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Unbeknown to most travelers, Taiwan is actually more than just the one small, sweet potato-shaped island. Taiwan actually consists of over a hundred smaller islands and islets, all uniquely different from the Taiwanese mainland as well as from one another. The Republic of China’s sovereignty actually expands far further than the shores of Taiwan proper, stretching all the way down to Taiping Island (太平島) in the South China Sea, and as far north as Dongyin (東引) off the coast of Fujian in neighbouring China.
Kinmen and Matsu, both lying in the Taiwan Strait, are home to some of Taiwan’s oldest towns and villages dating back centuries, as well as legacies of the Chinese Civil War. Whilst Orchid Island, Taiwan’s most distant island, combines a lush volcanic landscape with some of Taiwan’s most welcoming people. Green Island on the other hand holds a much darker past, previously serving as an island prison for Chiang Kai-shek’s political prisoners.
Penghu, located on to the west of the main island of Taiwan, is where the Taiwanese themselves go to enjoy some of the country’s finest beaches and popular water sports such as windsurfing, snorkelling, and scuba diving. Pristine beaches, coral reefs, and golden sands make them the ideal getaway destination to rest and recharge. With such diversity, making the effort to explore Taiwan’s outer islands offers a rich reward for the more adventurous traveller to the island nation.
In the first of this two-part post we look more closely at Penghu, also known as “The Pescadores”, and at Orchid Island (Lanyu).
Also known as the Pescadores, Penghu is a collection of more than 60 small islands lying off the west coast of Taiwan. Inhabited for centuries with records dating back to the Ming dynasty, the islands are well known for their distinct architecture – with houses being built from coral – and their plentiful temples, many built to worship the seafaring goddess, Mazu. Penghu’s Mazu temple which was built at the time of the Ming dynasty is the oldest in Taiwan, at over 400 years old.
Penghu’s past has been shaped over the centuries by varying occupying forces usually with the main island of Taiwan in sight. They were briefly held by the Dutch between 1622 – 1624 who intended to use them as a staging point for their trade operations, and a few decades later they were used by Koxinga as a stepping stone to Fort Zeelandia in Tainan where in 1661 he and his army of Ming loyalists famously defeated the Dutch, effectively ending their operations in Taiwan. After the signing of the Treaty of Shimonoseki in 1895, Penghu – along with Taiwan – was handed over to the Japanese Empire whose influence over the islands lasted until 1945 when they were placed under the control of the ROC.
When martial law was lifted in Penghu in 1979, the islands soon became a popular tourist destination for Taiwanese eager to see more of their own country. With places like Penghu previously off-limits to ordinary travellers, the island soon starting drawing in tourists to boost its ailing economy. Subsequently, in the last decade or so Penghu has transformed into one of Taiwan’s most popular holidaying destinations attracting around 700,000 visitors per year from Taiwan, and increasingly from other countries such as South Korea, Japan, and Singapore.
Widely considered to be one of the windiest places in the northern-hemisphere, Penghu is also an ideal location for a number of water sports such as windsurfing, and wake-boarding, with a number of pristine beaches hosting such activities throughout the year. The crystal clear waters surrounding Penghu are also ideal for snorkelling and scuba diving, with numerous options available to discover Penghu’s diverse underwater world. Some of Penghu’s more secluded island’s include Jibei to the north, and Chimei and Wang’an to the south. These idyllic shores are home to rare wildlife, pristine coastline, ancient Fujianese architecture, and Penghu’s iconic heart-shaped fishing weirs.
Orchid Island (Lanyu – 蘭嶼)
Situated 76km offshore from the east-coast city of Taitung, and marking the south-easternmost point of Taiwan, Orchid Island stretches to the further reaches of a ROC visa and is often an overlooked destination by travellers due to its relative geographical isolation. The island is made up of two steep mountains covered in thick jungle surrounded by a narrow strip of coastal land with 6 villages spread out around its perimeter. With a pleasant climate all year round the island is perfect for diving, snorkelling, and even hiking, presenting the ideal opportunity to become more familiar with some of Taiwan’s friendliest people, the Tao – one of Taiwan’s 16 recognised aboriginal groups.
The islanders make their living from the ocean, and of immense importance to the locals is the flying fish (飛魚) which is eaten at almost every meal. Colourful fishing boats line the shores of the island, and if you’re lucky enough, you might even witness one of the island’s boat launching ceremonies. The Tao’s fishing boats, which can be spotted perched next to each other on the island’s pebble beaches, make one of Lanyu’s most iconic sights. According to Tao customs and tradition, a boat is considered as part of a man’s body, and boat building – which can takes years – is a sacred mission and part of life.
The island itself can be reached either by ferry or plane, with the latter marginally more expensive. The boat trip, which takes around 3 hours, is particularly beautiful, with flying fish a common sight gliding through the air either side of the ferry’s hull and the occasional dolphin sighting usually a cause for excitement amongst passengers. Once on the island, the best way to get around and explore is on 2 wheels, and motorcycle rental opportunities are usually plentiful. The villages on the east side of the island are especially picturesque, and it is here that a number of Tao-style underground houses still remain. If you are lucky, you might be shown around by some of the locals, but don’t intrude unexpectedly.
Orchid’s Island’s relative isolation from the rest of Taiwan isn’t merely geographical, but cultural as well. The islanders are of Austronesian descent and have their own distinct language entirely different even from Taiwan’s other aboriginal groups. The Tao people, or Tao no pongso meaning “people on the island”, are incredibly friendly and any visitor to the island will be richly rewarded for making the journey.
Part 2 of Discovering Taiwan’s Offshore Islands, featuring Kinmen, Matsu, and Green Island, can be found here.