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30 Minutes To Makung: Exploring the Gateway to the Penghu Archipelago

From our archives, Compass Magazine, July 2000:

Step off the propeller plane at the Makung airport and the sense of space is overwhelming. Partly it is the low flat grassy landscape, unencumbered with the natural and unnatural obstructions that crowd Taiwan proper. No mountains loom in the distance, no factories, no skyscrapers. But mostly it is the air that lends Penghu the sense of space – so clean, crisp and clear that your vision telescopes out and reaches to distances that are impossible on Taiwan. The disorientation is exhilarating; the feeling is of setting out on an adventure in a faraway land.

For a quick, exciting trip out of Taichung, it is hard to beat Makung. A 30 minute flight out of the Taichung Shui Nan domestic airport (¤ôÙõ¾÷³õ) and you’ll find yourself on a paradise of sun, beaches, history, relaxation and really good seafood.

Whether you plan to just get away alone to clear your head (and lungs) or you want a romantic place to take a loved one (with or without progeny) – the NT$3000 price of the round-trip ticket is well worth it (see ‘Compass Points’ listings in the back for complete flight times).

There is quite a bit to do and see in the Penghu Archipelago, but the city of Makung is usually the starting point. In a later issue we will bring you more details on the rest of Penghu.

From the airport, the taxi costs NT$300 to get into town (flat rate). In town, one would be advised to get a vehicle – especially if you have any plans of leaving Makung city.
Happily, vehicle rental places are all over Penghu (see map for a sampling). Motorcycles can be rented for a few hundred NT$, and cars for about NT$1300 and up. Be sure to remember your driver’s license, the Penghu police are curiously strict on traffic violations. Considering that Penghu is largely crime-free, I suppose that makes sense.

Within the city, one can consider walking to get around. Makung has a different feeling than other Taiwanese cities. The streets are cleaner, the shops smaller and the pace slower – vaguely reminiscent of Okinawa. There are more people roaming the streets, sometimes little packs of tourists giggling and smiling.

These little herds are often spotted grazing through the shops on Chung Cheng Rd. (see Makung city map in center section of this issue), a newly spruced-up thoroughfare with yellow globe streetlights, brick paving and a new name; ‘Art Street’ (ÃÀ³Nµó). Here is a good place to start a walking tour from. Starting from the north, the street slopes down nicely, framing a view of the harbour. Standing in front of the harbour is a classic statue of Chiang Kai Shek, his pose suggesting he has just heroically tossed a frisbee into the harbour.

While shopping is in most cases cheaper on Taiwan than in Penghu, there are some decent handicrafts and art shops along this stretch. One of the most interesting is Taiwan Story in Penghu just off Chung Cheng Rd, the owners of which are some of the funniest and friendliest people I’ve ever met (him: “your Chinese is very good, how long have you lived here ” me: “nine years” him: “oh, then your Chinese sucks”).

Something not in the guide books that I found much more interesting is just off this alley and was shown to me by one of the ‘Taiwan Story’ tea club. It is a plaque embedded into a wall that was used to deflect evil spirits or bad luck – presumably over to the neighbours place. These are not found on Taiwan, and sadly they are almost all gone in Penghu. Penghu is culturally and historically different from Taiwan, and this example is just one of many little surprises that awaits the visitor with a little curiosity. The gentleman who pointed it out to me was a broadcaster in Taipei who came to Penghu to do research for a documentary. He never went back and has spent the last decade learning and preserving traditional Penghu crafts. Penghu is unique, and has a special draw to it.

Yet another block over from Chung Yang St. is the Tien Ho temple (¤Ñ¦Z®c), constructed in the Ming Dynasty and the oldest temple in Taiwan. While I must admit to suffering ‘temple fatigue’ after being in Taiwan so long, but this temple captured my interest. Check out the amazing sweeping roof (I was told it is stylistically different than temples on Taiwan) and the striking artwork to the right side of the entrance featuring what looked to me like dragons cavorting in milk.

