Kaohsiung is the second largest city in Taiwan, at the southern end of the island. Being in the travel business I know a number of people that have been and raved about it. Overall though it’s not a city that features on the international travel radar.
There are direct flights from Ho Chi Minh City to Kaohsiung, so when I found a suitable airfare I booked a trip. Even through my grimy plane window I knew as soon as Kaohsiung came into view that I would like this city. As I was to discover during the course of my stay, Kaohsiung is an underrated city.
Kaohsiung has the largest port in Taiwan and is a base for many heavy industries, but don’t let that put you off. It has a big city feel without feeling like an industrial city.
I had a list of things to do that I starred in my Google Maps as targets to walk to. I ended up doing so much urban wandering that I missed some of the main attractions. If you prefer to be better organised than me, here is a list of things to do in Kaohsiung.
Near where I was staying was Central Park, so I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see what their park looked like. Living in Southeast Asia things like streams of clear water with no rubbish are a novelty.
I walked into a mall, because you never know what you might find (and the air-conditioning was also enticing). I was so entranced by this arrangement of escalators that I had to go to the top floor to get a better photo.
One of the main tourist sites I wanted to visit were the temples at the Lotus Pond. This was sort of near a metro near the botanical gardens, so that was another good excuse to visit a park.
The temples were on the other side of a giant freeway, and on the map it looked like an ugly crossing. Of course they had already thought of this and built an impressive pedestrian overpass that connects the botanical gardens to the Lotus Pond.
Once I got to the Lotus Pond I saw that it was still a considerable walk to the Spring and Autumn Pavilions. Sometimes I’m not good at accounting for scale on a map. It was too hot and I was short of time so I abandoned that mission. This pond would make an ideal late afternoon walk.
I didn’t even get close to Fo Guang Shan Great Buddha Land (the biggest temple in Taiwan), so I think you would need a full day to enjoy these places without rushing around.
85 Sky Tower
In addition to being an underrated city, Kaohsiung is also home to one of the most underappreciated skyscrapers in the world. The 85 Sky Tower is 347.5 metres, or 378 metres when measuring the total height with the antenna (factions have formed in the architecture world over what is considered the true height of a building).
The building features a tower standing on two legs, representing the general shape of the first Chinese character of the city’s name. Along with having an unusual shape, it also breaks the standard convention of simple blue/grey glass box design. There is a hotel at the 85 Sky Tower as well.
Taiwan is famous for its night markets, and Kaohsiung is no exception. I was staying near the Liuhe night market so that became my go-to place for dinner.
I would have happily visited Liuhe every night as there were so many stalls I wanted to visit. I figured I should at least see another market so I went to Rueifong night market on my last night.
I had dumplings every day, and I’m also a fan of stinky tofu. One thing that I didn’t dare try was the asparagus juice from random vending machines.
Old British Consulate
One of the museums I went to was the Old British Consulate.
The museum sits on a hill overlooking the old harbour, and I went here mainly because it looked like a good walk. It was worth the walk.
Pier 2 Art District
Like most port cities, the old port became redundant with the rise of container shipping. These old docks around the world gave cities the chance to revitalise/gentrify inner city areas.
I always visit dock regeneration projects to see how they compare. I have mixed feelings about Melbourne’s Docklands, and I’m still sad about how Saigon demolished a historic dock area that would have made a great arts precinct. Visiting Kaohsiung made me even sadder about Saigon because Kaohsiung is a good example of what Bason in Saigon could have been.
The old harbour area is now home to the Pier 2 Art District. There’s an old railway here, so they have made a railway museum and have some old locomotives on display.
There is a group of warehouses that have been converted into art spaces and theatres.
One of the warehouses was a ruin, complete with Angkor-esque trees growing out of the brickwork. It has been preserved as is, and inside the ruins a modern toilet facility has been built.
Warehouse 2 is a model example of how to turn an old warehouse into a commercial space. Inside this gloriously air conditioned building (Kaohsiung is in the tropics after all) is a mix of cafes, restaurants, and art shops.
After hours of walking around I took refuge at Louisa Cafe.
It’s interesting to see how Australian cafe culture has propagated around the world. I saw they have flat white coffee; a giveaway sign that it has an element of Australian influence. And sure enough I saw this on their takeaway cups.
Banana Pier is another converted warehouse whose name recalls its original purpose.
Seeing some of the art installations on display was a reminder of the freedom an artist has here compared to mainland China or Vietnam. There were some art installations here that I don’t think would have passed the censors of the People’s Committee of Ho Chi Minh City.
When I was researching a place to stay I was delighted to find that there is a metro system here, and that it goes to the airport. That’s the sign of a civilised city, and I knew before I arrived that this city and I were going to be friends.
Without knowing a good area to stay I just looked on the metro map and picked a place near the central junction station. After a 20 minute ride from the airport to the central station, I was introduced to Kaohsiung with the incredible glass dome at Formosa Boulevard metro station. Talk about making a good first impression.
Kaohsiung has an X (or +) shaped metro system, and they are in the process of building a light rail circle line that will cross all 4 arms of the metro.
Being a new metro it has the latest ticketing technology. Contactless payment and mobile app payments are built in the to gates. I waved my Australian MasterCard and it worked no problem. This is especially good when you have just arrived in the country and don’t have the local currency yet.
While looking up information about the metro I found that the ridership numbers haven’t reached forecast amounts. Currently the trains are only running with half of the carriages, and sections of the platforms are closed.
Sometimes though you have to look beyond the numbers and look in terms of national development. In the case of Taiwan there is a danger of Taipei becoming far bigger than the other cities, or what is known as a primate city. Bangkok is the best example of this, where it’s the biggest city in Thailand by an enormous margin.
With better infrastructure in Kaohsiung it becomes a more attractive place to live, and eases the burden on Taipei.
It’s also good to see that some of the stations are architectural highlights of the city, such as the Central Park Station.
A new railway station
While I was in Kaohsiung I did a day trip to Tainan City. This historic city is only 45 km away and can be reached by local and high-speed train. I departed from Kaohsiung Main Station, which is currently undergoing reconstruction. The station area won’t be finished until 2023 so this is another incentive for me to return.
I enjoyed my time in Kaohsiung, and it was refreshing to be in a place that isn’t overrun with tourism. I would of course be happy for them to see more tourists, so here I am making the case to visit if you are going to Taiwan.
From Kaohsiung I got a flight to Osaka for Kyoto, where I was to experience the full brunt of the global overtourism phenomenon.
Kaohsiung has many flights to East Asian destinations, but there aren’t as many choices from Southeast Asia. Vietnam is well connected, with 2 flights a day from Ho Chi Minh City with VietJet Air, and more recently Jetstar started flights from Danang. Before deciding on Osaka I was originally going to fly from Kaohsiung to Fukuoka. My next trip to Japan may be via Kaohsiung again.