What you need to know
Sarah Gallo, also known as The Five Foot Traveler, has been to over half of the world’s countries. Here, she recounts a three-day whirlwind road trip through western and central Taiwan – and takes us along for the ride.
After far too long in the fascinating yet claustrophobic confines of Hong Kong, Erik (my travel partner) and I were thrilled to be on our way to Taiwan – my first time to the island. Before heading north to Taipei, we decided to do a quick three-day road trip through central and southern Taiwan, beginning in Taichung, to get a better feel for the country. After shopping around, we found an older car, but it drove well and had working air conditioning – which we quickly found out was an absolute must! Shortly after stepping off the plane in Taichung, we were on our way to one of Taiwan's highlights: the gorgeous Sun Moon Lake.
Stop 1: Sun Moon Lake
Taiwan was originally put on my radar after I had seen a photo of Sun Moon Lake. Despite landing in Taiwan in the midst of a rainstorm, we decided to drive straight to Sun Moon Lake in the hopes that it would clear up. Unfortunately, that did not happen – but we did enjoy wandering through the Wen Wu Temple premises. We quickly acknowledged that Chinese temples were far different from Korean temples – which were entirely different from Japanese temples.
The Wen Wu Temple was elaborate and directly on the lake — it’s a shame the clouds kept us from seeing the lake itself. Originally built in 1938, and redesigned in 1945 to look more “Chinese,” this temple is beautiful. At the entrance, you will see two Chinese guardian lions, a male and a female, that look a bit cartoony but quite cool nonetheless. The temple itself consists of three separate halls, dedicated to the God of Literature, the God of War, and Confucius.
I’ve never been one for gift shops, but we purchased peanut mochi and crystallized dried oranges in the shop — both affordable, and both incredibly tasty.
We hadn’t pre-arranged our accommodation in Sun Moon Lake before our road trip in Taiwan, and after hours of wandering into fully-booked hotels, we finally stumbled upon a nice place to rest and hope the clouds would drift away.
When we awoke the following morning, the sun was shining and we raced to the waterfront. At last we were able to see the stunning Sun Moon Lake!
Driving around the lake, we stopped at the Ci-en Pagoda located atop one of the small mountains. It’s a decent 10-minute walk uphill to the pagoda, but the views are totally worth it.
Be aware of baboons on the trail and, as with any wild animal, keep your distance! We had two baboons try to charge at us, but Erik’s presence scared them away.
There was no one there when we arrived at the pagoda, so we had the privilege of seeing the pagoda and the lake tourist-free.
The Ci-en Pagoda was built by Chiang Kai-Shek (蔣介石) in 1971 to commemorate his mother. Be sure to walk to the top of the pagoda for the most beautiful views!
Stop 2: Alishan and the Tea Plantations
From Sun Moon Lake, we drove to Alishan National Park. I was most excited to see Alishan, but unfortunately the weather took a turn for the worse as we drove the windy mountain pass up the mountain. While typically you could see mountain peaks with a valley of clouds below, we couldn’t see a thing. We had intended on spending the night in Alishan to witness the well-known sunrise over the mountains, but we scrapped the plans and kept driving.
On our way down, we found ourselves in Alishan’s famed tea plantations, known for their production of High Mountain Oolong Tea. We were able to see the tea fields, and even had the opportunity to partake in a local tea-tasting.
I couldn’t tell you the name of where we stopped, as I don’t read Chinese, but the gentleman wouldn’t even let us pay for our 30-minute Oolong Tea tasting, he was so kind! It was a great addition to our road trip in Taiwan.
We continued our drive onward to Tainan City, as the weather prevented us from crossing the island to the east coast. We based ourselves out of a town near night markets, local restaurants, and Taiwan’s ubiquitous convenience stores.
Stop 3: Fo Guan Shan Monastery
After a comfortable night’s sleep, we made our way south an hour to Fo Guang Shan Monastery, Taiwan’s largest Buddhist monastery.
