A Day With the Tafalong Amis Tribe: History, Food, & Culture

Taiwan Observer recently had the honor of experiencing some of the most treasured traditions of the Tafalong community, as arranged by MyTaiwanTour.    

The Tafalong community of the Amis tribe, the largest of the 16 officially recognized indigenous tribes in Taiwan, is primarily based in Guangfu Township of Hualien County, which neighbors the Guangfu River and the Mataian Settlement, another Amis community. Hualien is home to the largest concentration of indigenous people in Taiwan – namely, 200,000 of the 500,000 indigenous individuals scattered across the island; 5,000 of the 140,000 Amis tribesmen inhabit the Tafalong settlement today. The Tafalong community is among the oldest of its kind, its history stretching back some 2,000 years. Their folksy trademark handicrafts, ranging from vibrant textiles and pottery to exquisite wood carvings and bamboo work aside, the Tafalong people are famed for their cultivation of katepayi, or red glutinous rice – a crop exclusively grown in this region.        

The Tafalong’s ancestors – also known as the “Taibalang,” a reference to the area’s abundance of white crabs and verdant rice paddies – originally hailed from the Fengbin Township in Maogong Mountain, roughly 23 kilometers southeast of Guangfu. According to Tafalong lore, they settled at Guangfu at the Sky God’s urging. In other accounts, their relocation was prompted by the rapidly swelling population and the exhaustion of arable land. 

The Tafalong cherish the roots of their people just as they nurture the roots of their beloved crops. Once upon a time, as the legend goes, there lived a pair of siblings: a boy named Pilukalau and his sister, Marokirok, who resided in a land called “Karara.” Their peaceful lives in this little parcel of paradise, however, were disrupted by a ghastly flood that swept away all things in its path. The quick-thinking siblings managed to save themselves by launching themselves into a massive wooden mortar in the nick of time. 

The currents carried their makeshift boat to a place called Tsatsulaan. It was here that the siblings eventually bore 12 children – six boys and six girls, whose descendants were the forefathers of the Vataan, Bunun, and Atayal tribes, as well as a subgroup of the Amis known as the “Nanshih Ami.” Meanwhile, two other sets of siblings made their escape from the flood in similar fashion. The first brother-and-sister pair, Tsihtsih and Patorau, who found refuge on a floating wooden partition, wound up in Amanlai. Lutsi and Lalakan from Kalapanapanai, distraught by the drowning of their other sister, drifted eastward to Tsilayasan. The two daughters of Lutsi and Lalakan were the progenitors of the Tafalong and Kiwit clans. 

Tejamatsan, the literally glowing daughter of the gods Majau and Tsinatsinau, is said to have been the direct cause of the flood. In other versions of the story, Tejamatsan was not born to deities, but rather was the youngest daughter of a fourth-generation Tafalong family. Whatever the case, both Kodunkun, the god of thunder, and his brother Kalawatsan – the sons of the sea god Pansajan and the goddess Rijar – were resolved to make the breathtakingly beautiful maiden their bride. Majau and Tsinatsinau initially accepted Kodunkun’s proposal on their daughter’s behalf, their wedding scheduled to be held in five days’ time. Kalawatsan, who wanted Tejamatsan to himself, implored her parents to revoke their blessings, but they stood firm in their decision. Enraged yet undeterred, Kalawatsan proclaimed that he would, one way or the other, wed their daughter in two days. 

True to his word, Kalawatsan arrived in Tsilayasan 48 hours later. Tsinatsinau scrambled to find a hiding place for Tejamatsan, stashing her in remote caves and deep in the mountains, but the inextinguishable beams of shimmering light that radiated from her daughter’s body rendered all her efforts futile. Kalawatsan soon found her and whisked her off to the east. Three days later, Kodunkun came to Tsilayasan, and upon learning about his missing fiancee, flew into a rage and conjured up a violent flood.    

