The Three Faces of Green Island

Wangong Arch, the largest natural arch on Green Island (and probably in all Taiwan) is huge!

According to the elegant phrase on the T-shirts sold at the gaggle of tacky souvenir stalls that greet new arrivals to Green Island stepping off the boat from Taitung, “Green Island is … F***ing Hot“.  Actually for about half of our three days’ stay on the island, the weather was Bl**dy chilly, as a front of cool, rainy weather coincided with our visit, but in another sense the blokes that coined that slogan got it right. 

The center of Nanliao village, Green Island’s main settlement

   The line of souvenir stalls that set up to meet incoming boats are a first clue that tourism has come to Green island (綠島) in a big way during the last few years, and the sea of scooters (many with the whole family aboard: we saw one poor vehicle groaning under the weight of five bodies!) soon confirm that this is no longer a sleepy, unspoilt backwater, at least during the summer high season.

Green Island’s northeastern point: the high, grassy slopes of Cow’s Head Hill

For a detailed guide of what to see and do on Green Island, see pages 175-194.

For a detailed guide of what to see and do on Green Island, see pages 175-194.

The main village on the island, Nanliao (南寮), which starts about a kilometer north of the harbor, is a kilometer-long, ragtag strip lining the seafront, uncomfortably reminiscent of the main drag in Kenting. During open hours, the narrow street seems almost constantly jammed with scooters and pedestrians who weave through and around each other in a chaotic kind of dance; it’s a miracle we didn’t see any accidents during our time there. Both sides of the street are lined with small restaurants, homestays, shops and ice bars selling seriously strange ‘desserts’ whose main ingredient (besides ice) is dried, shredded sea grass, an ingredient which makes those ices with taro and beans available everywhere else seem positively mainstream. At least so far there aren’t any noisy disco bars or nightclubs.

The Pekingese Dog Rock and Sleeping Beauty Rock

Green Island is ruled these days, it seems by package tours, and we weren’t able to book a room unless we also bought the whole package including roundtrip ferry tickets, a rental scooter, vouchers for a hot spring, a snorkeling lesson (!) and a mysterious-sounding ‘nighttime tour’. These deals actually work out pretty good value, and it’s a good way to avoid the minor hassle of sorting out times of ferries etc, but at the same time you’ll be assured of a uniquely Taiwanese experience. The snorkelling excursions (which never run with less than a hundred or so people in a group) are directed with military discipline, and since half the snorkelers can’t swim, everyone has to hold on to brightly colored buoyancy rings, tied together in  long strings and towed out over the shallow reef by flipper-wearing instructors. Eventually our instructor calmed down enough to let me and a couple of others let go of the ring and swim around a little, but only after we informed him we were qualified divers.

Near the General Rock, on Green Island’s north coast

As evening falls, countless hundreds of hungry holidaymakers converge on the restaurant strip in Nanliao, or crowd into the string of BBQ joints out near the lighthouse just north of the village for supper, and an hour later, huge gangs of scooter riders (2, 3, even four on a bike) converge in swarms outside each homestay and hotel to take part in a summer nightly phenomenon possibly unique to Green Island: the evening scooter  safari.   Seeing the great convoys of scooters, all cruising along the narrow roads that climb over the hilly grasslands in the north of the island and shooting powerful flashlight beams across the meadows and into the trees, it seems impossible that anyone would spot anything, but the island’s population of sika deer, which apparently outnumber its permanent residents, are pretty easy to find, and (snacking on a certain species of succulent shrub that grows along one road) we discover plenty of specimens of a rare species of  stick insect unique to Green Island, which apparently once fetched daft sums of money when sold to eager Japanese collectors, before a law was passed to protect the remaining individuals.

The coast near Green Island prison

All this is undeniably fun in a way, but thankfully Green Island has a lot more to offer than hanging out with the masses. It’s not as jaw droppingly scenic as Lanyu or the loveliest islands of Matsu, but it certainly has its moments. Apart from the famous hot springs, right down on the rocky foreshore of the island’s southernmost tip, the most popular natural curiosities on the island are probably the Pekingese Dog Rock (哈巴狗岩, on the island’s east coast) and the General Rock (將軍岩), which really does look like some seated sage, propped up beside the road next to the island’s notorious prison, but even on this small isle a number of fascinating places get mostly overlooked in the summer rush for the island’s underwater wonders and its edible goodies. The prominent headland called Gong Guan Bi  (公館鼻),  just to the west of the General Rock is actually the remains of an old volcano, and offers some great easyish scrambling on its steep, untouched cliffs.

