Kaohsiung County Backyard Playground for Kaohsiung City
Romantic Dining Options along Kaohsiung's Scenic Waterway
Text / Rick Charette
Photos / Tourism Bureau, Wu Jhih-syue, Vision Int'l
There's much to keep mind and body fully occupied during one's leisure hours in the big, muscular, strapping city of Kaohsiung, but when in that city, do as the Kaohsiungers do on weekends and holidays and head to the countryside. Surrounding Kaohsiung County offers pleasures of many a nature, embracing religion, age-old handicrafts, vigorous whitewater exercise, aboriginal culture, soothing hot-spring soaking, nature's bounteous scenic creativity, and classical martial-arts competitions.
Kaohsiung City sits on the coast. Kaohsiung County surrounds it save on the seaside, changing as the culture-explorer moves inland from relatively flat, open lands to foothills to mountains towering 3,000 meters. Yet whatever the adventure chosen during a Journey to the South, your destination is never more than a few hours away by vehicle from your southern-city launchpad.
Sounds like a can't-miss opportunity? You're right. So let's launch. What we'll do is visit a selection of the county's gems of greatest sparkle, then point you in the right direction research-wise so you can continue on your way. Yes, sounds like a plan.
This popular recreational destination is located not far outside city boundaries, on the northeast. Largest lake in the Kaohsiung city/county region, it was developed from wetlands into an industrial-use reservoir, the waterbody afterwards made the focus for a landscaped, tourism-dedicated forested park opened in 1960. Most southern residents have fond memories of youth-era trips to the lake with parents and siblings.
A tree-lined esplanade courses through a Ming-style arch to the park (entrance fee NT$100; park open 6 a.m. - 5 p.m.) and 7-km lakeside loop road. The loop gives access to an orchid collection, aquarium (in what was originally an anti-nuke bunker, built 1961), boating, hiking, fishing, horseback riding, swimming, and golf.
Another main attraction here is towering, dignified Jhongsing (Restoration) Pagoda. The top of the seven-story tower is reached via a winding staircase; this is the lake area's tallest structure (43 meters), making for the best panoramas.
"Light of Buddha Mountain" is perhaps the primary center for Buddhist scholarship in Taiwan. Perched on a hill above the plains, on the banks of the Gaoping River, this oversized complex looms into view from far off. The complex consists of a number of shrine halls, pleasant colonnades, pagodas, pavilions, sculpted gardens, meandering footpaths, and myriad placid crannies and nooks for meditation. Visitors are welcome (open hours 9 a.m. - 5 p.m.), and study retreats are possible, even in English, with advance notice. English tours are also available.
Foguangshan is renowned for its brilliant array of iconry. By the entrance stands Taiwan's tallest image of the Buddha (32 meters, 105 feet), surrounded by a corps of 480 life-sized renderings of disciples.
The main shrine is the "Great Hero Jeweled Shrine". A massive space, the lack of any artificial lighting here is a striking feature. Heaven's rays wash in through a completed circle of large windows atop the high walls. In this holy place are three immense renderings of the Buddha, 20 meters (66 feet) high. Each sits in meditative repose, engaged in various mudra (hand gestures) carrying specific religious meaning. Wall space is taken up with a coruscating universe of tiny niches ?within each of the 14,000 flickers a miniature lightbulb illuminating a small Buddha image.
Maolin National Scenic Area
We head higher into the hills now, to one of the nation's youngest national scenic areas. Maolin National Scenic Area is situated in the county's southeast corner, spilling over into Pingtung County. The two primary attractions here, on which all others are built, are dynamically robust in nature - the high peaks sliced through by deep river valleys, and the homeland of the colorful Rukai mountain people. There are also Paiwan, Bunun, and Tsou inhabitants.
Still shots will not be able to take in all that the naked eye struggles to take in, so have your digital camcorder at hand for the necessary sweeping panoramas. Grand precipices, staggering waterfalls, hurtling rivers, roaring whitewater rafting, gorge-spanning suspension bridges, busy Formosan macaques, majestic Formosan blue magpies, cliffside-clutching temple retreats, virgin forest, the richly swirling colors of Butterfly Valley, Baolai and Bulao hot-springs resorts (more on those later), native-tribe cultural performances and handicrafts, exhilarating mountain climbing and hiking, river-tracing, camping...
...getting tired now. You get the picture. Among numerous other cultural achievements, the Rukai are famed for their ingenious slate houses, some of which come with attractive slate patios and low slate fencing that looks uncannily like the proverbial "white-picket fences." When houses are grouped together on flat land the effect is remarkably akin to a neat, prehistoric suburb.