Our first stop was the Guangfu Wild Vegetable Market, which features the most diverse assortment of edible greens in all of Hualien. Every stall, each manned by a Tafalong local, was stocked with freshly-picked leafy greens and seaweeds, a rainbow of herbs and spices, and gourds of varying shapes and sizes. Certain vegetables such as the bitter gourd – bright green, somewhat lemon-shaped fruits covered in curious goose-pimply bumps – and the tire bitter gourd, reminiscent of miniature green pumpkins that fit in the palm of your hand, are only grown on Tafalong fields. Also for sale in at least one stall were mesh produce bags pulsating with dozens of tiny frogs.

Our guide was kind enough to teach us a few essential phrases in the Tafalong tongue, so that we could better interact with the indigenous vendors. “Nga’ayho,” we learned, is Tafalong for “Hello,” and “Aray” Tafalong for “Thank you.”

Next, we headed to the Tafalong Red Glutinous Rice House, where pre-prepared cooking stations, complete with pots, portable stoves, cooking utensils, and bamboo baskets filled with garden-fresh vegetables and ingredients awaited us.

Once we’d scoffed down our glutinous rice ball treats, each of which came with a distinctive savory punch, we made our own chili sauce and were each given Tafalong-style pompoms attached to some yarn to decorate our jars with.

We were then instructed on how to make our own salty pancakes from scratch, which we later stuffed with boiled greens, salted pork bits, and a healthy helping of other toppings and seasoning. We wrapped our rolled pancakes in ginger shell leaves, tied it together with bamboo husks and fuschias, and continued onward to our next stop. 

We were brought to one of, if not the foremost Tafalong landmarks: the Kakita’an Ancestral House – a charmingly rustic, one-room structure fashioned out of rattan, wood, and bamboo, and crowned with a thatched straw roof. We even had the privilege of having Ms. Ko herself – a 59th-generation descendant of the Kakita’an family – show us around. In 1921, the Japanese authorities asked that the Kakita’an remove the dried, sun-baked heads that lined the roof, to which they complied; the heads were buried by a nearby hut. The house was officially declared a historic site in 1935. 

Alas, the original structure was laid to waste by Typhoon Winnie in 1958. Seven ornamental panels, which featured carvings of the glowing daughter, the primeval flood, the customary headhunting practices, and other Tafalong traditions were salvaged by an anthropologist named Liu Pin-hsiung, who had them delivered to the Institute of Ethnology at Academia Sinica for safe-keeping. These panels were only returned to their rightful owners in 2003. The reconstruction of the ancestral house, based on the 1940 sketches of  a Japanese architect, Chijiiwa Suketaro, started in earnest three years later.  

Images courtesy of TELDAP

A delectable feast complemented by bottomless shots of rice wine, followed by an enchanting dance performed by an ensemble of lovely Tafalong ladies with infectious smiles, as well as a toron-making (pestle-pounded sticky mochi) session completed our experience. 

Throughout the history of Taiwan, the indigenous communities of the island nation were made to endure centuries of unchecked abuse and neglect at the hands of the Dutch, Chinese, and Japanese colonizers – and yet, they persevered. Still, despite the increasing positive publicity surrounding Taiwan in recent years, these resilient indigenous tribes are often left out of the equation, which is, to put it bluntly, a downright shame, for they are an indispensable part of Taiwanese culture and heritage. It is therefore imperative that we do our part in helping to preserve and promote the precious and irreplicable cultures of our indigenous populations.  









Walk Among the Clouds at the Top of Taipei 101

Despite its modest 15-year history, Taipei 101 has quickly cemented its place as one of the most iconic and beloved landmarks on the island. 

The eight-tiered skyscraper, slender and understated, yet majestic, is impossible to miss, be it near or from afar – and both literally and figuratively, what with its image plastered onto T-shirts, keychains, postcards, and a bevy of other merchandise found in department stores and night markets across the city. To locals, Taipei 101 has become a familiar presence, one that we often find ourselves instinctively on the lookout for when admiring the scenery from a rooftop or some other great height. Naturally, the stately tower attracts millions of visitors each year (it welcomed its 20-millionth visitor in the spring of 2016), excluding, without fail, the thousands that flock to the area to take in the fantastic fireworks display up close every New Year’s Eve. 


