Taiwan: from temples to sex shops

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Fo Guang Shan Buddha Museum

Text and photos by Zsarlene B. Chua, Reporter

“Charming” is how one might describe Taiwan as the island country is a curious blend of religiosity, traditional culture, and modernity contained within 36,000 square kilometers.

It is also not that unlike the Philippines as Taiwan is our closest neighbor – Manila and Taipei are separated by only 1,161 kilometers. In comparison, the distance between Davao and Manila is 1,504 km. Both countries are frequently hit by typhoons and the weather systems do not differ much: the heat is as scorching in Taiwan as it is in Manila, and the monsoons are as nasty. And both have been under Japanese colonial rule though Taiwan’s lasted longer (1895-1945).

(And there’s the Filipino’s fondness for the 2001 Taiwanese TV drama Meteor Garden, which featured Barbie Hsu and the boys of F4: Jerry Yan, Vic Zhou, Ken Chu, and Vanness Wu.)

The Taiwanese government is latching on these similarities to encourage more Filipino tourists to come visit – in 2016, 170,000 Filipinos visited Taiwan, up from the 130,000 in 2015 according to the data provided by the Taiwan Economic and Cultural Office (TECO), which functions as the country’s defacto embassy in the Philippines.

On the other hand, May 2017 data from the Department of Tourism (DoT) showed Taiwan as our fifth largest market, with 22,429 arrivals, 23.67% higher than in May the previous year.

“Before, we used to look westward but now with the new government, we are forging stronger ties with our closest neighbors, the Philippines and Southeast Asia,” said Gary Song-Huann Lin, TECO representative in Manila.

In 2016, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen announced the new “Southbound policy” which aims to strengthen the Taiwanese economy and its relations with the member-states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), South Asia, Australia, and New Zealand.

As part of the policy, Taiwan has moved forward with visa-free entry for citizens of ASEAN member states, including the Philippines. Mr. Lin said that while they are targeting to make the announcement of when the visa-free policy would take effect in September, it would ultimately hinge on the result of the more than two-month long Marawi clash.

“We are reviewing the administrative and security procedures to ensure that people like [Isnilon] Hapilon don’t enter Taiwan,” he said, referring to the Islamic State-linked Abu Sayyaf terrorist who, along with the Maute group, has been at the forefront of the ongoing siege in Marawi.

He added they expect a rise in arrivals from the Philippines once the policy has taken effect.

But even without the visa-free policy, Taiwan is already inviting as airfare to its capital are relatively cheap: a cursory inspection of the Skyscanner travel app reveals roundtrip airfares starting from P4,700 and that’s without the airline promotions.

And it does have a lot to offer: from the shopping districts of Taipei up north, to the temples of Kaohsiung, its bustling art scene in the south, and the magnificent Sun Moon Lake of Nantou county in between.

Located in one of the unlikeliest places, Pier 2 Art Center in Yancheng District, Kaohsiung is a haven for art enthusiasts. The cluster of abandoned warehouses – remnants from when the port city in the country’s southwest made the shift from being an industrial city to a service city – now function as quirky art spaces, with art installations attracting quite a number of people, especially on the weekends.

There’s a warehouse which functions as a library, a gift shop, and a space for live musical performances, a warehouse which functions as a theater, and a warehouse with two coffee shops and a bookshop, each having its own character.

The warehouses, which were built in 1973, were rediscovered in 2000 when the local government was searching for a location to launch fireworks from to welcome the new millennium.

The next year, a group of artists saw the potential of the spaces and created the Pier 2 Artistic Development Association. It then became the headquarters for artistic development in Taiwan.

In 2006, the local government took over the management of the center and held a series of art exhibitions including the Kaohsiung Design Festival, the Chinese Character Exhibition, the Kaohsiung International Steel & Iron Sculpture Festival, the Kaohsiung International Container Art Festival, Here comes the Kaohsiungers, and the Point & Wavy Ribbon Formation Performance Season, among many others.

Today with warehouses’ brick walls are covered with murals.

“The center has continuously been presenting avant-garde perceptions and appearances, while building this port city into an attractive cultural and living hub,” said the center’s website.

Upon arriving to Pier 2, visitors are welcomed by a colossal art installation in the form of a construction worker, a reminder of the city’s past. An open grassy field can also be accessed where people can find old train tracks, also a remnant of Kaohshiung’s industrial past. Today, the grassy open field is enjoyed as a picnic ground, filled with people either flying kites or taking photos of the art installations.

One can also find a mini bazaar on the streets where one can buy artisanal beauty products or crafts by local artists and, in a homage to the ever popular Harry Potter series, there’s a mini-train which traverses the entire center and is accessible via Platform 8 2/5.

Pier 2 Art Center is located at No.1, Dayong Rd., Yancheng Dist., Kaohsiung City 803, Taiwan.

Also in Kaohsiung is the Fo Guang Shan Buddha Museum (“Buddha’s Light Mountain”), a testament to the religiosity of the Taiwanese.

The more than 100-hectare property houses the 108 meter-tall Big Buddha – made from 1,800 tons of metal which took more than a year to cast – as well as eight pagodas, each representing different ideas and precepts of Fo Guang Shan Buddhism.

The property was developed in 2008 and was completed in 2011.

Considered one of the biggest Buddhist organizations in the country, Fo Guang Shan was established by Hsing Yun in 1967. The order is said to promote Humanistic Buddhism – a more modern take on the traditional Chinese Buddhism.

It is considered as one of the four major Buddhist organizations in Taiwan, alongside Dharma Drum Mountain, Tzu Chi, and Chung Tai Shan.

Humanistic Buddhism places emphasis on integrating Buddhist practices into everyday life, and shifting the focus of rituals from the dead to the living. Fo Guang Shan is also notable for its insistence on making use of modern technology and equipment inside their temples.

