Underrated Destinations: Appreciating Taiwan’s Idyllic Charm

So the month of February rolled around, and after exploring around the Philippines the previous month, I decided to go international. I didn’t have a clear destination in mind, so I decided I would visit a country that was fairly close by and cheap to fly to. After finding a good deal on a flight to Taipei, that country ended up being Taiwan. I didn’t know all that much about Taiwan, just that it was a small island country off China’s coast where people also spoke Mandarin Chinese. Quite honestly, I didn’t know what to expect. I intended to stay only 11 days.

But I was totally blown away by Taiwan. I ended up postponing my flight and exploring the country for almost a month.

For one reason or another, Taiwan remains off the radars of most backpackers, falling in the shadows of nearby China, South Korea, and Japan, which is really unfortunate. Taiwan boasts an alluring fusion of cuisine, culture, history, and natural beauty. Not to mention the country also has friendly, helpful locals, is safe and easy to explore, and has something to offer for everybody. It’s impossible for me to detail every single aspect of what to expect and see/do in Taiwan, but I’ll try to present a nice summary of it.

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Vendors in Taipei’s Shilin District set up at one of Taiwan’s many night markets.

Taiwan: a quick look

Population: 23.52 million (2016)

Major Cities: Taipei (capital), Taichung, Tainan, Kaohsiung, Taoyuan

Climate: Subtropical in the north, tropical in the south; temperatures range from around 55°F in the winter to 90°F in the summer (13° – 32° degrees Celsius).

Cost of living index: 61.38 (#36 out of 121 listed countries worldwide); about 30% cheaper than the United States

Travel Budget: It depends, but Taiwan’s prices definitely make <$35 or so a day possible if you’re really on a tight budget. My expenses were mid-range; I spent about $1300 for 26 days in Taiwan, which comes out to $50 a day.

Getting there

The majority of people visiting Taiwan enter through Taipei. There are two major airports that service the Taipei area: Songshan Airport, located in the heart of the city, and Taoyuan Airport, which is located in the neighboring city of Taoyuan, about 30 minutes from Taipei. I booked my flight with AirAsia, which does not fly to Songshan Airport, so I landed in Taoyuan and took a bus to Taipei (there’s also a convenient high-speed MRT that zips directly to Taipei, but the last trip it takes is at 11 pm. I arrived after 1 am). Finally, there are two more major international airports in Taichung and Kaohsiung if you’re looking to start further south.

Other suggestions/things to know

  • Pick up a local SIM card at the airport before you leave. Taiwan appears to have plenty of public Wi-Fi networks but in my experience, they were far too unpredictable; save yourself the hassle. Also, communication with locals gets a bit less daunting since you can just pull out your phone anywhere and translate whatever you’re trying to say into Mandarin. I’m speaking from experience.
  • Taiwan uses the traditional Chinese writing system, NOT simplified.
  • Assume no locals speak English, as most don’t. Always have the address of wherever you’re staying in Chinese in case you need to show somebody where you’re trying to go (e.g. a taxi driver).

Getting around

I’ll preface this by saying that Taipei itself has a smorgasbord of things to check out, so you should definitely hang around the city for at least a few days. That being said, far too many people not only start in Taipei, but they also spend their whole Taiwan trip in Taipei. Yes, Taipei is a dynamic city with so much to offer, but you’re doing yourself a great disservice if Taipei is the only place you visit. Regardless, I recommend Taipei either way, so that’s where I’ll start:

Within Taipei

You can rent a car if you’d like, but Taipei makes it easy to cover a lot of ground without one. Make the most of your time and money in Taipei by taking advantage of the city’s pretty advanced MRT metro system. You can pay for a single-journey ticket each time (which starts at 20 TWD) or use an EasyCard or iCash card (which you can pick up at one of the many 7-Elevens), which I would recommend as it ends up being both cheaper and more convenient. Another thing to note is that the metro trains make their final rounds at about midnight and don’t start up again until around 6 am. If you wanna party it up ’till the wee hours, a taxi is your only option (unless, of course, your drunk ass is staying at a hostel not too far from the bar).

