This post is a continued catch up post of the various trips and “re-discoveries” I had in Taiwan during my 6 months COVID hideout there. I had previously posted about Green Island. At the end of August 2020 I had a chance to venture out to the other Southeastern outer island, one of Taiwan’s most remote ones, Orchid Island.
Orchid Island is absolutely worth the journey to get here. It is slightly more off the beaten path when it comes to Taiwan travel. But it is full of history, a unique culture and unspoiled landscapes you wont find anywhere else in the country. Though similar in many regards to neighboring Green Island, Orchid is larger yet less developed and overrun by tourists. The island itself was untouched by any colonial powers, and in fact Japanese colonists left the island untouched on purpose as part of a social experiment/ observation. It remained isolated until 1967! Essentially it is the last frontier of Taiwan so to speak. Which sadly, means that it was chosen as the Nuclear Power Waste dump for Taiwan’s nuclear power. That being said a trip here doesnt mean foregoing wifi/electricity/ flushing toilets or A/C, so no worries there. More on the history/ facts below.
The thing to note about planning a trip to Orchid Island is that while the transportation to get there needs lots of pre-planning and execution. The planning for activities and stays on the island itself not so much. People there are laidback. While some places require booking way in advance, they wont confirm/ take your deposit to close-in. Guesthouse/shop owners are all generally friendly, but can be unresponsive during busy times/ if you are not on their timeline radar yet. So just be persistent and insistent when asking for details/ confirming your details. But even if you run into issues on arrival, they usually are able to fix it.
Generally, I like Orchid a bit more than Green Island, despite Green Island’s all too important and well curated White Terror Museum.
Orchid Island, Home of the Tao People 悟族族
Before we dive into my guide, I think its important to give you some of the cultural items I learned from the locals. You can certainly skip over and head on to the next section where the guide actually begins, or return to this part later.
First, in general Taiwan rhetoric the people of Orchid Island are referred to as the Yami (Yamei) people, or the Yami tribe in Indigenous populations. It was not until I arrived and learned from locals as well as read up on my history that I learned their preferred reference and actual lineage is the Tao People. The below summary of Tao people and their culture is derived mainly from the perspective of their traditional homes. But often home being where the heart is, is also at the core of culture and history.
The Tao people did not have a written language nor did they document family lineage or history. It was mostly oral/ through carvings/ family and ancestral goods that were handed down. As such they do not know when exactly their faction of Tao ended up in Orchid Island from the Philippines and often the family elder does not know the full length or history of their family.
Tao people rely on fishing (mainly flying fish) as well as agriculture (pigs, goats, wet taro). Fishing is probably the biggest part of their diet and culture. So much so that one of Taiwan’s most famous cultural symbols is actually the wooden Tao Canoes. Canoes take 4-6 months to construct, there are two sizes, a smaller one for 1 person and a larger one for a family/ community. They hand cut the wood from the forest into long piece, hand cut/ curve the wood as well as hand nail the piece together to form the canoes. Then, they paint it themselves. Every one has the traditional symbols of flying fish, human, their upper being’s eye’s, fish’s eyes. Each will also have a symbol of their family/ self-identity to distinguish each canoe from another. Canoes are used traditionally for fishing for flying fish. There is a big ceremony to launch a new canoe as well as a big festival at the start of flying fish season. The construction process is not every man for himself, the community/ friends and family come together to help.
To counter the humid and hot climate as well as seaside conditions such as typhoons/high winds and salt, the Tao people devised subterranean homes. The subterranean houses have 3 main parts, the subterranean part housing the mina living space, kitchen and sleeping area as well as family heirlooms. The upper house which is usually the living room/ guest house and often where second generation sleeps/ lives before they move out. And finally the pavilion/gazebo used to hang out/ cool down/ air dry flying fish. There is also a large area in front of the house traditionally used to plant wet taro, raise a few pigs or goats, where guests could hang out, where large family dinners would be held, or large sacrificial ceremonies and festivities were carried out. The naturally climate controlled houses are cool in the summer and keep temperate in winter, though still quite stifling when we visited/ stayed. Tao custom is that you cannot have running water or toilets inside the houses as it is bringing in dirty water into the house, and if you have sick people their dirty excrements could contaminate everyone else. As such, toilets are often separate or non-existent in a traditional home. The communities are built along communal pathways that are 3-4 layers above the subterranean houses, this is also where traditionally and in modern times pipes and drainage would be. The rocks outside each house symbolizes who is living there, is it a couple? Is it a couple with kids? Or is it a second generation or is it an elderly couple whose kids have moved or married out?
