Hidden Taiwan – Views from Samu Coffee Shop

The aboriginal man sits at a table just outside Samu Coffee Shop in a remote mountain village in northwest Taiwan. This cafe was his dream for many years and it finally opened only six months earlier. He works only on weekends, taking care of the Taiwanese “city people” who travel into the mountains with their families to visit the nearby gardens, the only real tourist attraction in the area…

He grew up just down the hill and has never left this area, never ventured outside of Taiwan. This is his village, Lian San, a simple village in the mountains of Taiwan and home to his Aboriginal people – the Atayal tribe. Next door to his coffee shop there is a small gift shop. Beside that are a street side barbeque stand, a fruit stand, and two small restaurants serving the local Atayal dishes. It’s a simple village with a beautiful view. It’s home.

His small cafe serves delicious coffee drinks, tea, and light snacks. Nothing fancy but he takes great pride in his work and named the cafe after himself – “Samu Coffee Shop“. On this beautiful sunny Saturday morning, Samu chats with a friend as he gazes out at the mountains and patiently waits for the tourists to arrive.

Samu Cafe View
Samu Cafe View

Soon he notices three scooters pulling into town, a couple of foreigners with a Taiwanese woman. He recognizes one of the foreigners, a mysterious blonde woman who’s been here a few times before. He smiles and waves and she waves back.

She always orders an iced cappuccino and sits for hours gazing at the mountains – sometimes alone, other times she brings friends. She doesn’t speak Mandarin but he knows she’s an American and teaches English in Hsinchu. “She’s very adventurous”, he thinks. She drives her scooter alone into the mountains, exploring remote aboriginal villages like his.

This time she brings a Taiwanese friend and a tall, handsome American man who’s just arrived in Taiwan and is on his first trip into the mountains. “My mind is officially blown!” the tall man says. Samu doesn’t know what that means, but the man’s eyes are shining brightly and his excitement and energy are contagious so he figures having a “blown mind” is a good thing.

Samu welcomes these guests with a huge smile and big hugs. He knows Americans love to hug and this awkward hugging thing is becoming easier. He is starting to actually enjoy it.

His guests take one of the three tables outside and the Taiwanese woman comes into the cafe to place the orders. “Iced coffee?” he questions. “Really? The blonde American always orders iced cappuccino“. When the Taiwanese woman returns again, she changes the order – two iced cappuccinos and a hot latte.

As his partner prepares the coffee drinks, Samu brings a pot of freshly brewed tea to his guests. His tea is brewed with rosemary, mint and other herbs grown in his garden. These Americans are very special guests, so he prepares some local snacks to welcome them to his village.

The first course of special treats – waffles with syrup and fresh whipped cream.

Samu Waffles
Samu Waffles (Photo Credit: Hsini Lin)

His kind gesture makes his guests feel honored, so Samu prepares another special kind of local treat. He fixes a thick sweet bread covered with a layer of chocolate and lightly toasted, melted marshmallows.

Samu Toast
Samu Toast (Photo Credit: Hsini Lin)

Next, he runs over to the fruit stand and buys a few fresh, juicy peaches, cuts them up and delivers the plate of sliced, fresh peaches to his guests. They’re very content, happily settling in for a lazy Saturday afternoon of sipping cappuccino and enjoying the view and the delicious snacks.

Samu has never been away from this remote area and talking with foreigners is his link to another world outside of his village. He’s curious about these Americans and they’re very curious about him and want to learn about his Aboriginal culture. He tells them about a special festival coming up in November. It’s a huge one that happens only once every ten years. Fortunately, this is the year! When he shares festival stories of the strong local rice wine and a weekend of drunken dancing, the Americans seem very excited and begin to make plans to be there. Samu briefly wonders if they can even dance since the tall, thin man seems slightly awkward. “Maybe a little rice wine will loosen them up a bit?”  he wonders.

Samu Coffee Shop
Samu and his guests

Soon more scooters arrive outside his cafe and he looks up to see his sister and two of her best friends. They’re excited at the odd sight of Americans in Lian San and they ask Samu to take their photo posing with these strange creatures. The Americans are happy to pose for photos and everyone makes the “peace” sign, except for the tall man. He’s new in town and doesn’t yet understand Taiwanese culture.

Camera Views

Suddenly, the tall, handsome man takes out his very large camera and begins taking photos. He begins shooting pictures of everything and seems truly amazed by it all. “His mind really is blown!” Samu realizes. He looks around and begins to see his beautiful Atayal village differently. He starts to view it through the camera lens of this American photographer. He’s new to Taiwan and fascinated by everything he sees. Samu feels so proud of his small aboriginal village and sees it again for the first time.

“Ahhhh. My beautiful Lian San,” Samu sighs.

He is pretty sure he’ll see his new friends again at the fall festival. The tribal elders will need to brew enough of the strong rice wine to make the tall, handsome, awkward man loosen up. It will make him and dance like nobody’s watching.

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Samu Cafe - Lian San

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17 Replies to “Hidden Taiwan – Views from Samu Coffee Shop”

  1. Oh my god this was beautiful! I love those interactions with people who have never left their villages, it leads to incredibly interesting exchanges. You’ve inspired me to visit this man’s cafe when I get to Taiwan- I’m really interested in getting in contact with Native culture there, as I feel like not much is known about it!

    1. Let me know when you’re in Taiwan and we can definitely visit Samu! He’d love it!

      1. Ahhh that sounds wonderful! Will do!

  2. Beautiful Andi, what a wonderful find!

    1. That’s what I love about my weekend drives in the mountains…finding random villages and interesting people. 🙂

  3. samu toast? whaaaaat! I want one right now! that looks amazing!

    1. Oh man that was soooo good…washed down with a little iced cappuccino! The best day ever!

  4. I love that this post is through the perspective of someone else. Will definitely be having a browse of your site and your other content.

    Thanks for sharing. Taiwan looks incredible, you’re very lucky to be able to spend so much time there!

    1. Thanks so much! I am incredibly lucky to have the time to explore this amazing island! Stay tuned for much more! 🙂

  5. The local foods! Loved those…

    1. I really loved that marshmallow toast! Need to go back soon!

  6. This sounds like a place from my dreams! I want to hear more.

    1. Coffee, chocolate, and a mountain view. Doesn’t get much better!

  7. I love your writing. You told me a story about people I have never met but so badly wish to. This was gorgeous, I love your attention to detail. Thank you for this. Please keep writing. xx – Sophia from http://www.sophiawithoutborders.com

    1. Thanks Sophia! I love getting to know the local people, even if we don’t have a common language. His friend sent me a message on Facebook – she had to explain the story to him because his English isn’t very good. He was SO happy once she explained it! That made my day!

  8. Beautiful writing! All the while I was reading it, I was thinking of a similar place in the Philippines – Sagada in the Mountain Province. Whenever I talk to locals in rural areas, they say I am lucky for being able to travel around. But in Sagada it was different – the locals felt lucky to live in their town and couldn’t possibly dream of leaving. But they thrive on interactions with outsiders, pretty much the same with Samu’s experiences. This is the stuff that makes travel amazing.

    1. Thanks Liz! You’re right, the most amazing part of travel is connecting with the locals. I’m going to the Philippines next month…maybe I’ll stop by Sagada and say hi to your friends! 🙂

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