I was in Taiwan on an assignment with AFAR Magazine and the guest of the Taiwan Tourism Bureau but all thoughts and opinions are entirely my own.
Amidst the glitz and glamour of cities like Taipei and Tainan, lost to many visitors is the fact that the country has a long and a proud history shared by the 14 aboriginal tribes of Taiwan. Members of these distinct ethnic groups have called the island home for generations, developing cultures and languages completely their own. As Taiwan continues to advance at a record pace, members of these groups have started to think about their own place in the 21st century and how to preserve the beliefs and practices of their people. One of the best ways to learn more about the original inhabitants of Taiwan is through a unique jungle experience with the Bunun people, deep in the heart of Taiwan’s Central Mountain Range.
Journalist turned cultural tourism pioneer, Aliman Madiklan started this “experience” when an opportunity to purchase some mountainous, jungle-laden land arose. Rather than see his people’s heritage turn into a rest stop along the highway, he purchased the land and started the Luanshan Tribal Village experience. Known as a living museum, the experience is designed to share the old customs of his people with visitors, from what they ate to their philosophies regarding nature, community, and more. The highlight of the day, though, isn’t the tree planting ceremony or the communal lunch; it’s the physically intense jungle trek.
At first, traipsing over fallen logs and hanging on to massive vines for support didn’t really surprise me; I was in the jungle, after all. I expected an adventurous day and to find a rich diversity of life while exploring the dense forest. But then I saw it: a massive rope ladder that people were ascending 20 feet into the air, following the trunk of a massive tree. I wasn’t sure if I could do it. I don’t like heights and this adventure was a little more physically intense than I had at first thought. But then I saw a grandmother scurrying up and my ego took control.
The next 30 minutes of ascending the tree and then trekking through narrow chasms and down tree-root infested paths was one of the hardest times of my life. But I quickly got to know my fellow trek participants, most of whom didn’t speak English, and by the end of the experience we were holding hands, trying to keep each other from falling. It was hard, dirty, and intense, but that hour spent climbing through the jungle was also one of the most satisfying I’ve ever enjoyed.
That’s the real beauty of the Tribal Village. Instead of reading about the history of the Bunun people, visitors are encouraged to live it, and through this cultural immersion a respect so deep is earned that it will stay with us for the rest of our lives.