Tao people have tools for everything, from fishing to cooking to special plates for cooking and eat flying fish, and one for ONLY flying fish! Men can eat certain fish while women cannot, said to be because those fish are more potent and less fresh and as such women and children get the better fish. There is armor made of metal (the only Taiwan indigenous population to use metal in their armor), consisting of body armor and a steel helmet and a spear. Men traditionally wear cloth wrapped thongs as well. There is even a tool to wrap a woman’s stomach to induce an abortion if necessary. In the house there is also a baby cot, the kitchen area has a section for stew/ for grill and for drying. Hanging in the ceiling is carcass of fish, pigs and goats, this is an indication of Tao family’s wealth and resources. There is also an area in the back where they prep fishing gear/ nets as well as lay out flying fish to dry. Flying fish season is April through June, so while they do eat freshly caught ones, a lot is used to ferment/ dry out/ and nowadays frozen.
When entering either a private home’s pavilion or a street side pavilion it is customary and a sign of respect and cleanliness to take one’s shoe off before entering the pavilion.
Sadly, most people no longer live in their subterranean houses or engage in traditional forms of life/ wear traditional attire except on key festivals and cultural events. There are only 2 villages left with actual subterranean houses, and one that truly has them in good condition, YeYin. Most folks have since opted for the concrete houses and many younger generation leave the island for work on the main island leaving the traditional houses to rot in the hot and humid climate of the island. The island remained isolated until 1967, the Japanese colonists left the island be as a social experiment. The KMT government then came and opened it up to the world. They at first built shabby mud/ sandstone houses that could not withstand the winds and rain of the island. They often crumbled and soon were replaced by concrete houses. But the head of YeYin village fought to keep their subterranean houses alive and intact as a means to preserve their culture and heritage and to keep something for future visitors to see. He struck a deal with another village for them to both keep their houses but to be able to use land next door to build modern concrete houses as well. Then came the nuclear waste facility built on the island without the resident’s awareness or agreement. The government dumped money on the island and also provided free electricity to the island residents. Two protests have failed to remove the waste from the island. It is where all of Taiwan’s nuclear energy waste is stored.
Besides most residents opting to live in the concrete houses, many younger generation island residents leave the island for better jobs and opportunities on the main island of Taiwan. There also does not seem to be any real conservation or government assistance in continuing to preserve the local culture and heritage, it is up to local residents and their families with support of interested tourists to come learn and spread the word to help keep the spirit and heritage alive.
When to Go
I would recommend between April and June, when its peak Flying Fish 飛魚season. This way you can fully experience Tao culture as well as the Flying Fish delicacies that tend to run out once the fish are no longer being caught. you can also go out with fisherman to catch the fish and perhaps even witness traditional Tao ceremonies launching new boats or kicking off the season. This is also before the peak Taiwan summer travel season and the island wont be as hot. If this time doesnt work, then end of August to early October is another great time to go.
Getting There and Back
There are a few ways to get to Orchid Island, all involve getting to Taitung first for ease, there is one option for you to get to Kenting/ Hengchun first if you are doing a multi stop journey around Taiwan. Each come with pros and cons and varying travel times, it is completely up to you how to get there. Personally I recommend flying from Taipei to Taitung then flying to Orchid Island. Unless you plan to bring your own dive gear/ heavier outdoor activity gear, then take the ferry given the weight limit for the flights.
