Orchid Island (not to be confused with the Fijian Island of the same name), known in the the local Tao language as Ponso No Tao (Island of the people), and in Chinese as Lanyu (蘭嶼) is a secret indigenous people's paradise off the southeastern coast of Taiwan. It is different than any other place in Taiwan, and has the best preserved indigenous culture anywhere in the country. If Taiwan's best tourist activity is experiencing the culture of Taiwan's indigenous peoples, then Lanyu has the best tourist experience anywhere in Taiwan.
Orchid Island became inhabited about 800 years ago by the Tao indigenous people (達悟族) (aka Yami people 雅美族, which is a name coined by the Japanese, but the native people prefer Tao), which are thought to have traveled from the Batanes Islands in the Philippines , which are a little less than 200 KM away, cut off by the Bashi Channel. However Orchid Island is very different than the Philippines.
Beginning in1644, some Dutch Sailors were sent to investigate the island, and some settled there among the natives. Because of this, the Island was known as Red Head Island (紅頭嶼) by the Chinese and the Japanese.
After the Dutch were defeated in Taiwan, Lanyu was claimed but not controlled by the Qing Dynasty.
The Japanese claimed the Island shortly after the Sino-Japanese War in 1895, but protected it as an "ethnological research site" and forbid outsiders from entering.
After the Republic of China took over Taiwan following the end of WWII, they continued to ban visitors to the island until 1967, after which tourists were allowed to enter and public schools were built there.
Christian missionaries began preaching and living on the island starting in the 1950s, and now basically all native people on the island are Christian (mixed with traditional beliefs). However Christianity was introduced much earlier starting with the Dutch in the 1600s although to a lesser extent.
In 1982 a nuclear waste storage plant was built on the south side of the Island without the islanders consent, causing protests from the inhabitants. Also because of this, the Island inhabitants receive free electricity.
The island is volcanic in nature, with the last major eruption being over 5 million years ago. The highest mountain is 552 meters (1,811 feet).
Currently there are 2,400 people permanently living on the island, 90% of them being of native Tao descent.
The Tao people number in about 2,000 living on Orchid Island, with about another 2,000 living on the Taiwan mainland. The Tao people rely on the sea for survival, and much of their traditions and lifestyle is centered on fishing.
The Tao people are mostly Christian but also still practice many of their traditional beliefs. However their ancestral religion included a pantheon of Gods.
Traditional roles for men are fishing while roles for women include harvesting taro and sweet potato and weaving. The men usually fish at night or early morning and rest on traditional wooden platforms during the day.
Boats are made from planks of wood and are painted with red, white, and black. The boat usually has human figures, waves, and the traditional sun image (red and black circles and sun rays) which is said to warn off evil spirits. Boats are considered sacred and the ultimate human creation. There is also a launching ceremony for new boats in which traditional clothes and headgear (such as silver helmets for men and wooden hats for women) are worn, pigs are slaughtered, and the boat is lifted into the air multiple times before being set in the water. Traditional clothes include loin cloths and vests for men, and aprons and vests for women. Young people on the street usually do not wear traditional dress.
Flying Fish Festival:
There are three basic seasons on Lanyu: one is the flying fish season when flying fish can be easily caught and used in and lasts from February to May. The other seasons are from May to October and October to February, when flying fish cannot be caught for ceremonial use. There are many taboos during flying fish season which are discussed below.
The Flying Fish Festival lasts from aboutMarch to October when flying fish are caught. During this time many ceremonies take place such as for the beginning of the festival, plentiful harvest, etc. During the festival, there are multiple migrations of flying fish species near Lanyu. There are many taboos during this time, especially when it comes to catching and eating flying fish which are the main life source of the Tao people.
Weather and Climate:
The island has a tropical rain forest climate, with average high temperatures between 20 and 30 degrees year round. The rainy months are in summer, especially due to Typhoons, but the most sunny days are also in summer (expect a lot of sun), and the most rainy days are in winter. Summer is the tourist season, but spring and fall are also popular times to visit. Winters are said to be dreary, cold, and have constant northeastern winds that can stop airplanes and ferries from departing to the island.
When to go:
The best time to go they say is around May when it is not too hot and there are no northeasterly winds or typhoons which can cancel your transportation to the island.
Typhoon season lasts from around June to October. The busy season is during summer break from June to August, during which time it can be hard to book a hostel or airplane ticket. Winter is the less crowded season, but the water will be cold, there will be constant wind (which could cancel transportation), and it will rain more often.
How to get there:
The only planes to and from Orchid Island come from Taitung.
Flight times: As of the time of this blog, there were six flights per day byDaily Air Corporation from about8 AM to 4 PM (Please note their website is only in Chinese). The flight from Taitung to Lanyu takes about 25 minutes. Please note that the aircraft are small and flights can be cancelled due to high winds or unfavorable weather.
Costs: NT 1428 to Lanyu and NT 1360 from Lanyu.
There are two places that offer ferry rides to Lanyu: Houbihu Harbor (恆春後壁湖漁港） in Pingtung and Fugang Harbor in Taitung (臺東富岡漁港). There are also two ferry companies that operate at both harbors. Both companies leave from both harbors at the same time and arrive at the same time for the same price (2300 NT per person round trip).
Ferry Boat costs:
2300 NT per person round trip from both Taitung or Pingtung. Both ferry companies have the same price.
Ferry Boat Times:
7:30 AM departure, 9:30 AM arrival to Lanyu.
1:00 PM departure, 3:00 PM arrival to Lanyu.
10:00 departure from Lanyu, 12:00 arrival to Taitung or Pingtung.
3:30 PM departure from Lanyu, 5:30 PM arrival to Taitung or Pingtung.
Both ferry companies depart and arrive at the same time to both locations.
Getting around the island:
Rent a scooter! The island is small so you should not need to rent a car. You can rent bicycles but you will not be able to travel as fast. You can also hire a driver to take you on tours.
Ask your hostel for more rental information. They can help you book a rental in advance.
Price: expect 500 NT per day.
Be sure to book your rental in advance, especially during summer weekends. Ask for help from your hostel owner if needed.
I am 100% percent certain you do not need a Taiwan local license to rent scooters here, however they may ask for an international license (but I'm fairly sure they will let you rent without one).
Helmet wearing is not enforced at all as you will quickly find, but it's still the law.
Also be careful to not hit any goats because they wander as they please.
There is only one gas station next to Kaiyuan Fishing Harbor.
Price: expect 2000 NT per day.
Don't rent a car unless you absolutely need to. Renting scooters should be sufficient for most travelers.
Booking accommodation on the island can be difficult in summer months and on weekends, when rooms can be fully booked for months in advance. AirBnb has the most choices, however there is also a nice selection on Booking.com. Here is a list of every registered hostel on the island, but it is in Chinese.
My hostel required that I pay for my room in advance via bank wire transfer (this may not be an option if you are a foreign traveler, so make sure they accept credit cards if you do not have a Taiwan bank account).
Expect to pay 2000 - 4000 NT per night for a standard double room on Lanyu.
Please see below:
We are US Expats that have extensive experience living and working in Taiwan. In our day, we had to learn many things about Taiwan the hard way. But we have come to learn that Taiwan is one of the best places in the world for Foreigners to live. Our blog does not represent the opinions of every foreigner in Taiwan. We are just trying to help others learn more about this beautiful country.