This is how you’ll be welcomed in Lanyu 蘭嶼 also known as Orchid Island in English and Ponso No Tao (“Island of the people”) in the local language. Lanyu is a 45km² island offshore of the South-East of Taiwan, close enough to the other island of Lüdao 綠島 (Green Island in English), which are both accessible by air or by sea from Taitung.
Since I have a thing with islands and the smaller the better (it’s kind of obvious right now after my travels in New Zealand, Japan, Bali and now Taiwan, not to mention that I spent one month living in Stewart Island, New Zealand, pin-boning salmon just to experience how it feels to live on a remote island with only 381 inhabitants), I had in mind to explore at least one of those tiny Taiwanese islands when I jumped off the plane last April.
And when I finally reached Lanyu last September, I had no clue I would end up walking all around the island nor than I expected meeting such inspiring women on my trip.
It took me some time to write this post because it’s not just about some beautiful island worth exploring or spending a couple of days sunbathing. It’s also about an indigenous tribe and its very own peculiar culture, it’s about a nuclear waste facility that’s disturbing the landscape as well as the heart of its inhabitants.
It’s about politics and history, about people and rocks and the sea.
I’m no expert on those subjects and especially not since I’ve only spent one week in Lanyu, being only able to grasp a glimpse of its complexity. But if I had to write about my experience on the island, I couldn’t leave aside those intricated topics…
So. Are you still ready to jump aboard with me?
TABLE OF CONTENTS
GOOD TO KNOW
WHEN TO GO
The perfect timing to go to the island is during spring or summer when the weather conditions are favourable for ferries and flights to cross the sea. During winter time, there are fewer flights and almost no ferries at all. Winters can be rainy and really windy, while summer is more pleasant with warm temperatures and more sunshine (the rain might still be around the corner though, but you’ll dry faster!)
However, from August to September, it’s typhoon season in Taiwan, and Lanyu is not spared. Because of its location, it can be hit quite hard, and when it happens all flights and ferries are cancelled. From February to May, it’s the flying fish season, so you might see some offshore, and might attend one of the ceremonies where the fishermen’s canoes are launched to sea.
HOW TO GET THERE
There are two ways to get to the island. By sea or by air.
- TAKING THE FERRY
Ferries are departing from several places in the South of Taiwan: Taitung Fugang Fish Harbour and Kenting Houbihu Harbour. From both harbours, it takes between 2 and 3 hours to get to Lanyu Island. Some ferries will make a stop on Lüdao (綠島 Green Island) as well (it could be the perfect occasion for an overnight stay there on your way back!)
Most ferries will stop running from October to March, during the low season, the sea being too rough and the weather too unstable. As for the timetable, you should either contact one of the ferries companies or the Visitor Center in Taitung or Kenting. Most hostels in which you will stay around Taitung would also be able to provide you with the information.
A round trip ticket is cheaper than a one-way ticket, but that would mean you know exactly when you want to depart (which was definitely not my case!) it cost me around 1 200NT$ one way.
Here are the different companies and their websites -although all the information is in Chinese:
Triumph – 089-281047
Green Island Star – 089-280226
Golden Star – 089-281477
- TAKING THE PLANE
You can hop on a plane from Taitung Airport with the company Daily Air. The ticket fare is between 1 400 and 1 500 NT$ one way. It’s better to book really in advance, especially during summer holidays, because it will all be fully booked.
HOW TO GET AROUND
Going around Lanyu is quite easy since the island is so small and there aren’t that many roads. The easiest ways to go around are definitely with a car or a scooter (that you can rent in Yayo, close to the Harbour), and it won’t take that long, maybe about 4 to 5 hours in total. The other solution is to rent a bicycle, for the roads are mainly flat, even though not well maintained in some places, but it’s all manageable. The tour will take approximately 6 hours.
As for the solution I chose, walking around the island, it allowed me to take my time, and enjoy fully the crazy scenic views. Walking around should take something like 12 hours in total, which can be done in one day (on summer days) or split in two. That was supposed to be my initial plan, walking around for two days, and stopping somewhere along the way for one night, for there are many wood shelters along the coast in which I could have slept in my sleeping bag.
