Two days in Taitung

Lizards, giant worms, hot air balloons, and paddy fields…

A sculpture of four cartoon-like people holding Chinese characters that read “I love Taitung”.
“I love Taitung”—a welcome sign and a statement of fact. Photo: Zhen-Kang.

Recently, a friend invited me for a quick trip to Taitung on Taiwan’s south-east coast. In contrast to the densely-populated western side of the island (which has 20 million people in the same distance as Christchurch to Dunedin), Taiwan’s east coast has no large cities.

Taitung City, the administrative center of Taitung County, has 100,000 people. It’d be a relatively large city in New Zealand, but here it feels like a sleepy, peaceful town. Think Blenheim with scooters, not wine.

So, this past Monday—two foreboding days before Ghost Month—we set off for Taitung.

The central hall of Kaohsiung Main Station, half-blocked by temporary walls and a tarpaulin. Construction is occurring in the background.
As with most domestic travel in Taiwan, our journey started at the station. Kaohsiung Main Station is still under construction but the architects’ impressions suggest it’ll be an impressive urban centerpiece when complete.
A large electronic departures board above the ticketing office.
This is a busy station: The board showed 18 intercity departures in 90 minutes.
A sleek-looking train arriving at an underground platform.
The bullet train only serves the west coast, so we booked tickets east on this regular-speed Tze-Chiang Express. Made by Hitachi in Japan, these trains are less than two years old.
Interior of a train carriage. There are two seats each side of the aisle, and lush-looking scenery outside the windows.
In this photo, the speedo at the front of the train car says 105km/h, but the train got as fast as 125km/h. (Taiwan’s bullet trains travel at 300km/h.)
A closed "TR" branded bento box, with serviettes and disposable chopsticks strapped to the top of the box with rubber bands. An AirPods case rests on the tray table next to the bento box.
We’d pre-ordered Taiwan Railways (TR) Bento for brunch. The boxes were delivered to our seats after departure.
An open bento box containing white rice, a round tofu patty, and six types of vegetable.
Here’s my vegetarian bento, which in Taiwan is more typically called a “lunchbox”. It cost NT$80 (NZ$4), and was a decent hot meal for the price.
Screenshot of Apple Maps, showing the railway line from Kaohsiung to Taitung hooking around the lower part of Taiwan. A blue marker shows this screenshot was taken near the southern-most point on the line, around 40% of the way from Kaohsiung to Taitung.
I finished brunch around 45 minutes into the journey.
An intricately-painted indigenous canoe on a display stand under the roof of the station. The canoe is approximately 10 meters long with sharply upturned ends that stretch a meter in to the sky. It looks like it may accommodate 2–4 paddlers.
We arrived at Taitung just before noon. The open-air station features this traditional canoe made by the indigenous Tao people of Orchid Island (蘭嶼)—which you can see on the map above, in the lower-right corner (with ferry connections).

Stepping outside, I was struck by the density of insect sounds. (Southern Taiwan—including Kaohsiung and Taitung—has a tropical climate.)