When booking any ferry/plane ticket for domestic travel in Taiwan you’ll need a valid ID, for foreigners it would be your passport or ARC (alien resident card), and usually a valid credit card. Mainly for air and train. Ferries tend to be more lax, you just call or Line message and book, no credit card of ID (just name) is needed, and if you no-show you no-show but its a courtesy nonetheless to call and cancel. Refunds/changes usually are allowed, you either call (all have English telephone service) or you can go to the kiosks at train stations or Airports (note: domestic airport counters are only staffed if there are flights within 2 hours).
Getting to Taitung
Flight from Taipei Songshan Airport to Taitung is around NTD$3000 (USD$104) roundtrip. Flight time is around 1 hour. Both Mandarin Air and Uni Air operate the route. This full fare price is most often valid for a year for the exact same route, refund fee is around $NTD150. Domestic flights in Taiwan are very efficient, safe and comfortable.
Train from Taipei Main Station: Depends on which train to take but for comfort and speed of travel down the East Coast (there is no high speed rail on this side) I recommend taking the Puyuma or Taroko Express, travel time is just under 4 hours, although these tickets are extremely hard to get. Tickets for express trains open for sale around 2-3 weeks prior to date of travel at midnight Taipei time, and usually get sold out in seconds, but because people have 24 hours to pay, many tickets open up the next day, there are also always tickets blocked by travel agencies that can become available too. Just note you and family/ friends may not be seated next to each other. These tickets cost around NTD$783 (USD$28) one-way, you can even opt to pre-order a Taiwan railway bento box for the journey, delivered to you at your seat after Hualien station. Tickets are easily changeable/ refunded, except for no-show scenario. There is also the local train that takes anywhere from 5-7 hours.
Then from Taitung to Green Island:
By ferry from Fugang Harbour, the preferred and reliable method: The Fugang Harbour is around a 20 minute taxi from Taitung Airport as well as Taitung Train Station. Ferry costs NTD$575 (USD$20) one way, double that roundtrip. Journey takes about 120 minutes, Important to note that the company LyuDao Zhi Xin 綠島之星 stops at Green Island on the return which makes the travel time around 170+ minutes. Both companies that run the ferries operate 2 Taitung-Lanyu and 2 Lanyu-Taitung ferries, departing 7AM and 12:30AM from Taitung and returning 9:30/10AM and 3/3:30PM from Lanyu. Will depart in any weather except typhoons or extremely rough seas. Vomit bags included. Preferable to book roundtrip and retrieve your tickets in Taitung. Tickets must be picked up in person, there are no e-tickets. Unfortunately the ferry companies do not have English websites and if I recall correctly the phone service also does not. But fear not, ferries dont sell out as easily or as quick as planes or trains, you’re likely to find tickets available up until departure time, unless its peak summer travel season, then usually Saturday morning departure to Orchid Island and Sunday afternoon return from get sold out early. If not, you can always go through a travel agency in Taiwan or have a local friend assist!
Hengchun/Kenting to Orchid Island
In the summers the ferry companies also run a ferry from Kenting/Hengchun to Orchid Island, the travel time and price is the same and schedule is similar to Taitung. Booking process is also the same. This is a convenient option if you are planning to do multiple stops on a bigger around the island trip.
By plane from Taitung Airport on Daily Air:
For Orchid Island, this is the preferable way to get there. Journey time is around 20-20 minutes on a 19-seater Twin Otter turbo-prop plane and operated 6-8 times a day. While much like Green Island flights in that it is heavily weather and wind dependent and flights often get cancelled or delayed, Orchid Island flights are less frequently cancelled. Tickets are also hard to get, Daily Air only sells 4 tickets online per flight, you can call (they do have English service) and book more seats if they sell out online, but also keep in mind a certain % of the flight is reserved for local outer island residents. Daily Air also wont fly unless there is in fact a local resident on board. Tickets go for sale 60 days out at 8AM local time, and are once again sold out in seconds online. One-way ticket is around NTD$1300 (USD$43).
Your BnB/Hostel/Hotel will most likely arrange to meet you at the harbor or airport and then either take you to your accommodation to settle down and receive your transportation or take you directly to the scooter/car rental shops located right next to the harbor. If not, like I said the shops are literally along and across the street from the harbor, I dont believe any shops exist by the airport, so if you fly, make sure to arrange ahead of time.