Hitchhiking is also pretty easy on the island, locals or tourists are quite enthusiastic when it comes to picking up hitchhikers. More times than I can recall, people just stopped to pick me up even though I didn’t need a ride. I remember one time a girl picked me up on her scooter just because it would have started to rain soon. And I would probably remember forever the day I arrived at the Ferry Wharf, asking at the police station if there would be any bus which could drop me off in Iraraley (the answer was no) and that a lady just offered me to ride me there on her scooter. That was my first time on the roads of Lanyu, discovering all those pretty landscapes with the marine breeze tickling my nostrils -yep hitchhiking can get me pretty poetic sometimes.
SNORKELLING & SCUBA DIVING
Snorkelling and Scuba Diving are pretty common in Lanyu, it’s actually one of the best spots to have a look underwater in whole Taiwan. Maybe you’ll even spot some flying fish, as it’s one of the local speciality around here!
Beware of the undercurrents though, if you’re planning to swim or dive on your own. There are places safer than others, and I’d rather recommend you to avoid the open sea, and look for a natural pool (and there are many on the island) where you can spot some fish without being dragged by any currents.
If you want to scuba dive, there are several diving centres around the island offering casual dives and diving courses. I can only recommend this place in Iraraley, where some instructors can speak rather good English:
WHAT TO BRING IN MY BACKPACK
The weather in Lanyu is unpredictable, although summertime is quite hot. You should bring your swimming suit indeed and some sunscreen in order not to burn your nose while walking, bicycling or snorkelling around. You should as well be prepared for some rain, so don’t forget your shiny yellow raincoat and your umbrella.
Since there’s only one ATM on the island, at the Post Office in Imaorod, you’d better bring a lot of cash with you. Some foreigners couldn’t even withdraw money at this ATM because their credit card wasn’t compatible. Bring enough cash for your activities, daily expenses, and your ticket back to the main island.
UNDERSTANDING LANYU ISLAND
THE TAO TRIBE
The beautiful island of Lanyu is often described as an “aboriginal island” because it’s home to the Tao (also known as Yami), one of the numerous indigenous tribes of Taiwan. In Taiwan, there are more than 20 different indigenous tribes, there are the first people who ever lived on the island, at least 8 000 years before the first arrival of Han Chinese around the XVIIth Century.
The Tao culture was well preserved for a long time since the island was untouched until 1967. By then, as the island was before labelled as an ethnological research area off-limits to the public during the Japanese era, the Republic of China (which took over Taiwan in 1945) lifted the restriction to ‘educate’ the Tao people (meaning forcing them to learn Chinese among other things) and the island was therefore open to tourists.
It’s not easy to retrace where the Tao people came from. Apparently, their language is much more similar to some tribes from the Philippines than from other Taiwanese tribes. The theory would be that the Tao left the Batan Archipelago in the Philippines sailing for Lanyu Island and settled there about 800 years ago. Like the other indigenous tribes of Taiwan, the Tao have their own language and their own culture, really different from what you’re used to seeing in Taiwan. For example, you will scarce see any temple on the island… but many churches instead! Apparently, the missionaries always helped the indigenous tribes of Taiwan to preserve their own identities: when I was in Yuli, I had the chance to meet the French priest Maurice Poinsot who wrote an Amis/French dictionary which is still a reference today when it comes to learning the Amis language.
The most striking things that will catch your eyes while in Lanyu are the traditional wooden canoes – called Tatara– painted all in white with carved red and black patterns. The big rounds that look like burning suns on each extremity of the canoe are eyes, guiding the fishermen at sea. There are patterns of waves and men as well carved and painted on the boats. Be careful not to touch the canoes though, these are sacred. The building of such canoes is such an important step in any man’s life in the Tao culture since the Tao are mainly living on fishing (and planting taro, which seems the be more a women’s business).
The Tao’s culture is closely tied to the ocean and especially the flying fish, called Arayo. Once the flying fish season is starting (from February to May), the Tao will launch their boats to the sea as well as a ceremony. And rightly so, because they usually spent a good amount of time building and carving their canoes. Once the building is complete, the owner will host a large ceremony, where they will wear traditional outfits and cook taro as well as pig. There will be a lot of singing and praying to launch the boat to the sea. Those flying fish are seen as sacred here, a gift from the heavens, this is why the Tao calendar is actually divided according to the flying fish season. There are times to build the boat, times to summon the flying fish to come, time to fish and time to dry the fish.
