Travel in Taiwan Scenery

Chihpen Hot Springs--Relaxing with Nature

By Simon Reeve Photos by Sung Chih-hsiung


Relaxaion and family fun is a given at Chihpen hot springs.
Just 20 minute's taxi ride southwest of Taitung is the small settlement of Chihpen. The village itself is unremarkable, featuring the usual gaggle of restaurants and convenience stores lining each side of the main road that runs through it. Heading out of the village towards the mountains, though, the road leads to one of the most popular tourist destinations in southeastern Taiwan: Chihpen's hot springs and resort.

Hot springs are extremely popular in Taiwan because of their reputed benefits to the skin and to general health. The novelty of naturally occurring hot water never seems to wear off for tourists. Cooking eggs and instant noodles in the water is one of the most favored pastimes in Chihpen itself, with one of the resort's most popular stores consisting simply of trays of thousands of eggs and a large stone trough into which boiling spring water is piped.

Chihpen was first developed as a resort around the turn of the century by the Japanese who ruled Taiwan from 1895 to 1945. The area became a prime rest and relaxation venue for the elite of Japan's occupying forces. Now, domestic tourists flock to the area during holidays, making summer weekends a fairly bad time to visit.

Chihpen is about relaxation. Certainly, the area is infested with karaoke bars and disco pubs, but these are peripheral to the main raison d'etre of the resort: soaking in the hot spring pools that are a standard feature of every hotel in the village.


Soak those aches away
For those who have never sampled a hot spring, it may seem a little pointless to spend several days in a place the chief attraction of which is hot water. Once sampled, though, hot spring bathing can become an addiction. The sheer decadence of lazing outdoors in bath-temperature water, while gazing at spectacular scenery, has to be experienced to be appreciated. Aches, pains, and tensions dissolve away with the action of the hot water, while watching the clouds roll over the mountains on the opposite side of the valley can induce an almost meditational state. Local lore also suggests that "taking the waters" can cure rheumatism, arthritis, skin diseases, sciatica, and even problems with digestion.

But pure relaxation in hot water isn't good enough for health-conscious visitors. Bathers at most hot springs can be seen leaping vigorously between the hot pool and an adjacent pool of cold water. This rapid change in temperature is said to open the pores and hasten the replacement of old skin with new cells, as well as promote the rejuvenation of internal organs. The validity of this theory remains a matter for debate, and the practice seems more likely to hasten the onset of pneumonia rather than beautiful skin. Whatever the health benefits (or otherwise), though, once over the initial trepidation, hot pool/cold pool jumping is actually a real buzz, leaving the body with a delicious tingle at each change of temperature. The experience gets easier the more often it's done, but is still not recommended for those with weak hearts.


Not just a hot spring center
Although the resort of Chihpen exists almost purely as a place to use the hot springs, the area itself is one of outstanding natural beauty and deserves to be explored. The multi-story hotels which proliferate here are dwarfed by the towering mountains forming the valley that contains the Chihpen River. In these mountains, hundreds of small farms grow fruit as well as one of Taiwan's largest cash crops-the betel nut. As betel nut (also known somewhat ironically as "Chinese chewing gum") is a premium-priced product in Taiwan, many of these farms boast residences rather grander than the average Taiwan smallholder's house. Despite their relative affluence, the residents seem happy to wave and even stop for a chat (usually in Taiwanese) if visitors should inadvertently venture onto their land.

The whole area is veined through with tiny roads that are ideal for hiking or exploring by rented scooter or on foot. One of the best of these runs past the entrance to the Hong Chuan Hotel and leads to a strangely remote junior high school in the mountains. Although the roads are tortuous and the quality of their surfacing varies, the rewards for following them include secluded waterfalls and spectacular views across the Taitung plain to the sea.

More organized hiking trails are available in the Chihpen Forest Park, accessed via a suspension bridge which crosses the river and which sways disconcertingly when walked over. It costs NT$50 to cross. The park itself has a picnic area and a well-marked hiking trail which takes about three hours to walk. Visitors bringing their own equipment can camp free in the park, and tents and sleeping bags can be rented fairly cheaply. The bridge closes at 4:30 p.m. and doesn't reopen until 7 a.m., which precludes evening trips to the hotel karaoke bars. Those desperate to get to the resort's attractions could possibly wade across the river; but the water is fairly fast-flowing and several people have been drowned in the area, so this is not recommended.