The museum’s Front Hall is a hub for visitors as it contains a Starbucks coffee shop, a vegetarian restaurant, and several souvenir shops.

The Main Hall, located directly underneath the Big Buddha, contains several shrines: the Mount Potalaka Avalokitesvara Shrine (Avalokitesvara is a bodhisattva – a person who is able to reach Nirvana but delays doing so in order to save suffering of all creatures – which embodies the compassion of all Buddhas) which houses an image of the the thousand-armed bodhisattva made by contemporary glass artist Loretta Yang; the Golden Buddha Shrine, which houses the aforementioned statue gifted to Fo Guang Shan in 2004 by the 19th Supreme Patriach of Thailand, Nyanasamvara Suvaddhana; and the Jade Buddha Shrine, which houses a reclining Buddha made out of Burmese white jade.

Aside from the shrines, the Main Hall also houses several museums – one that exhibits artifacts from underground palaces, especially those from the Famen Temple in Guangzhong, China; another which tells the story of Fo Guang Shan until 2011; a museum for Buddhist festivals, among others.

The sprawling property, according to our tour guide, deserves at least three hours to be fully appreciated. Sadly, our group only had half that time, and while it wasn’t enough to bask in the beauty of the place, we at least managed to scratch the surface and got cold Starbucks beverages to fend off the crippling heat.

It should be noted that Fo Guang Shan has a satellite temple in Manila called the Fo Guang Shan Mabuhay Temple, located at P. Ocampo St., Malate, Manila. Similar to the Fo Guang Shan temple in Kaohsiung, the Mabuhay Temple also houses a white Jade Buddha, an art gallery, a college, and a vegetarian restaurant, and offers free meditation lessons and lectures.

Fo Guang Shan Buddha Museum is located at No. 1, Tongling Rd, Dashu, Kaohsiung 840, Taiwan.

Located at the foothills of Taiwan’s central mountain range in Nantou County is a lake set high above sea level (748 m). The Sun Moon Lake got its name because the eastern banks resemble the sun while the western banks resemble the moon.

The popular tourist destination is not only known for its scenic views – our guide said the lake is covered with blooming Taiwanese cherry blossom trees in March – but has also functioned as a hydroelectric power source since 1919.

The lake, which surrounds a sunken Lalu island (called Jade Island when Taiwan was under Japanese rule), is also home to the indigenous Thao tribe.

Along the lake stands an imposing temple called Wenwu which is guarded in front by two sentinel lions. The temple has three halls with the first devoted to First Ancestor Kaiji and the god of literature, the second devoted to Guan Gong, the god of war and the last hall devoted to Confucius.

What is a trip to Taiwan without shopping? As most travel guides, Web sites, and blogs would have you know, some of the best places to shop in the country are the local night markets, and no night market is as famous or as sprawling as the Shilin Night Market in Taipei.

Located at the Shilin District, the night market boasts of a food court (located at the basement of the old Shilin market building) with more than 500 stalls selling food and non-food items while the second floor of the building serves as a parking lot able to accommodate 400 cars. But that’s only inside the – thankfully – air conditioned building.

Outside on the street, one is greeted by numerous fruit stalls whose proprietors offer a free taste of local produce – like the sugar fruit which resembles a larger macopa but tastes sweeter and less waxy, and some of the sweetest lychees you could find.

Aside from fruits, Shilin also contains game stalls much like small-town fairs in the Philippines where successfully shooting balloons wins you a prize.

Of course, there’s the street food – a mix of local delicacies like the hu jiao bing (pepper bun; buns filled with meat and hu jiao pepper and are cooked in a tandoori-like oven) and Japanese street food like takoyaki (octopus balls) with several stalls offering a more modern take, and “wagyu” cubes.

To make put it in perspective, night markets are like a cleaner, and safer version of Divisoria and Tutuban.

There are several night markets in Taiwan so make sure to check if there’s one near you. There’s Raohe Night market (also in Taipei), the Liouhe Night market (in Kaohsiung), and Fung Jia Night market (in Taichung), among many others. Many night markets open at 6 p.m. and close between 10 p.m. and midnight.

But for those who want to see a shopping district with big brands, Ximending is the place to go. Our guide called Ximending “a shopping district for the younger people” as it is filled with popular fast fashion brands like H&M and novelty restaurants like the Modern Toilet (a toilet-themed eatery), and clubs and bars.

Think of Ximending as Taipei’s answer to Harajuku and Shibuya – the Ximending pedestrian area located at the exit of the Ximen train station is definitely inspired by the famous Shibuya crossing in Tokyo.

“Ximending was founded during the Japanese colonization era (1895-1945) as a recreation district, and today has grown into a cultural icon with inspiration drawn from its Japanese roots,” says

And while many people would be beguiled by the glittering lights of the clothing stores, do take a peek at the bustling club and bar scene on the other side of the Red House – a more than century-old structure that functions as a market and theater.

This club and bar scene serves as the haunt for the LGBT community.

In late May, Taiwan became the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage. And while the legal framework is still being crafted, if no legislative action is forthcoming within two years, same-sex couples will be allowed to register their marriages and the union will be recognized as legal.

The triumph of the decision is apparent in the number of pride flags visible in the country, especially in Ximending.

Aside from bars and clubs were the community can socialize, this particular street also houses a number of sex shops which do not hesitate to advertise their wares at the store front (in the Philippines, sex shops are more discreet).

Shilin Night Market is located at No. 101, Jihe Road, Shilin District, Taipei City, Taiwan 111 while Ximending is located at Chengdu Rd.,Wanhua District,Taipei City,Taiwan.

BusinessWorld visited Taiwan upon the invitation of the Taiwan Association of the Philippines, supported by the Taiwan External Trade Development Council (TAITRA).