Top 10 Experiences in Taitung, Southeastern Taiwan
“Where is Taitung 台東?” – That’s the question and blank stares I usually get when I share that my favourite part of Taiwan is Taitung. It is easy to confuse Taitung with Taichung and think that it is near Taipei. Nestled in southeastern Taiwan, between the towering Central Mountain region and Pacific Ocean, the remoteness of Taitung is the key to its beauty and mystique. Taitung 台東 is the last frontier of Taiwan to see mainland settlers and the indigenous groups continue to embrace their culture and practise their customs passionately. It is not easy to get to Taitung but once you land in Taiwan’s third largest county, you would be rewarded with its pristine nature and diverse culture and heritage. Taitung is the epitome of “slow travel” – you can forget about rushing around like in Taipei as the sparse transportation network forces you to take your time to explore what Taitung has to offer. I had the luxury to visit this hidden but bewitching region of Taiwan not once but twice! If you plan to venture to Taitung soon, here’s my Top 10 travel experiences to inspire your Taitung escapades.
How to get to Taitung?
Getting to Taitung can be challenging so some tips to help the determined travellers.
The most convenient and straightforward way to get to Taitung from Taipei is by the local train 台鐵 managed by TRA. The long ride from Taipei will take 4-5 hours and you can enjoy gorgeous views of the ocean and mountains during the stretch between Hualien and Taitung. If you are taking the train from Taipei down to Taitung, select the seats on the left and seats on the right if you are travelling up from Taitung for unobstructed views of the ocean.
The train has very limited frequency per day so it is like striking lottery if you manage to secure tickets during peak periods. When we found out that even the locals have to fight to get tickets if they want to return home during festive seasons, we felt extremely victorious with our train tickets during the summer hot air balloon season.
Local TRA trains also connect Hualien and Kaohsiung to Taitung.
By Taiwan High Speed Train 台灣高鐵
There is no high speed train that connects any part of Taiwan to Taitung. If you are unable to secure direct TRA tickets to Taitung, you can try to take high speed train to Kaohsiung and then take TRA train or bus to Taitung from Kaohsiung.
Taipei Songshan Airport (TSA) ↔ Taitung Airport (TTT) about 50-60min
From Hualien: Hualien Bus ↔ Taitung (Coast Line 1127) about 4 hours
From Hualien: Dingdong Bus ↔ Taitung (Coast Line 1127) about 4 hours 15 mins
From Kaohsiung: Kuo-kuang Bus ↔ Taitung (via Provincial Highway) about 3 hours 30 mins
If you are adventurous and would like to try a self drive trip, you can rent a car and do a long drive to Taitung and make stops along the way.
Taipei ↔ Taitung (Provincial Highway No.9) 335 km
Hualien ↔ Taitung (Provincial Highway No.11) 182 km
Pingtung Fonggang ↔ Taitung (South-Link Highway) 96 km
Tainan ↔ Taitung (South-Link Highway) 211 km
Since 2011, this top summer extravaganza has brought hot air balloons from around the world to Taiwan. It is the second largest hot air balloon festival in Asia, after Japan’s Saga Prefecture, and listed among the “Top 12 Amazing Hot Air Balloon Festivals” in the world by Travel Channel in 2018. Luye Highlands 鹿野高台 is the heart of the festival with its rolling green plains offering panoramic views of the central mountain range. The festival is held over 38 to 45 days from end June to early August. During the festival season, hot air balloons and experts congregate in Luye Highlands and colourful balloons soar daily in the early morning and late afternoon if the weather conditions are ideal. Spectators picnic on the green grounds and enjoy taking photographs of traditionally shaped hot air balloons or creative designs in adorable shapes. Flight enthusiasts can pay to take short tethered hot air balloon rides (5-7 mins, about NT$500-600) where the passengers suspend in mid-air while the balloon is fixed to the ground with a rope or enjoy exclusive hot air balloon rides at a premium (30 mins, about NT$9000). The balloons are transported to locations all over Taitung for special night glow concerts on some weekends during the festival. Against scenic backdrops in places like Sanxiantai and even Green Island during the 2019 festival, the illuminated balloons sway atmospherically to the music. Other than hosting the festival, Luye Highlands is a paragliding paradise and famous for its tea.