The forest park's motto roughly translates as "Leave only footprints and take only photographs," showing an admirable respect for the ecology of the area. Indeed, the whole of Chihpen seems remarkably free of the litter that pollutes so many other Taiwan resorts. This sense of civic pride can also be seen in a newly built flood barrier-cum-promenade which runs along part of the river. Instead of the usual rough, gray cement, this structure is finished with attractive tiling and has aborigine murals painted on it.

Just past the Dong Tair Hotel is the nominal center of the resort, where a group of small stores and restaurants surround a parking area. These stores sell mostly souvenirs such as rocks and driftwood sculptures as well as swimsuits for visitors who have strangely arrived at this hot spring resort without one. Outside almost every store, instead of Taiwan's ubiquitous video games or gambling machines, stand rows of coin-operated electric massage chairs, in keeping with Chihpen's health-conscious image.

Here also is the home of one of Chihpen's premier tourist attractions-proudly advertised as "The 100-Year-Old Fish." After paying the NT$30 entry fee, the expectant visitor may be disappointed: The fish is dead.

Stuffed it may be, but the fish (actually an eel) must have been a pretty formidable creature when it was alive. At 21 feet long and with an evil-looking head as big as a basketball, it is no wonder that local residents took it as a mystical sign when the giant eel was found floating on the surface of the river after a lightning storm. The current owner, a Mr. Wang, claims that he paid NT$1 million for the eel, so lucky a religious icon does he consider it.


One of the many waterfalls to discover when visiting Chihpen's surrounding areas.
Of meditation and waterfalls
Just south of the valley center is the Ching Chueh (Clear Realization) Monastery. Here, monks and nuns pursue their meditations in an atmosphere of pious tranquillity, while next door, in the upmarket Chihpen Royal Hotel, tour busses disgorge streams of tourists to giggle and scream in the hotel's hot pools.

Despite the intimate proximity of the massive hotel, the monastery has miraculously retained its peaceful atmosphere. The main temple contains two magnificent statues of the Buddha--one of bronze from Thailand and the other a gorgeous white jade likeness from Burma. These statues were donated by their respective countries Buddhist communities to acknowledge links with the influential masters that reside at the monastery.

Another peaceful Chihpen attraction is the White Jade Waterfall. Here, water from the mountains tumbles its way through the rocks, forming pools and natural showers as it goes. Some overgrown steps follow the course of the stream, leading to idyllic, hidden bathing spots that offer a welcome respite from the summer heat.

Accessibility and accommodations
With the increase in availability of low-cost domestic air travel in Taiwan, the whole of the island's southeast has become accessible to tourists from the affluent north. This has led to far more tourists traveling to Chihpen and a consequent explosion in the number of hotels littering the valley. Numerous spotless new high-rise blocks offer accommodation at rates more typical of Taipei's upmarket hotels (around NT$2,500 for a single room) than the supposedly depressed southeast.

There are cheaper accommodations, though, with clean and well-equipped rooms starting from NT$1,000 per night. Separate cabins are also available, some particularly pleasant ones for NT$1,500 being located up the hill from the Chihpen Hotel. Camping, at areas with on-site hot pools, starts from around NT$600 if campers bring their own equipment. It should be noted that Chihpen is definitely a weekend attraction, and hence discounts of up to 40% are available during the week on almost all forms of accommodation. Most hotels and campgrounds have hot spring pools of some kind on-site.

As a place to experience both hot springs and the largely undeveloped charm of Taiwan's southeast coast, Chihpen is ideal. Despite the current crop of new hotels erupting from the mountainsides, in the off-season or during the week the resort retains more than enough of its peaceful mountain character to make a stay there a wonderfully relaxing experience.

Travel in Taiwan Scenery
Copyright 1995 Vision International Publishing Co.