Taroko Gorge. Taipei 101. The National Palace Museum. Sun Moon Lake. Shilin Night Market. Jiufen These are a handful of Taiwan's most popular tourist attractions, exemplifying Taiwan's beautiful scenery, achievements in architectural engineering, preservation of historical Chinese artifacts, vibrant street food culture, and mo—
OMG OMG OMG!@#!^@%#! THERE'S A VILLAGE FULL OF CATS!!!!
[Violently shoves nature/museums/night markets out of the way, runs towards cats while flailing like an inflatable waving tube man and yelling like every goat combined.]
Before 2008, Houtong exemplified the decline of a once-prosperous coal mining village. Since 2008, it's exemplified how to resurrect a dying coal mining village: Just add cats. According to the Internet, in 2008 a local cat-lover organized volunteers to help take care of the village's stray cats. As photos of the cats circulated online, the village's new identity as a cat haven attracted enough tourists to turn it into an official cat-themed village with cat houses, cat sculptures, cat murals, cat-shaped food, a cat-themed walkway, and other cat things to take selfies with. All of this centered around a hundred-something real cats.
Houtong Cat Village may be one of Taiwan's less significant tourist attractions for people who prefer mountains and museums and temples and food and stuff, but according to the cat version of TripAdvisor, it's the #1 significant tourist attraction in Taiwan for cat lovers.
- I probe the Internet good.
- If the cats don't initiate close contact, please be quiet and keep your distance.
- Chasing the cats as well as speaking to them loudly will scare them.
- When the cats are resting, please speak softly and don't bother them.
- Do not bother the cats with cat teaser wands. The wands may injure them and spread disease.
- Please take away your food, utensils, and garbage. Keep the area clean.
- Do not indiscriminately leave behind food for the cats. Doing so will make the environment dirty and messy.
- Please place cat food, canned or otherwise, into a bowl before feeding it to the cats.
- Feeding the cats multicolored, low-quality food, fish bones, or "people food" will make them sick.
- Bringing in pets is prohibited. They may carry infectious diseases or become injured in a fight.
- When taking photos of the cats, please do not use flash.
- After feeding or playing with the cats, please wash/disinfect your hands to avoid illness.
- It looks like the mouse is clinging onto the mouse trap's wall for dear life. Sorry, mousie.
- CAT CAT CAT CAT CAT etc.
...That is, if we lived in a world where a TripAdvisor-like website solely dedicated to cat-related attractions existed. We don't. At least, I'm 99 percent sure we don't based on my cursory research. (To any future readers who have reached this page by googling "cat version of TripAdvisor," I am sorry.)
Last year I visited Houtong with a few friends on an overcast Monday in March. Weekday + cool, cloudy weather = no crowds! And probably not as many cats as you'd find on a warm, sunny day. There were enough cats and other activities to keep us occupied for four hours, though. Maybe we would've stayed longer if most of the village hadn't closed by 5 p.m. If you want to buy souvenirs, don't leave them until the end or the shops might be closed.
The sign on the platform at Houtong train station features a cat, a coal miner, and a monkey. Houtong (猴硐) means "monkey cave", named after a cave in the village that used to be inhabited by monkeys. What happened to the monkeys? No idea.
We're still on the train platform because we had to take a photo with this cat box thing on the platform bench. We soon learned we couldn't take photos of ourselves with every cat and cat-related thing or else we'd never go back home.
FIRST REAL CAT SIGHTING! ...We're still in the train station. We'll get to the village proper eventually. Yeah.
Here's a tourist map of the area. Not noted on the map is that normal people live here, too. You'll probably walk right past their doorsteps. Some residents set up stands outside their homes selling cat-related trinkets and other things.
This is a statue of a cat named Hei Bi (黑鼻), or "Black Nose". This cat has been given the title of something like "Eternal Train Conductor," as well as named one of the guardians of the village. Or something like that. My Chinese is too painfully inadequate to read the accompanying explanation.
Above are a few of the other cat sculptures scattered throughout the village.
At the top is a shop specializing in cat-shaped pineapple cakes. Also, some cat-themed signs for food stands.
Pop inside the visitors' center to fill your stamp book with cat-themed stamps! (BTW, your Taiwanese tourist kit should include a notebook for collecting stamps.)
A row of cat houses! Plus some cats!
A few more cutely decorated cat houses.
Cats getting snuggly outside a store selling lucky cat-themed wares.
We thought this booth would have a human in it, but there was only this cat.
Some signs around the village display rules on how to interact with the cats. This one says, "Cats like cleanliness. Please do not place their food on the ground."
