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Taiwan's hidden gem: Indigenous tribes offer a sustainable and authentic travel experience

Updated: Aug 24, 2023



As a travel blogger in Taiwan, I am frequently asked what my favorite must-see activity is. While it's hard to name just one, the recent emergence of indigenous villages holds a special place in my heart. What makes this development so extraordinary is that it is driven by the youth (返鄉青年) of these tribes, who have returned from bustling cities to breathe new life into their communities. They are not only preserving their tribes' traditions but also paying tribute to the history, struggles, and unwavering perseverance of their ancestors. By opening their villages to tourists, these inspiring young individuals offer an authentic and sustainable experience that completely immerses visitors in the vibrant way of life of their tribes.


Their knowledge of the land will awaken a new reverence for Mother Nature within you. Their homegrown, farm-to-table food and drinks will fill your bellies and lift your spirits. And their songs of happiness, sorrow, and homesickness will move you to tears.


Thanks to the tenacity of this younger generation - many of whom had to learn their mother language for the first time when returning home - along with recent government-funded initiatives, these rare experiences are now available to international tourists. Below are two featured tribes who have diligently designed their tours for English, Japanese, and Mandarin-speaking tourists.


Explore nature for a day with Akay Play Life 阿改玩生活


At Akay Play Life, members of the Truku (Taroko) tribe (太魯閣族) immerse visitors in their tribe's way of life through various activities:


1) River tracing (May-September)


Novice river explorers have the opportunity to embark on a journey to the clan's secret river, an enchanting sanctuary where tribe members first learned how to swim and embraced their deep connection with nature. This expedition immerses visitors in awe-inspiring historical panoramas while imparting essential survival techniques that have been preserved through generations of tribal wisdom.


Booking information:

Half Day River Tracing Tour

Time: 8:00 - 13:30*

Price: $1,500 NTD*

Min # of people: 6

(If less than 6, book 1 month in advance for them to match you with others)


Full Day River Tracing Tour

Time: 8:00 - 16:00*

Price: $2,300 NTD*

Min # of people: 4

Includes: Choice of either an 1) archery experience or 2) weaving experience


2) "Qmpah" tree cave dining experience (Immersive tribal and farm-to-table experience)


If you want to experience what it's like to truly live "under the sky, by the river, between the mountains, streams and plains, in the changing scenery of the mountains" like the Taroko youth, then the Qmpah tree cave dining tour is the ultimate experience for you.


Through interactive and educational experiences as well as through storytelling, guests will learn the history, perseverance, and daily lifestyle of the Ciyakang clan (支亞干部落) of the Taroko tribe, as well as its modern ambitions and the heart of its people. The bilingual youth provide a sustainable experience, using their own land, food, and resources, while encouraging the older generation to participate in their own ways with wisdom and knowledge that they pass down; for example, all of the vicinities and furniture in the outdoor dining area were built by the elders who taught the technique to the youth.


"Qmpah" means "farming" or "hard work" in the clan's native language. Thus, this immersive tour begins by giving visitors a taste of what it's like to grow up on their native land with experiences like:


Bamboo farming

Tourists sitting by a campfire with the Akay indigenous tribal prince, laughing together while heating bamboo tubes
Photo courtesy of @totheebeetrue

(Guests washed and prepared the bamboo to make bamboo tube steamed rice for the farm-to-table dinner)


Banana cake making

A traditional bamboo house of the Truku (Taroko) tribe in Taiwan. A youth is seen heating banana leaves over a fire.
Inside a "Biyi," or traditional bamboo house. Fun fact: This was built in 2021, after researching the lost technique and with the elders participating by memory.

Bird's nest fern harvesting

Attorney on a Journey is ankle-deep in a river in Hualien, holding a basket full of bird's nest fern that she is washing for the Akay tribe's dinner
Washing bird's nest fern (山蘇) for our farm-to-table dinner!

After the farming experiences were over, we took a walking tour of the village. Although the tour was provided in Mandarin, the Popworld app provided both an audio and text translation for English speakers.


Qmpah tree cave dinner


After cleansing our crops with and jumping into the refreshing river, it was time for us to reap the fruit's of our labor underneath the stars (technically, underneath a hand-built hut made by the elders).


As each dish was served, the youth told us a story behind the creation. Each dish represented a part of the Ciyakang clan whether it be to honor their ancestors, reminisce about their childhood, or pay homage to the tribe's hunters. Their seasonal and sentimental menu featured the following: (click for descriptions)



In the tribe's native language, "Akay" resonates as a powerful exclamation akin to the uplifting energy of "Wow!" Brace yourself for an adventure where "Akay!" will escape your lips countless times.


Watch the experience here:


Booking information:

Time: 16:00 - 21:00

Price: $2,500 NTD*

Tour Limitations: Minimum of 10 people. If less than 10, book at least 1 month in advance to allow Akay Play Life time to match you with another group.


Other tours include the "Fire Dining," "Weaving experience," and "Archaeology Experience - Jade Mining" that require a minimum of 6 people for a half day, and a minimum of 4 people for a full day.

Location: No. 162-1, Xilin, Wanrong Township, Hualien County, Taiwan

How to get there: Take the Taiwan Rail (TRA) to Fenglin station (鳳林). From there, take a taxi for around 200-300 NTD. Akay Play Life can help you arrange a return taxi (let them know in advance).


Other options: Akay Play Life provides a pickup and drop off service for no additional fee from the Linrongxinguang TRAIN station (林榮新光車站), Zhaofeng Farm (Linrong Rd.) BUS station (兆豐農場(林榮路), and Linrong BUS station (林榮). Must be booked 3 days in advance.

