Text and photos by Nickky Faustine P. de Guzman
Taiwan is associated with milk tea and Meteor Garden. But beyond its drinks that sell for a song and its iconic TV series featuring four good looking men (hi F4!), Taiwan can accurately be described as a land of fun.
First time visitors can search “Taiwan” on Instagram and find thousands of witty hash tags like #TaiwanItThatWay, #YoureTaiwanThatIWant or #TaiwanNobodyButYou, they can use when posting their own photos on Instagram. The hash tags and the photos that go with them can guide the first timer on Taiwan’s best tourist spots. But there is more to this country than what Instagram can capture — like the innate warmth of its people or the quaint way they say “xie xie” or thank you. Our tour guide, Paul, said the Taiwanese say xie xie more than ni hao or “hello.” Unfortunately, Taiwan, which is less than a two-hour flight from Manila, has always had a less than positive reputation among Filipinos: “There is nothing to do in a geographically small country like Taiwan,” they’d say, or “Taiwan is not tourist friendly because the Chinese are cranky and rowdy.”
Upon the invitation of AirAsia Philippines, which officially opened its daily flight from Manila to Taipei on Nov. 21, BusinessWorld embarked on a five-day trip to the capital city, Taipei, to dispel myths and discover treasures.
MYTH: TAIWAN IS BORING.
DISCOVERY: WAIT UNTIL ITS MAGIC DRINK SURPRISES YOU.
Prior to the media trip on Nov. 21 to 25, this writer had spoken with Taiwan’s popular television host Janet Hsieh, and was told that though Taiwan is small, it is never short of activities for shopaholics, foodies, history buffs, and the in-betweens.
“Taiwan is a small place and the activities, like hiking, are quite similar [to those found in the Philippines], but there are always different ways of experiencing things,” she said in a phone interview.
For Kathleen Tan, AirAsia’s president for the North Asia region, one of Taiwan’s come-ons is its “abundance of pork and night markets.”
“Taiwan is what I call a hidden gem of Asia. The last few years, its tourism has been very active, and there’s so much to do not just in Taipei. It is affordable here compared to other Asian countries, so you can stretch your dollars,” she said.
On a cold day, under a light drizzle, this writer scoured Taipei’s streets in search for its meat and night markets. And they did not disappoint.
Taipei may not surprise you at first glance because its streets are lined with familiar brands that have made it to the Philippines. There are the CoCo, Dakasi, Chatime, and Gong Cha milk tea houses, Din Tai Fung and its iconic xia long bao or steamed pork bun with hot soup, and Hot Star restaurant and its humongous chicken (bigger than the average human face). So the best advice is to veer away from the familiar, which is not really a tall order. Because Taiwan is the birthplace of the milk tea craze, foodies are never short of drink options. Our tour guide, Mr. Paul, said the milk or bubble tea trend started in 1980s.
“With bubbles?” the vendor asked me when I ordered an original milk tea with less sugar from a store called 50. I just nodded not knowing what she meant, only to realize that the Taiwanese call their sago pearls “bubbles.” The tall milk tea with bubbles and less sugar cost 60 NTD (New Taiwan Dollar). (Currency exchange: 1 NTD = P1.57)
But there is another Taiwanese drink that needs to be highlighted. While we were out and about in Ximending, a night market famous for cheap finds, a small stall caught our attention. Lined up on a table was, of all things, ampalaya (bitter gourd) — Taiwan’s bitter gourds are white. While we already knew what it would taste like, we were still caught off guard. The first sip tasted sweet and yummy. It was actually refreshing — until the juice traveled down your throat a few seconds later and kicked out with a super sharp bitter taste — more bitter than the actual vegetable. Nobody in our group finished his drink. The medium-sized glass of juice was priced at 50 NTD.
Taipei’s streets are filled with food surprises. Another revelation came in a small white box sold in Shilin night market for 40 NTD. Called chou doufu or stinky tofu, it really lives up to its name. The fermented tofu smell can turn off your appetite, and a little bite is enough to know that the chou doufu in sweet chili sauce does not taste terrible, but as far as this writer is concerned, it doesn’t taste good either.
MYTH: THE TAIWANESE ARE NOT FRIENDLY.
DISCOVERY: THEY ARE!
“We don’t want to be associated with the mainland China,” said our tour guide. “We are different. We are friendly,” he told me while we were waiting to see the changing of guards at Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall, erected to commemorate the former President of the Republic of China. He was referring to the reputation mainland Chinese have for being rude. The Taiwanese people are friendlier. Case in point: I travelled alone to the Taipei Zoo 40 minutes away from the city, during our free time on the last day of the trip. I asked a random girl on the train what station to get off at and she was kind enough to pull out her cell phone, search for “Taipei Zoo,” and translated the direction into English. I said “xie xie” and she smiled back at me.
MYTH: THERE’S NOTHING TO SEE IN TAIWAN.
DISCOVERY: THERE ARE MANY ACTIVITIES TO DO IN TAIWAN.
Although geographically small (it is all of 36,193 square kilometers), Taiwan is big when it comes to adventures. The capital city alone offers a plethora of activities — from visiting temples and memorial halls to bargain shopping in night markets to temple visits.
At the heart of the bustling streets and night markets one hears the calming buzz of chanters. With an imposing façade and a small waterfall at the side, the Longshan Temple in Taipei is impossible not to see and hear. The place of worship for Buddhists and Taoists is like a marketplace of religion. Mr. Paul said the temple has an invisible demarcation between the Taoists, who are usually the quiet people seated in the corner, and the Buddhists, who chant prayers and occupy the middle of the sanctuary.
When in Taiwan, it’s a must to go beyond what the capital offers. Over an hour away by bus from Taipei is Jiufen, a mountain area northeast of the city. The small hill town with hanging red lanterns is believed to be the inspiration behind setting of the Japanese animated movie, Spirited Away, which was the first animé to win an Oscar Awards in 2003. There one finds the Nanya Rock Formation which were sculpted by sea waves eons ago.
But the capital city always draws you back in, especially when Taipei 101 — the country’s tallest building — towers over all other things. Surely not to be missed and a good punctuation mark to end your Taiwan trip is a visit to the building which, at 1,671 feet, it used to be the tallest building in the world until Dubai’s Burj Al Khalifa — at 2,722 feet — surpassed it in 2010. At the 89th floor of Taipei 101 is the public observation deck (entrance is 1,500 NTD). It offers a 360-degree bird’s eye view of Taipei, and may not be really a good spot for people who are afraid of heights — unless of course, you want the perfect excuse for why you have to throw up the ampalaya juice you ordered moments ago.