Lanyu (Orchid) Island

This is a guest post by blogger Dominic Le Croissette

Lanyu Island is an enticingly remote outpost, lying 65km east of the southern tip of mainland Taiwan, and just 110km north of the Batan Islands of the Philippines. For some – me included – the main attraction is the birds. There is one true endemic species, the tiny Lanyu Scops Owl, as well as five other bird species that are either very rare or entirely absent on the Taiwanese mainland. Herpetologists come here to see the four species of sea snakes that inhabit the waters around the island. The diving and snorkelling scene on the island is flourishing. For visitors without specialized interests, the island still has much to offer: unique rock formations, majestic coastal views, and the Yami aboriginal culture – which has more in common with the Philippines than mainland Taiwan – are all there to be soaked up on a scooter tour around the island.

That’s not to say that tourism has taken over the island; Lanyu still retains a rough-and-ready feel. Locals greatly outnumber visitors, accommodation is in family-run homestays rather than hotels, and pigs and goats wander the streets in the same way they have done for generations.

The journey to the island is imperfect and adds to its allure of remoteness. You can choose between a short but thrilling flight on a 19-seater plane from Taitung airport, or a ferry from one of two departure points, Fugang Harbor near Taitung or Houbihu Fishing Harbor near Kenting. Schedules are unpredictable: flights are frequently cancelled due to bad weather, boats stranded in port because of rough seas, and tickets often sell out far in advance, especially on weekends and holidays. The bumpy twenty-minute plane ride is said to be a nerve-racking experience on a windy day, while the ferry crossing is known to turn even the strongest stomachs inside out and the most robust sea legs to jelly.

I opted for the Houbihu ferry because of its relatively close proximity to Kaohsiung. Booking a ticket in advance proved tricky. It was hard to find up-to-date information online – you will need the help of a Chinese speaker to call the ferry company to confirm the latest schedules. Alternatively, you could ask your chosen homestay or guesthouse on Lanyu to book the ferry for you.

My inflexible schedule presented another problem. High seas or strong winds often lead to ferry cancellations, and with only two days to play with, I didn’t want to be stuck on Lanyu when I had to be back at work on Monday. So I watched the weather and sea forecasts avidly all week and only made my final decision late on Friday night. A successful birding trip is also rather weather-dependent, and I was worried that the owl in particular would be hard to find in very rainy or windy conditions.

An advantage to traveling alone – and arriving at the port early on the day – is that you will be in prime position for “stand by” to take the place of anyone who didn’t show up. Speaking no Chinese also seemed to work for me. Anyone nervous about missing out on a ticket, or those traveling in groups, should book in advance – or travel midweek when there is less demand for tickets.

Getting to Houbihu could be a little tricky without your own transport. No doubt you can take a taxi there from Hengchun or Kenting; printing out the name of Houbihu Fishing Harbor in Chinese and showing it to the driver will hopefully avoid any miscommunication. If traveling under your own steam from Kaohsiung, the journey takes just over two hours by scooter. Follow highways 17, 1 and 26 until you pass the town of Hengchun and there is a large and obvious 7-11 store on the right. Turn right here and follow the brown signs (in English) to Houbihu Fishing Harbor. When you arrive at the intersection next to the port, bear right then turn left; the Lanyu ferry leaves from the western end of the harbour, from outside the red, white and blue gas station building.

You should aim to arrive early; my ferry was scheduled to leave at 07.30, but actually pulled away from port at 07.15. Presumably all the pre-booked passengers had arrived. My gamble paid off, but it would be best to call the ferry company to double check schedules before making the journey to Kenting.

The crossing takes 2.5 hours each way, longer if the sea is rough. My return journey was particularly exciting, featuring apocalyptic scenes of huge churning waves, drenching spray, and grim-faced passengers emptying their stomach contents while clinging to the railing for dear life. If you’re prone to seasickness, the best advice is to stay out on deck and stare at the horizon, something which as a birder I do anyway while looking for seabirds (which is probably the reason I don’t get seasick). Taking ginger before the journey is said to be an effective natural remedy.

Approaching Lanyu by boat on a sunny morning is a wonderful experience. The sea around the island is an almost impossible shade of deep, dark blue, from which the steep, forested slopes of the central mountain range rise sharply. The quayside was like the arrivals hall at an airport, with signboards and waiting taxis; almost everyone was being met by a representative from a guesthouse or homestay. I had prearranged nothing, and decided to walk to the nearest village which is about half a mile from the port (turn right), but I had only gone about fifty yards when an American-accented voice called out from the window of a passing car in perfect English, asking me if I had anywhere to stay.

