Author Chris van Laak
Photographer Chris van Laak, East Coast National Scenic Area
The East Coast Scenic Area comprises nine major tourism brands: ‘Changbin/Fengbin Bin footloose, be yourself! (雙濱生活趣)’, ‘Xiuguluan River A river runs through it(秀姑巒大河戀)’, ‘Chenggong The journey to success（成功人事）’, ‘Donghe Catch your own waves!（東河大風吹)’ , ‘Fugang Stay and play, rock the port(富岡港港好)’, ‘South Link (Nanhui) Another breezy day on Southern Line(悠遊南迴)’, ‘East Coast Paradise(綠島天堂島嶼)’, and ‘Orchid Island（蘭嶼區）’.
Far away from Taiwan’s urban centers, Taitung is the relaxed antipode of the hustle and bustle. But beyond the striking beauty of its lush green mountains meeting the sea, there is even more to be discovered. Layers upon layers of hidden gems make Taitung stand out among Taiwan’s east coast counties—as a place where history and cultural exchanges have created a unique vibe.
A short drive north from Taitung City sits Donghe Township’s Dulan Village, the mythical birthplace of the Amis people, one of 16 nationally recognized indigenous peoples of Taiwan, and previously a center of Taitung’s sugar industry since the Japanese colonial era.
A sensory dive into the forest
Long ago, sugarcane was the main product of the family business that is now Xiangquan Agri-Creation（祥銓農創）. Forestry initially played a minor role, but when the local sugar refinery closed, it became the main focus. Now, with a younger generation of family members returning from the big cities with fresh ideas of sustainability and wellness, the company has reinvented itself again.
As part of a network of community-oriented businesses, it now helps visitors take home the sensory experience of Taitung.
Camphor, sourced sustainably from the local forest, and agarwood grown on-site are just two kinds of wood Xiangquan turns into products that appeal to all senses. The most exciting among them might be essential oils that it extracts from the wood, and members of the family, such as Scott Lin, stand ready to share their knowledge about the process’ secrets with visitors.
This is what truly sets Xiangquan apart: The company is as much about its natural products as it is about sharing their story, and letting visitors take part in their creation. After a visit to its orchard and distillation facilities, it is time for visitors to get their hands greasy and create aromatherapy wax melts from up to eight kinds of wood themselves.
“As a native wood company, we provide themed trips to help visitors experience the east coast in a different way,” Scott says.
Delicacies with a twist
Living off the land and sharing its story is also central to Jin Luan Vietnamese Cuisine（錦鸞越南美食）, a restaurant across the street from Xiangquan that offers delicacies that give local ingredients an international twist.
Jin Luan, the restaurant’s chef and its heart and soul, came to Taiwan over 20 years ago to start a family—and a family business. In Taitung, she did not just find people eager to enjoy her cooking, but also the right climate to source ingredients locally. From banana plants growing just outside the restaurant, Jin Luan picks fruits and leaves, as well as the otherwise rarely used flowers that can give salads a tangy twist.
Dulan is a great place to start a stay in Taitung, no matter how long: Easily accessible from the city, it showcases Taitung’s natural beauty and how people of diverse backgrounds have contributed to shaping its unique vibe. Local Amis, Taiwanese of no indigenous background and foreigners of many nationalities call the village by the ocean home.
Donghe – Catch your own waves
By the ocean in Longchan, no matter the weather, you might find groups of visitors collecting whatever the ocean has washed ashore. They are led by Daylen, who is originally from Taipei, and April, who is from Kaohsiung and moved to Longchang after living in Hong Kong for some years. Together they run Wildkids Workshop（髒孩子工作室）, another community-oriented venture, centered on a cafe that serves great coffee alongside homemade pastries, sourdough bread and more.
Taking visitors to the beach is not just a way to get them engaged in preserving the local environment, it is also the first step of their regular indigo-dyeing activities.
In the cafe’s lush garden, bottle caps, pieces of rope and the rubber soles of shoes mindlessly discarded into the ocean elsewhere become the basis of patterns dyed under the tutelage of the two. The pieces of trash are cleaned and then, by those participating in the activity, artfully (or not so artfully) wrapped into pieces of fabric. After being soaked in indigo solution, the pieces emerge sporting surprising (and surprisingly beautiful) patterns that give the flotsam a second life before it is disposed of a second time, this time properly.
Southern Line – Another breezy day on Southern Line
Contributing to the community earns visitors the respect of the locals—it is the same here as it is everywhere else. Integrating good-willing newcomers and openness to their ways of doing things has for long been practiced by the indigenous communities in eastern Taiwan—an area that has seen cultural exchanges since time immemorial.
As early as 3,500 years ago the Austronesian ancestors of today’s indigenous Taiwanese have set sail from Taiwan’s coast to populate places as far away as New Zealand and Madagascar. Those who stayed behind are proud of their role in human history.
Keeping traditions alive
The Pinuyumayan（普悠瑪） are another indigenous people living in Taitung, with their heartland south of Taitung City.
Indigenous woodcarvings are striking features of Jianhe Village（建和部落）, a Pinuyumayan community of the Kasavakan tribe（卑南族） that was resettled to its current location during the Japanese colonial period. The village’s 1,600 people, including those who moved there from elsewhere, take cultural heritage seriously and know how to keep Kasavakan traditions alive. Art is one way of doing so, as are community activities such as the New Year’s festival for which the village’s festival ground with its traditionally built houses is used.
A thing that sets the community apart is that its original religious practices are as alive today as they were before Christianity arrived in Taitung. Only few people in Jianhe attend services in the village’s church, which was built by someone who had recently moved there, said Chen Gang, who runs Lulao, a restaurant and event space for traditional artistry.
The community’s strong sense of self has also helped its elders pass down to the younger generations the legends of the past, such as the myth that the Kasavakan once migrated from a small island in the Pacific that has since disappeared in a flood, somewhere between Orchid Island and Green Island. Or another legend of a brother and sister who had such a strained relationship with their stepmother that they willed themselves into becoming birds and flying away. Now, whenever a community member encounters a brown wood owl or an eastern grass owl, they are treated like family.
A place to flourish
Understanding that traditions need a place in order to flourish, Chen Gang started turning a discussed Japanese-era building once used for breeding cattle and deer into what it is now. One of the many things that visitors can learn from community members there is weaving rattan into decorative products—another activity that helps keep a traditional art alive and make it economically viable for those practicing it.
As for visitors, no one will leave Jianhe hungry—as feasting on Kasavakan delicacies is a great way to wind down from educational activities. And the staff at Lulao, as many others in Taitung, ensure that the memories of the place will continue to nurture visitors’ souls long after their trip.
Looking to visit Taiwan? Sign up for MyTaiwanTour’s 3-Day Eastern Forest Sustainable Group Tour!