FOR the first time in my life, I envied my dinner. The unusual experience of "dinner envy" happened when I tucked into a chicken-and-pumpkin stir-fry while on a farm stay in southern Taiwan.
CHOO-CHOO GAME: If you aren't taking a ride on the picturesque Alishan Forest Railway, you can always test your balance on the tracks... after making sure the train isn't approaching.
The area I was in, Alishan, is famous as a mountain resort, and its peaks were on my mind as I sampled delicious chicken chunks which were springy to the point of being crunchy.
That chicken probably came from the laidback rural resort I was visiting for one night, Long Yun Holiday Farm, which is 1,500m above sea level.
The cause of my envy was the thought of all the sweet mountain air and high-altitude exercise this and other chickens here must have experienced in their brief but brilliant lifetime.
However, I was lucky enough to go to two farms in southern Taiwan last month - I also visited the charming Dakeng Recreational Farm in Tainan.
Leisure farms, as they are called, give city folk like me a chance to try The Simple Life in spectacular surroundings.
This niche tourist segment is becoming increasingly popular, even as most tourists associate Alishan, in Chiayi county, with the Alishan Forest Recreation Area, a nature park that comes with hotels and visitor-friendly walking trails.
Actually, the park is but a well-known dot in the Alishan National Scenic Area, which spreads over 32,700ha of rugged terrain and spans climates from tropical to alpine.
The area also covers townships like Jhuci, where Long Yun is located. The trip from Chiayi to Long Yun involves travelling by bus for about 70 minutes up a steep and winding road. However, I was glad to ascend into the cool air and leave the summer heat behind.
As bamboo forests, peaks and clouds undulated into view along the bending road, the camera-happy ones among my fellow travellers clicked away. I was happy to just ooh and aah. In truth, I was hungry and all too relieved when we drove up in time for dinner.
The BBQ boar sausages at a roadside stall in southern Taiwan will keep your energy levels high.
This was all simple fare, such as that stir-fried chicken, deep-fried ashitaba (an aromatic medicinal herb also known as ming ri ye in Mandarin) and stir-fried Chinese spinach.
But when you have such fresh produce, most of it grown on the farm, it is bound to taste terrific.
I ate so much that I knew I needed a workout.
Happily, farm owner Teng Ya-yuan had planned a light one for us.
In the pale light of the waxing moon, he led a group of us down a gentle slope in search of fireflies, telling us not to turn on torches or we would scare them off.
However, clumsy city bumpkin that I am, I saw nothing at first because I was keeping my eyes on the ground and trying not to trip in the shadowy night. I relaxed after realising that I could still make out how red my shoes were in the moonlight. It was bright enough then.
So I looked up and there the fireflies were, twinkling through dense foliage to the left. To the right though, there was a more awesome sight.
From our lofty vantage point, the clouds around nearby mounts were almost at eye level. As we watched, fluffy layers - in more shades of silver and grey than I could name - rose and filled up the space between peaks.
"That's a sea of clouds," said Mr Teng.
Then he told a joke: "What do you call a sea of clouds when it's coming towards you? You call it mist."
No one laughed, which meant his crack was a complete success. It was a leng xiao hua (cold joke), get it?
This evolving, ironic type of humour, derived from Taiwanese TV comedian Jacky Wu's anything-goes shows, is about saying something so pathetically unfunny that it becomes the opposite of an ice-breaker. An ice-maker that freezes conversation.
TRY YOUR LUCK: If you miss your 4-D wagers, you can buy scratch-and-win tickets in southern Taiwan.
And so we had a Taiwanese moment there at cloud-sea level: A view of vast natural beauty, punctuated by the artifice of a deliberately bad joke.
Farms of leisure
IN TAIWAN, leisure farms are a growing industry and number more than 500 now.
It dovetails nicely the needs of two groups of people: urbanites who want to escape to the countryside, and farmers who want to switch from the erratic income of commercial farming to something more reliable.
Dakeng owner Tsai Cheng-wen is a good example. In 1991, he turned his family's chicken farm into a rustic resort of sorts and has not looked back. He still breeds some chickens and piglets as well as grows flowers and fruit, but only as supplies for his in-house restaurant.
When we walked in one afternoon, a few of us were at first somewhat alarmed by the faux-European country kitsch all around. Maybe it was the mismatch - Alpine-style cottages with warm weather - that threw us.