In June of 2019, management announced that the gates to the observation deck on the top floor would be opened to the public for the first time, as well as the debut of its new Skyline 460 feature; the outdoor deck now serves as a companion to the original viewing platform on the 89th floor. 

Chances are, you’ve come across the widely shared photographs of history’s freshest prince, Will Smith, posing up a storm on one of the world’s highest terraces when he visited Taiwan last October to promote his film, Gemini Man. 



Taiwan Observer was recently invited to experience Taipei’s pride and joy from a fresh and exciting perspective, a special adventure arranged by MyTaiwanTour. (click the link to take the tour)

Fun facts captured in infographics, an interactive multimedia wall, and sculptures dotted along the corridor entertained those waiting for their turn on the elevator. Designed and erected by C. Y. Lee & Partners, a local architectural firm, Taipei 101 shattered the world record when it was first unveiled in October 2004. It achieved the title of tallest building in the world at its impressive height of 1,667 feet (508 m), sailing past the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, and remained unrivaled until 2010, its thunder snatched by the 2,716-ft-tall (828 m) Burj Khalifa in Dubai. The skyscraper has since been demoted to 11th place, sandwiched between Beijing’s China Zun and the Shanghai World Financial Center. 

After a headcount and a brief breakdown on the day’s activities, we rocketed to the 89th floor in 37 seconds flat, as indicated by the video screen on top of the elevator buttons. The lift to the lower observatory, which travels at a speed of 60.67 km/h (37.7 mph), is among the fastest of its kind. 

As to be expected, the indoor observatory was astir with tourists and sightseers peering out the floor-to-ceiling windows, amusing themselves with touch-screens and displays, and browsing the gift shops. 

Before the main event, we were shepherded into a separate room to check out the gargantuan globe suspended between the 87th and 92nd floor, which was installed with the island’s high propensity for earthquakes and typhoons in mind.  The innovative design of the “tuned mass damper,” which weighs a whopping 660 tons and is capable of absorbing up to 40% of the tower’s movements, effectively stabilizes and guards the structure against these acts of God.


To access the observation deck on the top floor, we rode up two different elevators and scaled another flight of stairs. Those looking to conquer their acrophobia may find comfort in the fact that all sky-walkers were required to strap into safety harnesses provided by the staff. Clear plastic pockets with neck straps, for those who wished to bring their cellphones with them, were also available.

Upon entering the 360-degree observation deck, our guides clipped our harnesses onto the railing, which some of us clung onto for dear life. All nerves, however, were almost instantly calmed by the stunning panoramic view that greeted us, coupled with the embrace of an exhilarating breeze. For the next 40 minutes, we marveled at and snapped multiple shots of the seemingly endless circuit board-esque vista, all the more enhanced by the sliver of gold slicing through the horizon. 

Our stroll among the clouds was topped off with a cloud of a different kind. Following our trip to the outdoor observatory, we headed down to the chic and aptly-named Bar 88 on the 88th floor. Here, we enjoyed a round of their signature beverages: a selection of “cloud” coffees and teas. The “cloud” bubble tea (雲朵珍奶), crowned with a delightful afro of cotton candy, is definitely one to try out. Those who aren’t keen on tapioca pearls can opt for coffee (雲朵咖啡), which is presented with the illusion of a cloud hovering over your mug. 


A cool gift bag, which included a collectible mug, a souvenir photo from the Skyline 460 experience, and a flat bottle of “pocket water” completed our adventure.

If you want to take this tour of 101 visit MyTaiwanTour to book it now.