Especially in Iraraley and Ivalino, you’ll find some of those Tao traditional “buried” houses. Since the weather is quite rough and unpredictable on the island – typhoons and storms are quite normal around here- the Tao people had built houses buried in the ground, also protected by stone walls.
It’s quite something to see cats, dogs, goats and even pigs roaming around the rooftops since those are actually on ground level.
Be respectful though, people are still living into those houses, so don’t walk on the rooftops and don’t get too close to the houses (nobody wants to be bothered inside its own house, right? Same here.) It’s important to acknowledge the fact that those people from aboriginal tribe are NOT here to put on a show. Their houses aren’t any museum, people are still living in them. Their songs and festivals are not held for the tourist’s pleasure, there are actual traditions. So, let’s be respectful and quiet, and if you want to understand more about the Tao culture, ask kindly or make your own research.
FURTHER READINGS ABOUT THE TAO:
About a famous writer from Lanyu: ‘Syaman Rapongan, Taiwan’s Ocean Literature Writer’, udn.com
THE NUCLEAR WASTE FACILITY
If there’s one touchy subject in Lanyu, it would most probably be the nuclear waste facility. The plant was built on the island in the early 1980’s on the south-east tip of the island, without the Islanders having the right to say a thing about it. The worst is that at that time most Tao people couldn’t even understand Chinese: they were thinking it was a food can factory to be built there. When they understood what was being built, it was too late.
They kept on demonstrating and protesting, promises were made by the government, but there was no solution to be found about the waste. In 2008, the government finally conducted an inspection of the barrels in the facility. The outcome of such investigation was alarming: most barrels were rusty and eroded by the high temperatures and humidity of the island. There were also rumours about leaks happening, not to mention the number of patients affected by cancers rising.
You’ll see many flags around the island against the facility, the concerns of the people grew even more since the Fukushima disaster in 2011. The so-called safety of this nuclear waste facility can be subject to debate, however, there is one thing for sure: the island has belonged to the Tao tribe for the past 800 years, way before the Chinese came, or the Japanese, or the Europeans. So, no government had any right to deteriorate their land, much less put their health at risk.
FURTHER READINGS ABOUT THE NUCLEAR WASTE FACILITY OF LANYU:
IRARALEY: MY HOMEBASE AMONGST THOSE AMAZING YOUNG WOMEN
I settled myself in the little village of Iraraley, where I was welcomed by Even, with whom I got in touch through Couchsurfing. She’s renting me a bed in her secondary house (400NT$ for a night which is pretty inexpensive for the island) in a room that I’m sharing with one of her employee, Tzu-Ping.
Tzu-Ping comes from Taoyuan and is having a break before going back to med school. She’s helping Even in the evenings at the Do VanWa bar and following the PADI Open Water courses during the day. She also seems to be already quite like a local here: she’s showing me her favourite little hike up the mountain behind the village to enjoy a wonderful vista of Iraraley and the ocean, explaining to me the carvings on the Tao canoes that we sent to see on the little wharf, bringing me to her favourite coffee shops where I can taste the best taro pies and iced teas and introducing me to her friends. We got along really well from the start, cooking dinners together in our small little kitchen, scuba diving together and talking a lot together about our experiences and the island’s beauties.
As for my host, Even, she’s a local and the proud owner of a little bar a bit outside of Iraraley: the Do Van Wa. That’s a really nice wooden cabin with lots of tables and seats facing the beach and the bright blue ocean. There’s even a stage, for she’s hosting some live music shows thrice a week. The place is really chill, relaxed and they serve French fries. There are also Even’s cat and dog frolicking around. You know me well, I don’t need more to make this bar my favourite place to hang out when the sun goes down (exploding in colours of course) on the island.
