Maolin District of Kaohsiung City is my favorite place in Taiwan, and in Maolin I have spent the most time in Wanshan Village, thanks to a man named Ahbei.
Wanshan is a small village that lies on a mountain slope between Maolin Village and Duona Village. Near the village are waterfalls, streams, hot springs, and great views. Popular activities include swimming, hot spring bathing, river tracing, camping, and hiking.
Wanshan has the smallest population of any village in Taiwan according to the government website here, with a population of just 450 people. 95% of the people are aborigines from the Rukai Tribe (魯凱族), and the rest are either from the Wulu Bunun Tribe (布農) or Han Chinese.
Originally the people of Wanshan village lived at the base of Mali Mountain (麻里山), but were moved by the government in 1956 to their current location.
Many of the inhabitants of Maolin were originally located elsewhere, but had to relocate their home or village due to typhoons or unsafe terrain. There are a few abandoned villages around Maolin that you can still hike to.
One special thing about Wanshan Village is that the intercom speaker from the elementary school (the only school in the village) is within earshot of everyone that lives in the village, so communication from the village leadership is easily passed on (and everyone gets woken up by it in the morning).
When to go:
I recommend going in the summer time when the waterfalls have plenty of water and warm temperatures make it a great time to go swimming. In winter it will be cold and the waterfalls can dry up. However in summer be careful of Typhoons. If there is a Typhoon, the inhabitants of Maolin will be evacuated, and you should not try to go in for your own safety.
On the other hand if you want to go just for hiking, winter would be a better time to go.
If you are coming to see butterflies, the butterfly migration is in the fall and ends roughly in November.
How to get there:
By Car: Maolin can be reached via provincial highway 27 from Pingtung or Liugui. Once you come to Dajin Bridge, go straight up the mountain.
By Bus: You can take a bus there but I don't recommend it. It's a 3 hour bus ride from Pingtung Bus Station. If you can rent a car or scooter it is about a 1.5 hour drive from downtown Kaohsiung.
Map: Please see below:
I have been to Maolin over 8 times and have stayed for there for the better part of a month in total. Most of the time has been spent in Wanshan, thanks to a man named Ahbei.
Ahbei is a friend of a friend, and is one of the few Han Chinese that lives in Maolin (not many Han Chinese live in aboriginal lands like these because only aboriginals can own the land rights). Many years ago he was my friend's neighbor. After he moved to Maolin he invited my friend and his family to trips up the mountain and showed them how to really enjoy the place . When I go with my friend to visit Ahbei we always stay the night at Ahbei's place because he is a nice man and that's what friends do.
Ahbei sells coffee at the tents on top of the mountain (pictured above) for a living. Before that he was polishing dragon bone stones and selling them there. He lives in semi-retirement, and I envy his life.
Bonfires are a common sight in the mountains, but something you would never see in the crowded plainal cities in Taiwan. The night and day temperature difference is much more pronounced here, and it can get cold at night even in the summer. Here, the "flat land 平地" is differentiated from "mountain land 山上" which is all of what Maolin is. The flat land (Taiwan's western coastal plain) is where most everybody works, and the only place you can really buy groceries, gas, or fix a car for instance. Most of the people's children in the village have gone off to the "flat land" to study or work, so most of the people in the village are elderly or only in elementary or middle school (there is no high school in Maolin). The only exception to this rule is during school breaks or holidays when all the children come back and relatives also come back to visit.
For an aerial overview of the village, check out the drone video below:
Hopefully the video above is has convinced you to come to Maolin.
The top ten sights that you have to see in Maolin according to this sign:
I have been to most all of these places, but I do not have pictures of all of them. My top ten and the this sign's top ten are very different.
Now for a list of all my favorite places in Wanshan Village:
Meiya Valley Waterfall 美雅谷瀑布
Okay, so actually I have never been to Meiya Valley Waterfall because it is a pretty gnarly hike. But I have been to the waterfall right next to the parking lot called Handong Waterfall (涵洞瀑布) at least a dozen times. It is my favorite swimming hole in Maolin.
For more about the actual Meiya Valley Waterfall, click here for a blog by Follow Xiaofei.
Handong waterfall is a great place to swim and relax in a tropical mountain paradise. At night, Ahbei would lend us his net and headlamp and we would go catch freshwater shrimp (crayfish) in this pool and take them home for a fried midnight snack. Catching the crayfish was fun but eating them was unfulfilling. I also talked to an aboriginal lady that said she spent most of her childhood in these streams catching crabs and crayfish, which she would bring home to eat for lunch. Sounds like a great childhood to me!
