Sunset at Fo Guang Shan, the biggest Buddhist temple of Kaohsiung in Taiwan.
Sunset at Fo Guang Shan, the biggest Buddhist temple of Kaohsiung in Taiwan. outcast85

Old meets the new when you explore Taiwan

A monk's chant lays the soundtrack as a fiery sunset dims the world's largest sitting Buddha statue from a golden spectacle to a silhouette.

I am a visitor of Fo Guang Shan Buddhist Monastery in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. The attraction's allure for those seeking guidance or deeper understanding of one of the island nation's top-two religions is comparable to the crowds which descend on the Vatican Church in Rome.

It's Chinese New Year and red lanterns weave and dot all city streets during the month-long celebrations. They also line the museum path to which the 40-metre-high Buddha sits.

You could spend the day here, and today, some 20,000 visitors are exploring the grounds.

But it's from the sky that you get an even greater perspective of Taiwan's largest Buddhist monastery. I strap into the i-Ride Experience; a "flying theatre". The floor gives way and a curved screen lights up to a bird's-eye view, feel and smell of the river city Kaohsuing. I come face-to-face with the Buddha, which only moments ago from the ground, was in arm's reach.

Next, my toes skim the rapids which course the south-west coast, as temples, night markets, high-rises and the river whir below.

The Republic of China (Taiwan), though only industrialised in recent decades, nestles in the perfect overlap of tradition and modernisation. Information and communication technology is Taiwan's lead industry, and mainland China its number-one trade partner.

Its population of 23 million people, just shy of Australia's, packs into the 394km long by 144km wide island, situated 180km east of China. Yet as you walk the streets of one of its largest cities, Taipei, in the city's north-west, it is unexpectedly free of claustrophobia.

I weave the famous street markets, balancing "stinky tofu" in one hand and a souvenir teapot in the other. Stinky tofu is a traditional form of fermented tofu with a strong, unpleasant odour, but is surprisingly tasty.

Gucci and Louis Vitton adorn grand building facades. In Taipei a new pair of Nikes is half the price you'd pay in Australia.

Chinese New Year is the busiest time as families reunite for the February to March celebrations. A 300kmh ride on the high-speed rail delivers you to Chiayi County towards the south-west coast: the host of the 2018 Taiwan Lantern Festival.

Brightly lit creations sprawl the 50ha footprint of "sea, earth and sky" in depictions of family stories and national history. An indigenous child accompanied by his loyal companion form the Year of the Dog centrepiece. Some 10 million visitors traverse the festival across 24 days.

Young dancers take the spotlight before music fills the electric air and the now technicoloured lantern illuminates the night.

Thousands applaud Democratic Progressive Party leader, President Tsai Ing-wen, as she tells the crowds that development, technology and trade are integral to Taiwan's independence - my host later translates.

"This is a free country," he beams, picking at the remains of our late-night Turkish dinner.

But it hasn't always been this way. A visit to the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in Taipei, days later, is a confronting reminder. The late Kuomintang (KMT party) leader enforced martial law from 1949, which was relaxed following his death in 1975. Thousands were killed until his son, President Chiang Ching-kuo, lifted martial law on July 14, 1987.

Chiang Kai-shek memorials dot the country, but none greater than the bronze statue in Taipei. Today under his gaze, thousands enjoy freedom and refuge from the city under his cast eyes.

 

From here, it's a half-hour drive to Taiwan's largest city, New Taipei. Two volunteer monks silently lead us down an alleyway.

This forms the unassuming entrance to the Dharma Drum Mountain; a modern monastery framed by Miami-style palms and reflected in a lily-pond to its left.

A humble farmhouse remains where the founder, the late Chan Master Sheng-yen, first began his teachings based on the principle of enlightenment through a hard day's work.

If you're after a history and culture hit head south to Taiwan's oldest city, Tainan, to visit Anping Fort. Built by the Dutch East India Company in the 1600s, the original structure reflects Tainan's history as a coveted international Asian trade link.

A street vendor insists I taste the tiny, salty, crunchy creature inside one of the shells piled high and coated in light, spicy seasoning; they are fresh from the ocean nearby.

At the Grand Matsu temple worshippers' thoughts and prayers waft skyward in the smoke of incense, the blackened ceiling a sign of this site's popularity.

Inside an unmarried man known only as "The Messenger" dedicates his life to the temple. Entry is free, but if you want your future told, it's polite practice to donate whatever you can afford.

"People give their money to the temple, rather than their home," our guide tells us.

I find a new truth to what I was told ahead of my trip: "Taiwan's detail is on the inside."

 

The writer was a guest of the Taiwanese Government.



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