National Parks & Forest Recreation Areas
There are three national parks in the south: Kenting, a beach playground with some well-protected areas into which few people venture; Taijiang, Taiwan's eighth national park and a storehouse for ecological and cultural heritage along the southwest coast; and Yushan. Maolin Forest Recreation Area is a stronghold for indigenous culture and also holds an important overwintering valley for the purple butterfly, while Shuangliou Forest Recreation Area has a gorgeous waterfall.
Sandimen to Kenting National Park
The top attraction in the south is Kenting National Park, and getting there is half the fun if you take the right route. The most delightful way to reach Kenting, and the only way to go by bike, is to start in Sandimen and ride to Fangliao on County Road 185. This absolutely idyllic road runs flat for 46km. From Fangliao, it's another 50km to the edge of Kenting. There's bad traffic on this stretch, but you can minimise it by taking the coastal roads into Kenting once you pass Checheng.
In the boondocks around Kaohsiung and Tainan, you’ll come across some of the more unusual sights in Taiwan – mudstone badlands and mud volcanoes.
Mt Tsao Moon World (草山月世界; Cǎoshān Yuè Shìjiè), reachable from Tainan, is a grimly picturesque landscape of barren eroded cliffs and pointy crags. There are places in Taiwan that feel as remote, but few that feel as bewitchingly desolate. To reach Moon World, follow Hwy 20 and turn left around the Km27 mark towards Nanhua. Proceed about 1km and then turn right at the sign for Moon World. Five kilometres further, turn left at the next set of signs. From here it's 9km to Hill 308, which has panoramic views over the badlands.
If you are on the way to Meinong from Tainan, Tianliao Moon World, a geopark off Hwy 28 in Tianliao, is worth a look. The strange Martian landscape here will make you wish you'd paid attention in geography class. Moon World is also accessible by public transport. Red bus 70 leaves from Gangshan South MRT Station in Kaohsiung six times a day between 8am and 6pm. The last bus back is at 7.40pm.
One of the most volatile hydrothermal areas in Taiwan is the Wushanding Mud Volcanoes (烏山頂泥火山, Wūshāndǐng Níhuǒshān) in Yanchao (燕巢, Yàncháo), 27km north of Kaohsiung. This, the smallest nature reserve (just under 5 hectares) in Taiwan, has two mud volcanoes and, although their height and shape change constantly with the weather, they are normally no taller than 1.5m so you can get really close to the craters to see the boiling pot of grey goo. Visitors have to show some form of ID to the makeshift office at the entrance of the small volcano area.
Unique geothermal reactions can also be seen in a pair of gurgling pools in Xin Yangnyu Mud Pond (新養女湖; Xīn yǎngnǚhú) or the Lake of the New Adopted Daughter near Wushanding. Originally known as the Lake of Boiling Water, it was renamed after a popular melodrama was shot here about an adopted daughter who, when forced to marry her step-brother, took her own life by jumping into a lake, rendering it dark and muddy. The bubbling you hear is said to be the poor maiden bemoaning her fate. Buy a tea egg from the store in front of the pools and the chap will light the methane gas that bubbles up from the depths.
To get to Wushanding, first take Hwy 1 to the Gangshan Interchange, then head east out of Yanchao on Rte 38. The volcanoes are to the north of Kaohsiung National Normal University. There are bilingual signs to Wushanding, though we can’t guarantee that you won’t get lost. From Wushanding the road to Xin Yangnyu Mud Pond is signposted.
Worth a Trip: Temple Touring on the Southwest Coast
The southwest coast contains some of the most ancient temples in Taiwan. In most cases these centre on the stars of southern folk faith: Matsu and the Wang Yeh (the Royal Lords, general protectors).
At Luermen, look for the massive Luermen Matsu Temple (鹿耳門天后宮; Lùěrmén Tiānhòugōng), which is near where Koxinga is said to have landed during his campaign against the Dutch. Close by is the Orthodox Luermen Matsu Temple (聖母廟; Shèngmǔ Miào), which reached its outlandish size after a battle for spiritual (and funding) supremacy with the Luermen Matsu Temple in the 1980s. Both temples are near the Sihcao Dazhong Temple and can be reached by bike.
Two temples off Provincial Hwy 19 are well worth the effort to find if you have any interest in traditional temple arts. The Zhenxing Temple (振興宮; Zhènxīng Gōng) in Jiali (佳里), just past the Km119 mark, contains some fantastic tableaux of figures in jiǎnniàn (mosaic-like temple decoration). However, these figures are not on the roof, as is usual, but on the sides of the entrance portico.
At the front of the temple, check out the unique cochin (brightly coloured, glazed ceramic) figures of an old man and woman crouching as if to support crossbeams. They were created by Master Yeh Wang and are called The Fool Crouching to Raise the House.
About 5km north of Jiali, in the town of Xuejia (學甲), the Ciji Temple protects more of the remaining works of Master Yeh Wang. The beautiful works are collected in a four-storey museum beside the temple. Ciji itself is a lovely southern-style temple, with a graceful swallowtail roof, and stonework and woodcarvings from the 19th century.
From Xuejia, head coastwards for Provincial Hwy 17 and you’ll reach Nankunshen Temple (南鯤鯓代天府; Nánkūnshēn Dàitiān Fǔ) within 15 minutes. Established in 1662, this temple is the centre of Wang Yeh worship (don't confuse these gods with Master Yeh Wang). The size of Nankunshen is the direct result of rivalry with a local upstart over who had paramount status in the world of Wang Yeh. Nankunshen won.
On most Sundays the temple explodes with exuberant displays of ritual devotion: there are fireworks, parades and chanting. If possible, try to visit during the Welcoming Festival for Wang Yeh (20 April, lunar calendar).
Madou Temple (麻豆代天府; Mádòu Dàitiānfǔ) in Madou (麻豆), 15km southeast of Xuejia, is the nearest rival of Nankunshen. What you see today comes from 1956 onwards (the original temple dates back to the Ming dynasty) and many Tainanese can claim a common childhood memory of receiving an unorthodox moral education inside the garish, gigantic dragon behind the main temple. To re-create what they went through, pay NT$40 to go to hell from the dragon’s tail, or to ascend to heaven from its mouth. The experience beats Singapore’s Tiger Balm Villa as the demons here don’t stay still; it’s so kitsch it’s fun.