Exploring Taiwan's indigenous communities

24/08/2015 14:26

Written by Cheryl Robbins

There are several hundred indigenous communities in Taiwan. They’re often close-knit, friendly places, with an average population of just a few hundred. Some are located high in the mountains and reached by narrow, winding roads. Some are located on the coast or near popular tourist areas. Many communities have limited or no bus service, so tourists have to drive themselves or join a tour.

One point is worth noting: Taiwan is a small, well-developed island. There are few places that can be considered truly remote. This means that indigenous people and communities have long had interactions with mainstream society. Thus, you shouldn’t expect to see ‘primitive’ lifestyles. Taiwan’s indigenous people wear contemporary clothing, except during special ceremonies, and most live in homes made of bricks and cement.

Although the very traditional way of life has all but disappeared, there are still a number of reasons to visit indigenous communities. Firstly, these communities are located in areas of natural beauty and offer ecotourism and sports opportunities such as hiking, white-water rafting, swimming, surfing and river tracing. Such places are often home to certified ecotourism guides who can lead challenging hikes or less taxing local ecological tours. In many indigenous villages, native Austronesian languages (see page 27) are still spoken. Chinese is spoken by almost everyone but few people speak English. This should not deter non-Chinese speakers, however, as indigenous people are generally very hospitable and a smile goes a long way.

Secondly, in indigenous areas there are often opportunities to interact with local people. Some have opened guesthouses, usually just a few spare rooms in or adjacent to their own homes. Guesthouse owners often serve as guides and can help tourists gain insights into the community’s attractions and people. If you simply walk through the streets of the community, you’ll often see residents chatting or barbecuing. Don’t be surprised if you’re invited to join in.

Taiwanese aborigines by Rich J Matheson

© Rich J Matheson

Thirdly, many indigenous community development associations are working to revive various aspects of their culture, such as the growing of millet, a traditional staple crop, or the production of handicrafts such as glass beads and wood carving. In addition, there are opportunities to see ceremonies that have been performed for centuries. During these times villages take on a festive atmosphere as those working and studying in urban areas return to join in. They wear traditional clothing and make use of traditional items, such as the Paiwan tribe’s double drinking cup and the Saisiyat tribe’s hip bells. Native-language ballads are sung and traditional dances performed. On the last night of some ceremonies, outsiders may be allowed to join the dance circle.

Fourthly, indigenous cuisine differs greatly from other cuisines in Taiwan. Traditionally, indigenous people hunted and fished and grew millet and taro root. They also gathered wild greens and flavoured their food with locally obtained herbs such as Aralia and mountain peppercorn. Restaurants in indigenous communities serve cuisine which includes local ingredients and is based on both traditional and modern preparation methods. All in all, indigenous villages offer unique experiences different from the rest of Taiwan, and are well worth adding to your itinerary.

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