Laonong River Rafting
Tourist-oriented rafting on the Laonong is a recent development, yet already rivals rafting on the east coast's Siouguluan River in terms of thrills, infrastructure, and popularity. In the spring and summer high season the Laonong's waters crunch together in whooshing, surging cataracts past sharp crags, cliffs, and precipices. Rapids rip past huge boulders strewn about the often-wide riverbed, the waters rumbling and rolling ever downward, jostling for position. Perfect for rafting.
The route starts at the village of Baolai and ends 16 kilometers downriver at Sinfa Bridge . Because of the many small, rocky beaches and shoals, the waters are more excited than on the Siouguluan. The landscape is even more majestic, the glorious peaks and bluffs reaching even higher. May through October offers almost continuous rafting (class 4) at what has emerged as the south's premier inland watersports location. The cost per individual is usually NT$800 per three-hour trip, with discounts for groups over 20. Local rafting companies offer shuttle-bus services from the city of Kaohsiung during the busiest times, generally weekends and during summer holidays. Check the Laonong entry on the Tourism Bureau website for recommended rafting enterprises.
Bulao / Baolai Hot Springs
High-mountain Taiwan, geologically speaking, is the direct result of tectonic activity that makes for natural hot springs almost wherever you tread, hill and mountain. After a day's rafting on the Laonong, two resorts are especially close at hand, Bulao and Baolai. Both are open 24 hours. Their waters are crystal-clear and odorless, their positive health effects leading to their being called natural "beauty soap."
Both sites were developed by the soak-loving Japanese during their tenure as the island's colonial rulers (1895-1945). Both are on terraced lands near the Laonong; from their springs emerge low-alkaline carbonic-acid waters. It is believed these waters, which are drinkable, are effective against fatigue and sore muscles/joints, as well as against more serious complaints such as skin ailments, rheumatism/arthritis, and neuralgia. Soakers' skin is also beautified.
Neimen Song Jiang Battle Array
Let's now shoot up into the northwest of the county. The town of Neimen sits at an opening in the hills leading into the deeper recesses. "Neimen" means "inner gate."This was the dividing line between the mountain aborigines and the Han Chinese in pioneering days.
Today the town is best known for the annual Song Jiang Battle Array competition, a unique cultural event experienced nowhere else, part of birthday celebrations for the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, Guanyin, held at 300-plus-year-old Zihjhu (Purple Bamboo) Temple. Her birthday, the 19th of the second lunar month, falls in March-April.
Taiwan's best martial-arts teams take turns on the temple's grand plaza to show off "Song Jiang" military formations. "Song Jiang" is the main character in the classical Chinese novel Water Margin , who formed his men into intricate formations emphasizing quick transformation to different fighting technique. Onlookers may number several thousand. The competitors wield old-style weapons and rattan shields, and some dress as characters from the novel (108 in total). In the old days martial-arts teams, centered around temples, also served as militia; Neimen was once under threat of aborigine attack.
The lovely town of Meinong, also in the county's north, sits at the divide between a high-mountain valley and more open, farm-able lands. This is a proud Hakka enclave.
The town is best known for its exquisite hand-painted oilpaper umbrellas. Visitors can look in on master craftsmen in shops practicing the craft in much the old ways. The family is all-important to the Hakka, and the circular perfection of the umbrella is equated with the "perfection" of the complete family circle. The umbrellas are also traditional wedding gifts, for the Hakka pronunciation of "paper"(jhih) is similar to that for "children"(zih). Such a gift promotes fecundity. At local shops, an 8-inch umbrella should be NT$400 (US$12) to NT$600 (US$18), a 19-inch version NT$1,200 (US$36) or more.
Many older architectural gems have been caringly preserved along the narrow old streets, notably along Yongan Old Street; the Hakka take great pride in their tradition. Many visitors like to purchase the distinctive traditional Hakka dress; you can have your own clothing made at the sole shop still engaged in this trade. They'll need a few days minimum for custom cuts, however.
More Info Online
A number of websites offer you much more detail on these and other Kaohsiung County attractions, including on transportation and possible accommodations. The official Kaohsiung County English tourism-info site is at www.kcg.gov.tw/EN/ Foguangshan has a dedicated website at www.fgs.org.tw The Maolin National Scenic Area has its own website, at www.maolin-nsa.gov.tw The Tourism Bureau website, at www.taiwan.net.tw, also provides info and links for all these sites.