I spent August 2004 – April 2006 living and working in Chung Li, Taiwan. Friends, Taiwan is not for everyone. It’s polluted, hot, crowded and the 7-11’s smell like rotting tea eggs.
But it’s also full of great street food, awesomely weird fashion, insane festivals and really lovely people. And it’s not really part of the backpacker route! So you can avoid those group of drunk 19-year-old British guys!
Taiwan Must go
You’d be remiss in your role as a tourist if you didn’t go to the top of this building. It was once the tallest building in the world but Dubai put an end to that. Your ears will actually pop in the elevator!
This is Taiwan’s answer to The Grand Canyon and it’s a lovely, natural getaway in super-industrialized Taiwan. The entire canyon is made of marble and the water is crazy blue. There’s good swimming and the Taiwanese interpretation of ‘hiking’ (read: walking on a four-foot-wide paved path through the wilderness)
The valleys below Alishan have a tropical climate but the top of the mountain has an alpine climate. This means if you get up very, very early and climb aboard a bus with a million other people, you can actually watch the sun rise over the clouds – like this
A festival high in the mountains, during which you dress in a full-body rainsuit, gloves, a full-face helmet and drape wet towels around your neck. Why? Because huge structures filled with fireworks are ignited and shot at you, obviously. I went to this and it was equal parts bizarre and awesome.
Taiwan Must do
Night marketing shopping
It’s crowded and weird but incredibly awesome. You can pick up adorable/strange things for a pittance (lighters shaped like pigs! pet bunnies! a million different things covered in rhinestones!), buy your dinner and get acupuncture.
Try betel nut
All those people you see around Asia with red mouths? They’re not zombies, they’re betel nut chewers. And those skantily clad girls sitting in glass-fronted stores will sell you betel nut. Betel nut are a mild stimulant – you’ll probably feel the same way you did when you snuck your first cigarette out behind the garage with your best friend. They made the back of my knees sweat!
Rent a room in a karaoke bar
This isn’t the karaoke you’re used to. There are no strange drunks heckling you while you slaughter ‘My Heart Will Go On” and you don’t have to nurse one lukewarm beer and nibble on peanuts.
In Taiwan, you rent a plush room by the hour, so the only drunks heckling you will be your friends. Lots of KTVs (as they’re called in the ‘Wan) also include a buffet or drinks in the price. Also, sometimes sex workers.
Taiwan Must eat
Fried fermented tofu with strips of pickled vegetables and sri racha sauce. Don’t be dissuaded by that awful smell. As bad as it smells – that’s as good as it tastes!
Taiwan’s breakfast of champions! A rice flour and onion ‘tortilla’ with fried egg and your choice of American cheese or ham. Dan bing plus a sub par latte costs $1.
Sugar street strawberries
Giant strawberries on a long wooden skewer that have been dipped in a big vat of hot toffee so they have a thin candy shell.
Steamed edamame stir fried with olive oil, garlic, salt, pepper and star anise. Oily and yummy and sure to make your breath stink.
‘Personal space’ and ‘standing in line’ are concepts that aren’t necessarily recognized in Taiwan – or much of Asia. If you stand more than three inches away from someone, people will believe that those four inches are a personal invitation to them – you’ve now invited them to budge in front of you in he 7-11 line.
You can either
a) start standing really close to people
b) get over it
c) learn to say (in Chinese) “Excuse me, I believe the line starts back there.”
Traveling on the cheap
It might seem strange to couchsurf in a country where most people don’t speak your language, but Taiwan is thick with expats teaching English and working in technology – and most of them are fellow travelers who will be thrilled to show you around their local night market. Check out the Taiwan, Ho! message board for more possible hosts.
If you’ve got a decent travel budget or you want something nicer than a stranger’s couch, Airbnb is obviously always an option. This 4 bedroom apartment in Chungli (where I used to live!) is $16 USD per night! If you’ve never used Airbnb before, here’s a $40 credit towards your first booking.
One of my favorite things about living in Taiwan was dabbling with strange (and cheap) beauty treatments. After successful dalliances with reflexology foot massages and a surprisingly flattering mullet (?!) I decided to get my eyebrows threaded. And I came to this decision on a Tuesday night while walking through the night market.
A salon had set up a tiny booth and after determining that threading would cost all of $6, I mimed to them that I only wanted my eyebrows threaded. They patted my arm knowingly and pointed me towards a pink cot.
So I lay there in the street, at midnight, with crowds of people walking past, a beautician crouching over my face, preparing to remove hair from my face with a loop of thread. But as she leaned in closer, her eyes widened and she shouted for her friends to join her. They crowded around my pink cot and stared at my face.
The lead threader pointed at my fine blond eyelashes and with authority announced “Mayo lah!” and her friends nodded sadly.
What does “Mayo lah” mean? It means “Doesn’t have.” Awesome.
Have you ever visited Taiwan? Share you tips and links in the comments!