Southern Taiwan has some of the most interesting aboriginal culture on the main island, with atmospheric (and often remote ) villages of Paiwan and Rukai stone houses, and several of Taiwan’s most memorable traditional festivities, including the insane Yanshui Beehive Fireworks Festival, surely one of the most intense traditional annual participation events anywhere in the world.
For lovers of natural beauty, Chiayi County is unsurpassed. The crowds all flock to Alishan, but the best places in the area are just to the north, where villages like Laiji, Fengshan, Taihe, Ruili, Ruifeng, and (just over the border in Yunlin County) Caoling and Zhanghu offer some of the finest exploring in the whole of Taiwan. Further south, Tainan and Kaohsiung cities are both stuck on the flat plains quite far from the mountain foothills, but thanks to a geological anomaly known as the Gutingkeng Formation, a band of crumbling mudstone stretching north for tens of kilometers across the border between Tainan and Kaohsiung cities, there are some remarkable sights within easy reach of both cities. Best-known are the strange Badlands formations that dot the landscape here. Also here are the related natural phenomenon of mud volcanoes (Taiwan’s two best examples are only an hour from Kaohsiung) and all but two of the island’s strange natural eternal flames. Perhaps the most impressive feature of the Gutingkeng Formation, Dadi Gorge, is only accessible for two months of the year, thanks to a reservoir that now floods the only approach to the gorge at all times except the very end of the dry season, so make a note to visit in early April for the best chance of seeing it!
The area around Tainan is (together with Keelung and Tamsui in the north) where Taiwan’s recorded history began, with the arrival of the Dutch in the 1620s. Tainan is famed as Taiwan’s historic capital, and while visitors expecting another Hanoi or Penang will probably be sorely disappointed, there are still loads of fascinating and beautiful old Taiwanese temples, memorial gates, town houses, and Western-style structures dating from the Japanese colonial period to make it easy to ignore the ugly, functional architecture that crowds many of the city’s streets. Further south, Hengchun, the closest town to Kenting’s beaches, is an unexpectedly fascinating place, and the only Taiwanese town or city to retain much of its Qing-era city walls.
Kenting itself is far more than sandy beaches; one of its most remarkable natural attractions is its amazing uplifted coral landscapes, eroded into jagged towers, bluffs, narrow crack-like chasms, and several caves, including the only stalactite caves in Taiwan open to the general public. More amazing coral landscapes can be found near Tianliao in Kaohsiung City, at beautiful Xiao Liuqiu off the coast of Pingtung County, and, looming above Kaohsiung city center, the amazing natural playground of Shoushan, dotted with rugged little clefts and gorges (some of which take a bit of searching out), more caves, and a large and very visible colony of Taiwan’s only endemic primate, the Formosan macaque.