The grasslands atop Cow’s Head Hill

Nearby are the grassy cliff tops of Cow’s head Hill (牛頭山; if viewed from the west, near the prison, the name is strikingly appropriate). Trails cross the grassy heights, past the cow’s rocky ‘horns’ and end at impressively sheer cliffs, with long views along the island’s rugged eastern coastline. Below the cliffs, reached by a path along the seashore, is one of the island’s several gaping caverns, known as the Swallows’ Grotto (燕子洞). It’s an impressively huge (if shallow) cave – the biggest I’ve ever seen in Taiwan –  especially remarkable for its sinister history; this place where the bodies of dead inmates taken from the nearby prison were cremated. The small cemetery where their remains are buried lies beside the trail on the way to the cave.

Inside Swallows’ Grotto

For Green Island’s most outstanding chunk of scenery, however, head to the east coast. Half way down is the Pekingese Dog Rock, a small offshore island and one of the island’s most photographed spots. The scene here is impressively wild and beautiful in rough weather (as we discovered: it got seriously windy during our brief stay on the island). A  short path (called for some reason the Little Great Wall, 小長城) leaves the road and climbs out onto a headland just to the north of the island and gives the classic view, although it’s teaming with tourists in good weather.

Wangong Arch

Ignored by many visitors who rush past on the way to the Pekingese Dog Rock and the gorgeous seaside hot springs further south,  the small road a kilometer or so north of the Little Great Wall signposted to Youzihu (柚子湖), winds down to a rocky beach at the foot of the cliffs and Green Island’s most explorable destination. The great outcrops of rock towering above the beach are made for climbing, and the deserted stone houses of an abandoned aboriginal settlement lie in an overgrown meadow behind the beach.  It’s possible to walk along the coast below the cliffs in either direction for quite some distance. Walk northwards and the large and conspicuous ‘cave mouth’ that pierces the cliff face at the far end of the next bay eventually turns out to have two huge entrances; it’s the impressive Wangong Arch.  In the other direction, a small gap in the tall barrier of jagged rocks that hems in the bay in front of the abandoned aboriginal village leads to another large cove with some amazing conglomerate rock formations and a stream cascading onto the beach. Climb up the very steep cliff face beside the cascading stream and at the top you’ll find a small and well hidden grotto, quite invisible from below, where the stream falls over the island’s only waterfall into a rock pool. This enchanting, secret place is used by young locals as a natural shower, although the rains a day earlier made the water a tadge muddy on my visit.

The hidden waterfall near Youzihu

Among Green Island’s many sights, however, none live as long in the memory as a visit to the island’s notorious prison. An annex is still used to hold especially dangerous criminals, but the main buildings have been converted into an eye-opening and rather  impressive museum dedicated to one of the darkest periods in the island’s recent history, the ‘White Terror.’

The east coast, looking south from Cow’s Head Hill

Much political leverage has been extracted out of the Kuomintang’s policy, during the period of martial law (1949-1987) of imprisoning dissidents here (alongside common criminals), but the museum makes a particularly profound impression, simply because it lets the facts speak for themselves, without drama or any political agenda. Estimates as to the number of political prisoners detained here during the thirty-plus years it was in use vary hugely, but taking a look around it’s clear that inmates (some of whom were held here for such seemingly minor offences as ‘insulting’ President Kai-shek)  must have had a very hard time of it, living in awful conditions, serving sentences of up to thirty or more years. Much of the prison is now open to visitors: the solitary confinement block, the main cell block (a hexagonal building from which corridors radiate out like spokes on a wheel, each lined with prison cells), the visiting room, where convicts could talk to family members via phones (although this privilege was apparently granted only to the common criminals held in the prison) , and a small  theater screening thirty-minute films  giving a vivid introduction to the history of Taiwan’s political dissidents. Most moving of all, however, is a room displaying a couple of documents, in immaculately hand-written characters, laying out the ‘charges’ facing certain dissidents sentenced to internment on the island. On the walls of the same room are hung portraits of thirty or forty of them, photographed a couple of years ago when they returned to the island;  a mixture of sad, angry, thoughtful, and occasionally smiling faces, these photos, more than anything else, really bring home the horror and magnitude of the political repression that reigned during those decades in Taiwan.

