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Taoist Temple at Lotus Lake, Kaohsiung, Taiwan
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Home/Inspiration/History & Culture/Spirited Away by Culture in Hong Kong & Taiwan
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Spirited Away by Culture in Hong Kong & Taiwan

7 min read
Published on Oct 05, 2016
Globetrotting
Christian Baines
By Christian BainesGlobetrotting Contributing Editor

Located at the crossroads of Asia, Hong Kong and Taiwan are two destinations that embrace their spirituality, natural assets, and culture - even in the shadow of rising corporate influence. A world finance leader, Hong Kong has become the world’s undisputed skyscraper capital, while Taipei held the record for the world’s tallest tower for several years with Taipei 101 – still a major draw for those on Taiwan tours today. But one doesn’t have to stray far from these world class cities to discover the cultural assets and stunning beauty of Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Hong Kong

When many people think of Hong Kong, they think of Hong Kong Island. Yes, this is where you’ll find Victoria Peak, the famous skyline, and many of Hong Kong’s most famous beaches and villages. But it’s only a fraction of this diverse territory. In fact, 40% of Hong Kong’s land area is country park, and there are over 260 outlying islands to explore, including Lantau, which holds a number of Hong Kong’s biggest attractions. Back in the city, you can dive into Kowloon for a more "local" taste of urban Hong Kong, including the world’s most densely populated neighbourhood, Mong Kok. Finally, there’s the New Territories - the vast green expanse between urban Hong Kong and the mainland Chinese border.

Lantau is the first island most visitors to Hong Kong will see. But it’s home to more than just the airport. Disney fans will certainly want to visit Hong Kong Disneyland, and those in search of an astonishing view will want to take the Ngong Ping 360 cable car up to the namesake village at the island’s peak. The views over the South China Sea and Lantau are mesmerizing, as you rise toward the famous Tian Tan Buddha. This is one of the world’s largest Buddha statues, and one of very few that face north (so as to watch over the people of Hong Kong). Both the village and Tian Tan Buddha are relatively new, but those seeking traditional culture shouldn’t be deterred. They’re just a short walk from the Po Lin Monastery, which has shared the wisdom of, and about Buddha for over a century. Older history can be found just a short ride away in Tai O Fishing Village, which has been a permanent settlement for over 300 years. Take a stroll through its eye-popping seafood market while contemplating its notorious history as a pirate port. That history necessitated the founding of the Old Tai O Police Station, which today operates as a boutique hotel. Scenic views of the nearby bay don’t hurt Tai O’s appeal either!

Looking at options for Hong Kong tours, if you want to escape both the tourist crowd and the busy city, set out for Hong Kong’s New Territories, starting with two major spiritual attractions on the outskirts of the city. The Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery is an awe-striking temple within walking (okay, climbing) distance from Sha Tin metro stop, accompanied by rows of Buddha statues as you ascend the stairs. The other important spiritual site can be reached by bus or private tour. Despite its rather plain name, the Yuen Yuen Institute is one of the most scenic temples in Hong Kong, and a serene alternative to Kowloon’s beautiful but often crowded Wong Tai Sin Temple. Featuring a replica of Beijing’s Temple of Heaven, this unique space honours all three of Hong Kong’s principle religions – Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism. The New Territories are a mix of wilderness and quiet, picturesque villages. You might take in the view from Hong Kong’s highest peak, Tai Mo Shan, or visit Fanling Wai, a walled village steeped in centuries of family history. Fishing villages such as Yim Tin Tsai also line the shores of the Territories, showcasing Hong Kong’s more relaxed side in the shadow of its rush toward modernity. Hong Kong is home to China’s Global Geo Park, a UNESCO-listed geological park with some truly spectacular rock formations.

Sunrise in Victoria Harbour and Tsuen Wan from Tai Mo Shan, Highest Hill in Hong Kong
Sunrise in Victoria Harbour and Tsuen Wan from Tai Mo Shan

Taiwan

Fly across the South China Sea to Taipei, and you’ll be inundated with options for a cultural escape. It’s the capital of Taiwan, after all! But Taiwan’s compact size and good infrastructure also make a longer cultural holiday a tempting prospect. Even on limited time, you might take a short trip outside the city to one of the many surrounding villages. Jiufen may be the closest you ever get to being in an Asian fantasy film. In fact, it’s often credited as the inspiration for "downtown" in Ghibli Studios’ popular Spirited Away, despite writer/director Hayao Miyazaki’s repeated protests to the contrary. What’s not in dispute is Jiufen’s charm and popularity with visitors, particularly Taipei locals seeking a weekend away. Visitors will find a thriving town characterized by markets and atmospheric laneways lit with red lanterns - all complimenting spectacular views over Taiwan’s rugged mountain coast.

Hillside teahouses in Jiufen, Taiwan
Hillside teahouses in Jiufen

Taipei is surrounded by such villages, making it an ideal base for further exploration on Taiwan tours. Beitou for instance, is a mere 30 minute ride away on the Taipei metro. The big attraction here is the village’s hot springs, a sure-fire way to refresh after a busy day’s sightseeing. Beitou Public Library, a branch of the Taipei Public Library, is an incredible sight many visitors don’t expect in this unassuming village.

Taiwan might sound like a long way to go for a cup of tea, but the village of Maokong is where you’ll find the good stuff. It’s not that far from Taipei either, and the final leg of the trip - a cable car ride up the mountain from MRT Taipei Zoo - highlights the beauty of Taiwan’s mountainous landscape. Also close to Taipei is Tianmu, a popular residential neighbourhood for expats – recalling the 1950s, when US servicemen were stationed there. It may not be the most 'local' Taiwanese experience you can have, but it does provide an insight into Taiwan’s importance as an international crossroad in Asia, where influences from all over the world have left their mark. Of course, exploring culture on Taiwan tours isn’t all about the past. Hit the streets of Ximending, just one MRT stop from Taipei Main Station, and be immersed in the capital’s youth culture. Here, expressive fashions, inventive, affordable eateries, and boundless creative energy make for one of Taipei’s most exciting neighbourhoods. After dark, it’s all about the karaoke bars. Chinese or English, it makes no difference. If you’re not indulging in this national pastime, you’re not really having a night out in Ximending! This is also the spiritual heart of LGBT Taiwan, which celebrates Asia’s second biggest Pride festival every October.

Chi Nan Temple in Maokong, Taipei, Taiwan
Chi Nan Temple in Maokong, Taipei

Culturally-rich destinations in small packages, both Hong Kong and Taiwan deliver a lot besides a great city stopover. Even if you’re not spirited away, you’ll at least go home with lasting memories of a wonderful Asia trip that went beyond the usual tourist stops.

Related Topics
History & Culture
Hong Kong
Taiwan
Asia
Christian Baines
Christian Baines
Goway - Globetrotting Contributing Editor

Christian’s first globetrotting adventure saw him get lost exploring the streets of Saigon. Following his nose to Asia’s best coffee, two lifelong addictions were born. A freelance writer and novelist, Christian’s travels have since taken him around his native Australia, Asia, Europe, and much of North America. His favourite trips have been through Japan, Spain, and Brazil, though with a love of off-beat, artsy cities, he’ll seize any opportunity to return to Paris, New York, or Berlin.

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