2. Green Island (綠島)
Taitung’s most popular outer island, Green Island is just 30 km due east of mainland Taiwan and easily accessible by frequent ferries (Ezboat, 50 mins, NT$920 return) or plane (DailyAir, 20 mins, NT$1,070 return). The 16 km2 wide island was formed long ago by a massive volcanic eruption. Today, coral reefs surround the island that is packed in summer with visitors eager to dive or snorkel in its clear waters. Most visitors spend one day and one night to circle the island on rented motorbikes and indulge in marine activities as well as sights like curious rock and coral formations with imaginative names like Pekinese Dog and Sleeping Beauty rocks. Other than sea sports, the top attraction of the island is the Zhaori hot spring 朝日溫泉, one of the three known saltwater hot springs together with the other two in Japan’s Kyushu Island and Italy near Mt Vesuvius. Zhaori means “facing the sun” and the hot spring is open from 5-6 am (depending on the season) for people who want to soak and admire the sunrise. The touristy downtown street of the island is packed with souvenir shops and food stalls that you can try the island speciality – deer meat. The Green Island Visitor Centre and newly renovated National Human Rights Memorial Museum 白色恐怖景美紀念園區 are worthy spots to spend some time to understand the nature as well as history of the island which used to operate prisons and correction centre for political dissidents during the White Terror era.
3. Orchid Island (蘭嶼)
Like Green Island, Orchid Island is a 45 km2 volcanic island that is about 2.8 times bigger with more rugged landscape and pristine waters due to its remote location. It can be reached with much tenacity via choppy ferry rides (Ezboat, 2.5 hours, NT$920 return) or small plane (DailyAir, 30 mins, NT$1,470 return). The island is home to the native Tao people, also known as Yami, who preserve the culture and custom of their island passionately. The Tao people call their island “Pongso No Tao” which means the “Island of the People” in their language. Orchid Island used to have orchids which were picked to near extinction after WWII. The island is inhabited by a small population of about 5000 distributed among the 6 villages connected by a 37 km road circling the island. The relative isolation of the island has allowed the Tao people to preserve their language and traditions better than other indigenous groups on mainland Taiwan. Fishing is the cornerstone of the Tao way of life. Fishing rituals are observed religiously especially during the flying fish season from February to June. A symbol of the island, the iconic Tao boat constructed using 27 pieces of wood joined together with only pegs is the survival tool and pride of every fisherman. Some traditional underground houses can still be found in 2 villages. Other than being a living anthropological and cultural wonderland, the island is diving/snorkelling paradise with vibrant coral reefs and marine life. The dramatic coastline is littered with rocks shaped like dragon’s head, twin lions and even a warship. The island’s dramatic landscape promises stunning sunrise and sunset on clear days at the Dongqing Bay and Green Green grassland.
Sadly, this haven contains a nuclear waste facility installed by the Taiwanese government who tricked the islanders into thinking that it was a fish cannery. The Tao people are fighting to protect their island and promote sustainable development initiatives. If you are lucky to find yourself on this island, remember to take only photographs, memories and trash from the island and leave behind just footprints. This special island is definitely my favourite place in Taitung as the locals are so welcoming — contrary to the stereotypes that they are protective of their island and dislike outsiders. As long as you respect the island and her people, you will have a rare chance to experience this distinctive island with culture and traditions that you cannot find in anywhere else.
4. East Coast National Scenic Area (東部海岸國家風景區)
Regarded as one of the most picturesque coastlines in Taiwan, the East Coast National Scenic Area is shared by Hualien and Taitung. The Provincial Highway 11 runs parallel to the coast and it is a stunning driving and cycling route between Hualien and Taitung. The east coast region is formed by the convergence of the Philippine and Eurasian tectonic plates that results in the dramatic coastline decorated with geological marvels like sandy and gravel beaches, coastal formations and offshore islands. The coral reef coastal landforms like Sanxiantai and Xiaoyeliu 小野柳 showcase fascinating rock features. A conducive rest stop and lookout spot, Jialulan Recreation Area 加路蘭遊憩區 is a seaside art park with interesting driftwood art installations. With a bohemian reputation along the coast, Dulan village 都蘭 is a mecca for surfers for its beaches and waves, and hosts the annual Taiwan of Open of Surfing competition. Further inland, Dulan Sugar Factory 都蘭糖廠 (新東糖廠文化園區) is a heritage building developed into a creative hub that organises occasional live music performances. Chenggong Fishing Harbour 成功漁港 situated at the northern tip of Taitung County is the launching pad for whale-watching tours in summery months May to October. The best way to explore the scenic area is to drive or hop on the Taiwan Tourist Shuttle bus (台湾好行).
5. Sanxiantai (三仙台)
A geographical wonder, Sanxiantai is a popular spot for travellers exploring the East Coast National Scenic Area. It used to be a narrow cape facing the sea and years of erosion by the tides separated the island from the main coast. Now it is a cluster of small offshore islands which consist of three huge rocks that are linked to the legend about three Chinese saints Lyu-Dongbin, Li-Tieguai and He-Xiangu. It was believed that they once descended on the islands and thus the name Sanxiantai which means “Three Saints island”. A majestic eight arch bridge footbridge that resembles a dragon rising from the ocean links the mainland to the coastal phenomenon. The adventure starts with scaling the steep steps of the bridge that leads to a network of footpaths, seaside caves, potholes and rich fauna and flora. It takes about two hours to explore the islands so make sure you have sufficient time and check the weather before venturing to Sanxiantai.