Where to stay: Akay Play Life visitors can enjoy 10% off 樟之園民宿. Another option is The Peaceful Village:



 

Hunt, play, and eat like a hunter at the Uninang Multicultural Workshop 烏尼囊多元文化工作坊


The Uninang Multicultural Workshop is an impressive offering built by an indigenous family of the Bunun tribe (Yongkang clan) who recently returned to their tribes’ roots to revive their village. The youngest is a comedic young man named Nunan, who learned his mother tongue for the first time as an adult upon returning.


An indigenous man wearing a bandana is seen smiling while driving up to the Uninang culture experience
Nunan of the Bunun tribe, cracking jokes as he drove us up to the hunter trail

Through intense manual labor and financial investment, the paths, roads, and vicinity have been meticulously built to accommodate international travelers (clean toilets, running water, dining, etc. up in the mountains) and the tribe keeps improving the customer experience by incorporating feedback year after year. All signs and menus (as well as the entire tour itinerary) are provided in English, Japanese, and Mandarin, and vegetarians, vegans, and other dietary restrictions are always accommodated.


The tribe offers a hunter experience where guests are led on a safe trail by the elderly (and very fit!) tribal members who teach you about their history, their land, and their traditional hunting techniques.


Guests are shuttled up to the beginning of the hunting trail, the Yongling Mountain Sacrificial Site, at an altitude of about 900 meters.




Like the experience at Akay Play Life, the tour begins with a greeting and a secular prayer to their ancestors, announcing the group's arrival and asking the ancestors for a safe and fruitful hunting journey:

An elderly member of the Bunun tribe holds a bowl of bananas as an offering to his ancestors upon arriving at the top of a mountain
Offering fruit at the greeting ritual/ceremony 秘境餐前的洗禮

Walking sticks, bug spray, and a snack were provided, and then the hunting tour commenced!


Indigenous hiking tour in Taiwan
Elder Bunun tribe member in Taiwan teaches guests on a sustainable hunting tour how to use a hunting trap
Learning how to use a traditional hunting trap. The Bunun men could be away for days while on a hunt. Hence, this trap was to catch small prey for the children who remained at home.
The Bunun elder cut fresh camphor tree for us to smell

After learning about hunting techniques, edible foods, and dyes used in Bunun culture (while laughing all the way), we finally reached the Warrior Zone:


Sustainable hunting tour with Taiwan's Bunun tribe

Here, the Bunun tribe members taught the men how to throw spears and the women how to shoot a bow and arrow.



A formal competition (lighthearted and filled with laughter) was held, and the winners had the chance to experience the tribal ritual (with a shot of millet wine) of bringing home the tribe safe and sound!



Every turn of the hunter's trail is a surprise

and we were thrilled to walk into a dining area at the top of Yongling Mountain, overlooking the beautiful scenery of the East Rift Valley:


During the Hunter's Outdoor Dining Table experience, we roasted pork like Bunun hunters around the fire listened to songs of homesickness, longing, and happy, drunken times, and ate delicious, farm-to-table delicacies prepared with the ingredients growing all around us. (Fun fact: the pineapple jam for the BBQ pork was prepared to reduce waste and was hand-stirred for 12 hours!)


After the feast and just before bidding farewell, we were honored with an invitation from the wise elder tribe members. They graciously included us in a captivating vocal and meditative exercise—a sacred tradition traditionally performed by the male members of their tribe.


The exercise began with one member releasing a single resonant note into the air. In perfect harmony, we all joined in, synchronizing our breaths as we continued the ethereal sound. The collective voices are meant blend seamlessly, creating an eternal, unbroken sound symbolizing the unwavering support and collaborative spirit that define the male tribe members.


As the ritual progressed, the initial member gradually elevated the pitch of the note, serving as a guiding beacon for the rest to follow. Each member, in turn, adjusted their own pitch in harmony with the leader, harmoniously weaving a tapestry of escalating tones.

A group oof men and women are holding hands in a circle with their eyes closed underneath a hut built by the members of the Bunun tribe at the Uninang Multicultural workshop. Collectively, they hum the notes that the elder tribe members sing, gradually climbing up a scale.
Both male and female guests were invited to experience this contemplative exercise.

Closing our eyes and holding each others' hands, we listened and supported each other as our vibrations filled the mountaintop. When the elder tribal member quietly ended the exercise, we opened our eyes, still in awe of our natural surroundings and with an even greater appreciation for nature, community, and the bonds that we had made together, having started as strangers and leaving as good friends that had farmed, hunted, and broke bread together over Taiwan's East Rift valley.


In the clan's native tongue, "Uninang" means "Thank You" and "Bless You." But at the end of our hunter experience, the only thing the tribe said to us in their mother language was:


"We WILL see you again!"

Watch the experience here:



Book this sustainable and immersive experience with the Bunun tribe here:


Booking information:

Time: 5-6 hour experience

Price: $2,200 NTD*; $500 NTD for a round-trip shuttle to/from the Luye train station

Age Limit: 7 - 75 years old

Meeting point: No. 82-2, Taiping Rd., Yanping Township, Taitung County 953

This incredible journey was made possible in part thanks to the support of Taiwan's East Rift Valley Tourism Bureau.


OTHER INDIGENOUS TRAVEL EXPERIENCES:


Check out my other blog posts related to sustainable, indigenous travel:


  1. If you want to experience what it's like making coffee with the Leye (Lalauya) Tribe or dining at the largest Tsou village in Alishan, check out this blog post here.



  1. Also, see other Farm-to-Table Culinary Experiences with Taiwan's indigenous tribes here.


  1. Check out all the other indigenous tribes offering tourist experiences in Eastern Taiwan:










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