By Juanico Fernandez
‘Ilha Formosa’ or Spanish for beautiful Island, were the first few words that described Taiwan when the first Portuguese ship passed by the island in the 1500s. Interestingly enough Formosa became its name for the next four centuries until the Dutch established a fortress in a province called Taoyuan, which later evolved into Taiwan.
Today, a lot of things have changed, and Taiwan is now an official part of the Republic of China, but what didn’t change is Taiwan’s rich and beautiful culture.
Join me as we discover the best cultural things to do and experience in Southern Taiwan.
It all began in a small port in the southern part of Taiwan. Tainan is Taiwan’s first international trading port and the original capital city before Taipei.
Being the oldest city, Tainan opened a lot of doors to different opportunities at that time.
To be precise, it was at this exact warehouse in Anping district is where it all started. The Anping Tree House was originally a factory that traded and stored salt, a precious ingredient back in the day. Now the Anping old town serves as a living history museum with lots of old and well-preserved houses.
The place has been overgrown by large 200-year-old banyan trees which completely covered the area, making it a spectacular tourist attraction in Tainan.
Being the oldest city, Tainan is also home to the very first Confucian Temple and also the oldest temple in Taiwan. It was built in 1666 and has since gone through 30+ reconstructions.
Upon entering, the whole place exudes this calm and peaceful vibe that remains true to its traditional Chinese roots. And despite its age, the temple still holds on to century old books, scriptures and musical instruments that are still kept for tourists to enjoy.
Entry to the temple grounds is free, but you must pay to enter the Confucian Temple building. Inside, you can interact with century old scriptures and instrument that date back hundreds of years ago.
With all these old buildings and history, one may think that Tainan is just an old and rusty city, but in fact, Tainan is the perfect example of old meets new.
This modern day city is also a haven for the younger generation, where modern art meets creativity and technology.
One good example is the Blueprint Cultural and Creative Park. A hip and creative destination within the city with lots of art installations, graffiti’s and shops that sell unique items.
The place started as a collaboration between the local government and a group of artist to turn an abandoned Japanese dormitory into something that the younger creative minds can enjoy. The small alleys and picturesque shop houses are perfect destinations for photography enthusiast and is a heaven for Instagram OOTD’s.
Another creative place you could visit while in Tainan is the Ten Drum's Culture and Creative Park. Located just a few minutes away from busy city, Ten Drums used to be abandoned factory utilized by the Japanese back in the old day.
Now they have converted the massive factory into a cultural and activity park.
The park is huge and requires at least half a day to explore, and because it was built inside an old factory building, it certainly has that distinct “steampunk” look.
I really like what they did with the interior because the place looks like a scene out of a Hollywood movie.
There are a lot of things you could do inside the retrofitted buildings, like rappelling of a steep wall or sliding down an extremely high indoor slide.
Aside from the activities, tourist can also explore the abandoned factory and enjoy the impressive scenery as well as a couple of restaurants, playgrounds, souvenir shops and museums.
Lastly, don’t forget to watch the leading performance of Ten Drums every night. The performance runs for about an hour and showcases various percussion instruments along with carefully crafted story telling.
Further down south right after Tainan is Kaohsiung City, the last train stop in Taiwan’s high-speed rail system. Kaohsiung is Taiwan’s 2nd largest city after Taipei and is also the biggest port city in Taiwan. Often overlooked by tourist, Kaohsiung city is a melting pot of different cuisines and culture.
Hakka cuisine, for instance, is an ancient Chinese cooking style from mainland China that found its way into Kaohsiung. The word Hakka in Chinese translates to Guest and Home and is what Kaohsiung actually feels like, Home.
What I love about Hakka cuisine is its simple flavors which reminds me of home cooked food. Most Hakka dishes are usually salty like my favorite Gua Pao (Chinese Burgers) served with Taiwanese pickle and peanut powder.
Aside from food, Kaohsiung is also known for their big night markets (larger than the ones in Taipei) that sell just about everything and anything you can think off.