6. Chishang (池上)
A charming township great for a half day trip, Chishang has gained great popularity due to its Mr Brown Avenue (伯朗大道). Also known as Heaven Road, the gorgeous avenue is featured in commercials promoting Mr Brown Coffee and most notably EVA Air starring heart-throb Takeshi Kaneshiro riding through the paddy fields and leaning against a charming tree that is affectionately called “Kaneshiro tree” these days. Chishang’s romantic scenery with blue skies and vast green fields in the embrace of the East Rift Valley attract tourists who flock to the town on weekdays and summer holidays. Chishang is best explored leisurely with wheels and cute and efficient electric bikes are available for hourly rental. We had an amazing time “driving” the kitschy electric bike (about 3 hours, NT$500) around the 20 km loop that passes through the town centre, Mr Brown Avenue and Dapo pond. Chishang is famous for its traditional Taiwanese lunch box with fragrant rice grown in Chishang and there is even a lunchbox museum for it.
With its striking terrain between the coast and valleys, Taitung is the best place in Taiwan for cycling expeditions. Multitude of cycling trails tempt outdoor sports addicts to pay a cycling pilgrimage to Taitung. First, the 15 km Guanshan Bike Loop 關山環鎮自行車道 is the earliest and most integral bicycle path in Taiwan. The route though the rural town takes cyclists along Guanshan canal, Hongshih river, neat paths flanked by betel nut trees and paddy fields. In the East Rift Valley, Luye Longtian Bike Trail 鹿野龍田自行車道 traverses tea plantations, pineapple fields, Japanese style architecture and even a green tunnel. For cyclists who do not want to venture too far, the Taitung City Loop is great for a half day cycling trip. This 21 km path is also known as Taitung Shanhai trail, which means mountain and ocean trail as mesmerising scenery of mountains and the sea unfold during the ride. The well-signposted, tree-shaded route starts from Railway Art Village in the city centre and passes by old railway tracks, parks, lakes and fields as the cityscape slowly transformed into coastal and forest views. There are many other cycling trails like the scenic Chishang trail and challenging routes on Green and Orchid islands for those looking for a challenge.
8. Hot Spring
Taiwan has over one hundred hot springs and many are found in the mountainous areas blessed with deep valleys and meandering rivers in Taitung. When the Japanese occupied Taiwan from 1895 to 1945, they introduced the hot spring culture to Taiwan and hot spring spots started to pop up all over the island. Taitung with its frequent tectonic plate movements and geothermal activity is a hot spot for therapeutic hot springs. One of the oldest and most remote hot springs in Taitung is the Jhihben (Zhiben) hotspring (知本溫泉) in Beinen Township. Jhihben hot spring is divided into two areas, the outside area with many resorts and the inner area nearer to the Jhihben river and Jhihben National Forest Recreational Area. The colourless and odourless carbonic acid hot springs are comforting and rejuvenating in the cooler seasons. Other well-known hot spring areas are Jinlun hot spring by the Jinlun river, Wulu hot spring in the Wulu gorge, Hongye hot spring in the mountains and Lisong hot spring that can be accessed after a hike.
In recent years, Taitung has been regarded as the top destination for stargazing in Taiwan due to its remote location and the absence of high-level developments outside the city. The vast skies and lack of light pollution create the magical conditions for stargazing. The Taitung government has shortlisted 14 spots for sublime star gazing activities and is promoting “Journey among the stars” tours where astronomical experts guide participants through the celestial skies and uncover the secrets of the heavenly bodies. Some places that provide outstanding stargazing encounters are the Diamond Avenue, Sanxiantai and Jialulan Recreation Area. During the Taiwan International Hot Air Balloon festival, starry night concerts are held throughout Taitung and they curate the unique experience of listening to music and grooving under starry night skies.
10. Local delicacies In Taitung City
Rong Shu Xia Rice Noodles (榕樹下米苔目)
Short rice noodles is a humble Taitung delicacy. There are many stalls selling this quintessential Taitung dish and the most famous is Rong Shu Xia. It was a quiet shop when I visited in 2014. Fast forward to 2019, the shop has gained great fame and as a result, long queues too. The hearty bowl of noodles is topped with minced pork, bean sprout and bonito flakes which really enhance the taste. You can add a braised egg to enrich the bowl of noodles and do not forget to pepper the noodles with their signature chilli sauce!
