This is the first of a semi-regular post we plan to write called “10 Things…” or “10 things about a country that you might not have known already”. It is not meant to be a top 10 list or anything like that, rather it will be 10 (ish) random things, some good/bad/neutral, that we experienced during our trip in a particular country that we found interesting or unique. Usually we’ll write this post after we a leave a country as a way of summarizing our experience. Though these posts will always be officially authored by one of us, it’s actually a collaboration between both of us, with each of us writing different sections.
First up, Taiwan!
1. Night Markets
Night markets are ubiquitous in Taiwan. In most large cities they occur nightly and offer a large variety of street food as well as family-friendly activities such bouncy houses, carnival games, and street performances. Many local people, including a lot of tourists, choose to spend their evenings strolling along the night market and grazing upon street food for dinner. Each market will often have a specialty food that they are known for such as oyster pancake, stinky tofu, or noodle soup.
What impressed us most was how universally popular the night markets are with Taiwanese people. It is a wholesome and fun way to spend a night out with family or friends that seems to be firmly ingrained into the local culture.
2. Street Food
Related to the night markets is the popularity of street food in Taiwan. It is EVERYWHERE and it is a very economical way to eat as a tourist. Individual items are $1-2 USD and if you eat out with a group you can each try something different and share, which is fun. The food in Taiwan has a mix of Japanese, Chinese/Cantonese, and Southeast Asian influences as well as locally invented dishes. The array of different options can be staggering and to the average western tourist some items may be outside your comfort zone but you can always find something tasty that suits your fancy.
My (Tarick) only minor complaint is that a lot of the street food is fried (and delicious!), but after a while you start craving some simple steamed vegetables, which are of course available in Taiwan, but less so on the street.
One other funny little tid-bit related to food is that napkins in Taiwan (meant for cleaning your hands after eating) are typically made from very small little pieces of tissue paper. This may be acceptable to the very polite, well mannered, cleanly, Taiwanese people, but as someone who tends to get a lot of barbecue sauce all over their hands and face, they aren’t quite up to the job. I would often leave a restaurant with little bits of white paper stuck to my hands and beard. However, in this case, I have no one to blame but myself.
3. Public Transportation
We have a love affair with cheap, efficient, and clean public transportation. Living in the US, it is a pleasure we only get to experience when we travel elsewhere.
That said, Taiwan has one of the best public transportation systems we’ve experienced in our travels. Similar in far-reaching scope and timeliness to Japan but much cheaper. There is good English signage everywhere and the local people and station employees are very accommodating. The entire island of Taiwan is accessible via public transit. Not once in our trip that took us almost all the way around the island did we have to hire private transport such as a taxi or Uber.
You walk out your front door en-route to your destination and every step of your journey is linked together by clean, efficient, public transit. The bus takes you to the metro. The metro takes you to the light rail. The light rail takes you to the high-speed rail. The high-speed rail takes you from one side of the island to the other in ~1.5 hours. Or any combination of the above. You don’t even have to buy separate tickets if you have the pass-card, which you can easily purchase at 7-11.
Typical prices are <$1 USD for a short bus ride or metro ride within the city. Between $5-20 to travel between two large metro areas such as Taipei to Taichung. The high speed rail is more expensive but still a good value if you are crunched for time, roughly $50 to go from the top of the island to the bottom in 1.5 hours.
4. Hot Springs
Taiwan has a similar number of hot springs per capita to Japan and they are among the best in the world. There are two types of hot spring facilities, (1) private resort-type facilities that charge an hourly fee and are typically attached to a hotel, and (2) public hot springs that are either free, or charge a nominal fee. The public springs we came across seemed to be primarily frequented by locals. We received quite a few surprised looks when we stopped at a public foot bath in Beitou, but otherwise everyone was friendly. The private tubs were out of our price range for this trip, but would be totally reasonable for someone on a more lax budget.
Taiwan is an excellent country for hiking. The various mountain ranges running down the central spine of the island can reach over 12,000 feet in elevation. The opportunities for single or multi-day trips to the mountains are endless and most trail-heads are accessible via bus from a nearby city. We did a fair bit of hiking in the national parks and still barely scratched the surface of what is available. One such hike was lead by our friend Heidi’s dad, who lives in Kaohsiung, see below for a video of the hike.
6. Hot Water Dispensers
If you love tea and ramen, then this is the place for you. Instant hot water dispensers are available in hotels, malls, bus stations, on the train, almost everywhere! It’s a feature that is surprisingly useful, especially if you are taking a long train ride.
7. Stamps Stamps Everywhere!
In Taiwan, you can collect stamps at train stations, museums, craft villages, and other landmarks. (The stamps are of the ink rubber variety, not postal stamps.) I (Chiara) am a very enthusiastic collector of stamps and have accumulated quite a collection! Here are a few highlights:
Photos — 1st row: Taipei 101, Earthquake Museum of Taiwan / 2nd row: Beitou Hot Spring Museum, Xinbeitou train station / 3rd Row: Treasure Hill Artist Village, Huashan 1914 Creative Park / 4th row: National Palace Museum (featuring the famous jade cabbage that was on loan to another museum during our visit), our hostel in Tainan
8. Artist Villages & Creative Parks
Throughout Taiwan, we visited several creative parks and artist villages. Housed in former industrial or military buildings, these places have been remodeled to serve as community spaces and hold art exhibitions, craft shops and artist residences. Over the last 20 years, local governments and civic groups have supported the creation and maintenance of these spaces, and it shows! They are inventive, playful, and — based on our experience — very popular.
Treasure Hill Artist Village in Taipei (photos above) was originally built in the late 1940s as a squatters’ settlement for military veterans. Some of the original residents still live there.
Huashan 1914 Creative Park in Taipei (photos above) was originally a wine factory.
9. Artisanal Beverages
Taiwan has quite a cafe culture. It’s hard to walk a block without encountering a coffee or tea establishment. Perhaps most famously, Taiwan is the inventor of “bubble tea”, milk tea with little tapioca balls, that has become popular worldwide. There is also a burgeoning hipster coffee and craft beer scene in Taiwan.
Coffee is very popular in Taiwan, with options ranging from your standard pour-over brew to the more hipster variety percolated through what looks like a chemistry set. The island even cultivates its own coffee beans. Standard price for a cup of Joe is around $1, but can be quite a bit more expensive at the hipster joints.
Craft beer is up and coming in Taiwan. While there is a surprising diversity of options, I’m not sure the demand is there yet. People seem to favor the local “Taiwan Beer”, which you can get at 7-11 for $1 per can. Craft beer is also expensive, even more so than in the US, a 12 oz bottle of beer can cost up to $6. The ones we tried, however, were excellent!
Bubble tea is awesome. Supposedly invented in Taiwan in the 1980’s, the drink is universally popular. There is a chain-store selling bubble tea on almost every block, typically a walk-up window where you can purchase your beverage and take it to go as you stroll the streets or hop on the bus. By the end of our trip we were totally addicted.
10. The People (Our Impression)
We’re not going to make too many sweeping generalizations here, but in our experience the Taiwanese people were friendly, polite, slightly reserved, and of course, love to eat. As foreigners we didn’t attract too much attention as we went about our business. We experienced very little in the way of hassling and haggling at the markets or tourist spots. The Taiwanese people have a lot of pride in their country, and rightfully so because it is clean, safe, functional, and a pleasure to visit.
After an exhausting week of changing hotels every night we are finally settled in for a few days so expect a flurry of blog posts. We actually left Taiwan a week ago and are now enjoying The Temples of Angkor in Cambodia. Lots more on that to come soon so stay tuned!