Green Island & Orchid Island | Taiwan

Two Pacific Ocean islands are part of Taitung County. Green Island can be seen from the coast of Taiwan when the weather is clear. Orchid Island is more distant, and for travellers from afar it is altogether more exotic.

Green Island (Ludao)

Some 33 km (21 miles) from the coast of Taitung County and just 17 km2 (6.6 square miles) in area — and that’s when the tide is low — Green Island is an isolated Pacific frontier which has transformed itself from a grim place of imprisonment to an ecologically and historically fascinating getaway.

Between 1951 and 1990, opponents of Chiang Kai-shek and his Chinese Nationalist regime were imprisoned here. That jail has now been converted into a tourist attraction — albeit a sombre one — but another prison, for the worst kind of ordinary criminal, remains in operation on the island. Relics of Chiang’s dictatorship are preserved within the Human Rights Memorial Park. At least 20,000 political prisoners spent time on the island; many were executed while others died as a result of meagre rations, torture, and overwork. Among the more notable individuals detained here were writer Bo Yang (1920-2008), lifelong activist Shih Ming-teh (1941–2024), and Yang Kui (1906-1985). The last of these had achieved some success writing in Japanese during the colonial period but was targeted by the KMT regime after World War II. Only after his release aged 56 did he learn to speak Mandarin Chinese.

Other more uplifting attractions include Guanyin Cave. This small cave is a place of pilgrimage for Buddhists who leave offerings before a rock outcropping that resembles the goddess of mercy. The island’s almost uninhabited east coast is impressively rugged, and it’s here you’ll find Zhaori Hot Springs, one of the world’s very few saline geothermal springs, and the only hot springs in Taiwan right beside the sea. During peak season, the springs are open 24 hours. Come at dusk and soak while watching stars come out, or just before dawn so you can enjoy sunrise over the Pacific.

Green Island is also excellent for snorkelling and scuba diving because ocean currents push fish close to the island and them block their escape. Those who don’t want to get in the ocean should spend time exploring the rocky platforms that emerge as the tide goes out, because the receding waters reveal a wealth of corals, crabs and other forms of marine life.

Orchid Island (Lanyu)

The best things in life aren’t easy, and getting to Orchid Island falls into this category. Boats and flights to this 46 km2 (18 square miles) volcanic island are often cancelled because of bad weather. However, all who reach this remote spot — which is 60 km (37 miles) south of Green Island and the same distance east of Kenting National Park — describe it as a highlight of their time in Taiwan. It’s undeveloped, unspoiled, and utterly different to other parts of the country.

The 4,000-odd Tao people who live here are Taiwan’s only indigenous island-dwelling tribe. To them, Orchid Island is Pongso no Tao. They continue to build canoes and hunt flying fish in the traditional way. Some still live in semi-underground dwellings (much better in a typhoon than a modern concrete box) and older tribesmen often go about in no more than a loincloth. Lives are of course dominated by the ocean. There are some lovely yet underused beaches — such as the one at Dongqing Bay — but for many, Orchid Island’s real treasures are its fauna and flora. Much of the island is forested, and there are patches of original jungle. In these places, flying foxes (actually a species of large bat) and a type of owl found nowhere else on Earth make their homes.

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