Even is a really strong, independent woman, and I really loved hearing about her stories. She travelled a lot as well, had many lovers and experiences and I guess that shouldn’t be a surprise that she loves the movie Before sunrise as much as I do. Every night, when the bar is about to close, Even would take a sit as well on the stage, playing her guitar and singing songs with her soft, sweet voice filling the night’s sky of the quiet island.
Even and her friends singing songs in their own language at the Do Van Wa’s stage was definitely the highlight of my stay on the island.
Thanks to Couchsurfing, I also get to meet Yu-Jing. She’s Taiwanese, but she has been living on the island for a few years now. She couldn’t host me while I was there because her amazing project was taking all the place in her tiny house: she was building a 3D map of Lanyu. With this project she wanted people to reconnect with their history, their culture and their ground by interviewing them about tales, legends, stories that shaped the island and gave their names to all the rocks you can see while travelling around. Yu-Jing is really interested in the Tao culture, and I’m learning a lot thanks to her about the history of the indigenous tribes of Taiwan and their political grievances.
As for my daily life in Iraraley, it was laid-back and chill, as you expect holidays on a remote little island to be. After my walking days-trip, I would end up in the little Bais coffeeshop, down this little path that would take me from the ‘new part’ of the village with concrete buildings to the ‘old village’ with old traditional buried houses. The path was often slippery, for there were some taro plantations on the way that needed some fresh water, but it was enchanting at the end of the afternoon, with the light glimmering on those plantations.
I would settle myself in the little café with a book, a piece of cake and a delicious iced tea. There’s no Wi-Fi there, there’s a sign hanging on the wall saying you should talk to each other instead. And right there I met Chloe, another Taiwanese girl working on the island during holidays. She’s having a break from her astronomic studies because she wants to spend more time writing her book. We talk a lot about movies and books, and she made me discover a famous Tao writer: Syaman Rapongan.
There were some nights in Iraraley were I couldn’t go to sleep because I was feeling so much alive and at peace with myself and my environment that I was full of positive energy. Then I would climb the concrete stairs leading to the rooftop of the little house I was living in, dancing and singing under the stars.
Since the touristic season is on its end (it’s mid-September), there are not that many tourists anymore on the island and most of them come from mainland Taiwan. Which means that my English is not that much of a use here, and also that most people I’m meeting here are locals. It’s very convenient for me because every time I would seat myself for a drink in a coffee place or at Do Van Wa, people will start talking to me, asking me where I’m from and more important: why am I visiting their little island, so far from anywhere else.
They are as curious about me as I am about them. And that’s how I had the chance to learn many facts about the Tao tribes, about their feelings towards the thriving tourism industry on the island or the nuclear waste facility. It’s not an easy thing for them to compose between their ancestral traditions and today’s world.
I’m gladly impressed by all those women I met during my stay in Iraraley: they’re inspiring on so many levels, and I wish I could be more like them.
LET’S GO THERE:
Do VanWa – For good vibes and concerts
Bais Café – For a chill atmosphere and awesome iced teas
Terwara Café – For amazing Taro pies
MY WALKING TOUR AROUND THE ISLAND
If you also wish to take a walk on Lanyu island,
here you’ll find the walking times in between villages:
Iraraley (Langdao 朗島) – Iranmeylek (Dongcing 東清) (about 2:30)
Iranmeylek (Dongcing 東清) – Ivalino (Yeyin 野銀) (about 1:00)
Ivalino (Yeyin 野銀) – Imaorod (Hongtou紅頭) (about 3:00)
Imaorod (Hongtou 紅頭) – Ivalino (Yeyin 野銀) via the Weather Station (about 40 min)
Imaorod (Hongtou 紅頭) – Iratay (Yuren 漁人) (about 30 min)
Iratay (Yuren 漁人) – Yayo (Yeyou 椰油) (about 1:30)
Yayo (Yeyou 椰油) – Iraraley (Langdao 朗島) (about 2:00)
It seems that I’m cursed with overnight hikes: there’s always a bloody typhoon or such coming when I have carefully planned my adventures (Wuling trail, Walami trail, etc.) and this time made no exception, it was bloody raining hard every single evening, so my initial plan to walk around the island for two days and sleep on the beach just fell apart.