Large Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse soft toys placed on a swinging porch chair, in the lobby of a hotel.
We walked 500 meters to the hotel, where Mickey and Minnie were swinging at reception. The sign above them translates to “The rocking chair is for appreciation only”.
A narrow concrete road leading up a mountain, with dense vegetation either side. One person is stopped on their scooter to the left of the road, looking uphill.
After dropping our bags, we rented a couple of 125cc scooters (NT$450 / NZ$23 per day), and set out for the Taitung International Hot Air Balloon Festival. It’s an annual month-long event that takes place in the mountains of Taitung County. High above sea level, Google Maps led us on this dubious short-cut—where, on the road, I saw a dead giant-worm-that-was-definitely-not-a-snake: black, around 3cm thick, and 40cm long.
Four scooters parked on dirt under a tree, immediately next to a tea plantation. Tree-covered mountains a visible beyond the tea plantation.
We parked next to this picturesque tea plantation and walked the last hundred meters…
A wide grassy field with a large embankment at one end. A crowd of hundreds of people are sitting on this embankment looking out over a dozen hot air balloons, deflated, and laid out across the grass.
…To this grassy plateau, where hundreds of people had gathered to watch the hot air balloons inflate at sunset.
A partially-inflated hot air ballon. Four people are holding various parts of the balloon as it inflates. At this stage, it is still laying across the grass.
A period of rapid inflation began at 5pm. Across the field, a DJ was playing English-language pop and dance tracks at high volume. I heard the explicit version of at least three different songs, but the Chinese-speaking audience didn’t seem to notice “fuck”, “fucking”, and “fucker” reverberate through the mountains while their children danced.
A partially-inflated cartoon bird-shaped hot air balloon begins to rise off the ground.
People clapped as each balloon rose from the ground. The atmosphere was warm, celebratory, and family-friendly (apart from the music).
Four fully-inflated hot air balloons in a line: A racing helmet, a cartoon skunk in a car, Hello Kitty, and a lion-shaped cuckoo clock.
Hello Kitty was a crowd favorite.
In the foreground, a large turtle-shaped hot air balloon is partially inflated, while two conventionally-shaped balloons are flying behind it. Each is around 10 meters off the ground.
To the right of the green turtle, people were taking tethered rides for around five minutes at a time. I’m not sure of the price for these quick rides, but a 30-minute flight costs NT$9,000 (NZ$450) per person. One of the few times in Taiwan that prices have shocked me for being high, rather than low.
An inflated toy balloon attached to a baby stroller in the crowd.
These mini balloons were popular with the crowd. I later saw many of them hanging in shops and restaurants around Taitung City.
A line-up of 10 hot air balloons, all glowing with their burners ignited. All but one are on the ground.
As dusk fell, the DJ led a countdown to the balloons simultaneously igniting their burners for five seconds. People clapped and cheered in a gentle appreciative manner. Then the balloons began to deflate, and suddenly it was all over. Soon, a multi-kilometer-long traffic jam snaked its way down the mountain and back towards Taitung City. I was thankful to cruise past in the scooter lane, getting back to the hotel around 10pm.
A wide-angle photo of a series of multi-story hotel buildings along a riverfront, with tree-covered mountains in the background.
The next day, after I remotely attended Chinese class, we rode inland to another mountainous area. We passed a series of hotels at Zhiben Hot Spring (知本溫泉), one of the most famous hot spring towns in Taiwan.
A narrow mountain road with safety barriers on either side.
Following the road uphill from Zhiben Hot Spring, we reached a carpark where we stopped our scooters…
A lizard, approximately 30cm long, climbing a vertical wall.
…Next to this lizard on a concrete wall…
Close-up of a scary-looking insect. It is relatively large, with retracted wings, pincers, and bulging bug eyes.
…And this insect on a fencepost. It was around 8–10cm long (the insect, not the fencepost).
A zig-zagging metal and wooden staircase on the side of a jungle-clad mountain.
I followed my friend up 201 steps to Baiyu Waterfall. Ahead of me, he used his torch to check for hanging spiders. We didn’t see any, but there were millions of ants on the steps.
A tall and wispy waterfall cascading down rocks, with dense vegetation either side.
Baiyu Waterfall (白玉瀑布) looked beautiful after recent rain. You can’t see them in this photo, but there were a dozen butterflies flying in front of it. Magic.
A mature tree growing in the middle of a narrow mountain road. The tree looks to be around 15 meters tall.
Riding downhill, we passed this tree in the middle of a narrow road.