So began a wonderful Lanyu island weekend, which turned out to be the warmest, most personal and most authentic travel experience I’ve so far had in Taiwan. The American accent belonged to the outgoing and vivacious Yui, who runs the Yapiya homestay in Yeyin village, on the east side of the island, and from the very first moment I arrived I felt completely at home there. Yui herself divides her time between her Lanyu island birthplace, and the rather contrasting city of Chicago. Her family run a spotless guesthouse, and in typically Lanyu low-key fashion provide all the services visitors need. Rooms have air conditioning, shared bathroom, and cost a very reasonable 1,200NT a night for two people in the high season; I paid a little less because I was traveling alone. Out of season rates are lower.

My first priority – after a quick and delicious meal in the small restaurant behind the Yapiya homestay – was to get some wheels and go see some birds. Yui immediately arranged a scooter for me, for the modest cost of 400NT per 24 hours. Scooter rentals are available everywhere, and it’s the most practical way to see the island; a Taiwanese or international driving licence is required. There is only one gas station, next to the ferry port, so make sure you have enough fuel to complete the 40km circuit if setting out on a round-island tour.

I spent the rest of the day making my way around Lanyu’s rugged circumference, enjoying not only the birds but also weird rock formations, lush tropical forest, and scruffy aboriginal settlements. The occasional glass-and-wood, air-conditioned, wifi-offering, Latte-serving coffee shop hinted at Lanyu’s tourist-driven future, but for the most part life in the villages appeared to continue in much the same way and at the same pace as it has done for generations. The island has much in common with the Philippines, and certainly felt far removed – not only geographically – from mainland Taiwan, while the grazing livestock (mainly goats) and dry stone walls almost made it feel like a tropical Scotland at times.

IMG_3284At the crown of the hill on the only cross-island road, a weather station affords beautiful views to both sides of Lanyu. Just behind it, a little-visited rest platform allows the weary visitor to contemplate the splendid views while drifting into an afternoon nap – which is not a bad course of action for someone feeling the effects of a 3.30am wake-up call in Kaohsiung.

With only one night to play with and not wanting to risk missing out on good views of Lanyu’s star bird, Lanyu Scops Owl, I signed up for an owl tour that departed at 7.30pm. The guide met our small group outside the Yapiya homestay at 7.30pm and we drove south (on scooters) for a couple of kilometers as far as a kind of white monument and concrete road on the right. Upon entering the forest, we immediately heard Lanyu Scops Owls calling, and over the course of a couple of hours we saw about 7 of them including a pair around a nest hole.

There were at least 40 other visitors looking for the owls – and other endemic night wildlife – in the forest here, in various small guided groups. It was good to see local guides benefiting directly from the owl, and should help to ensure its continued protection here – I happily paid my 250NT for the experience and would do so again.

My Lanyu visit was summed up during the early evening in Yeyin village. I bought some flying fish – an abundant local delicacy – at the small night market, before Yui and I relaxed out front of the Yapiya homestay to enjoy a cold beer as the sun was setting. Pigs and dogs wandered around, and the streets were full of local people talking, gossiping, or just taking in the cool evening air. Villagers stopped by to talk to us, or to practice their English with me. Although I stayed only for one night, I was left with the overwhelming sense of having been a part of this small but proud community, not as an outsider but as an honoured guest – something I will never forget. I hope to return to Lanyu Island soon.

Getting there: Flights from Taitung Airport on Daily Air, ferry from Houbihu Fishing Harbor (near Kenting), or Fugang Harbor (near Taitung).

Staying there: Yapiya homestay (tel: 089-732893).

Getting around: Scooter rental 400-500NT per 24 hours, Taiwan or international driving licence required.

Do and see: diving, snorkelling, birding, rock formations, aboriginal culture, owl tour (all activities can be arranged at the Yapiya homestay).

A full report of the birds I saw on Lanyu can be read here: http://birdingaroundtaiwan.com/2014/06/10/lanyu-island-specialities-june-7th-and-8th/

About the Author:

Dominic Le Croissette is a teacher and a birder currently living in Taiwan, where he spends his free time exploring the island on his Kawasaki Ninja. You can check out more of his adventures on his blog BirdingAroundTaiwan.com

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Comments

  1. meetyouatthebridgenl says:

    Great story! We plan to go to Lanyu Island by boat this week. Hope our stomach will survive! How many days would you suggest to visit Lanyu ?

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