Aboriginal Taiwan: Visiting Orchid Island

This summer while backpacking around Taiwan, I made a trip to Taiwan’s Orchid Island, otherwise known as Lanyu.

Before the Chinese arrived, Taiwan was home to aboriginal locals, similar in ethnicity to those from the Philippines and Hawaii. After the Chinese conquest (and subsequent Japanese rule), much of the native culture has been lost. Fortunately, Orchid Island is an oasis of traditional Yami aboriginal culture in Taiwan.

Orchid Island is by far the best place in all of Taiwan to explore Aboriginal culture. A tiny island off the east coast of Taiwan, Orchid Island is pretty “off the beaten path”. It’s difficult to get to, impossible to find a guesthouse online, and a pretty rare place for foreigners to visit. Most people tend to prefer Green Island, which is closer to the main island and offers more hospitable beaches, better public transportation and cushy hotels. 

Orchid Island

While you can visit Orchid Island as a tourist, the local culture is definitely not a “show”, like much minority culture in mainland China. The Yami love to share their culture and customs with others, but it’s important to be very respectful, and ask before taking pictures of any traditional boats, huts or the locals themselves.

Why visit Orchid Island? This island is the least “Chinese” place in all of Taiwan. It’s an amazing experience to explore a unique and vibrant culture, with kind locals and beautiful scenery. Rent a motorbike and explore the island on your own. Grab some flippers and a mask and go snorkeling just off the shore. Orchid Island has so much to offer!

Orchid Island

How to get there

It’s pretty difficult to plan a trip to Orchid Island in advance. There are two ways to get to Orchid Island: plane or ferry. Both options leave from Taitung, so you’ll need to make a trip to this city first. I would give yourself a few buffer days in Taitung just in case the ferry is sold out or your flight is cancelled. As I mentioned in my post “Learning to Surf in Taiwan“, the ferry was sold out on the day I wanted to leave, so I had to spend an extra day in Taitung.

Most websites recommended taking the plane, but there are only a few flights a day, and they are often canceled or delayed. The flights also sell out very quickly in the summer, so you’ll have to book months in advance. Another option is by ferry, which is what I chose to do. A lot of websites and other travel blogs don’t recommend the ferry, saying it will take four hours and will make you very seasick. I think they’ve done a bit of updating in the last year or so, because the ferry only took me two hours, and I was perfectly fine.

Orchid Island guesthouse

My homestay house!

My Homestay

As I disembarked the ferry, I was met by my guesthouse owner, an aboriginal man in his late sixties. He didn’t speak any English, so we communicated in Chinese. The only problem was that he had such a strong accent, I couldn’t understand anything he said!

When we arrived at the guesthouse, I realized it was actually more like a homestay. My “host dad” had a large two-story house in Yuyao (Yeyou) village. He set me up in a large bedroom downstairs. I was the only one staying in his home for the duration of my trip, but his grandson also lived there. There was no wifi, but I was welcome to use his desktop computer upstairs, although I had to share it with his grandson who loved to play computer games. Apparently his wife was manning their second guesthouse in another village.

While I was a bit uneasy about staying in some random man’s house by myself, my host dad was very respectful. The door to my bedroom door also locked, making me feel much more comfortable.

My host dad was extremely kind, and went out of his way to make sure I had a great experience. He cooked all of my meals for me, which were delicious. My favorites were spicy noodles, BBQ chicken and garlic spinach. He also personally took me snorkeling one morning, and helped me rent a motorbike!

Orchid Island food

Home stay dinner: chicken and spinach!

Swimming

Since Taiwan doesn’t have a continental shelf, not all of the beaches are safe to swim. This is especially true for Orchid Island, which is far off the coast of Taiwan. That said, there are a few beaches that are safe for swimmers, one of which was very close to my homestay. The beach was full of kids splashing in the water, and locals playing fetch with their dogs, or grilling barbecued meat to sell. There were also many Taiwanese tourists on holiday, soaking up the sun, and wading around in the water because most of them surprisingly can’t swim.

The beach was pretty dead during the day because of the extreme heat, but around 4pm, it started to come alive. Around dinner time it was in full swing. It felt like the entire island had come to enjoy the water.

Orchid Island beach

The local Yuyao beach

Snorkeling

The snorkeling off Orchid Island is absolutely amazing. I’ve been snorkeling many times in the past, but I always had to take a snorkeling tour, where guides take you out on a boat to a far-off reef. I’ve only been on one tour that didn’t make me wear a lifejacket…well, they did make us wear life jackets, but we didn’t have to inflate them if we didn’t want too.

Orchid Island was my first ever experience snorkeling just offshore. My first full day on the island, my host dad and I woke up early and drove just up the coast to a small alcove. The day before I had bought flippers and a mask at the local grocery store, so I put them on and we jumped into the water. The two of us swam into the coral rocks, where we were immediately surrounded by fish. I even saw a few eels and a sea turtle!

snorkeling with sharks

SHARK!

On my second day, I drove past a more popular snorkeling spot that I decided to check out on my own. I grabbed my flippers and mask and headed up the coast. Once I arrived, I realized I needed to walk out on coral rock for about 100 feet before I could actually get in the water. The rock absolutely killed my feet, so I had to walk out in my flippers! Let’s just say it was a disaster, and two guys had to help me. Whoopsies.

Once I was able to jump in the water, the experience was incredible! The water was a maze of coral that you could swim through. I was sure to keep my eye on the tour of little kids to make sure I didn’t go out too far. There were tropical fish everywhere, and I probably spent about 20 minutes watching clown fish go in and out of sea anemones. It was definitely the coolest snorkeling experience I’ve ever had, aside from the time my snorkeling tour let us dive down to pet sharks in the Caribbean (this was also the same place that didn’t make us inflate our life jackets). Granted, this experience felt a lot more authentic. Although, I felt like I was committing sin by walking on the coral.

