In the verdant, captivating rice fields of Taitung in Taiwan, I learned to appreciate a beauty, at first I don't seem to understand. The place barely touched by civilization, was one of our bus stop-overs from Hualien going to Kenting.
The tour was quite a challenge given that we availed a Chinese tour package. There are only two Chinese phrases that I know - 你好 and 谢谢. And all throughout the journey, every conversation, explanation and reminder by the tour guide was in Chinese, which we didn’t understand at all. Nonetheless, it was a fun, unforgettable experience.
Taiwan, is the northern neighbour of the Philippines, and just two hours away by plane from Manila. When I was in Itbayat, many years ago, I already had a glimpse of the Bashi Channel, a waterway between the two countries. Due to its proximity, recent relaxation of its visa requirement for the Philippines, and being a rebel country (or state) particularly to mainland China, makes Taiwan a fascinating place to visit.
Manay, Jo and I arrived at Tayouan International Airport by midnight. Immigration queue was quite long but it was okay since there’s a free-wifi. After immigration clearance, we took a bus straight to Taipei Main Bus Station, and got a combo ticket (bus and train) for Hualien. Wala nang pahinga-pahinga, lamyerda agad kahit madaling araw pa lang.
Located on the country's mountainous eastern coast, Hualien is the largest among the counties in Taiwan and a major tourist destination outside Taipei. There’s actually an express train going to the province from Taipei but it easily gets sold out two weeks prior the actual travel date. After 4 hours of land travel passing picturesque mountain ranges and seacoast, we arrived early morning in Hualien. I already love its very provincial atmosphere. We didn’t check-in at our hostel right away, instead, we hired a taxi to tour us around Taroko Gorge. The 92,000-hectare national park boasts of spectacular mountains, marble canyons, cliffs and rivers.
In the middle of our tour, something unexpected happened though. I lost my passport. I panicked slightly and expected the worse already. Many things are running in my head – how do I get to MECO to seek assistance, which hostel would I stay in case maiwan na talaga ako, of all the time bakit ngayon pa na ang saya-saya namin sa galaan kahit wala pa kaming mga tulog. We retraced our steps, and fortunately, a good soul who found my passport surrendered it to the registration area of the park. I was so thankful. Kaya tuloy ang ligaya.
After Taroko, we went to Qingshui Cliff, a 21 km. scenic coastal cliffs connecting Hualien and Yilan. Dubbed as one of the Eight Wonders of Taiwan, the Cliff is my most favorite spot in Taiwan as it overlooks the beautiful, deep blue Pacific Ocean and the Chongde Beach.
Our last stop for the day was the Qixingtan Beach. Shaped like a crescent, the beach shore has white, grey and black stones and pebbles. From afar, one could see Qingshui Cliff.
After the tour, we checked in at our hostel - the Big Bear Hostel. We chose it for three main reasons: it is cheaper than hotel (given that we share the room with other travellers), very convenient location (just 5 minute-walk from Hualien train station) and of course, who could resist those cute, huggable bears.
After resting for few hours, we had our first decent dinner of dimsum and soup.
Our original itinerary was to return to Taipei, and then proceed to Kaoshiung. But I was happy to find out from the hostel that a tour is being offered from Hualien to Kenting (one-way). I suggested that we take this route and just catch a bus from Kenting to Kaoshiung. It would also give us a chance to see more scenic places in the country’s Southern part.
The next morning, a bus fetched us at our hostel for the tour. The tour was in Chinese given that majority of tourists in Taiwan is Chinese.
Our first stop-over was at Yun Shan Shuei Ecological Farm. It is a peaceful, picturesque residential area (with different themes for houses) and farm with man-made lake. I was happy to see a Totoro-inspired store.
Our second stop was at Ruisui Farm, a mountain-side dairy farm and ranch. The farm is home to hundreds of cows and is a major source of milk and dairy products all over the country. We tried their cheesecake, buns and milk.
We had lunch at Chihshang Lunchbox Museum, a well-known eatery in Taitung that serves tasty bento set meals. It is a crowd-drawer during lunch time as it has an old real train that serves as a dining area and extension of the restaurant.
