Category: travel

Mini Travel Guide: Taiwan

Looking for a travel guide to Taiwan? I lived there are 2 years - here are my best Taiwan travel tips: where to go, what to do, what to eat, and how to do it cheaply!
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!

Looking for a travel guide to Taiwan? I lived there are 2 years - here are my best Taiwan travel tips: where to go, what to do, what to eat, and how to do it cheaply!

Taiwan Must go

Taipei 101

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!

Toroko gorge

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)

Alishan mountain

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!

Yenshui fireworks festival

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.

Looking for a travel guide to Taiwan? I lived there are 2 years - here are my best Taiwan travel tips: where to go, what to do, what to eat, and how to do it cheaply!

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.
Looking for a travel guide to Taiwan? I lived there are 2 years - here are my best Taiwan travel tips: where to go, what to do, what to eat, and how to do it cheaply!

Taiwan Must eat

Stinky tofu

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!

Dan bing

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.

Hairy beans

Steamed edamame stir fried with olive oil, garlic, salt, pepper and star anise.  Oily and yummy and sure to make your breath stink.

Looking for a travel guide to Taiwan? I lived there are 2 years - here are my best Taiwan travel tips: where to go, what to do, what to eat, and how to do it cheaply!

Cultural tip

‘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.”
Looking for a travel guide to Taiwan? I lived there are 2 years - here are my best Taiwan travel tips: where to go, what to do, what to eat, and how to do it cheaply!

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.

Awesome anecdote 

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!
photos by luke ma // mark kao // Andrew Haimerl on Unsplash

Notes From The Road: You’ll Love Laos

Though I only spent a week in Laos, I’m a little bit in love with it.  So much in love with it that I’m actively fantasizing about a life in which I “winter” in Luang Prabang.  I could tell you all the reasons why Loas is awesome (French-influenced food and architecture, lovely people, great exchange rate, green mountains, epic waterfalls) but sometimes pictures are more effective, no?














Yes, those are maggots.  And yes, they’re for eating.  And no,
I did not partake.

Have you ever been to Laos?  This was my first time!

Got the travelbug?  Check out my ebooks and podcasts on making longterm travel a reality!  Only $15 forpetessake!

Notes From The Road: Splashing Out, Laos Style

Friends, I have been traveling for three and a half months now.  Three and a half months of sleeping on friends’ couches, in refugee camps and on the floors of NGO offices.  The majority of my showers have come via bucket and I’d ask that you don’t smell my scarf, as the adjective ‘feral’ might spring to mind.

Being slightly sleep deprived and a little bit dirty makes for a rather grouchy traveler.  If you would have greeted me in my Laos hostel, I probably would have pretended I didn’t speak English, turned my ipod up  and glared at you over the top of my Beer Lao.In summary, I was a surly, smelly mess.

So, I decided that after all that bucket-showering and floor-sleeping I would splash out on a little luxury for my last two days in Laos.  And by ‘splash out’ I mean “$24.”  Twenty four dollars, yo! 

What did I get for $24?

For $24 I got a room in a palace.  The Chamapsak Palace Hotel
 was originally built as a palace for the king of Laos,  but after his

death in exile, it was converted into a hotel.

You had me at “fresh baguettes.”

Where do you stay when you travel – with friends? family? In hostels?  Hotels?  I’ll stay anywhere, though I’m past the ‘hostel dorm room’ point in my life.P.S. I uploaded heaps of travel photos to my flickr if you’re curious to see what I look like in a salwaar kameez!

Got the travelbug?  Check out my ebooks and podcasts on making longterm travel a reality!  Only $15 forpetessake!

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32 New Things: Touch An Elephant

Some of the best parts about traveling the world? Doing awesome things like touching elephants.
This is me, looking amazed the first time I fed an elephant.


In case you were wondering, baby elephants rolling around in mud are exactly as cute as you’d expect them to be.And feeding elephants? Awesome.

And being kissed by one?

Slightly wet, a little bit sticky, a lot fantastic.

And I can tell you all of these things because I spent one phenomenal day at The Elephant Nature Park outside of Chiang Mai.

The Elephant Nature Park is totally, totally magical. The park provides a safe haven for elephants that have been rescued from horrible situations. There is the elephant that was hit by a car when she was working with her handler on the streets of Chiang Mai; the elephant that stepped on a landmine along the border; the elephant that broke her leg while working in the logging industry; the elephant that was blinded by abusive handlers when she wouldn’t work because her baby died. But now they live here!

And they get to eat delicious fruit! And they each get their own basket!

As you probably know, elephants are incredibly intelligent, sensitive, social animals. It was amazing (and super cute) to hear our guide talk about each elephant’s personality and how different social groups formed among the 35 rescued animals. ‘Jungle Boy’ was “very smart and handsome and ready to look for a girlfriend.” Hilariously, there was even an elephant love triangle – Jungle Boy was totally into the lady elephant that had been hit by a car, but she wasn’t having it and would head down to the river whenever he came around. But her BFF? Totally into Jungle Boy! Drama, drama.