There is also a rope swing attached to a tree above the waterfall which makes it that much more fun.
If you look closely in this photo you can see some yellow butterflies resting on the side of the road. Butterflies are super hard to capture on camera because they move super fast. The butterfly scene in Maolin has always been disappointing for me, but that's not why I come.
Now are you happy?! (JK, this photo is from the butterfly house in the Taipei Zoo. Much easier to shoot than wild butterflies)
The stream emptying out of the back of the pool at Handong Waterfall. You can see a few crayfish traps in the pool down below that people leave during the daytime. One time we caught a small fish in one of these streams with a crayfish net, but I accidentally let it go.
The first time I went to Maolin, Ahebi lived at the bottom of Wanshan village, where there is a campground and some unfinished hot springs. Also, there is easy access to the Zhuokou River where we spent a great deal of time.
The road at the base of Wanshan Village next to the Zhoukou River has been washed out many times. The photo above was taken just after it was washed out by heavy rains in 2017. There are also the remains of two suspension bridges, one bridge leading to no where, which use to be farmland but is now a rocky river bed. The power of extreme rainfall and flooding in the valley is hard to comprehend. Avoid Maolin if there is a Typhoon or heavy rain.
More destruction along the river side.
Secret Local Hot Springs 當地人地秘密溫泉
If you keep going down the riverside, you will find some wild hot springs that have been carved out by the locals. Admission is free but space is limited. There are also some unfinished hot springs near a parking lot that have not been finished for some reason.
Some kids enjoying the natural hot spring water.
Zhuokou Riverside 濁口溪邊
View of the Zhuokou River looking East. This is one of the most peaceful spots in Taiwan. You can just sit there and listen to the river rush, the eagles screech, and the wind blow. You're not in Taiwan as most people know it, you are in a secret mountain paradise.
The river is also a popular swimming spot. The river only gets ankle deep most of the time and is safe to swim in. In the summer the water is warm!
It didn't take us long to find that near the slow spots in the river are some warm pools and mud. Yes, mud. Beautiful mud.
Natural Mud Bathing 天然泥巴澡
Beautiful soft natural mud, that when you sit and lay in you literally feel weightless.
Sitting in that natural mud bath, I have never felt more peaceful and relaxed. It's different that floating in water because the mud actually supports your weight at every angle. You don't have to do anything but just sit there and look and the blue sky while the mud lifts you into a sea of clouds.
Is the mud therapeutic and good for your skin? Probably.
Be warned though that it takes 3 showers to get the mud off your skin and 100 washes in a washing machine to get the mud off your bathing suit.
Cliff Jumping 懸崖跳躍
All around the river's edges you can find pools and cliffs that are perfect for cliff jumping.
The river is constantly changing its course in the rocky riverbed, so the swimming holes do not stay in fixed positions from year to year.
Above one can see the broken bridge to nowhere, were a farmer once had some land next to the river. The land and this bridge have long since been washed away.
Secret River Tracing Spot 秘密朔溪的地方
I guess now that I am revealing this spot it is no longer secret. There is a small creek that breaks out of the mountains into the Zhuokou River not far from Wanshan. Check out the video below to see how to get there:
I discovered the secret river tracing spot one day while walking and exploring the riverside.
This small creek features at least three waterfalls that require some skill to climb up.
I cannot explain to you how amazing it is to jump into the crystal clear pools in this small canyon. The pools can get up to 5 meters deep, and you can see clearly all the way to the bottom. When I went there I did not bring a GoPro. One day I hope I can go back and catch the crystal clear water better on film.
The first waterfall is a man made concrete wall that someone obviously made for river tracing. One day while playing in the canyon we ran right into the river tracing team, which were all dressed up with helmets and ropes, while all we had was flip flops and swimming trunks. I can tell you that 15 people walking through a pristine creek can really muddy up the water and take the beauty out of things.
If you go there it would be best to bring safety gear like helmets and ropes especially if you are not experienced.
I could stay all day next to the riverside, enjoying nature's beauty and playing in the water. But alas the sun always comes down and a new day must begin.
There are a few campgrounds around Maolin, one in particular lies at the very bottom of Wanshan. Ahbei let us camp there for free, but I was obliged to translate for some European tourists who would spend the night there. They were looking for butterflies, and I would be surprised if they saw more than a dozen.
Another time I ran across some Europeans who had rented scooters and had gone all the way to Duona looking for the Duona Hot Springs which have long since been washed out. One of them had a broken scooter and was looking for a repair shop. There are no repair shops in Maolin, the closest one is in Gaoshu Township of Pingtung County down in the flat lands.