Orchid Island

Exploring the island

Exploring on Motorbike

Orchid island is small enough that you can circle the entire island by motorbike in about two hours. On my second day, I rented a motorbike and took it around the entire island. While I owned an e-bike in Ningbo, I had never driven a real motorbike before. I was impressed by the amount of power it had, but I drove safely, unlike… pretty much everyone else on the road. I sped up a bit on the long flat stretches, but after my horrible e-bike accident in Ningbo, I definitely didn’t want to have another incident, especially since I didn’t have a good helmet!

I spent about four hours exploring, because I stopped often to take pictures of the beautiful scenery. I also had lunch at a cafe and spent some time on their wifi; I was having Instagram withdrawals! I biked through all of the villages, explored shallow caves, and stopped for a lemon slushie in the main village. I even bought some handmade earrings at a local craft shop.

Fun fact: you can easily fit two people on a motorbike, which will save you money. If you don’t want to rent a motorbike, you can also rent a car. I definitely didn’t feel the need to rent a whole car for just myself (plus, motorbikes are more fun!), but a car might be great for families with little kids, or those that don’t feel comfortable riding a motorbike. Most of the Taiwanese families I saw all rented motorbikes though, and threw the kids on back.

My motorbike outside the museum

My motorbike outside the museum

Aboriginal Culture

About halfway around the island I ran into an aboriginal culture museum, which had replicas of the traditional pit houses locals used in the past. The museum also contained traditional costumes. I really appreciated the male costume which mainly consisted of a banana hammock. with a giant hat that covers the man’s entire head, with two small eye holes cut out. Maybe it keeps them cool?

Yami traditional clothing

What??

Scattered throughout the island on the beaches are traditional painted canoes. Be sure to ask before you take a picture, because these canoes are actually private property and are functional. Feel free to take photos of the canoes at the Yuyao beach though. You can actually pay the locals to let you row one, although a guide will swim alongside you and steer for you, which isn’t so fun. I noticed a lot of Taiwanese tourists attempting (and failing) to row. It was pretty entertaining.

One of the most interesting aspects of the island are the resting huts. These are communal huts elevated off the ground for anyone to rest in. I spent an afternoon lounging in one at the Yuyao beach with my iPod and a magazine, and ended up meeting a few really nice Taiwanese girls who shared their snacks with me!

Orchid Island

Taking my motorbike into the jungle!

Tips for your trip

Keep in mind that you cannot visit Orchid Island in the winter. Also be sure to check the weather before you set out. You don’t want to be stuck on the island during a typhoon!

An ideal amount of time to fully explore Orchid Island is two full days. I had plenty of time to relax, explore, swim and snorkel. To be honest, there’s not much to do.

Orchid Island

The view from my home stay house

Looking for something a bit more organized? Consider going on a tour with Green Island Adventures. They’ll organize your flight, accommodation and take you snorkeling or scuba diving. According to a few of the expats I talked to, this seems to be the go-to tour for those who want to visit Orchid Island.

Definitely book the trip yourself if you’re looking to save money though. I spent about $15 on my guesthouse a night (with free food!) and I had my own room with a double bed. I could have saved half that cost if I wasn’t traveling solo, although he might have upped the room price to cover food for two people. Snorkeling is free, minus buying a mask for a few dollars, and if I’m remembering correctly, renting a motorbike was about $15 for the day. If you have two people you can always share the motorbike too!

Traveling Solo

I have to say, traveling solo on Orchid Island was a little lonely for me. I couldn’t communicate very well with my host dad, and I didn’t really meet too many people. I also could have saved a bit of money if I had split the room and motorbike with another person. That said, I think traveling solo away from other backpackers and foreigners was a very formative experience for me. This time last year, I never would have imagined myself riding a motorbike around a tropical island on my own!

Orchid Island

Overall, I’d say that Orchid Island is definitely one of the most “off the beaten path” places I’ve ever been. Even Taiwanese people are shocked when I say I’ve traveled there. It was definitely a great experience, and I would 100% recommend taking a trip to this beautiful island.

Where’s the most “off the beaten path” place you’ve ever been? 

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About Richelle

Expat, traveler, and spicy food lover, I've spent the last few years living in China and traveling around Asia. In my spare time I enjoy salsa dancing, exploring night markets and stuffing my face with street food.

16 comments on “Aboriginal Taiwan: Visiting Orchid Island

    • yeah, it’s definitely nice break if you’ve been traveling for a while. I normally feel pressured to go-go-go when I’m traveling, but here I was able to wind down a bit.

  1. that’s so interesting. I’ve always been super curious about Taiwan’s history. Its sad that so much has been lost in terms of minority culture, but awesome that you still get to witness it in part. I would love to make it too Taiwan at some point

    • You should definitely head out to Taiwan. It’s my favorite country in the world! I agree it’s sad that a lot of the culture has been lost, but at least there are a few places where it is preserved.

    • I know! I think the main reason is that it hasn’t been built up for tourism. The beaches are rocky, and there isn’t a lot of infrastructure. Also, it’s almost impossible to get to in the winter.

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  8. Hi Richelle, I was wondering how you found a homestay. I speak Mandarin but am currently in the US– I can’t find any online bookings. Any insights? Are the homestays clearly marked so that you can go in and inquire? Thanks!

    • No problem! Unfortunately not much is online, so I asked my hostel in Taitung to help me find one. They called a few for me until we found one! Just ask a hostel on your trip to help you find one. There aren’t many hotels on the island, so most people actually stay in homestays.

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