In addition to rescuing injured or abused elephants, The Elephant Nature Park works to restore surrounding rain forest areas and provides employment to Burmese refugees (who are trained to work one-on-one with the elephants). And! You can volunteer with them! If you do, will you email me pictures so I can weep with envy? Have you ever touched an elephant? Or any other super cool animals? I touched a wallaby and a koala while doing ubiquitous Australian tourist stuff. Last week I saw (but didn’t touch) a pet civet that drank coca-cola!

Got the travelbug?  Check out my ebooks and podcasts on making long-term travel a reality!  Only $15 forpetessake!

Notes From The Road: Sex Worker Surprise

I really, really never thought I’d spend a Monday night this way:We walk into the side entrance of a swanky, gold-marqueed hotel and towards a back room that promises ‘turkish bath massage.’ “How do farang know that this is sex massage not massage/massage?” I ask my friend Rin. “You have to look around, look at the environment,” she grins as she pushes open the door.

There, inside the murky bar, we see what can only be described as a ‘lady aquarium’ – a brightly lit, glassed-in corner where sex workers in brightly colored dresses sit on red velvet risers, waiting for customers. They smile at us and wave; Rin shows the bartender her giant bag of condoms and pulls me toward the entrance of the aquarium. We stumble inside and Rin starts handing out condoms and promoting my English class. I smile shyly at the ladies and feel oddly under-dressed in my jeans and fleece. Some of the women are watching a Korean soap opera on a tv in the corner, one is painting her nails, several are barefoot. They’re incredibly sweet and coo over my hair and skin and promise to attend class if they’re not sleeping or hung over at when it starts at 3 pm the next day.

We slip back out and the customers seem unconcerned by the appearance of two be-jeaned NGO workers. They turn back to the aquarium to watch the ladies in the sparkly little nothings.

I spent the last week in Ubon Ratchathani, Thailand teaching English to sex workers with EMPOWER, an NGO that works towards safe, fair working conditions for sex workers. And to be 100% honest, I took this gig completely out of curiosity. What would these women be like? What would they look like? If I met them on the street, would I be able to guess that they were sex workers?

Before coming here, I imagined 14-year-old girls sold to pimps by their families, smuggled across borders in the back of a truck and then trapped in brothels, humping 70-year-old men.

Or maybe that’s just me and my tendency towards hyperbole. The reality is significantly less shocking.

* Every sex worker I met had made an active choice to be a sex worker. No one had been ‘sold into’ prostitution. No one ended up in sex work because she’d failed at other jobs. They all wanted to be there.

* Despite what investigative news shows would have us believe, child prostitution is actually very, very rare in Thailand

* Thai sex workers don’t see themselves as victims and they are not interested in rescue/rehabilitation/retraining. One woman asked me “Why do I have to learn how to use a sewing machine? So I can be a tailor and make no money? And I can’t send my children to school? When I’m a sex worker, I can make a lot of money to send my children to school and university. I can help my parents and I can build a house. I don’t want to sew!”

* All the sex workers involved with EMPOWER have taken a pledge to use condoms with every customer, every time

* Just like any job, sex workers come in all shapes, sizes and ages. I met model-esque 20-year-olds in tiny dresses and false eyelashes. I met 40-year-olds in track suits and no make-up, playing bingo on the patio outside a bar.

* There are married sex workers, divorced sex workers, single sex workers. There are sex workers with children.

* Sex work in Thailand is actually quite different from other countries. Most sex workers are employed by a karaoke bar, where they work as employees, with shifts and work schedules. They wash glasses, serve drinks, chat with bar patrons, dance, sing songs, give massages and give tours of the city. EMPOWER estimates that only about 2% of their time is spent performing sex acts.

What are your thoughts about sex work? Degrading to women? Serving a need within society? Should be legalized? Should be banned?

Notes From The Road: Hello, Hill Tribes!

A few weeks ago my lovely sociologist friends Daniel and Amanda were sweet enough to take me with them on one of their visits to an Akha hilltribe village, deep in the mountains of northern Thailand. I ate my weight in sticky rice, befriended all the village dogs and sat in on my friends’ interviews.

Other moments of note?

* receiving the Akha name “Mi-thi” which apparently means “medium girl” or “slightly smaller than average girl.” But I guess this is par for the course as other friends were labeled “standard man” and “action girl” and (horrifyingly!) “cat belly”* eating coffee beans and papayas straight off the tree

* waking to the sound of roosters every morning (which I am totally, totally over)

* sitting in a circle of whiskey-drinking men who wanted to stroke my yellow hair* impromptu dancing with a tiny old woman while she sang a song about friends

* hearing the sounds of the village’s Sunday church service wafting through the trees* meeting a pet civet who ate oranges and drank coca-cola

* trying to find a way to (politely) refuse offer after offer of rice whiskey

* listening while my friend told the villagers, in Thai, that I had a pet cat that I liked to dress in clothes. They all nodded and announced that this was wise, as America was a cold place and cats surely needed outfits there.

If you’re in Thailand and would like to visit or volunteer with a hilltribe village, The Mirror Foundation is a fantastic resource. You can volunteer from one week to three months, teaching English, helping at temples and hospitals, building water tanks or even washing the village dogs! The Mirror Foundation also offers trekking and homestay programs and they’ve got a great (and cheap!) guest house in Chiang Rai if you’re in the neighborhood.