Lanyu: An Aboriginal Way of Life
With the world slowly recovering from the lockdown, borders have only just started opening again. Sadly for many, it’s still a little soon to return to travelling normality. Luckily, Taiwan has managed to avoid the worst of it, completely evading any sort of lockdown. With that in mind, and my annual summer vacation quickly approaching, it was the perfect time to travel again. As such, this summer would be spent exploring the rest of Taiwan.
It really is quite a mysterious nation. Little did I know that there are a handful of smaller islands surrounding the mainland. As well as that, only after arriving in the country did I learn that Taiwan is home to a number of aboriginal tribes that once inhabited the entire nation before the arrival of the Chinese many centuries ago. One of these islands hold true to its traditional ways more than any other. It has managed to resist any major reforms and kept its authenticity. That island is Lanyu, otherwise known as Orchid Island.
The island is just off the south-eastern tip of Taiwan, thus we had to grab a 4-hour train along the coast from Taipei to Taitung. We’d spend the night there before grabbing a ferry in the morning. Fortunately, it gave us our first opportunity to sample some of the freshest seafood available in the country.
Bright and early the next morning we had a 2-hour ferry to catch to Lanyu. Unfortunately for me, it brought about a rare case of seasickness. Despite being on many ferries over the years, 1 in 10 times I’ll end up feeling sick. This was one of those times. Having to sit at the bottom of a windowless boat as we crossed the rough seas didn’t help one bit.
Getting Some Wheels
Typically, I’ve tended to have bad experiences when it comes to tropical islands, such as Okinawa or Jeju Island. It seems to be down to one simple reason: lack of proper transport. Islands are usually a little more unreliable and a serious headache when it comes to public transport. Obviously, the best solution is to travel by scooter, so that’s what we did.
As soon as we stepped off the boat, we followed everyone else to the logical first stop, the scooter rental. They only asked whether I had a licence just as we were setting off, though they never actually checked. I rode off before they had a chance to question further.
Returning to the Ocean
Now we’d arrived, first things first, time to get into the water. By now it had been many years since I’d had a chance to do some snorkelling, so I was excited to say the least. A number of tours were included on our hotel booking, one of which was a snorkelling tour.
We hopped on our scooters and followed our tour guide to a spot on the northern coast called Jyakmey Monomanok. The guide brought along a few floating rings so the inexperienced (such as Jess) could hold on and float along the water. To my annoyance, everyone had to wear a lifejacket, keeping me from getting too close to the wildlife.
Immediately we were upon the corals and surrounded by all manner of fish with every colour in the rainbow. The majourity of my fishy knowledge came from Finding Nemo, which helped me recognise a few, including nemo himself, the notorious clown fish.
Learning About Aboriginal Life
The island is home to a handful of aboriginal tribes that are separated into different villages across the islands coast. To this day they live in the most authentic and traditional ways possible, only modifying a few essentials of daily life. One tribal tradition that some of the older generation still uphold to are their unique houses.
Many years ago, the inhabitants of mainland Taiwan tried to forcefully establish their way of life on the aboriginal tribes of Lanyu. One way they did this was by banning the building of their traditional houses. The houses are uniquely built in the middle of a ditch in the earth, with only the roof partly sticking above ground. This peculiar technique is essential, as Lanyu (and Taiwan in general) experience many typhoons every year, some of which are quite intense. When the mainland Taiwanese built their own structures, the typhoons soon arrived and destroyed everything, leaving behind the aboriginal homes completely intact. From then on, the ban was lifted.
Another tour we’d arranged was being able to visit one of these houses for ourselves with our own guide. A guide was needed as we wouldn’t be allowed to see the houses without one. The locals on the island are a little touchy when it comes to foreigners (even Taiwanese would be considered foreigners) touching their stuff and invading their space. Pretty understandable.
The entire tour was in Chinese, so I didn’t really follow along other than what Jess would kindly translate. We were given a brief explanation on each aspect of the house as well as some tribal traditions. The inside of the home was decorated with tribal armour and the dried fish that would be used to make it. The most notable addition to the walls were the huge amount of goat horns. The guide explained how the many goats that roamed the island seemingly freely would only by killed for meat during a special occasion.
The sun had fallen, and in Taiwan that means one thing: time to head to a night market. Lanyu is no different. Its only night market is on the eastern side of the island, and was a little disappointing. It was a simple small congregation of stalls selling some classic Taiwanese street snacks; scallion pancakes, chuan (串儿) and bubble tea to name a few. The stalls were arranged around a few plastic tables and chairs surrounded by a bunch of hungry stray dogs begging for food.