Getting Around Orchid Island
The island is small but double the size of Green Island. It takes about 2 hours or so to go around the whole island. Roads are mostly paved and there is one single major road that loops around, its flat in some parts but in others it can get quite hilly/mountainous. At night, be vigilant as not every part is lit with street lamps, some parts turn into single lane roads. Orchid definitely requires a motorized vehicle no matter where you are, unlike Green Island.
You will read and be told that it is not recommended to rent a car in Orchid Island, this is not true. The roads may be a tad on the narrower side downtown, but otherwise they are perfectly fine to drive on and mostly well paved. Parking may be an issue but its island life and you can basically park anywhere you can find a spot, just dont infringe on private property, and if you are in a group of 4 or more it almost makes more economic sense to get a car. Finally, unless you have a Taiwanese license to ride a motorbike you will be limited to renting either a car or the electric motorbikes, even if you know how to ride a gas motorbike. Prices are NTD$2000 (USD$69)/day for a car. Motorbike/ electric motorbike ranges from NTD$400-$600/day (USD$13-20) NOTE: electric motorbikes are efficient and more environmentally friendly however their battery only lasts about half a circuit around the island before you have to return to the rental shop to swap out your battery, so plan accordingly and dont push your motorbike to its limit. But would not recommend the bus unless absolutely left with no other choice.
Where To Stay
There are no large hotels or chains to be found on Orchid. There are plenty of Taiwanese style bed and breakfasts/ guest houses and “hotels” that are more like lodges and most are attached to the 3-5 dive shops on the island. The hotels that do exist are basic/ locally run ones. The way to go is to go with a guesthouse/bed and breakfast. There are a few towns to choose to say in, and as mentioned already the island isnt exactly small. While many are locally owned, it does not mean it is staffed or managed locally as many staff are from the main island, just here to live island life for a few months. NOTE: most places are bring your own towel and toiletries on the island.
The area just south of the airport, BaDaiWan 八代灣 is home to many restaurants/bars and lodgings/guesthouses and is near the dive shops. LangDao Iraraley 朗島村 along the northern coast is another main town with options. There are two main towns on the eastern coast. DongQing Bay Iranmeylek Bay 東清灣, where the nightmarket and famous Tao canoe sailing experience is and YeYin Ivalino 野銀村, where the best preserved and last remaining traditional Tao people underground homes exist.
It is at YeYin Ivalino village that I recommend you stay. Especially at 262 民宿 Guest House. This is the ONLY guesthouse on the island where you have a chance to actually stay in a traditional underground home. You book by messaging them on Line app, they are quite responsive but can take a while during peak times. And while I communicated in Mandarin, I do believe using English or help of google translate is ok, just explain to them you dont speak Mandarin, they are super friendly. Plus, they told us that may foreigners love to stay in the underground house, so they most certainly can and have accommodated non-Mandarin speakers! The underground house is actually housed in the former living room house of the family underground home complex. It sleeps a maximum of 4 adults each on a futon with pillow and blanket provided, at NTD$1000/person/night (USD$33). There are outlets, a mini fridge, a fan and since 2016, A/C as well. The bathroom is separate, housed below the private open-air gazebo that is your’s to use (though when the family patriarch is guiding tours of the house he will use it with guests), and has flushing toilet, hot water heater and a sink/racks, and yes, it is actually very clean. I would note that even an average height person will need to do a lot of bending/ kneeling/ crawling in some parts of navigating the room, so definitely not an accessible room option. Breakfast is included. NOTE: please be gentle and vigilant when staying here. The walls and paintings and some artifacts are all original and were hand painted and built by the owner’s maternal grandfather, it is irreplaceable art. They can also help you arrange your car/moped rental as well as book any activity you might want to do, though as we learned most activities can just be done on arrival, unless you are traveling during peak tourism months of June-August.
What to Do
The key things to do on the island is really to get in touch with nature and to explore/ learn about the Tao people and their culture/ history. They are after all, one of the best preserved Indigenous people tribe culture in Taiwan.
We also happened to be there for the first annual Inawan Cultural Festival, a local arts/craft/ music festival. Small and cute in scale but nonetheless pretty neat to check out.