Before entering the monastery, our road trip in Taiwan first took us to the adjacent Buddha Memorial Center. Here, you can walk through a building filled with lively shops before exiting through the doors into a beautiful plaza lined with eight pagodas. Looking straight ahead, down the path and into Bodhi Square, you will see the giant Amitahba Seated Buddha surrounded by four stupas (of the four noble truths). You can walk up the stairs and get up close and personal with this 108-meter Buddha statue.
From the Buddha Memorial Center, we walked next door to the Fo Guang Shan Monastery. It’s a bit of an uphill walk, but the premises themselves are beautiful. The main shrine was designed by the prominent Buddhist leader Master Hsing Yun (星雲) and was completed in 1981. The foundation stone was brought from a location in India where the Buddha himself taught the Dharma. Within the main shrine, there are three Buddha images, each 7.8 meters high.
Along the eastern side of Fo Guang Shan Monastery, you will find Great Buddha Land. The Great Buddha is 36 meters tall, golden, and remains the highest standing Buddha in Southeast Asia.
While the Great Buddha’s size demands your attention, it’s not easy to miss the 480 smaller sculptures of the receiving Buddha surrounding the Great Buddha.
The Buddha Memorial Center, and the monastery itself, shouldn’t be missed when exploring Taiwan. In fact, it’s one of my highlights from the country as a whole. Try to arrive at the memorial no later than 9 a.m. to avoid the masses of tour buses and to take in the serenity of the premises on your own.
We also happened to arrive at the Monastery on the weekend of Buddha’s birthday, so there were still some remnants of celebration as we were given iced herbal tea and delicious Taiwanese birthday cake. Surprisingly though, the monastery wasn’t at all touristy. I’d presume it to be relatively empty on any weekday and couldn’t recommend this highly enough to anyone on a road trip in Taiwan!
Stop 4: Kenting National Park
Known for its beautiful coastline, we made our way to Taiwan’s southern tip: Kenting National Park. Founded in 1984, this is Taiwan’s oldest National Park known for it’s year-round tropical climate, beautiful beaches, mountains, and diverse flora and fauna. We, unfortunately, didn’t have enough time to explore the national park, nor great weather, so we went straight to the Eluanbi Lighthouse, one of the only fortified lighthouses in the world.
Full disclosure: We personally found the lighthouse to be incredibly unimpressive, but the park itself was lovely. There are numerous signs directing you to coastal walks, ancient grounds, narrow caves, and simple pavilions. Spend about an hour making your way through the park before moving on.
By that point it was about to storm again. We had just enough time to stop at a viewpoint before it started to downpour.
Sadly, we were unable to explore all that Kenting National Park had to offer. Kenting may have its problems with excessive tourism and pollution, but the diving and nature remain immaculate and it is always worth a low season visit. That just gives us another reason to come back to Taiwan sometime in the future, right?
Stop 5: Nantou Sky Bridge
On our way back to Taichung, we pit-stopped at the Nantou Sky Bridge. Despite being the longest suspension bridge in Taiwan, we found it entirely unimpressive, although popular with locals. There is a 4 kilometer trail around the area, but we decided to pass since it was still stormy and there were no views.
If you’re road tripping through Taiwan, I would suggest skipping the Sky Bridge itself. However, Nantou itself is stunning and the surrounding areas are well worth some extended exploration. The area is a paradise for cyclists, and it is easy to base yourself in Nantou City and find yourself pedaling past temples and through pine forests in no time.
From the Nantou Sky Bridge, our road trip in Taiwan came to an end as we continued onward to drop off our car in Taichung. With train and bus options abound, Taiwan is easy to explore by public transportation, but we loved the freedom afforded to us by renting a car to explore the island's many sites. Looking back, I only wish that we had more time to explore.
Sarah Gallo authors The Five Foot Traveler, a blog detailing her trips to 100 countries and counting. The News Lens has adapted and republished this article with permission.
Editor: Nick Aspinwall