After having our lunch, we proceeded to Brown’s Road, a countryside road that cuts through rice paddies with mountains as backdrop. The spot became famous after a local canned coffee brand, Mr. Brown Coffee, shot their commercial in this “green road of paradise”. We rented a bicycle to explore the area, and had the most amazing time in this trip.
Our last stop for the tour was in Taimali township. I honestly have no idea what is there to see. We just followed where the crowd is going and it led us to Duoliang train station, named the most beautiful train station in Taiwan for its breathtaking backdrop scenery. So our final activity was actually train watching.
We reached Kenting past 7 pm. Kenting is another beautiful county to explore but sadly, we had to move on to our next destination – Kaoshiung, which is another two-hour bus ride.
After arriving in Kaoshiung, we took an MRT going to our hotel. Our exit was at Formosa Boulevard Station, known for its "Dome of Light", the largest glass work in the world designed by Italian artist Narcissus Quagliata.
The next day, we were supposed to visit first Fo Guang Shan; unfortunately, we missed the lone morning bus going to the monastery. The next one would be arriving around lunch time. So we decided to proceed to Cijin Island, a historical site and popular “picnic” destination in the city. The island is just a 5-minute ferry journey from Kaohsiung Harbour. Upon arriving in the island, we rented an electric bike, and visited Cihou Lighthouse, Cihou Fort, and Cijin Seashore Park.
After spending two hours in the island, we returned to the mainland to catch the bus going to Fo Guang Shan. Also known as “Buddha’s Light Mountain”, it is the largest Buddhist monastery in Taiwan, promoting Humanistic Buddhism. It houses thousands (or perhaps a million) of Buddha statues, the two most notable are the giant Golden Buddhas – the one sitting and the other one standing. Touring Fo Guang Shan is very tiring because of its hilly terrain but very fulfilling because of the staggering number of Buddhas scattered all over the place.
Our final destination for the day was the Lotus Lake in Zuoying District. The prominent landmark of the man-made lake is the colourful Dragon and Tiger Pagodas. According to ancient Chinese Taoist philosophy, the tiger and dragon symbolize the yin yang (duality) of the universe.
Before calling it a night, we had a seafood dinner at Liouhe Night Market, which is just a short-walking distance from our hotel.
Early morning, we took an express train going to Taipei. In less than two hours, we were back in the capital of Taiwan. It was our last day in the city, so we visited only the nearby attractions accessible via the MRT.
We visited the Lungshan Temple of Manka, one of the oldest Buddhist temples in Taiwan. It was built in 1738 by settlers from Fujian to serve as a place of worship and gathering place for Chinese settlers.
The Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall Park and the National Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall are two important national monuments of the city, built in memory of the former President of China Chiang Kai-shek and China’s National Father, Dr. Sun Yat-sen.
Our lunch was quite unforgettable at Modern Toilet, a unique bathroom-themed restaurant. Our food was served on a miniature toilet bowl and their signature ice cream dessert looks like a poo – quite appetizing really.
For our last activity, we visited Taipei 101, the world’s tallest building from 2004 to 2010. The 1,667-foot tall building resembles a giant bamboo stalk, a symbol of traditional Chinese values. It also holds the record for having the world’s largest and heaviest tuned mass damper and one of the fastest elevators with a speed of 1,010 meters per minute. We visited the observation deck to get a bird’s eye view of the city and watch sunset.
After spending almost three hours in the observatory and before our flight back to Manila, we were treated to dinner by our former Presidential awardee Nene Ho. She can speak fluent Chinese and have already adapted to the culture of the country, having spent most of her adult life in this foreign land. She was actually the one who have been bugging us to visit Taiwan. Well actually, with all the seat sale going on, sometimes it’s much cheaper to go to Taiwan than Cebu or Davao. And there's so much more to explore in this Ilha Formosa.
Our itinerary for 4 days. From Tayouan International Airport, we rode a bus going to Taipei Main Bus Station. At the bus station, we bought a combo ticket (bus and train) bound for Hualien. In Hualien, we rented a car to tour around Taroko and other sites. Bus tours are also available. From Hualien, we took a tour bus bound for Kenting. From Kenting, we rode a bus bound for Kaoshiung. We took public transportation (train, bus, ferry) to tour around Kaoshiung. From Kaoshiung, we took an express train bound for Taipei. In Taipei, we took MRT to visit the sites. From Taipei Main Bus Station, we took a bus bound for the airport.