But I was determined, still, and I ended up walking around the island bits by bits, Even dropping me off to some places or making my way hitchhiking to get from my home base Iraraley to my starting points. This actually made my adventure a little bit more exciting, considering that anytime I lifted my thumb in the air to get a ride, there was this deep good old fear coming out that no one would ever pick me up and that I would end up my life lost and alone on a foreign road eating tree leaves and sucking pebbles -who said I’m overdramatic? I haven’t even mentioned the scenario playing in my mind in case someone would pick me up indeed…
And since I’m still here to write this post, you can easily guess that I made it, every time, and will be forever grateful for every single person who stopped to pick me up – from the scooter lady at the Ferry Wharf, the van full of Hong-Kongese tourists, this old man who couldn’t speak English, this young girl with whom we sook shelter from the rain in an immense cave, to this boy who wanted to pick me up even though he was already driving two friends and a dog on his scooter (you would be amazed at how many people/animals/stuff you can actually carry on a scooter): thank you, 謝謝, ayoy!
Actually, many people stopped to pick me up while I was walking even though I didn’t need any ride. They just didn’t really understand why on earth would I walk all around, especially since there was not much going on in between villages.
But that was what I was looking for indeed: a path to follow, that would allow me to see this beautiful island from every one of its corners. I wanted to see the goats perched on those steep, narrow and weirdly shaped pieces of rocks, I wanted to check out the taro fields, the fishermen and their beautiful canoes, the daily life going on around the island. I wanted to lose all network reception and eat my lunch on top of a cliff, the sun burning my nose so hard it would peel for the next three days.
In terms of landscapes, Lanyu looks like what I would have imagined of a place like Hawaï or Tahiti to be. In some places, it looked like some kind of virgin island, the kind of island you would expect the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park to pop in. The mountains are not that high, the highest peak (Mount Hongtoushan) being 552 meters tall. Those mountains are round on their top and bushy and as friendly as they look, they seem impregnable. There’s actually one and only road crossing those mountains, from Imaorod to Ivalino, on the narrowest part of the island. I invite you to take a stroll around the weather station on the top, the view is just stunning there for you can see both coasts of the island at once!
Here and there, there are natural pools, sometimes coming from some distant waterfalls in the mountains, making their way to the sea, creating gigantic pools where the water is translucent and still enough to glimpse a fish or a crab.
Here and there, there are little paths to be followed, on top of little hills, inside caves, around gigantic rocks. But most of the time, there is only one road to follow. Along with the scooters, a few cars, some bicycles, some stray dogs and… goats. From one village to another, the deep blue colour of the sea is stretching on one side, unabashed and wild, while on the other side, the rolling hills are showing me all the shades of green resulting from a rainy climate.
Rocks in Lanyu have some astonishing shapes as well as enchanting names. Those volcanic rocks are widespread on the island, and it’s easy to play the clouds game when seeing one.
There is a man’s face, here a dragon, and over there could be a crocodile.
While I’m walking I’m pondering what I’m learning every day about Lanyu’s history.
I’m fantasizing being part of this island, living there, across this one and only road.
The sea at my doorstep.
The mountains in my backyard.
Lanyu Island was a little bit like a gashapon machine – you know those vending machines that sell toys in those little colourful plastic balls? You put some money in it and then you get your little ball with no idea what’s inside (except that it’s gonna be some flashy goodie). It’s really common in Japan and here in Taiwan, those machines are everywhere, in front of every convenient shop and even at the airport, selling some Pikachu’s keyrings or little action figures of Sangoku or Gudetama.
Well, on so many levels, Lanyu was like that for me. I knew I would like it – who wouldn’t like to spend a few days on an island, right? – but I never expected that I would live there one of the most beautiful and enlightening experiences of my life.
It seems a bit extreme, but that’s truly how I felt on my journey back to mainland Taiwan: grateful. In 7 days, I met so many incredible, amazing and helpful people and I learnt so much about Taiwan’s politics, the indigenous issues but also the Tao’s habits, history, and culture that I couldn’t help but feeling this immense love towards every single being on this little island.
I feel like I scattered tiny pieces of my heart while walking around the island, like a kid who would want to find its way back to home.
Lanyu and its people will definitely stay in my heart for a long long time.