That was another very notable aspect of Lanyu, the insane number of stray dogs that surrounded the entire island. Naturally, they would hang around close to the villages and were surprisingly friendly, comfortably hanging around people. They would also quite dangerously lay in the middle of roads despite oncoming traffic. It was quite heart-breaking to see them. Most of the dogs were very skinny and had clear amount of skin issues across them. Puppy dogs would timidly approach shaking in their skinny bodies, instantly adoring you as soon as you showed them the least bit of love. If only I could take each and every one back with me.
Another Day, Another Volcano
Up early the next morning, and we had a mountain to climb with a special site at its peak. A climb it would be too, as there wasn’t any sort of decent path or stone steps. Along with a steep incline, a muddy trail, and a torrential downpour before our arrival, it made it that much harder.
This was another tour included on our hotel booking, which was unfortunate. By now (just like every other tour) I was getting annoyed with having to do these activities as part of a group. What should have taken around 2 hours to reach the peak took more like 4. The trail led through muddy slopes, thick forests and steep rock faces, some of which were a little tricky for the seniors and children of the group, slowing us down even more.
We eventually reached the highlight of the trek, Datianchi, an old volcanic crater. The mountain is one of a few old volcanoes that originally formed the island. During the non-summer months, the crater becomes a lake with large pieces of deadwood eerily poking out of the water, creating a very creepy scene. Unfortunately for us, being in the heart of summer, the lake had long since dried up, leaving behind an empty pool.
Making Aboriginal Friends
The local aboriginal guide had taken quite a shine to me. Maybe because as I was the only white person on the tour covered in tattoos. On our descent he began asking a number of questions.
“Where are you from? Why do you live in Taiwan? What do your tattoos mean?” Nothing too out of the ordinary. However, one question caught my attention more than the others
“PJ, you want a beer?” don’t mind if I do.
The guide got on his motorbike and lead us around the coast road to a little restaurant his cousin owned, where we had a spectacular little meal of the country’s speciality, flying fish.
A Special Moment
Our final day was all about hitting the highlights we had left on the island. It gave me yet another chance to indulge myself in driving the scooter across the incredible coast road that encircled Lanyu. Not only do I love driving, but being able to drive in the tropical island setting with some of the most incredible landscapes I’ve ever seen on completely empty roads while blasting some banging tunes through my speakers was a true slice of paradise.
First target was a rock formation that came with a bit of history. Back in WWII when Taiwan was under Japanese rule, the Americans dropped bombs on the rock formation (now known as Warship Rock) thinking it was a Japanese battleship.
Next was Kasiboan, a quirky little interlude built to send a message to the island’s many visitors. It was made completely out of recycled materials, such as using plastic bottles to make the walls. Lanyu must regularly export their trash to the mainland, though the increase in visitors has made it even more difficult. The purpose of Kasiboan is to educate visitors why they should be wary of the amount of litter they cause whilst on the island.
We then headed to one of the best viewpoints on the island, the Green Green Grasslands. A pathway leads along the coastline and through a field of waving grass overlooking some of the most gorgeous views Lanyu has to offer. It also showed the bluest oceans that we’d ever seen in our lives.
Back to the Ocean
By now, the heat was becoming too intense, and we were desperate to get back into the ocean for some relief. Time to head for the next snorkelling stop, which was strangely directly next to the island’s mini-airport. A shallow rock pool quickly dropped into a deep opening of coral walls and a litany of bright coloured fish and countless number of nemos.
Having got a taste of the ocean we headed to our last snorkel spot on the island. The Yayo Drop-Off had a much shallower decline but sadly less fish to look at and nowhere near as colourful. Despite that, it was another great opportunity to cool off and get back to the ocean.
A Night Tour
On our last night we had the last of our arranged tours. A guide led a group of us to the southern tip of the island where we were led through the pitch back forest to hunt down an inhabitant of the island, a ryūkyū scops-owl. As with anything like this, it’s all about how lucky you are, and by god we were lucky. We not only managed to see 1, but 4! That included 2 little babies with their mum.
However, I would get annoyed yet again with having to be a part of a group. You would think that hunting down rare animals in the thick forests would take a bit of stealth, apparently not. As we would peacefully creep closer inch by inch, the silence would be broken by people screaming “WHERE ARE YOU?! COME OVER HERE, I CAN SEE THEM“! Peaceful and serene.