Taipei also has a pretty robust bus system that was easy to follow even for foreigners. Things get a bit dicey when trying to figure out the fare, though, due to communication barriers with bus drivers. I mentioned it earlier and I’ll mention it again: just like with the MRT, get yourself an EasyCard; this will not only make riding the bus easier (simply touch the card to the sensor once when boarding and again when getting off), but this also lets you purchase tickets for local trains around the Taipei area, use the city’s nifty YouBike bicycle rental system to get around, and even pay for certain taxi fares. Sometimes there will be discounts/promotions for cardholders. All wins in my book!

Other cities/regions

Taiwan has local trains of varying speeds/classes that circle the entire island. It’s popular for many travelers to start in Taipei, check out the cities along the country’s east coast, and get back to northern Taiwan by moving up the island’s west coast. Taiwan’s west coast also offers a pretty slick HSR (high-speed rail) line that can take you from Taipei to Kaohsiung City in the south in a couple of hours. As you probably expected, it is a more expensive option (I took this route in February 2017 and a one-way ticket was 1,415 TWD, or about $45 USD).

Outlying Islands

Taiwan itself is an island, sure, but the country offers beautiful smaller islands a short ferry ride or flight away. I tagged along with a new friend and explored the lovely scenic Green Island by scooter, despite not originally planning to go there for my journey. Orchid Island, Xiaoliuqiu, and the Penghu County island archipelago are also nice little off-the-beaten-path places that you can and should check out.

Exploring the country

Thanks to Taiwan’s size, it makes hopping around and checking out the sights of different cities a breeze. Here are some things that should be on your itinerary:

What to see

Taipei 101…?

This iconic 1,671-foot-tall (509.2 m) 101-story tower has the distinction of being Taiwan’s tallest building. Visitors flock to the tower’s observatory deck, but with price hikes in recent years, an adult ticket is now 600 TWD (about $18 USD). If you’re taken aback by the sticker shock, you have a couple of alternatives. I know one hostel I stayed at offered a 20% discount, so see if you can find any promotions/deals. You could also try one of the following suggestions:

  • Check out the nearby Elephant Mountain, where climbing up will give you a just as good, if not better panorama of the city skyline that also includes Taipei 101.
  • In Yangmingshan National Park, you can get a nice panoramic view of Taipei (even more attractive at night) from an observation platform at the entrance to Zhuzi-hu (bamboo lake).

Or also consider: checking out the 85 Sky Tower in Kaohsiung City. It was the tallest in Taiwan before the completion of Taipei 101. The entrance fee is a more reasonable 180 TWD (as of March 2017).

Various Temples

Taiwan is adorned with religious monuments, from small shrines that are a few steps away from a 7-Eleven to full-on sacred dwellings, and everything in between. You’ll often see locals offering incense and prayers to Caishen (the god of good fortune) and other deities. One of the more popular temples to see this in action is the Longshan Temple in Taipei.

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Standing in front of Taipei’s Longshan Temple in the foyer/courtyard area

 

What to see: natural marvels

Clockwise from top left: the Eternal Spring Shrine in Taroko National Park; exploring Yangmingshan; a stretch of beach in Kenting; Green Island’s coastline. (not pictured: Sun Moon Lake)

Yangmingshan National Park

Located just north of Taipei, this park can be accessed simply by using the MRT and transferring to a bus. This collection of mountains is connected by roads and trails and showcases hot springs, hiking trails, historical landmarks, and several gardens. The park is vast, so take advantage of the park’s bus that can take you around the park an unlimited number of times for the day for a one-time fee of 60 TWD.

Kenting National Park

Located on the island’s southern tip, about a 2-hour bus ride from Kaohsiung, Kenting not only refers to the town in the same area, but also a large national park with both forest and beach recreational areas. Being below the Tropic of Cancer, the weather is significantly warmer than that of, say, Taipei. It’s really touristy here, though, so prices at most restaurants and attractions will be higher – watch out!