But the place grew on us. I don't know if it was when we saw the open-air oven, where a pig was being roasted for someone's dinner - ours?
The Dakeng Recreational Farm in Tainan provides a calm retreat.
Or when we tried iced roselle tea made from flowers grown here, plus fresh-off-the-tree lychees. (We spotted some longan trees but Mr Tsai said the fruit was not yet in season.) Or when we explored the estate, taking turns to go on a rope bridge (okay, I chickened out but I am not too chicken to hide that I was chicken) or stopping now and then to smell strange herbs.
By dusk, we were fans of the holiday farm. And then we had another excellent dinner, from fancy fare like roselle flowers filled with alfalfa to simple food like baked sweet potatoes.
Even so, you can have too much of a good thing. After a while you might crave the bright lights and 24-hour buzz of big cities like Taipei in the north.
I did, so was thankful for the new Taiwan High Speed Rail, Taiwan's answer to Japan's Shinkansen, which was launched five months ago.
A trip from south to north used to take four to six hours by train. But on the high-speed service, a ride from Kaohsiung, southern Taiwan, to Taipei, for example, is only 90 minutes.
So after my country getaway, I escaped back to the city - but with a spring in my step.
Photos: Bob Lee
Life!'s trip to southern Taiwan was sponsored by Taiwan Visitors Association and SilkAir.
5 THINGS TO DO
1 Take the Alishan Forest Railway. It's the most scenic route to the Alishan Forest Recreation Area. See tropical and temperate woods - in spring, a sea of cherry blossoms - as the train climbs from Chiayi, altitude 30m, to the Alishan Forest Recreation Area, altitude 2,274m.
Guan cai ban or "coffin boards"
2 Pig out on southern Taiwanese specialities. Try any night market, where you might come across decent versions of delicacies like wu yu zi (mullet roe), dishes like dan zai mian (noodles with minced meat) and snacks like guan cai ban ("coffin boards" - creamy soup in bread cases).
A better bet is to go to Chou's Shrimp Rolls, a renowned restaurant in Tainan, and try everything in one sitting.
3 Check out artist Hsieh Li-hsiang's Five Dime Driftwood House restaurant chain. The eccentric Hsieh is not a trained architect but she loves to design buildings. Well, not so much buildings as multi-storeyed pottery pieces you can sit in and debate the artistic merits of over coffee and cake.
There are outlets in her hometown Tainan, as well as Taichung and Taipei.
4 Drop by Anping Fort, or what is left of it. This was once Fort Zeelandia, built by Dutch colonists in Tainan in 1634. It was renamed Anping Fort after Chinese pirate leader Zheng Chenggong freed Taiwan from the Dutch in 1662. Only the ruins of a wall and a bulwark remain.
5 Do speak the Taiwanese variant of Mandarin. In Taiwan, the MRT is known as jie yun, not di tie. Buses are gong che, not ba shi. Taxis are ji cheng che, not de shi. Scooters are ji che, not dian dan che. And if somebody calls you ji che, it doesn't mean you have grown two wheels and an engine. In Taiwan's youthspeak, ji che also describes difficult, arrogant or basically annoying behaviour - which hopefully you haven't been guilty of.
1 Don't take a taxi from a tourist spot in Kaohsiung... before the driver and you agree on the fare. Some drivers might take advantage of you, especially if you name a five-star hotel as the destination.
2 Don't forget to draw your curtains before bedtime. Or you may wake up at around 4.30am, which is when the sun rises in summer in Taiwan and sneaks up on sleepyheads.
Choose a farm stay from Taiwan Leisure Farming Development Association's website (www.taiwan-farming.org.tw). The top farm stays in southern Taiwan include: Dakeng (www.168big.com.tw), Long Yun (www.long-yun.com.tw) and Shamwhou (senwho.ho.net.tw) for a homier experience, and Nan Yuan (www.nanyuanfarm.com.tw) and Tsou-Ma-Lai (www.farm.com.tw) for theme park-style fun.
SilkAir flies to Kaohsiung, southern Taiwan, four times a week. Two-to-go return fares to Kaohsiung start from $300 per passenger, pre-tax, in a promotion valid till June 17. Book via www.silkair.com or any appointed agent.