Green Island prison

More photos:

6 thoughts on “The Three Faces of Green Island

  1. Hi, Richard.

    Interesting and enjoyable account of your trip to Green Island. Did you take any pictures of the scooter safaris and the main strip in Nanliao? They’d be interesting to see. I’ve never been to Green Island, but I’ve been considering a trip there in the fall.

    I was fortunate enough to finally get to Lanyu a few months ago and loved it there. I had the feeling, though, that tourism was going to explode on that island in the near future as well. It might be protected a little bit in that it is a fair bit farther away than Green Island.


    • Hi Doug,
      Glad you like the writeup! Like all Taiwan’s offshore islands, Green island is a great place to explore; there are quite a few less well-known places to discover besides the ones I mentioned; have a great trip! Off to Lanyu this weekend, and really looking forward to it.
      The scooter safari would have oddered some good photo ops (hundreds of them!), but we were too busy trying to keep up with the leader most of the time to get off and get the camera out, plus my (point and shoot)camera isn’t good (you noticed, right?) at focusing unless I’m taking photos in full sun with lots of contrast. Must get a new one….

  2. “The snorkelling excursions (which never run with less than a hundred or so people in a group)”
    I just came back from one with exactly eight group members, and in three days of snorkeling (the main two areas) I never saw any group with more than fifteen members. Then again, we went during the week, maybe that was it. For such a small islet, we found Green Island almost devoid of tourists, and plenty of places to be alone, even along the main road around the island, even at the Hot Springs (!). But maybe it’s a Western thing to cry “overcrowded!” at the mere sight of any gathering of more than four humans 🙂

    “Eventually our instructor calmed down enough to let me and a couple of others let go of the ring and swim around a little, but only after we informed him we were qualified divers.”
    Again, it ain’t all that bad. I refused to put on a neoprene suit, opting for a T-shirt against the sun, and the instructor was cool with it. He also let me and my two boys (8 and 10, resp.) swim detached from the rope all the time, merely because I’d told him we all know how to swim. That was enough for him.

    • Hi Hans,
      Glad you had such a great trip! My account was written with tongue firmly in cheek, and I’ve heard from many people who had wonderful trips there (it is a great island for sure), by going either during the week or off season (which is more-or-less anytime outside the summer holidays). I was asking for trouble going on a weekend in August, but I promise I didn’t exaggerate the numbers! A relief to find, though that the heaving weekend masses were packed into a few of the most popular places, while a few of the island’s greatest above-water gems, such as Youzihu, are all but desserted.
      The numbers of tourists at Taiwan’s ‘A’ list tourist spots during busy weekends is truly an amazing phenomenon that is hard to imagine without experiencing it first-hand (think Jeofen or Alishan), and in its way a fascinating experience, but on my next visit to Green island, I’ll be sure to avoid the weekend!

  3. Hi Richard,

    “A relief to find, though that the heaving weekend masses were packed into a few of the most popular places, while a few of the island’s greatest above-water gems, such as Youzihu, are all but desserted.”

    That was pretty much our experience, too.

    By the way, nice blog, and nice meeting you online again! I don’t know if you remember me, but I met you once in the woods behind Sanchih (三芝), where my friend and I were looking for an old Japanese gold mine. We never found it, but we had a nice conversation with you, me being star-struck , what with finally meeting the famous hiking guide writer. You were there with a friend and a large dog. I’m the even larger German guy from 三芝 who runs that Taiwan snake site (

    • Hi again Hans,
      Yep, of course I remember you and your friend, looking for snakes that day! You introduced us to the bar at Sanzhih as well: didn’t go in (far too many people), but will try it one day (midweek?).
      In case you go back there, the gold mines (they never actually found gold though) are not so far further up the stream: it’s about 2 hours or so to the topmost mine entrance (there are four). There’s a great map of the whole trail on Chinese hiker Tony’s wonderful blog (it looks like you read Chinese) at (that’s how I found out about it, although there are signs it’s becoming a better-known trail now than a few years ago).
      Glad you like the blog, by the way, and thanks for the compliment! Star-struck? I like your sense of humour….

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