This is the most comprehensive display of rules I saw in the village. The illustrations on this poster are pretty self-explanatory, but I'm gonna flex my deflated Chinese muscles and try to translate the rules anyway. [Breaks out dictionary.]
I think the black building is a cat information center. It was closed during out visit, so we couldn't check out what was inside.
A bunch of random cat sightings!
A bunch of random cat things that aren't real cats!
We popped into Hide & Seek Cafe to grab a bite. And maybe caffeine. It's tucked along a strip of cafes and galleries at the highest level in the village.
It's a comfortable spot with a small menu of desserts (cakes, waffles) and a few savories, plus a cat who might try to eat your tote bag.
The food wasn't anything special, but it was good enough. Especially those chicken nuggets and fries. WE WERE SO HUNGRY.
If you want a cheaper meal, you should grab food at the food stalls down by the train station. But don't go too late. By the time we got down there after leaving the cafe, they were closed. I don't know if they closed early because it was a slow day or if they usually close before dinner.
Remember that there's a whole non-cat-centric history to the village? Houtong gives you multiple opportunities to learn about the heyday of its coal mining years under the Ruisan (瑞三) Mining Company, such as with this interactive model of the coal refinery.
Today's view from the coal refinery ruins.
This bridge over Keelung River once connected the quarry to the refinery. Walk to the other side and you'll get to...
...This train ride through the old coal mine! But first...
Head to the museum/gift shop located in the former Ruisan office building and you can take a photo in a pretend coal mine with un-pretend tools. They're super heavy. I would've been a shit coal miner. If you want to go ALL THE WAY, you'll also put on a coal miner uniform and spread some black coal goop on yourself.
This cat decided Charlotte's tote bag was THE BEST BED EVER, or the best bed in close proximity at that point in time. It was very cute, until we realized how much it didn't want to budge, and then we felt bad for thwarting its attempt to nap.
There are cute depictions of cats everywhere, but what about the monkeys? WHAT ABOUT THE MONKEYS? THEY NAMED THE VILLAGE, DAMMIT.
Back to the tiny train ride! It goes something like this...
First, you enter the coal hole.
Then, you get educated in the coal hole. There are facts about the tunnel along the ride, but I couldn't read any of then quickly enough. CHAAAIIINEEESSSEEEUHGGGHG [shakes fist]. I guess this says this tunnel was built in 1935 and used until 1980.
Creepy mask for some reason.
At some point the tunnel throws colors in yo' face and becomes a DISCO RAVE PARTY SOMETHING. Gotta spice things up somehow. Also, disco rave coal mine tunnel party sounds fun.
I don't remember much about what awaited us on the other end of the tunnel. If you understand Chinese then you'll learn some facts from the guide. If you don't understand Chinese you'll wander around kind of aimlessly and maybe hit some rocks with a pick.
The train ride is the main attraction in Houtong Leisure Park, the former mining company grounds that was renovated with new facilities and attractions. But it's hard to consider spending a lot of time there when just across the river await CATS CATS CATS.
Cat Village Problems
The English Wikipedia page about Houtong Cat Village doesn't give much detail about the village beyond, "It's named after monkeys, and it used to have coal, and then it didn't, and then almost everybody left, and now it has cats." The the Chinese Wikipedia page is more in-depth, including a large section absent from the English page titled, "Cat Village Problems." It seems like something worth mentioning. I can't translate it because I have the reading level of a Taiwanese five-year-old. ...But our ol' pal Google can! Not fluently, but well enough to earn a bright yellow star-shaped achievement sticker that says, "Awkward, But Good Effort!"
What I glean from the Google translation is that Houtong has had problems originating from outsiders bringing their cats to the village and abandoning them, leaving the village to deal with cats who aren't accustomed to living by themselves in a new environment, as well as these cats bringing diseases that may spread to the local cats. The article notes an outbreak of a disease in 2012 that killed a few cats and reinforced safety precautions in the village. The latest controversy happened in 2014 when this Facebook post lambasting the village as a popular tourist spot at the cost of the cats' welfare went viral.
Houtong is a small, popular tourist village with an unnaturally large cat population. Yup, problems may arise. But the volunteers who work to keep the cats healthy shouldn't be overlooked. If you want to learn more about these volunteer groups, check out these Facebook pages:
How to Get There
Local trains from Taipei Main Station to Houtong take about an hour. Tickets cost NT$56 each way. If you have an Easy Card (which you should), I'm preeettttyyy sure you can use it to take the local trains by scanning your card at the gates. Check the timetable at twtraffic.tra.gov.tw or enter the route on Google Maps.
Hide & Seek Cafe (躲喵喵咖啡館)
Taiwan, 新北市瑞芳區光復里柴寮路223號 (map)