The next time I’m in the dentist’s chair, Savasana or turbulence, I’ll think of Happy Panda campground. Really, how could a place with such a name not be wonderful? This is really saying a lot, because I am not much of a camper since having a bad experience – or the Worst Night of My Life – on a summer camp canoe trip once. I was a little skeptical when Morgan and Christie told us we’d be camping for two nights near the end of our Taiwan trip, but they promised bathrooms and a beachfront bar, so I decided to go with the flow. Located on pretty much the southern-most point of Taiwan, it’s sure not easy to get to, but that’s fine with me.
After equipping ourselves with International Drivers Licenses back in Wisconsin, the country somehow equipped us with a toy car for about $25 per person for three days. Behind the camera of the above photo is “Joseph,” (side note: Taiwanese love to give themselves American names, including Apple or Candy) the Taiwanese car rental man who probably walked away wondering what shape the vehicle would be in when he saw it again. You can be sure we named said toy car Joseph, in honor of our confident rental car salesman. Not to worry though, the only nerve-wracking part of the drive to Happy Panda is the stop-and-go and weaving traffic out of the city, otherwise it’s freeway the 5 hours south to Kenting.
Immediately after crossing the Tropic of Cancer about halfway down the country, the gray smog that constantly surrounds the Taipei metro lifts, and palm trees appear. We were in for a vacation from our vacation. After a quick stop at 7-11 for ice cream treats, you’ll arrive at Happy Panda (finally!) and realize it’s not a campground at all. Complete with electricity, it is the cheapest way to sleep footsteps from the beach, with all amenities you could ever want (granted it’s perfect weather- which it was).
Here’s what Happy Panda has to offer four Americans trying to vacation on the cheap:
- Food court and bars, including one that is reggae-themed
- Sleeping bags, sleeping pads, pillows and more for rent
- Restrooms and showers
- Trees with built-in electrical outlets for happy Smartphone charging
- Brick slabs (of various sizes) to place your happy tent, or larger fortress as other campers did
- Beach access with umbrellas and chairs for rent, to place your happy butt for hours on end
- Free stares and confusion from mainland Chinese tourists
- Photo opportunities with “Life of Pi” shrine – portions of the movie were filmed here!
As if these amenities aren’t enough, there is a continual chaos surrounding Happy Panda for portions of the afternoon that are sure to provide entertainment. Apparently, Happy Panda is one important sight on the many daily bus tours that travel around southern Taiwan carrying mainland Chinese and Taiwanese tourists. However, these tourists aren’t visiting the sea to swim or sunbathe. They exit the bus, make their way down the path from the parking lot to the beach, and take as many photos as possible until the bus leaves again in approximately 20 minutes. Some brave souls may roll up their pants to dip toes in the water, but generally the rule is to stand on the shore fully-clothed and get to photographing.
There are a few noticeable trends when it comes to poses:
- Scarf Moment – hold the longest scarf you have by each end, find the direction of the wind and let it fly free.
- Rock Perch – Perch your happy self on the rocks with a friend. Don’t let the American tourists catch you.
Obviously, these tourists are way more advanced than the selfie stick.
Finally, if a full day of swimming, floating. and running on hot sand between food court and beach aren’t enough, you’re bound to meet some interesting characters when camping in such close quarters to the tent next door.
It started out innocently enough on our second evening. One of our neighbors charmed himself into a picture (who wouldn’t want to?) with us while attempting to ask WHAT we were doing at Happy Panda. We knew it wouldn’t be the last we saw of the infamous “Miguel,” whose favorite English word is WOW! on repeat (so, his real name is Cheng, we think, but if he had an Americanized name it would for sure be Miguel).
The night that followed involved some Tequila shots, a case or two(?) of Taiwan beer, four Americans and many more “aboriginal” Taiwanese chatting in broken English (and zero Mandarin) around a picnic table long into the night. At some point, a Scottish woman who has lived in the area for decades stopped by to serve as translator. I can’t remember exactly what was discussed, or why we laughed so hard, but I know that night could not be replicated again if we tried. You just never know who you’re going to meet when you travel to the other side of the world, and to a place that’s not included in the guidebooks. For those who have never traveled outside their comfort zones, by choice or not, these spontaneous encounters are the travel moments that you remember.
The morning, and drive back to Taipei, that followed may have been a little rough – GIVE ME ALL THE WATER – but you can be sure three Happy Pandas (one was sleeping the whole way) said “WOW” all the way home. Joseph was relieved to see us.
After seeing photos of the damage caused by the hurricane that hit Taiwan a couple days ago, I couldn’t help but wonder how my happy place fared. I hope all is well, because when I close my eyes it is perfect.