Getting to Know the Tao People and Culture
This is the most unique thing to do on the island in my opinion.
If you are unable to book the traditional underground home 地下屋 at 262, no worries, I would then recommend walking up to them and ask to tour the house. The owner’s dad will gladly take you on a tour for a small fee. Unfortunately in Mandarin only. His tours are the least commercial and most authentic from what we observed. But this is where we learned so much about the island, its people, culture and history.
At DongQing Iranmeylek Bay 東清灣, you can pay around NTD$500 (USD$15) for a 30 min- 1 hour ride in the bay on a traditional hand carved/built Tao canoe 平板木舟. These canoes have become a key symbol for Taiwan and its tourism bureau, in fact you will definitely see images of the canoes or Tao men in their thongs and the canoes at the airport or in any Taiwan tourism ad/video campaign. If you get a really nice and cool canoe owner, they will even let you do some of the rowing! You will see a bunch of old fisherman hanging out on a concrete gazebo by the steps leading down to the beach where the canoes are. Approach them and just say you would like to do the canoe experience 木舟體驗 and they will explain the price and duration, you put on your lifevest and they bring you to their canoe, and off you go.
Just south of the airport is the Lanyu Museum, which is a small museum with guided tours as well. While major signs and placards have English, many are in Mandarin only. Nonetheless the museum entry fee is only around NTD$100 (USD$3) and is worth a brief stop to check out some Tao people artifacts and get a over all feel of the island’s history and culture.
During the flying fish season, I would definitely recommend going out on a fishing trip with the fisherman. While no longer done in the canoes, but rather larger industrial fishing vessels, I have been told it is still a very fun experience. I did learn that in some cases you will still be able to find a fisherman who can take you out on the canoes to do some light fishing. This is also when I would see if you can participate in some cooking or help a fisherman hang up flying fish to dry to make dried flying fish and all byproducts. Of course, if you happen on a festival, that would be even more spectacular.
Diving in Orchid Island is fantastic. Great visibility, great biodiversity and healthy coral. There are both boat dive and easy shore dive options. It is also less crowded and saturated than Green Island. Where Green has what seems like hundreds of dive shops, Orchid has less than 10. We went with Tung Lung Diving Inn 東龍潛水 that also has rooms to stay in too. Full day rental of full equipment including snorkel and fins is NTD $1000 (USD$33) and 2 tank shore dive was around NTD$1000 as well. They only do morning boat dives but shore dives are all day. They also do experience dives for those uncertified divers, wherein an instructor essentially carries you as you “float” through the waters, but you are still diving below the surface in full gear (no fins). I would recommend them. While there was some slow response times and some miscommunication, they were ultimately very friendly and accommodating. The instructors are also very great and they use good equipment.
The shore dive site we went to was YuNu Yan 玉女岩. The area includes some cool caves and valleys to dive through.
The remainder of types of things to do are all outdoor nature activities. Be it hiking or going to “secret sites” 秘境 and staring at rock formations.
A popular place for sunset/sunrise and general views is the LanYu Weather Station 蘭嶼氣象站, where you can even see the ruins of the original Japanese colonial station. You cannot drive all the way to the top, you must park at the main entrance and then its about a short 15-20 min hike to the top. The views from here are worth it.
The best place on the island for sunset though is at Green Green Grassland 青青草原 on the Southwest corner of the island. Park your car along the road, grab the only locally brewed craft beer (if available and in season, seems like a summer only thing) if not just any lager they sell from 人之水精釀啤酒 yojo.craftbeer on the back of their moped right at the entrance before walking down the path to the cliffside grass field for the sunset. Oh you will likely be with the rest of the tourists on the island at this time.
Many rock formations lined and dot the coast, the key ones all have their own signs and appear on google maps, so if you pass and are unsure, just pull up maps and see which formation it was. It is up to you if you think they are worth stopping for. One of the most popular ones is Lover Cave 情人洞 and the DongQing mijing 東清秘境. Both require some walking from the roadside and most or some of the path is along volcanic rock, so bring appropriate shoes or wear water shoes for safer grip. The DongQing MiJing requires you to climb down ladders to the inlet of water below (in the past they didnt have ladders installed). But just think instagram/ influencersinthewild style places. There is also the 野銀冷泉 YeYin Cold Hot Spring, aka a series of saltwater pools protected by volcanic rock.