Tiny Trains, a Giant Buddha, & Dinner and a Show! Kaohsiung! pt.1

The glorious sunlight immediately made up for the dangerous two hours of sleep I barely managed to squeeze in the previous evening. Or it could have been the two macchiatos I downed en route to Kaohsiung; we may never know. What I do know is that the transition from the glum-faced, umbrella-toting early birds of Taipei to the sea of sunglasses and parasols in the sunny southern city was a sight for sore eyes. The equally sunny disposition and informative narration of Gordon, our delightful MyTaiwanTour guide, was a fun bonus.  

Our first stop following the roughly four-hour bus ride was the Pier-2 Art Center in Yancheng. Past the curious collection of cartoonish statues, which included curvy fisherwomen, boxy-torsoed construction workers, and a fully-transformed Bumblebee were old buildings tricked out with murals, and warehouses converted into museums and seasonal exhibition spaces. Tourists posed with surreal scrap metal sculptures scattered across the old train tracks. Photographers turned into contortionists, angling for that perfect shot.    


When the rest of our tour group arrived, we headed over to Platform 8 ⅖ (cute) in the Hamasen Museum of Taiwan Railway. We hopped aboard a pint-sized light rail train, modeled after the trams of the Kaohsiung Mass Rapid Transit, and zipped around the miniature tracks. Yes, it was every bit as awesome as it sounds.


A tour of the railway museum came next. Among its nifty displays was a life-size replica of a train carriage interior and an interactive one-seater rail bike that you could pedal around a short strip of tracks installed in the corner of the room. The centerpiece of the permanent exhibit, a sprawling hall inhabited by an exquisite scale model of the island, did not disappoint.


The craftsmanship and attention to detail were on another level. Illuminated toy trains disappeared into mountain tunnels and glided past colorful buildings, billboards, and public squares as thumb-sized animatronic civilians pumped water and hung up their laundry. There were teenie chickens pecking the grass, for crying out loud.  

The tour was paused for a filling lunch at the Jhan-2 Warehouse, which was stocked with a variety of restaurants and kiosks vending everything from artisanal crafts and souvenirs to maxi pads. We then set off for the Fo Guang Shan Buddha Museum, a sacred treasury erected to enshrine a tooth from the Sakyamuni Buddha himself. Leading up to the Fo Guang Big Buddha was a long, white path – a reference to the Great Path to Buddhahood – flanked by the Eight Pagodas and neat columns of flower shrubs and other greenery. The glinting bronze Buddha was even more striking up close.  


We were asked to put our cameras away during the tour of the shrines. The relief carvings, engraved into fragrant wood and jade slabs, as well as the statues spotlighted in each shrine were sights to behold – in particular, the thousand-armed Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva and the Reclining Buddha fashioned out of white jade. Smiling staff members seated by the entrance of each shrine handed us flower pots that we then placed on the altars as offerings for the deities. In the Golden Buddha room, which featured a wall housing some 6,000 white Buddhas in separate niches, were Dharma Advice Boxes. Visitors knelt before these boxes, quietly submitted a question, and fished out words of wisdom printed onto paper scrolls, available in both Mandarin and English.  


We later reconvened at the Starbucks in the Front Hall, boarded our bus, and proceeded to Shunsian Temple. This was the venue for the main event: the Neimen Song Jiang Battle Array.

MyTaiwanTour hooked us up with great rooms at the Yixian Service & Event Center, according to TaiwanGods, “the most famous five-star pilgrim’s hostel in Taiwan.” Once we were all settled in, we made our way towards the temple square. Performers and guests located their seats in the mass of round tables, ready to dine bando (banquet) style. We feasted upon a blur of seafood platters, an assortment of meats and vegetables cooked in various ways, and broths, capped off with, of course, a plate of fruit.

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The banquet was complemented by vibrant song, drum, and dance numbers prepared by the eight competing schools. The school spirit demonstrated by these institutions, among them an elementary school, was infectious. What’s more, the diversity of the performers was a breath of fresh air.

All in all, an appetite-pleasing and emotionally gratifying end to an action-packed day.

Looking to learn more about traveling in Taiwan? Check out Taiwan Scene. Also, book a custom tour with MyTaiwanTour to make the most of your trip!

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