekers stand on a free-fall platform before running into thin air and onto the ground several hundred feet below. Kids can wall climb or slide down a shorter chimney slide. There’s even a rooftop swing for a 360-view of the park. Everywhere, like glass walkways with an industrial feel, is ‘gramworthy. Old trains used to pass through some warehouses, now cafes, souvenir shops, and work spaces. End your time by writing wishes on a lantern as it flies up the chimney—with a stopper to save the environment from rogue lanterns.
Where old is beautiful
Anping Old Street is the first street in Taiwan to be given a name. Built by the Dutch colonizers three centuries ago, enter hungry and end up full as you sample cured and flavored meats, fresh fruit drinks, coffin toasts, shrimp and prawn crackers, and sesame cookies. The arcade-type games for kids are folk games that older Taiwanese played in their childhood with ice cream and sweets as prizes. Certain novelty stores also sell childhood-era snacks.
Anping Tree House, a remnant of the Japanese Colonial Period in the 19th century, is an old salt warehouse where a Banyan tree grows wild. It’s behind the Tait and Co. Merchant House, a heritage house converted into a museum. Tree House Coffee Shop features craft beers and products, a nice respite in the middle of your exploration.
Shennong Street is where Tainan’s five channels converged when Tainan was a major port city in the Qing Dynasty. In a move to revitalize the old heritage houses, they now sell handicrafts, clothes, shoes, and other trinkets. Visit at night when the lanterns transport you to the time when this was the busiest street in Tainan.
Where to stay: The Place Tainan is a beautiful work of art. This design hotel has a mini art gallery on every floor. And Hanlin, the origin of Bubble Tea, is a few paces away in the upscale mall beside the hotel.
Food: A Xia Restaurant cooks regional Tainan dishes: Steamed sticky rice with mud crab, mullet roe, roasted eel in vegetables, and crab claw in a rich, enokiladen stew. Chou’s Shrimp Rolls serves certain Anping Old Street delicacies in a restaurant setting like Danzai noodles, milkfish congee, signature fried shrimp rolls, oyster omelet, and a deep-fried sandwich called coffin toast.
Everything is art in Kaohsiung
Weiwuying Street Art Village is one of many reclaimed art spaces in Kaohsiung. Employing artists called wall-riors from Belgium, Spain, Brazil, Thailand, Malaysia, Hong Kong, and Italy, the city government commissioned them to paint walls, garbage bins, and fuse boxes to make interactive works of art. This is now the largest village of murals in Taiwan, making the former military housing complex a very interesting place to snap photos.
Tianliao Moon World is a stretch of badlands between Chongde and Gutin Village. The area is barren land that resembles the surface of the moon. Nature is the artist as you are a bystander, privileged to see her at work.
Dome of Light in Kaohsiung MRT is the meeting point of two MRT lines. This subterranean ceiling takes you into a different dimension, telling the story of human life using the elements of water, earth, light, and fire bound by love. Created by Narcissus Quagliata, it is the world’s biggest public art installation made from individual pieces of glass.
This penchant for making structures that translate to art is everywhere in Kaohsiung. Office buildings and residential skyscrapers are like industrial marvels of art. Here, the city asks you to slow down and appreciate it.
Colorful sights around the Kaohsiung Weiwuying Street Art Village:
Bonus: KUBIC is an evolving space across a major Ikea store using container vans as a meeting place for locals and tourists to hang out. Minutes away is I-Ride Experience Center where for 380TWD, you can fly over Kaohsiung in 4D with a bird’s eye view. This panoramic flying attraction is built by Brogent Technologies with six degrees of freedom to mimic flying, feeling, and smelling the sights and sounds of Kaohsiung.
Where to Stay: Chateau de Chine Hotel Kaohsiung, downtown Kaohsiung, is an ideal jump-off to explore in and around Kaohsiung. The Grand Hi-Lai Hotel, 10 minutes away from a Tiger Sugar, is a neoclassically-designed hotel with views of Kaohsiung International Harbor at 45 stories tall. It is also 10 minutes from another beautiful MRT, Central Park Station, Central Park, and Urban Spotlight Arcade with various art and moving installations. Spring Hill Hotel is an Easter ZEN, Japanese-inspired resort villa with cold and hot springs on the ground floor and a cold spring inside each room. The rooms provide an ideal escape from a long day of exploring.
Food: Tan Zuo Ma Li Grill and Japanese Restaurant has set options with beef, pork, seafood, and a host of side dishes and smaller portions of beef, pork, and seafood. Delicious and filling are an understatement. Da Qun Chicken Restaurant is your neighborhood lutong-bahay with the yummiest garlic vermicelli, crispy pumpkin, fermented bean curd chicken, pineapple and bitter melon chicken soup, deep-fried river shrimp, and salt-baked chicken. Old Taiwan Restaurant is a heritage building in itself, decorated in the 19th-20th century style with street signs and decor of old Kaohsiung, serving regional delicacies like crispy fried duck, deep-fried tofu, steamed cod, sliced pork belly with garlic sauce, and a beef curry dish in a very rich stew. Simple meals with a long line of locals are the best, like Gang Yuan Beef Noodle Restaurant cooking beef soup noodles and pork knuckle soup noodles. Liouhe Night Market, the biggest night market in Kaohsiung is a sensory overload of food, smells, delicacies, and trinkets.
TIP: Fly out of Kaohsiung International Airport back to Manila and be home in just over an hour! And the airport is very artsy, too, just like its host city.
For train travel schedules and other transportation needs, go to www. thsrc.com.tw or go to Taiwan Tourism Bureau www.eng.taiwan.net.tw.
Tags: Alishan, Alishan National Forest Recreation Area, Anping Old Street, Big Fish art installation, Forest Railway, Kaohsiung Weiwuying Street Art Village, Kaye Estoista-Koo, Shennong Street, Taiwan, Taiwan State of Mind, Taiwan Tourism Bureau, Ten Drum Culture Village, The Chimney Slide, Three Generation Tree, YuYuPas Tsou Cultural Tribe Park