An Adorable Destination In This East Asian Country Is A Slice Of Heaven For Cat Lovers

If you ever get tired of crowds of people on your travels, you could always try surrounding yourself with an adorable crowd of felines instead. About an hour northwest of Taipei, in the hills of Taiwan's Ruifang district, the quaint village of Houtong is known for having more feline residents than humans. Once you step off the train and cross an award-winning, cat-shaped bridge, you'll experience free-roaming feline furballs and an entire infrastructure to celebrate them, from murals and street signs to souvenir shops and restaurants.

Here, the strays are treated like royalty. You'll spot plenty of scratching posts around town, along with food bowls that line the streets, perches installed on buildings, and wooden boxes built for the all-important cat nap. Inside the many souvenir shops along the main strip, it's a cat-lover's dream. You can shop cat-adorned trinkets of every variety, like socks, phone covers, coasters, mugs, and temporary tattoos. At the cafes and restaurants, you'll find Taiwanese fare of course, along with edible cat-shaped treats like pineapple cakes and cream puffs. When you pay for items, don't be surprised if the shop owner is donning a pair of cat ears while meow music (i.e., cat noises set to electronic beats) plays in the background.

How the cat village came to be

Houtong wasn't always a cat mecca. Back in its heyday in the early 1900s, the town operated as the lifeblood of Taiwan's coal mining industry. By the 1970s, when opportunities fizzled out, roughly 6,000 residents relocated elsewhere, leaving just 100 people and some stray cats in the area. Over time, the stray cat population grew.

In 2008, a cat photographer and her veterinarian husband — a dream pair, if there ever was one — changed the course of the town forever. While visiting Houtong, they asked the locals if they could set up a system to help take care of the cats. The locals agreed and soon a team was put in place to feed, vaccinate, and care for the strays. It wasn't long before this sleepy village became known as a cat capital. As more and more cat-loving tourists showed up, a plethora of cat-themed shops sprang up to support them, giving the town a much-needed second wind.

From coal village to cat village, Houtong mastered the art of reinvention. Today, there are more than 250 cats that happily roam the streets and one million annual visitors to fawn over them. Even with the spay and neuter program, the cat population continues to grow. With so much love and attention, though, can you really blame them?

What to know before you go

To see the cats for yourselves, take the hour-long train from Taipei's main train station to Houtong via the Yilan line. Tickets cost $2 one way and run every half hour. If you can tear yourself away from the tabbies, it's worth poking around the preserved mining areas for a look at historical photographs and a trolley ride inside a coal tunnel. The facilities around town shut down at 6 p.m., giving you ample time to photograph cats of every color and explore the stunning natural surroundings before catching the last train back to Taipei at 9 p.m.

Houtong is the busiest on the weekends, so visit during the week for the best chance of hogging the cats all to yourself — if they let you, that is. There are signs posted all around the town for how to treat these treasured residents. It's best to avoid flash photography and give them plenty of space, unless they come around asking for attention. If you decide to feed them with the treats for sale in the shops, be mindful of the portions, as other tourists have the same idea. And, of course, as cute as they are, don't take any of the cats home with you. They're in cat paradise, after all — it's best to just leave them there.