The iconic Taipei 101 tower was once the world’s tallest building, until it was surpassed by the completion of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa in 2009.
Photos by CATE DE LEON
Compared to our other Asian neighbors, Taiwan has only recently broken into the consciousness of the Filipino traveler. And while I’ve started to see a smattering of images on Instagram — starting with the welcoming arc of Taoyuan airport — friends who swear by it still say it’s severely underrated, despite it being less than two hours away from Manila by plane.
On a New Year’s whim last January, I booked a solo trip to Taipei this coming December — a prospect that excited and intimidated me with equal measure. So when the offer to go on a Fun Taiwan media familiarization trip — sponsored by the Taiwan Tourism Bureau, Jeron Travel Agency, and China Airlines — presented itself earlier this month, I readily said yes. I figured I could use the primer and opportunity to acclimatize to the country before going in on my own.
It turns out Taiwan — officially called the Republic of China (not to be confused with the People’s Republic of China) — not only has a lot to offer, but is also the farthest thing from intimidating. The locals are perfectly pleasant, but firm when need be. It is safe to walk around and explore alone at night. And while levels of English proficiency vary from conversational to basic, it is always more than enough to get by. I could ask vendors to allow me to test their merchandise, or ask a couple of guys on the street where the train station was. Getting around was also the easiest thing, as their infrastructure is pedestrian-friendly, and their train system is not only strategic, but also easy to navigate. It’s one of those places that put you at ease and take care of your most practical concerns (they’re obsessed with convenience stores) so that you can focus on whatever it is you want to see.
A mixture of Chinese and Japanese influences
Due to its history under different rules, Taiwan is a distinct mixture of Chinese and Japanese influences, but with a more relaxed vibe. They speak Mandarin, serve up a mouthwatering truffle xiaolongbao at Din Tai Fung, but on their streets you’ll spot youths dressed up with an edge and swagger that remind you of Tokyo.
Upon landing, the very first item on our itinerary was a visit to Addiction Aquatic — Taipei’s fish market, which can be described as a more sosyal Tsukiji or Dampa. Depending on your budget, you can opt for a stand-up turo-turo experience, sit at the bar and have a glass of wine with your fresh order, or ascend to their restaurant upstairs and have waiters serve you platters of the freshest sushi and sashimi.
For shopping, the Shilin Night Market is an eclectic mixture of no-name stalls selling fresh fruit and cutesy trinkets, big sports and apparel brands at discounted prices, and drug stores with shelves filled with masks, false eyelashes, and other crazy Asian beauty products as far as the eye can see (admittedly, these are the ones I got lost in).
Ximending is Taipei’s version of Shibuya, with its flashing lights, giant projecting screens, and a clusterf*** of establishments squeezed in tightly together. Here you can also try an assortment of street food, from torched beef, candied strawberries, innards soup, to d**k-shaped bread that oozes white cream. But Taipei has a lot of small, quiet streets, too, and a 24-hour branch of the bookstore, Eslite, for those who prefer to burn the night immersing themselves in stories and ideas.
No lazy imaginations here
We didn’t get to visit museums during our stay, but the artistry of the Taiwanese was apparent everywhere. Our hotel, Home Hotel Da-An, was filled with quirky reimaginings of furniture and appliances, like geometric-shaped desk lamps made of organic wood that switched on with a light tap on the surface; or a side chair which, when sat upon, shaped your posture as though you were sitting on the floor — except with more support for your back and legs. All the interesting objects we used in our room — down to the dainty tea set and the specially formulated toiletries — were on sale, if we ever found something we wanted to take home with us.
For a traditional experience, we got to watch a hand puppet theater show at See-Join Puppet Theater Restaurant. The performance was made especially interesting by puppeteer and restaurant owner Bill Chen who himself was a character (i.e., he brought out his most beautiful porcelain puppet and made her flirt and pretend-make-out with members of the audience). There was also some audience participation, as we were each handed our own puppets and taught the basic hand tricks. And through a hands-on, manual medium, it was interesting to see how emotions and movements were animated very differently in Taiwan.