Finding Dragon Bone Stones 撿龍紋石
Dragon stones are only found in Taiwan (at least with this name). They are bits of metamorphic shale rocks with bits of metal (mostly copper) ore in them, formed from ocean sediments under pressure, and then lifted to the surface when Taiwan was formed by the colliding of the Eurasian and Philippine plates. The indigenous people have used this shale to build stone houses for centuries, but shale with metal in it becomes "dragon bone stone."
Pictured above is wall of an aboriginal stone house in Duona Village, featuring a display of jawbones.
Dragon bone stones in Maolin are polished and sold as necklaces. This was Ahbei's main job before he started selling coffee, so we went with him many times to find these stones in the river bed.
Back in the day, Ahbei had a jeep with a snorkel that would allow him to drive through the river and find untouched stones. Winter was the optimal time as the water levels were at their lowest.
Ahbei driving through the river on the way to look for these stones.
Ahbei himself wore the biggest dragon stone bling of all, a necklace that he made himself. He also dressed like an aborigine even though he was Han Chinese. For many hours we helped him search for the stones, even though I wasn't really searching, I was just enjoying the scenery.
An algae infested pool contrasted with white shale rock.
You can clearly see in the photo above wild boar tracks. It appears they also enjoy a good mud bath. Wild boar are the main meat for Aboriginal hunters, the only citizens in Taiwan allowed to own guns.
Ahbei worked and lived in an outdoor stone refining workshop, where he also had a garden and at least three dogs that roamed free.
Ahbei had also saved two Reeve's Muntjac (山羌 Shanqiang, like mini deer) after their mother had been shot. Sadly they only lived for a few years before they got sick.
Speaking of Reeve's Muntjac, there is a good joke that the local aborigines used to tell me. Sorry, these jokes can only be understood in Chinese because they are puns.
老公回答: "沒有, 我只有打一槍!"
Apparently aborigines are stereotyped for their humor, and their love of alcohol. Some do love alcohol too much, but probably not more than any normal Taiwanese.
One man's wife in the village drank while she was pregnant, and now their two children are mentally handicapped with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. Sadly fetal alcohol spectrum disorder appears to happen more in native populations. Alcohol addiction isn't funny, but here is another joke they used to tell me:
老公回答: "沒有, 我身上只有一味!"
This was how the joke was told to me by an aboriginal man in Maolin, which tells you that even some aborigines believe these stereotype about themselves.
Anyways, when men in the village go hunting, they usually share the meat with the rest of the village; as a result I have eaten deer, wild boar, monkey, and muntjac meat while in Maolin.
Ahbei is social and many of his friends would visit him throughout the day, including the former district head of Maolin. Bonfires at night were also common. Also, Ahbei had WiFi. The only carrier that has service in Maolin is Chunghua Telecom.
Polished Dragon Bone Stones can go for around 5,000 NT (166 USD) a piece. I still have a ton of them stashed away, but who is going to buy them?
One of the dragon bone stone necklaces given to me from Ahbei.
Dragon bone stone with a face carved in it.
Another project that happened was some of the people next to Ahbei's workshop built a homestay next to the camp ground. It opened for visitors in about 2016.
Ahbei is a gracious host. He made breakfast every morning for all the campers, because frankly there is nothing to eat in Wanshan. There is a small convenience store that sells Ramen noodles, but that's about it. The best breakfast shop in Maolin is behind the "Hero that shot the Sun" statue in Maolin Village, which is like a 15-20 minute scooter ride from Wanshan.
By the end of my journey I had misappropriated the aboriginal culture and gone native. But like all of the aborigine children, eventually I had to go back to the flat lands to make a living.
Before I left though, Ahbei made me a dragon bone stone necklace in the shape of Taiwan, which I hold as a precious possession.
Not only did I go back to the flat lands, but I went back to America to finish school. I wore that dragon bone stone necklace every day to remember my time in Maolin. Like Frodo's Ring in the Lord of the Rings, the stone had a magical power that kept me wanting to go back to Taiwan (okay, the necklace was not magical, but it represented the place that I loved more than anywhere in the world).
After I was finished with school I went straight back to Taiwan to look for work. I knew that I could never leave the precious island (寶島) again. After coming back to Taiwan I found work and dated and married my wife who is Taiwanese, and now we have a daughter, and we don't ever plan to leave Taiwan.
I never wear the necklace anymore, because I don't need to; it is embedded in my heart.
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