The entrance of a Family Mart convenience store. To the right of the entrance, a wooden sculpture of human-like figures is stacked vertically on a stone base. Next to this, are dozens of boxes of drinks being stored on the pavement.
It was 32ºC so we stopped for cold drinks at Family Mart. Note the indigenous artwork next to the door. Also note the boxes of drinks stored on the pavement: this is common practice in Taiwan, where space is tight and theft is rare. (Our hotel, for example, had an unlocked freezer full of popsicles, and an unlocked cabinet full of souvenirs, in the unmanned lobby.)
A scooter in the foreground and a quiet streetscape behind, with mountains beyond that. There are no people, and three or four visible shops that look empty.
We sat outside Family Mart enjoying this peaceful scene and cold drinks, before riding another 90 minutes north.
A bamboo sculpture in the shape of two garlic bulbs, photographed across a rice field. The sculpture is large enough to sit inside. It is on a raised wooden platform.
I spotted this intriguing bamboo sculpture in the middle of a paddy field. It was about 100 or 200 meters off a narrow road. A reverse Google image search suggests it’s an installation called ‘Incubation’ (孕育) by Taiwanese artist An Jun-Shi (安君實).
A wide flat valley, with vibrant rice fields stretching to distant mountains. A near-empty road leads through the fields. In the foreground, a lady has parked her bicycle and is looking at her phone.
Further along, we reached Brown Boulevard at Chishang (池上鄉). It’s a narrow road across obscenely-scenic paddy fields, now closed to all vehicles except farm trucks, bicycles, and electrified pedal carts.
A concrete water channel bisects two vibrant rice fields, with misty mountains in the distance.
Here’s the view to the left, from roughly the same spot. 
A large tree, with a protective fence around its base. Next to this, there is a bench and a small table with a large teapot on top.
This tree was made famous by an EVA Air commercial, in which actor Takeshi Kaneshiro sat here to drink tea and reflect on the beauty of Taiwan (hence the teapot, which you’ll notice hasn’t been stolen). We had parked our petrol-powered scooters and walked one or two kilometers to get here, but we were the only ones on foot. It looks quiet in this photo…
Two train-styled pedal carts. Each seats approximately four people. Beyond the carts, people are having their photo taken under a tree, with more pedal carts in the distance.
…But a steady stream of people were arriving on pedal carts to queue for photos.
Two adults and two children pose for a photo under a tree. They are looking off-camera.
I didn’t have family to photograph, so I photographed someone else’s.
A telephoto shot of perhaps a dozen pedal- and electric-powered bikes and carts on a long country road.
Soon it was paddy-field pedal-power rush hour, and time to go.
A pedestrian bridge to a small island. The bridge comprises eight arches, each of which people must walk up and over. This is a long-exposure nighttime photograph, with a stony beach in the foreground.
We rode another 90 minutes across a mountain range, through the 2.7km-long Yuchang Tunnel (玉長隧道), and onwards to the coast. About an hour after our planned sunset arrival, we reached the famous Sanxiantai Arch Bridge (三仙台跨海步橋). It links the mainland to a small island reserve, but is temporarily closed following a recent earthquake. I’m told that despite its gentle appearance, crossing it is a slog.
A long-exposure photo of the sea at night, with the lights of coastal towns in the distance. There are stars in the sky. The sea is calm.
This was my first time standing at the Philippine Sea. Looking northwards, I could see the lights of villages along Taiwan’s eastern coast. I also noticed my camera could see the stars—something I can’t capture in Kaohsiung due to light pollution.
Photo of the milky way extending up from the horizon. In the foreground are the silhouettes of some large rocks, and then the stony beach.
Turning around, I could see the Milky Way for the first time since moving to Taiwan. An unexpected cosmic bonus, concluding my two-day trip to Taitung.

Postscript: A confession

My two-day trip to Taitung actually concluded when I fell off my scooter—immediately outside the rental shop, while returning it before catching the train.

The only damage was to the phone holder (NT$200 / NZ$10), and—of course—to my pride.

My best guess is my suitcase and camera bag upset the balance as I was getting off, and/or I hadn’t properly extended the kickstand—which retracted as the weight of the scooter hit it. Or a combination of these things.

The rental shop owner said I might’ve been pushed by a ghost.

After all, yesterday was the first day of Ghost Month.

I should’ve been more careful when parking with a suitcase aboard: the previous night, a friend in Kaohsiung reminded me the ghosts were coming:

Screenshot of an instant message that says “opening of the gate to Underworld tomorrow. Don’t be afraid, everything is fine.” Sent at 11:14pm on 15 August. The avatar of the sender has been blurred out.