Where / What to Eat
Orchid Island is not known for gourmet food. It’s main food items revolve around Flying Fish, but thats if fresh ones are in season. Taro is another common ingredient on the island. There are a handful of popular restaurant/cafes/bars that many people recommend. Most are good mainly for the vibes. A handful are actually good for the food. But I knew this coming to the island so I was not overly disappointed with the food. There are also 2 7-11s on the island, one on the west side and one on the east coast in DongQing. The DongQing night market is tiny but has lots of delicious food options.
All places listed below are actually on Google Maps with accurate locations and unless otherwise noted accurate hours too.
The other important thing to note is that most restaurants/bars are staffed by main island students/ young people who come here to work and get paid with free housing for a few months. Dont expect great service, but that does not mean these folks dont try or are not nice.
WenWen Taro Ice Restaurant 雯雯芋頭冰
Popular roadside shop selling souvenirs as well as taro ice, taro ice cream, black tea taro ice cream float, fried flying fish and other hot meals. The taro items are good and the flying fish was fairly decent too. Definitely a place to check out/ come back to on your trip.
Driftwood Restaurant 漂流木餐廳
One of the most famous and popular restaurants on the island. The food is creative but mediocre. The best item was the roasted pig. The flying fish roe risotto was not good nor was the flying fish chili sauce pasta. English menu available.
HongShao Flying Fish A-Bei 紅燒飛魚阿伯 (Hours vary)
Located diagonally across from 262 Guesthouse is this unassuming shack attached to the owner, a fisherman, house. He may not be manning the kitchen at all times, so there is literally a sign that says to call his cellphone if they are open (you will know as the door will be open and lights to kitchen on). Amazingly, the menu is both in English and Mandarin. The owner catches his fish and seafood daily. Sadly he had run out of flying fish for the season. But the dishes we ordered were fantastic. Here is an insider’s note: pre-order your breakfast flying fish rice ball 飛魚飯糰 for the next morning. His are good, fresh and delicious and because he only makes them if you order, you are guaranteed to eat it unlike another more famous place on the other side of the island that sells out by 6AM, even before they open!
Located in YeYin, this is a very popular and happening bar. We could see why. A mix of indoor and outdoor seating. It has very chill island vibes and decent drink selection/cocktails, the food is just ok. But a very great place to hang out. It is also one of the few places that is open past 9PM.
An open air bar/cafe right along the water. It has fantastic views and truly laidback island vibes. The food was surprisingly tasty, get the Thai Green Curry. And nice selection of drinks as well. English menu available.
Local drink shop with delicious and fresh Taro Milk beverage, highly recommend it. Also in YeYin.
DongQing Night Market 東清夜市
Walk around and see what tickles your fancy. The main things I ate were all from stalls in the central area with seating. All items were really quite tasty and rather unique night market food you likely wont find elsewhere in Taiwan, like the fried Taro-Flying-Fish bun.
A Li Gei Breakfast Restaurant 阿力給早餐店
We did not get to try this place as failed twice to get the famous Flying Fish rice ball. We arrived right before 6AM for their opening at 6:30AM, and it was already sold out. You have to arrive super super early, place your order, get your number and just wait. Each person is limited to 1 rice ball and you must be present to order and claim your’s, no ordering for your buddy who cant get out of bed.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Orchid Island. It is almost the most raw experience you can get in Taiwan these days. While the food is nothing to drive home about, many of the other aspects really offer a unique experience in Taiwan. It probably helped that my accommodation was also very special. But between the local culture and heritage, not commonly this accessible and easily found with other Taiwanese Indigenous populations as well as the spectacular diving and nature, it is such a wonderful place to visit.
I highly recommend you check out Orchid Island, and honestly why not just hop over to Green Island on your way back and check out the White Terror Museum and dive some more.