Purple Cloud Temple (紫雲寺)*
is located in Bantian Yan (半天岩), a small town in Taiwan's Chiayi county (嘉義縣). The temple has several rooms available for monks and travelers to use during their visits to this holy site and so my wife and I arranged to stay one night in March of 2007.
The same view but in super
thick fog and mist!
We arrived by taxi from the Chiayi city rail station and found ourselves surrounded by hundreds of worshippers (it was a busy Sunday afternoon) and thick clouds of incense. After poking about for a few minutes we asked a stranger for help and were led to a Miss Wang, a kind and pious woman who was expecting us. She asked me to sign my name and passport number in an old ledger and took my NT$1000 (the agreed upon donation). Mine was the only English name in the book as far as I could tell. We were surprised to be allowed to share a room as we expected that men and women would be segregated for sleeping at such an old temple. I think Miss Wang made an exception for us, so that we would feel more comfortable.
Our room was located around the back of the temple. It had a hard tatami bed with one pillow, a little bathroom and a couple of old metal stools. It also had a creepy picture of a doll-woman hanging over the head of the bed to watch us sleep.
After putting down our bags we walked around the temple grounds and admired the beautiful 38-meter-tall Guanyin who watches over the temple. We observed some faithful visitors performing a serene and interesting dance in front of the Guanyin. The dance is hard to describe but it did involved bowing and twirling.
...and from behind
The hills surrounding the temple were filled with many peaceful trails. We spent a short time hiking around the lush green hills while listening to the strange calls of the local insects and frogs.
After our hike we returned to the temple and joined the others for worship. Several visitors helped guide us. We were instructed to light 6 incense sticks and follow the flow of people bowing to different gods and depositing a stick in their respective urns. Although we obviously stuck out like sore thumbs, the people were very patient and sweet to us. It was easy to get caught up in the meditative spirit and enjoy the new experience of pai pai (worship) (拜拜) in this centuries-old temple.
In the early evening we walked down to the small town-like area across the street from the temple. We found a little mom-and-pop tea shop that was selling Alishan Gao Shan Cha (the famous and delicious oolong tea from Chiayi county's high country) (阿里山高山烏龍茶). We drank several pots of tea with the proprietor and played with his many (at least 5) young children. His wife gave us some fresh fruit. They were very welcoming and kind to us, but I knew they were probably getting close to closing up shop and having their dinner so we purchased a jin of oolong and thanked them before saying goodbye. At this point my wife and I were getting pretty hungry so we walked a few meters down the road to a little outdoor restaurant and asked about getting a vegetarian dinner. As you might have guessed, a restaurant across the street from a busy Buddhist temple knows how to make a good vegetarian meal! We were treated to big bowls of savory noodle soup as well as five spice tofu with a yummy dipping sauce. It was very tasty and satisfying.
After dinner we bought a can of coconut water and retired to our rooms for the night. Unfortunately, we did not sleep that well due to our hard bed, one pillow, and some yapping dog that was howling all night long. At 5:00 am we were awaken by drums and gongs to signal the first prayer service... but we pulled the blanket over our heads and slept in for a few more hours.
After we woke, we headed down to the temple's main desk to find Miss Wang. She led us to the dining room where we ate an invigorating Buddhist breakfast of rice porridge, pickled vegetables, bamboo shoots and faux meats, all of which were delicious. We also had two cubes of what appeared to be tofu but after I took a huge bite I realized that it wasn't. It turned out to be some sort of super salty miso block!
Once we had finished breakfast, we took one last hike around the adjacent hills. While walking around a deserted pond some soft pop music was being played from hidden speakers along the trail. It was very surreal and, combined with the lush tropical forest, made us feel like we were in an episode of LOST.
After our hike, Miss Wang gave us a more personal tour of the temple and all of its wonderful symbolic art. Then, we said goodbye to the temple, the Guanyin and to Miss Wang. We asked her for help on the next leg of our journey. Our goal was to find a taxi to Chungpu township (中埔鄉) where we would get the bus up to Shihjhuo (石桌). Miss Wang was not able to help us but instead a very nice couple came to our aid. They gave us a ride to Chungpu and told us the time the bus would come. I am always humbled by the amazing kindness of the Taiwanese.
All in all, it was a fantastic experience to visit this venerable holy site! I would recommend it to any other Western travelers who want to get off the beaten path.
*The Temple itself gives this interesting report about its own history:"As the folk-tale saying, in 1682, an old monk traveled to Fanlu (
番路) area and found a place with an extraordinary scene to build a cottage temple to worship Mercy Buddha (觀音). Because the site is always surrounded by clouds and fogs, and the clouds usually reflected in purple, the temple is named Zihyun (
紫雲). However, the ownership of the land did not belong to the temple until 1765. Decades later, instead of monks, inhabitants began to manage the Zihyun temple, and to bring other gods to worship: Shengnong, Pangu, god of earth, goddess of birth, Santaizih, and god of tiger. The temple was restored in 1855 and 1920, and then destroyed by an earthquake in 1941. Because of the lack of materials in the wartime, the temple was rebuilt temporary. Today's construction of temple was established from 1947 to 1950, and funded by Zaisheng Liou and Ju Lin."