Wed, Aug 02, 2006 - Page 13 News List

Take a trip to Nightmarket-on-the-sea

Not previously known for water sports, this weekend the beaches should be crowded as Taiwan hosts its first international surfing tournament

By Jules Quartly  /  STAFF REPORTER

A lifeguard keeps an eye on Dawan beach.

PHOTOS: JULES QUARTLY, TAIPEI TIMES

Around 3,000 people were crammed onto the narrow strip of sand. Waves of heat rose above them and Nanwan (南灣) beach in Pingtung County (屏東縣) shimmered in the haze. It was a familiar scene, replayed every summer at popular resorts around the world.

But Nanwan's beach culture is more chaotic, like a maritime night market.

Among the throng splashing in a sparkling blue Pacific Ocean were swimmers and surfers, the occasional kayak and scores of 300kg jet skis hurtling between them. Tractors dragged banana boats out of the surf and quad bikes ridden by lifeguards ploughed up and down the beach.

Dance music played over distorted speakers, drowning the hubbub of beachgoers, while vendors shouted to make themselves heard. The giant bunkers of Taiwan's Third Nuclear Plant and three wind turbines loomed across the bay.

Chewing betel nut, dragging on a cigarette and relaxing under a colorful umbrella, Chen Sheng-hua (陳聖樺) said there was little beach culture at Nanwan when he returned from his adventures driving taxis in the big smoke of Taipei about five years ago.

Though Taiwan is an island straddling the Tropic of Cancer and bounded by the Pacific Ocean, South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait, the country has been slow to make the sea its playground. It's Act of Ships (船舶法) allowed it to build the world's seventh largest fishing fleet, but there are few pleasure craft and just two marinas for private yachts.

Equally, it is said, when the Taiwanese were cooking up their economic miracle from 1962 to 1997 (at which point the country's per capita gross national product was on a par with European countries such as Spain and Greece) they didn't have the time nor money to burn at the beach.

Rising incomes and the introduction of a five-day workweek (for civil servants, four years ago this month) have changed all this and there has been a minor social revolution.

A lifesaver and a member of one of the 60 registered families that are permitted to rent out jet skis on Nanwan beach, Chen said there had been an explosion in the number of businesses catering to visitors who enjoyed frolicking on the beach and taking part in water activities.

Casually waving his hand at traffic snaking back on the coastal road behind him, Chen said a lack of infrastructure on the Hengchun (恆春) peninsula was holding back further development. The roads are too narrow, he said, and there are not enough hotels.

Nanwan, which was the busiest beach among those dotted along the southernmost tip of the island during a recent visit, has cashed in on this shift in attitude and is now the country's hot zone for water sports.

Young kids peered into rock pools and fished out marine animals with nets, while grannies carrying umbrellas to protect themselves from getting a tan held onto ropes which marked out areas safe for swimming. Adolescents used a variety of flotation devices to splash around in shallow waters.

Banana boats carrying life belted passengers tore around and tipped their human cargo into the sea at the end of a ride (at NT$200 per person). For NT$500 we took a 30-minute jet ski ride and were allowed to steer our vessel out into the blue yonder, with no training.

Just like a night market, it was cheap and cheerful, unregulated fun, a little bit grimy and there was a “mountainous sea of people” (人山人海).

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