Hipster culture also thrives in Taipei. The stretch of Fujin Street holds an array of quirky and art-filled cafes. Whether or not you grab a cup of coffee or a bite to eat, merely walking in and drinking in the designs in each establishment will leave you feeling full as you walk out. One place I have sworn to return to is the Huashan 1914 Creative Park, another hipster haven. Housed in old concrete government structures, it’s a maze of interesting concept stores and cafes where the Taiwanese imagination runs free.
Venturing out of Taipei, about a two-hour drive away is the Yilan National Center for Traditional Arts — although nothing in the red brick, commercial complex really feels old. Filled with shops selling a myriad of things, from hand-crafted tea sets, a hundred types of salt, organic soap wrapped in delicate paper, to anime figures, paint brushes, hand-painted wooden tops, artsy bookmarks and stands that sell stinky tofu, the overall vibe is very dynamic — even as you get a sampling of Taiwan’s more traditional produce.
A close affinity with nature
“The trees don’t need us. It is us who need them,” our tour guide said as we walked along a winding dirt path. We were now deep inside Yilan County, surrounded by mountains, streams and a canopy of sound comprised of chirping birds, crickets and the rustle of leaves.
Earlier that day, we were treated to a farm-to-table shabu-shabu lunch of the freshest vegetables, mushrooms, meat and shrimps at the Tea-Rice Resort. Now, here at Toucheng Leisure Farm, the first few minutes of our hike brought us to their Cang Jiu Winery, where we got to taste their produce of red, white, rice and fruit wines. We also tried their frozen, wine-soaked baby tomatoes, which were simultaneously sweet, salty, and utterly refreshing.
Even back in Taipei, the Taiwanese’s strong connection with nature was very apparent. In Yangmingshan National Park, not only did they have lush fields of flowers, they also had an assortment of trails (from easy to hard), as hiking is a favorite local pastime. The streets there were always clean, and establishments bore constant reminders about being mindful of the environment.
Visiting Toucheng Leisure Farm (and learning that locals frequented other such resorts for vacation) was a journey that helped us better understand this side of their identity. We passed many vegetable plantations along our hike, along with quaint little houses in the clearings. We pulled baby carrots from the ground to feed their version of carabao. We took care not to take more food from the buffet spread than we could finish, and cleaned up after ourselves. It was a sanctuary devoted to nature, and minding the exchange of what it had to offer and making sure you took care of it in return.
Its own distinct culture
“Taiwan has its own distinct culture,” I’ve heard friends say, and I agree. Pinning said culture down and actually describing it, however, seems to be a challenge. At first glance, it’s so easy to say that they’re more laidback and understated compared to their other Asian neighbors. But all around the country, you see evidence that the Taiwanese are the farthest thing from complacent — from their art and city attractions, to how they seamlessly merge quality infrastructure with their natural environment.
“A lot of the tiled buildings look like nothing special, but when you go inside they have shops and restaurants up to the second or third floor,” Jeron Travel’s half-Filipina and half-Taiwanese owner, Chal Lontoc-del Rosario, shared as we were walking around the city.
This understatement followed by a “Wow, there’s a lot going on here” was a consistent vibe throughout our trip — even to the end, as we were welcomed into flag carrier China Airlines’ massive and lush lounge at Taoyuan airport, complete with shower, nursing and sleeping rooms, among other traveler amenities.
That, in a nutshell, is what I gleaned from my four-day trip to Taiwan. It’s not the most showy of places and cultures, but it’s absolutely worth a closer look. Because then, you’ll find that the Taiwanese have their own presence. They work hard. They’re constantly creating interesting, sustainable and quality things — and they’ll tell you off frankly if you’re late, even if you’re media VIP. And as it becomes apparent that this is the kind of place where you’ll never run out of interesting things to see and do, you’ll come to realize that flashiness doesn’t always equal substance.
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The trip was organized and made that much more fun and convenient by Jeron Travel & Tours (www.jerontravel.com). WiFi navigation and real-time updates were made possible by Skyroam (www.skyroam.com), which keeps you connected in 80 countries for a flat rate of P490 a day.
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Check out the author’s Instagram @catedeleon for more travel photos and vignettes.