The oldest city and first capital of Taiwan (except you wouldn’t know it) and a modern urban space with tucked away traditional treasures, Tainan is an area of southern Taiwan that is given little attention, yet is ideal ground for the avid explorer who loves a spot of historical discovery.
Where modern-day Taiwan sprung into life, the spread out canvas of Tainan can be difficult to grasp at first and may require a little planning. I was lucky enough to be living with a local couple who set me on my way armed with enough information, maps and handy tips to really enjoy the area.
Thomas and Abby run a homestay style guesthouse called ATHome – a modern apartment with three rooms located within a residential area not far from Tainan’s railway station. It was actually a wedding gift from their parents but instead of living there they chose to stay with their family, as is tradition, and utilise their love of travel and knowledge of the area by running a guesthouse to help others enjoy and learn about this historical city.
As a result, my short time in Tainan (I only had one full day to explore) was skillfully planned and executed with precision, thanks to the kindness of these two local people.
Stop 1. Luerman Matsu Temple
This was the day I got to learn an important figure in Taiwanese religious culture called Matsu, also known as ‘Goddess of the Sea’ or ‘Sea Mother’, following a visit to the Luerman Matsu Temple which houses a bold, black 800 year-old statue of this principle deity.
The temple was in Thomas’ childhood village, one with great historical meaning for the Taiwanese people. I wasn’t expecting anything remotely different to some of the magnificence I had already seen during my 15 months of various temple hopping, yet Abby and Thomas were right – the Luermen Matsu Temple was beautifully dominating, intricate in design and detail and possibly one of the most magnificent Chinese style temples I have ever seen.
Legend has it that Matsu raised the seawaters really high so that the Chinese military ruler, Zheng Chenggong, could land in Taiwan with ease and successfully drive out the Dutch. The temple is said to mark the exact spot where this all happened, thus marking the making of modern Taiwan.
Just as we were leaving we heard a stir in the air and a rumbling commotion of activity, which was the start of a traditional folk ceremony – a core religious performance that I was very lucky to have stumbled upon. It appeared to be the ‘welcoming back’ ceremony, where Sea Mother’s ‘Deputy Gods’ pilgrimage to the temple so that her power is recharged. Not only were we watching a show of the Gods, but also the rituals of The Eight Generals’ or the ‘protectors’ of the Gods (known by the distinct face paint), who clear the road of evil spirits as they travel towards the temple. I’ve never seen a temple ceremony so extravagant and elaborate.
Stop 2. Anping
Following the temple stop I was driven to Anping where I would spend the rest of the day exploring the old town before jumping on the local bus to Tainan City – both easily navigable spaces.
The site of the original Dutch settlement, Anping’s main attractions are the reconstructed Fort, the harbor front and the adjacent Matsu temple, alongside the Anping Tree House – where an enormous Banyan tree has wiggled and weaved itself in a strangling hold across a huge chunk of the former Tait & Co Merchant House. Still, tradition is proudly presented and shouted about here and as someone who is always drawn to secret passageways and narrow streets that lead to pockets of local life or traditional treasures, Anping certainly delivered.
I was told to look out for a specific, easy to miss street that was connected to one of the main streets called Yanping. And I’m glad I didn’t miss it, for this narrow alley led me down a little maze of traditional houses, where local people would welcome your curiosity with a gentle smile. All around the town you will find a whole host of ‘old streets’ – quiet, tucked away havens with a mish mash of crumbling brick lanes, hutong style settlements, street food stalls and even fairground style games!
Another great way to see the area is to seek out the ‘Sword-Lion’ heads scattered around. With over 30 left in the town, you will find many on outer residential walls and above the door frames.
Stop 3. Tainan City
The oldest city in Taiwan, yet in parts hard to tell, Tainan City grows on you despite the landscape not being as ancient looking as one might expect. Interspersed with modern stores and coffee houses, Tainan’s hidden gems need to be sourced via a self-made treasure hunt.
Originally a primary Dutch colony, which later became Taiwan’s first Chinese supervised capital after their defeat, there is a real mixture of architecture, colour and atmosphere, which changes as you wander through the juxtaposition of historical sites and modern industrial hubs. With a trusty map, I was able to seek out grand colonial style buildings, ancient temples, relics and winding alleyways brimming with old structures nestled among the new. It may not be blindingly obvious at first sight, but it’s there to find.
The top spots here include the Confucious Temple, the Chihkan Towers fort, the Matsu temples and… more temples! There’s a school and various other official-looking buildings rich in colonial architectural design also.
Stop 4. Night Market
The Taiwanese proudly boost of their night markets – a sensory overload you MUST experience. They are everywhere, in almost every key town and city and a place where you eat, drink, play and socialize, not just shop. Naturally, Thomas and Abby were keen to show me the one in Tainan, which is reported to be the biggest outside of Taipei, so how could I refuse?
I detest shopping but love the buzzing, chaotic atmosphere of night markets – an ancient Chinese tradition. We ate sweet potato, cake and ice cream, rather than stinky tofu and intestines, and bartered for Hello Kitty phone covers, laptop cases and clothes.
One interesting thing I learnt was that it’s OK to drop litter on the ground within the market. When Abby told me to do so I looked at her in shock, but apparently there are plenty of people given the job of cleaning everything up – certainly a liberating experience considering that dropping of litter is a huge cultural fail in the west. Night markets are like entering a whole new world on so many levels and no matter how many you visit, the experience always feels new.
Tainan is a treasure trove of history combined with the comfort of modern amenities. Easy to reach by the standard and high-speed (HSR) rail system, it’s a great area of the country to get to grips with traditional folk culture which still plays a big part in today’s society, as well as see old Taiwan in its natural state. Abby recently told me that she and Thomas are now training to become licensed tour guides – a skill they have in their possession naturally. If you are looking for a homestay experience, combined with the convenience of local expertise and one-on-one guidance, I couldn’t recommend these incredibly welcoming and selfless people more.
I stayed at ATHome as part of my partnership with Hostelbookers.com, where I promoted budget accommodation options in Taipei and Tainan. Neither party asked me to write a favourable review but this article stands as a personal thank you to Thomas and Amy, who I can’t wait to see again when I return to Taiwan.