First, there were monkeys. Then, people found coal. Now, there are cats—and lots of them.
Houtong, which directly means "monkey cave," is a village in northern Taiwan that was once famous for a local cave full of monkeys. It's unclear what has since happened to the primates, but in the 1920s when the country was under Japanese colonial rule, coal was found in Houtong. The town quickly became one of the country's largest coal providers and, soon, 900 households cropped up. Fifty years later, there were about 6,000 people in the village.
But by the 1970s, coal was old news. Younger residents began moving out of the village in search of big city opportunities, and by the 1990s, the mining industry had fizzled out. The population shrunk to less than 100 people and the town's popularity died down.
Until, that is, a local woman started taking stock of Houtong's cats. As a cat-lover, she organised likeminded volunteers in 2008 to care for the stray cats that had been abandoned by locals. Today, some estimates say there are as many as 200 felines roaming the town's streets, far outnumbering the village's human residents.
Houtong is a day trip from Taipei, and the easiest way to get there is by train. If you take a northbound train from Taipei Main Station, it's an hour-long ride that will set you back about $50 for a one-way ticket.
Trains usually run every half hour during the day, and most visitors don't stay in Houtong into the evening. Weekdays are normally quieter than weekends, which allows for a tamer time with the local quadrupeds. In January 2010, Houtong had about 500 visitors, but with the help of social media, the annual count of visitors has skyrocketed. By 2016, some estimates counted roughly 870,000 tourists, most of them international.
What to Expect
From the moment you get off the train in Houtong, you are assaulted by a wave of felines in all forms. Cat paw prints guide you through the station, and just about everything in the village is cat-themed. There are sculptures and murals of cartoon cats, as well as bakeries and storefronts offering cat-shaped eats, souvenirs, and anything you can snap a selfie at. There are even houses made for cats, decorated with pictures of cats.
Of course, the town itself is crawling with cats. Covering a whole spectrum of shapes and sizes, these friendly felines can be found on and beneath benches, resting on roads, up on tree branches, and roaming where they please. While the cats are adequately fed, they still help the town keep its rat population down. (Read about how thousands of stray dogs have made a home in Costa Rica.)
Obvious signage instructs visitors how to interact with the four-legged locals. The cats should be left alone unless they initiate contact, and they shouldn't be harassed or chased, the signs instruct. Visitors who choose to feed the cats should clean up afterward, and flash photography is discouraged.
Still, the village isn't without some problems. While volunteers and doctors do regular neutering and injections to make sure the population is healthy and stable, some visitors abandon their own pets there or even steal cats from the village.