Taroko Gorge

You can find this park in Hualien, a city about halfway down the island’s east coast. With deep canyon riverbeds, scenic trails, and mountains in the backdrop from any angle, the majestic natural beauty of Taroko National Park is worth seeing for yourself. The trails and various points of interest are spread out, so if you want to see everything the park has to offer, walking isn’t an option. Hire a taxi, take a guided tour bus (what I ended up doing), or, if you’re feeling up to the challenge – hitchhike. Taiwan isn’t usually known for hitchhiking but it can be done here.

Sun Moon Lake

Sun Moon Lake, Taiwan’s largest body of water, can be found smack-dab in the middle of the country in Nantou County. Known for its clear blue water and scenic mountain backdrop, it’s a popular honeymoon destination for newlywed couples. Attractions include Wenwu Temple, the Ci-en Pagoda, and Lalu Island, an island in the middle of the lake. Boat tours are offered for 300 TWD per person, and bike rentals are available if you want to circle the lake and take in the scenery that way.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have the chance to check out Sun Moon Lake 🙁 I’ll make it out there the next time I’m in Taiwan, for sure.

What to do

1. Night markets, night markets, night markets. You can find these anywhere in Taiwan, and especially in Taipei, you have tons of options. Pick up some trinkets for the family and try your luck at the game booths for a chance to win some prizes. The main draw of Taiwan’s night markets, however, is the food! Don’t worry about getting hungry as the numerous food vendors that set up shop give you endless culinary options that range from classic favorites to more exotic fare; skip the sit-down restaurants and pick up a dish for under 100 TWD ($3 US) as you make your rounds.

Popular street vendor dishes include:

  • Beef noodles. Self-explanatory, served as a soup. Never got tired of eating these!
  • Oyster omelet. Taste was okay, but the consistency reminded me of phlegm. You might dig it, but it’s a no from me.
  • Dumplings. Delicious and cheap.
  • Taiwan-style burgers. Actually not too bad. The patty is usually fried chicken instead of beef, eggs are included, and a tangy sauce is used.
  • Fried squid
  • Popcorn chicken glazed in your choice of sauce.
  • Steak cubes
  • Green onion pancakes. Almost like an omelet, but mixed in with dough. Other ingredients, like corn, can be mixed in. To cook it, the mixture is fried up and coated in a sweet sauce.

2. KTV. It’s Taiwan’s take on karaoke. Get to know a nice group of people, rent out a private room and flex those golden pipes. Popular KTV chains in Taiwan include Cashbox, Holiday, and Partyworld. The cost (around 500 TWD per person) also usually includes food and drinks. Finally, if you can get a decent-sized group together, you can split the costs and save a bit more.

3. Bike around the rice paddies of Chishang. Chishang is a little township located right between Hualien and Taitung on the country’s east coast. If you’re circling Taiwan, make this town a stop, rent yourself a bike, and take in the scenery as you ride. I don’t think it’s too well-known among tourists but just check out this view:

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4. Check out a museum/historical landmark. Or two. Or three. Taiwan has strong ties to China, and many consider Chinese culture to be one of the cradles of civilization, dating back thousands of years; history buffs checking out Taiwan can have a field day reading up on Taiwan’s political background at the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall or checking out the many thousands of ancient Chinese artifacts at the National Palace Museum, both located in Taipei.

5. Festivals. Taiwan’s Chinese New Year festivities in January or February are by far the most popular for those visiting, but the country has festivals for other occasions (check out the Spring Scream, Buddha’s Birthday, and the Dragon Boat Festival).

Final Thoughts

I’ve only scratched the surface of all that Taiwan has to offer. There’s a reason why Taiwan often makes it to the top of many lists of the best countries for expats to live in. Fair weather, friendly locals, a reasonable cost of living, and beautiful man-made and natural attractions make Taiwan a gem of a country worth considering, whether you’re looking at destinations for your next two-week trip or looking for a new home base.

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