Down towards the harbour and to the right is one of the old city gates (¶¶©Óªù). Sadly, not much remains of the once important Makung fortifications – which saw many European navies come and go.

What made Makung so worthy of defense was the port. This port still serves as a main entryway for seafood. Makung is famous for it’s fresh seafood, and indeed my first meal was so fresh my cook had to chase after it swinging a wooden mallet. Like most tourists I started with the outdoor seafood restaurants near the romantically named Number 2 Fish Port (²Ä¤Gº®´ä). Next to each is a whole array of red plastic bins featuring live seafood. One roams through and picks out the desired seafood, initiating a small massacre as your dinner is pulled wriggling from the bins and executed. And was that food ever fresh! It was easily some of the best seafood I’ve ever had.

Afterward, however, locals told me that the outdoor restaurants are widely known to take some liberties on the price and that as a tourist I’d have been safer to go to one of the many indoor restaurants in the neighbourhood – because they post their prices clearly. Even if I was cheated on the price, I can’t say I regret it – sitting out under the stars with my beer, smelling the salt air and eating the great food was very pleasant.

Besides the seafood, try the ‘Penghu Melon’ as the accompanying vegetable dish. In place of a rice dish, try ordering the locally popular ‘pumpkin rice noodles’.

For breakfast or lunch you can try the surprisingly good ‘tu tuo yu gen’ at the famous Hsiang Hsiang Tu Tuo Yu Gen restaurant (­»¨É¤g¦«³½Ã¼). In English the only way I can describe it is chunks of lightly breaded fish and other mystery things in a warm soup of sticky goo. It tastes much better than that description implies. Apparently this restaurant has been at it for quite awhile and is widely acknowledged by the locals I talked to as the best there is.

The most unusual restaurant in Penghu must be the Da Fang Guang (¤j¤è¼s) combination restaurant and art gallery. Whether planning to have a meal in a reflective environment or to enjoy a coffee on their sofas or while walking around checking out the art – this one place worth taking a peek at.

In the evening, after enjoying your seafood, there is a surprising number of nightlife options. For non-drinkers there are plenty of coffee and tea houses. Reputedly the best, and the certainly the oldest, is the Paris Cafe – founded in 1957. In those days, American servicemen used to drop by, but these days they are known for the quality of their coffee.
Penghu boasts one internet cybercafe, the Eastern Forest (ªF¤è´ËªL). They also feature a wide array of video games, so that should one be feeling withdrawal symptoms on can dash in for a quick fix.

For drinkers there are loads of options. Much to my surprise there were plenty of pubs (not being able to sing, KTVs and karaokes are no fun for me) – more than in cities much larger than Makung on Taiwan. All of them are small and personal, even the ones labeled ‘disco’ were not much bigger than a 7-11. Check the map for some of the options.

After a day or sightseeing, a big dinner of seafood and an evening of pub crawling – it’s time to settle down for the evening at one of Makung’s plentiful hotels. Mostly they range from around NT$600 on up, with good digs to be had for NT$800 to NT$1300. Check the map in the center section of this issue and the ‘compass points’ listings in the back of the magazine for details. Note that in most hotels there is no such thing as a ‘single’ – rooms with a large bed for one or two persons are charged the same rate. Many hotels discount heavily in the winter, and might consider discounting during the middle of the week.

As you can probably tell by now, I love Penghu. It strikes me as odd how many people in the Taichung area I meet who have never visited this amazing place. In some ways, this may be a good thing – as Penghu is not yet totally overwhelmed with touristy tackiness and outrageous prices. So, between you and me, Penghu is a great place to go. Just don’t go telling everyone or it will be spoiled.

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Written by 石東文 Courtney Donovan Smith

Courtney Donovan Smith is co-publisher of Compass Magazine and editor-in-chief of Taiwanfun.com

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