Taiwan is a place I never thought about visiting simply because I knew nothing about the country. However we found some cheap flights to Taipei and after reading a few glowing blog posts we booked flights to check it out. I am so glad we did because we loved our 2 week trip to Taiwan. It is a safe country with diverse and delicious food, friendly people, spectacular scenery, captivating history, temples and spirituality. Taiwan should be on everyone’s bucket list. Here are a few highlights from our trip to convince you.
Taiwan, officially called the Republic of China, is an island in East Asia. It is quite small and in our 2 week trip to Taiwan we completed a lap of the country. Taipei is the capital city and is situated in the north-west of the island. A series of mountain ranges run from the northern tip to the southern tip of the country. The mountains run quite close to the sea on the eastern side. As a result, this part of the country is more rugged, spectacular and less populated. The vast majority of the 23 million Taiwanese live on the flat Chianan Plains between the sea and the western edge of the mountains.
Taiwan has links to China dating back thousands of years. In the 1600s the Dutch established a stronghold and trading post at Anping. They were expelled after 40 years and not long after the Chinese annexed Taiwan. Japan colonised and ruled Taiwan from the late 1800s until the end of WWII when the country was formed with its own government. The country has since gone through rapid industrialisation and economic development. It has evolved to a democratic government with a highly skilled and educated workforce. Compared to much of Asia, it is clean with good infrastructure.
Taiwanese food is strongly influenced by Chinese and Japanese cuisine. As an island, seafood is common everywhere. Street food, or xiaochi, is what Taiwan is famous for and these small inexpensive snacks are served up from the thousands of small streetside stalls found throughout every town and city. We found ourselves snacking all day as we couldn’t resist trying all the great food!
The other place to get these snacks are the night markets. Most nights in most cities, food vendors set up their stalls from 5 or 6 pm until late and serve up dishes of delicious food. Sausages, fermented (stinky) tofu, fried chicken, little sticks of all manner of seafood, meats and vegetables. There was so much to choose from. The main clientele of the night markets are locals. It is common in Taiwan to regularly eat out. The vendors are also more than welcoming to tourists looking for a tasty and inexpensive meal.
We visited night markets in just about every city and town we stayed and loved the experience of finding and tasting new foods. There is a seemingly endless array of things on offer. We had a list of things to try based on suggestions from friends, blogs and our Lonely Planet guide. While there are common foods across many night markets, each one has its own specialties so it pays to do a little research before you go. Even so, it was not always easy to find things because the shop signs and menu boards were often written only in Chinese. We had to guess a few times but never had anything we didn’t like. The best tip we can offer is to look for the stalls with a queue, join it and order what everyone else is getting.
Here are a few of our favourite snacks to get your taste buds watering;
– Steamed dumplings (Ningxia Night Market, Taipei)
– Pork pepper buns (Hujiao Bing) cooked in a Chinese version of a tandoor oven (Roahe Night Market, Taipei),
– Shaved peanut brittle with ice cream in a thick crepe (Juifen Old Street, Juifen)
– All sorts of things on skewers including delicious mushrooms and greens wrapped in bacon (Dongdamen Night Market, Hualien)
– Scallion pancake deep fried (Huayuan Night Market, Tainan)
– Wheel cakes (Juifen Old Street, Juifen)
– Bubble tea (everywhere)
One thing you should know if you have kids (or are a kid at heart) is that every night market also offers amusement games. Think old fashioned circus style games like pinball machines, shooting balloons and throwing a small hoop onto a bottle. Our kids quickly became obsessed with them and the small prizes they would try and win. It was super fun for them but we had to time-limit it so we could go and eat the lovely food.
Taroko National Park is Taiwan’s most spectacular and visited wilderness area. At its centre is Taroko Gorge, a 19 km canyon with massive marble cliffs topped with tropical vegetation. You can visit picturesque temples and pagodas and hike beside turquoise blue streams. The drive up the gorge is an adventure in itself as much of the road has been hacked into the side of the cliff overlooking the gorge.
We spent 2 days exploring Taroko Gorge. While there is limited accommodation in the gorge we stayed in the small city of Hualien, 40 kms to the south and visited the park each day. We stayed at Ten Street B&B. Close to the train and bus station, the room was huge with a separate seating area and large bathroom. On our first day we hired a car which gave us full flexibility to explore the gorge. On our second day we caught the bus from Hualien which was much cheaper and suited our plan to visit just one part of the gorge for a hike.
The vast majority of visitors to the gorge come on buses as part of package tours. This can be a nightmare when several bus loads of people suddenly appear! Our best tip is to get there early. Anytime before about 10 am and you will have the place to yourself. Similarly, it is much quieter while the tour groups have their lunch and after they leave in the later afternoon.