From various exotic parts to casket shaped bread toasts, Coffin Board is an iconic Taiwanese snack that is made to look like a coffin/casket with either chicken, beef or shrimp fillings.
Thankfully, Kaohsiung city is commuter friendly for tourist even at night which makes getting around much more convenient. Not to mention Kaohsiung has some of the most beautiful train stations in Taiwan.
Like the famous Formosa Boulevard Station. An attraction on its own, this unique underground station was rated second most beautiful subway stop in the world.
The whole station lights up at night showcasing the worlds largest glass dome masterpiece that plays a lights show on a regular basis.
Away from the city, another thing that Kaohsiung is famous for is its incredibly sweet pineapples. Probably the best and sweetest Pineapples I have ever tasted in my life.
It's so sweet; it doesn’t even have a single hint of sourness or that itchy after taste like the ones you find in the Philippines.
These pineapples are so famous in Taiwan that even the government promotes DIY pineapple picking on small farms with cash incentives to big tourist groups who would do the activity.
Pineapple farms like these are also a good of way interacting with locals and learning more about their culture.
If you have lots of free time, I’d recommend simply walking around small towns around Kaohsiung because they are safe and the locals are very friendly.
I find that exploring small towns by walking is a great way of immersing yourself into a country’s culture and community. This way you also learn more local knowledge that you otherwise won't learn from your guides or brochures.
For example, while strolling, I found out that most old Taiwanese structures make use of red clay bricks that are found all over Taiwan. They use these sturdy bricks to counter strong winds and heavy rains, they even use the bricks to decorate most of their buildings that still stand up to this date.
Aside from Red bricks, the Taiwanese are also fond of their silky smooth white porcelain that is often shipped for export. We visited this porcelain museum/restaurant around Kaohsiung and admired these beautiful creations.
One thing in particular that caught my eye inside the 1300 Museum is this intricate porcelain and gold statue of the great sage that costs NT$3,150,000 or P5.5 million pesos.
Another thing that is hard not to miss is the 100 hectare Fo Guang Shan Buddha Museum, which is about the size of 100 international rugby fields.
To put it to scale, simply walking towards the main gate and front hall alone would require a couple of minutes of walking. And once you enter the actual main grounds you’ll be amazed at how big this place is. Note: Entrance is free for the public grounds.
They say it's so big that you’ll need at least three days to explore the temple grounds and the eight pagodas entirely.
Established in 2011, The Fo Guang Shan was built for posterity and for the hearts and minds of anyone who wishes to visit.
According to the Venerable Master Hsing Yun, as long as there is someone who needs it, that person can come to it regardless of any religion.
The monastery has been an icon in Taiwan both cultural and educational wherein anyone can enter and explore the monastery.
“Some say it is a miracle, but miracles do not happen by chance” Sitting at the end overlooking the whole monastery, the Buddha museum itself was built as an illustration of the Buddha’s teaching and was designed entirely from the visitor’s point of view.
So if you are the kind of traveler who prefers to visit historical and cultural sites and want to immerse into a local community, then the souther part of Taiwan is the perfect place to visit.
Overall, I enjoyed exploring southern Taiwan. Going to all these historical places certainly made it feel like traveling back through time. Visiting small towns, ancient temples and little farms certainly opened up a different perspective on what Taiwan is to me.
Book your flights with Eva Air, Taiwan’s official aircraft carrier and enjoy the best rates to and from Taipei. You also get to enjoy the exclusive Eva Air lounge and the Hello kitty Theme plane on selected airports.
Live an Awesome Life,
NICO of Team Our Awesome Planet
Disclosure: Out Taiwan trip was courtesy TECO (Taipei Economic Cultural Office) and Eva Air. I wrote this article with my biases, opinions, and insights.
Ps: Taiwan’s Visa free policy for Filipinos will be announced sometime this October 2017. In the meantime, existing Japanese and Korean Visa holders can apply for a free travel authorization certificate on their website.