Opening hours: 9.30am-3pm, 5-8pm (closes earlier on Sunday)
Blue Dragonfly Fried Chicken (藍蜻蜓速食專賣店)
When the hotel staff recommended fried chicken, I thought I heard wrongly as I was rather surprised since fried chicken is so common place and how good can fried chicken taste in Taitung. When I visited Blue Dragonfly, I realised that it is an institution in Taitung as most locals had their first experience with local fast food through Blue Dragonfly before McDonald’s arrived in Taitung. The hot, fragrant and tenderly fried chicken and french fries set is very affordable and it is so refreshing to munch on fried goodness not produced in yet another big chain fast food joint.
Opening hours: 10.30am-11pm, closed on Mondays
Ah Sang Shaved Ice (阿桑剉冰)
A road side stall that serves delectable shaved ice stuffed with goodness like jellies, red bean, mocha and more. A cool life saver during the hot summer days.
Opening hours: 8.00am-9pm
Huang Ji Scallion Pancake (黃記蔥油餅)
This scallion pancake with fried egg and vegetables so greasily satisfying! I declare this the “Mother of all Taiwanese scallion pancakes”! The ultra crispy texture and the flavourful fillings pack such a tantalising punch. After tasting Huang Ji, it is a point of no return as no other scallion pancake can satisfy anymore.
Opening hours: 2-6pm
Chang’s Oyster Noodles (客來吃樂 大腸蚵仔麵線)
This stall has been serving their signature oyster noodles for many years and this is the best bowl of oyster noodles I have ever tried in Taiwan. The silky noodles (mee sua) is complemented by chewy oysters. After slurping down this savoury bowl of noodles, complete your meal with the green bean dessert. The soft green bean in sweet sugary soup with generous topping of peanut butter is a formidable dessert.
Opening hours: 10am-8pm
Taitung has the most retro-looking night market in Taiwan. While the food variety is limited, the ambience of the night market makes the experience very memorable. From old school auction with uncles in singlets to elderly’s karaoke session from the side of a van, Taitung night markets seem to be from a forgotten era.
Taitung Night Market (台東觀光夜市)
Opening hours: Wednesday-Saturday, 5-11pm
Siwei Night Market (四維夜市)
Opening hours: Sunday, 6-11pm
Travel Information: Accessibility, Language and Transportation
Travel information associated to Taitung is widely available online and the Taitung Tourism Board website provides a wealth of information. The knowledge of Chinese Mandarin language will greatly facilitate the process of planning a long trip in Taitung. I finally appreciate my rather dismal bilingual ability and practised reading / writing in Chinese during the trip. Information like shuttle buses for special events, train bookings and more is usually communicated to public more accurately and promptly in Chinese. Facebook pages like the official Taitung and Taiwan International Hot Air Balloon diligently maintained by Taitung Tourism team provide very useful and updated information which may be not found on webpages.
Taitung county is vast and personal transportation is the most convenient and efficient method to explore as many spots as possible. Motorbikes and cars can be rented easily. Car rentals are significantly more pricey than light motorbikes. Public buses and trains can be used to reach popular destinations but sometimes frequency of rides may be low. For more far flung places off the well trodden route, relying on private car is the only solution. For outer islands like Green and Orchid islands, motorbikes are the best way to circumvent the islands. Public buses are available but you will be restricted by the low frequency. Make sure you have relevant international driving license to rent cars or motorbikes.
Hope my tips are helpful as you navigate the language and accessibility issues. The hurdles of planning a Taitung trip makes the adventure more fun, exciting and fulfilling in the end!
Accommodation: Traveller Inn Taitung 旅人驛站旅宿連鎖
My stay in Taitung was very comfortable thanks to Traveller Inn Taitung! With 5 hotels in Taichung city, they are a reliable brand providing great services and cosy rooms. I really like the convenient location of their Traveller Inn Tiehua Cultural and Creative Hotel and Hotel II as they are within short walking distance to the central bus station and tourist information centre. It is very important as Taitung City centre is not near Taitung train station so local buses are a huge life-saver. These two hotels are designed based on the theme of rail travel and each floor has adorable decorations based on a rail station / destination in Taitung. The hotel amenities are also thoughtfully designed with the same rail travel motifs. The breakfast is sumptuous with a combination of Taiwanese and western cuisine.
I also spent a night in their Mido Hotel. Mido Hotel is further away from the city centre but just beside the Siwei Night Market that is open on Sunday nights. The rooms are more spacious in this hotel and the bright designs of the rooms are both cute and whimsical.
Their hotels are very popular in summer especially during the Taiwan International Hot Air Balloon festival. So secure your room reservations fast to avoid disappointment!