We visited Swallow Grotto for a spectacular view into the narrow gorge from the old road and drove up the gorge stopping at a few places along the winding drive for photos. The short Lushui Trail hike provided a good view over the gorge. The kids had fun crossing the suspension bridge near the Changuan Temple, although Harvey was a little scared when it bounced up and down. We hoped to be able to do the Tunnel of Nine Turns Trail and the Baiyang Waterfall Trail but unfortunately both were closed when we visited.
The highlight for us was the Shakadang Trail, which runs along the Shakadang River, a tributary of the main gorge. The trail is not at all strenuous and is very picturesque. Unlike the Liwu River in the main Taroko Gorge which is a deep grey colour, the Shakadang River is an amazing turquoise blue. The river has cut its own small gorge and this trail gives you a close up view of the marble stone walls and boulders. The trail runs next to the dense forest on the steep hills above the path and we were lucky enough to see monkeys playing in the trees above.
We started this hike at 9:30am and the trail was quiet and peaceful before the tour groups arrived. The hike is up and back the same trail so you can turn back whenever you have had enough. We turned after about an hour. There is a little group of stalls about half way where the kids got a tasty sausage snack on the way back.
The city of Tainan is the oldest city in Taiwan and was such a treat to visit. It was our favourite city in Taiwan. Unlike Taipei which is a relatively new city, Tainan has been an important city for hundreds of years. It was the Imperial capital and where the Dutch established a trading port in the mid 1600s. The city showcases the importance of religion in Taiwan with a mind boggling 1600 temples. It is compact enough to see much of it on foot, with interesting architecture and pretty little alleyways to explore, excellent food on offer and a huge and diverse night market.
In Tainan we stayed at OC Hostel, a small hostel/hotel located right in the centre of the old city on one of the pretty alleyways. It was a great location. Our room was nicely furnished with windows overlooking the street. The owners were very friendly and were more than happy for the kids to help them out with the many jigsaw puzzles they had on the go.
While we were in Tainan we did a self-guided walking tour to explore the major temples in the city centre. Before we started we all read about the different religions (Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian) and how the styles of the temples differed. This really helped the kids be much more engaged. We made it a challenge for them to guess the religion of each temple based on the style and decoration of the temple.
The temples are an assault on the senses. Brightly coloured rooftops, elaborate carved front pillars and doors, murals on walls, a maze of rooms with shrines to different gods, gold and red paint everywhere. People go from shrine to shrine bowing and praying. Most of the temples have some information in English that explain the different gods and what people pray to them for. Make sure you read these to understand the suggested path the visit the temple and important rules you should follow out of respect.
We were all intrigued by the different rituals of prayer. There is so much going on including the offering of food, burning incense, asking important questions of the gods and throwing 2 kidney shaped wood blocks to determine the answers, choosing fortune sticks and burning Joss paper in ornately decorated furnaces.
At the Sidian Wumiao temple, which dates back to 1665, the kids purchased some incense and prayed to the Examination Gods for good results when they go back to school next year. Probably a good idea given the lack of formal education they have had this year!
Amelie and Harvey took turns using the wooden blocks while asking questions to see if the gods would answer their prayers. They also chose a fortune stick but struggled to match the symbols on the stick to the corresponding drawer on a chest of 50 little drawers. Fortunately a lovely local guy came and helped us out. The Taiwanese are such friendly and helpful people. Now we just need someone to translate the slip of paper from inside the drawer!
The Tiantan Tiangong temple has a god of love and there were lots of messages up on the wall written by people declaring their love. It was cute to see young people coming in and praying to be lucky in love. At Lady Linshui’s temple you will find many women visiting to pray for the health of their pregnancy, childbirth and children.
A short taxi ride from the centre of the city is the Anping District which was the site of the Dutch fort and trading port. The former Tait & Co Merchant House provides insight into the history of Dutch and other traders that were based here. Right next to here is the Anping Tree House, an old storage building that was left unused for 70 years and has been overtaken by enormous banyan trees. The trees are literally growing on the roof with tree roots extending into the building down walls, through doorways and windows. Much of the building has fallen down leaving the tree roots suspended in the air. Not quite Ta Prohm but pretty cool. The kids had so much fun exploring the different rooms and looking down from above along the elevated walkways.
These highlights barely scratch the surface of what Taiwan has to offer. Coffee lovers will revel in the countless great coffee shops. Hikers will find many options including climbing one of the many peaks over 3000 m (10000 ft). You can relax by visiting beautiful beaches in Kenting or indulge in one of the relaxing hot springs scattered throughout the country. Cyclists will enjoy planning a multi day trip down the east coast. Whatever your interests are you will find it in Taiwan so add it to your bucket list now.
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