May I be so bold in saying that Taiwan should be on everyone’s “must-travel-to” list? It’s a country that everyone’s heard of but when you start exploring the entire island, you realize how unexpectedly off-the-beaten path it is. In this sweet potato-shaped country, all it takes is a bit of unfolding to reveal a bursting of hidden jewels.
I had the chance to explore Taiwan for 12 days and while short, it was enough time to gain a serious appreciation for the country. Let me attempt to explain with these 5 qualities that sum up what makes it a top destination for travellers.
Abound with kindness
It’s more than a land of smiles. It’s a land of 人情味 (ren qing wei). My local expert guide, Joshua from MyTaiwanTour, explained it as a blanket term adopted by the Taiwanese to describe the general “be good to everyone” vibe. It can also be translated to “human touch”.
Throughout my time in the country, the friendliness of locals was a reoccurring theme whether it was directed at others or at us. Sometimes it’s in your face and other times it’s just a passive feeling that you get. As a traveller, I was taken aback at first because you learn to be skeptical but that wall you put up is quickly taken down because you realize it’s truly genuine and not because it’s part of some scam or scheme to get a tip.
None can be better exemplified than the time we were in Kaohsiung trying to figure out how to heck to get from the high speed rail station to the Tiger and Dragon Pagodas. We got into the wrong station and the security guard could tell we were lost so he came up to us to ask where we wanted to go. He immediately pulled out his phone and helped look it up and then convened with the gate attendant. We learned that we had to take a different train to get there and he literally walked us all the way up to the other platform and made sure we knew when the next train was coming.
Beyond the friendliness factor, I’d go out on a limb and say that Taiwan might also be the safest country in Asia to travel in. It’s a spidey-sense kind of thing. There was never a moment where I felt unsafe.
The locals agree too. Many people we spoke with are proud of the fact that crime rates are so low and aren’t shy about touting it as one of the best things about their country.
More food than you can possibly eat
This should come as no surprise. The food in Taiwan is AMAZING. In twelve days, we didn’t have a single bad meal and that’s considering we had a unique diet there that consisted of either meals at 7-Eleven or off-the-street in various night markets.
Go from “ooh”-ing at one station to “ahh”-ing at the next.
There’s something about night markets that I particularly love. It’s the atmosphere of being shoulder to shoulder packed with people, the grunginess of it all, the chance to try so many different things, and the randomness of carnival games. Everything is homemade and nothing is mass produced.
Your feet could be tired from walking all day but the sights, sounds, and smells give you that extra oomph as you go from “ooh”-ing at one station to “ahh”-ing at the next.
When we weren’t walking stall to stall, we also had a chance to try some of Taiwan’s more well-known dishes like beef noodle, soup dumplings, shaved ice, mochi, milk tea, and pineapple pastry. They did not disappoint.
It’s a barrage of the taste buds. As long as you’re open to trying new things, the eating opportunities are endless. Everyday we regretted having that free breakfast buffet.
Taiwan is the kind of place where if you didn’t have any activities planned, you’d inevitably wind up going from one food place to the next and you’d be totally okay with that.
Straight off the canvas
Outside the big cities, you’re treated to landscapes that you never knew existed for a country that’s less than half the size of the state of Colorado.
Massive mountain ranges act as a great big spine along the central corridor to the country and that’s where places like Alishan and Taroko Gorge will leave your index finger spasm-ing from all the photos you’ll end up taking. There’s nothing quite like the eerily calming wisps of cloud that thread in and out of the winding mountains – the quintessential Chinese painting.
In Alishan, you have a mountainous region where a forest of trees grow to thousands of years old, where the elevation towers to 2,663 m (8,737 ft), mystic sea clouds, and you have your chance of viewing one of the top 20 sunrises in the world. Contrast that to Taroko Gorge where mountains rise from the ocean and turquoise blue rivers swiftly run over giant boulders amidst carved rock marbled walls.
Spewing down into coasts are the rocky riverbeds, rolling green farmlands, and eventually white sand beaches. It’s at the shores of Kenting that you get a completely different look to Taiwan.
Full of surprises
What kept us guessing in Taiwan was also what made it such a delight to explore this country. Here are just a few stories of where we met the unexpected:
- The way the wind blows – We arrived in Taitung planning on taking an easy stroll through the city when we called the paragliding school and said that we had to do it that day or else we’d miss our window. Caught completely unprepared, we hopped on a cab to Luye Gaotai. The airtime there was absolutely brilliant.
- Serious surf – This was the most physically challenging part of our trip. While we were in Kenting we thought we’d try our hand of surfing since we had just done lessons in South Africa. Brimming with confidence, we didn’t realize how large the waves would be and we barely made it out. Despite our lack of skill, we were very impressed to hear about how the sport of surfing has grown in Taiwan.
- Art scene in Kaohsiung – The old pier and their warehouses have been completely revitalized with art galleries, installations, boutique shops, sculptures, and graffiti that reminded me of Banksy. We could’ve spent way more time here than we did.
- Proud tribes – One thing I was really impressed with in Taiwan is how much the country has embraced their indigenous population and have given them opportunities to showcase their culture. We got to learn about it front and centre in our ambitious hike in Taroko National Park to stay in a tribe’s B&B. Taitung was also stop along the way which had quite a number of opportunities to learn about local tribal through their cultural centres including our hotel, MATA Taiwanese Indigenous Cultural Resort.
DID YOU KNOW?
Taiwan has 16 recognized aboriginal groups with Atayal being the largest.
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Heart of Asia
One of the tag lines for the Taiwan Tourism Bureau is “Heart of Asia” and I’d say it’s a pretty bold statement but in a very surprising way it holds up on its own. Now this is my own interpretation of it but I think its meaning is two fold.
It’s an expression of diversity that’s rooted in Taiwan’s history – one that is unique and not without its controversy. It’s a diversity that is best exemplified its fusion of cultures. Throughout the trip, I could spot influences from all over Asia including the indigenous (native to Taiwan and outside), Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Philippines and other mixes of South East Asia influence. It’s hard to describe but you come to Taiwan with a specific expectation Chinese culture and you come away with the feeling of “wow, I totally didn’t expect that” and I mean that in a good way. It’s that melting pot of influences from all over Asia that you feel in the way people are, the cuisine, the landscape, and the climate.
Secondly, it’s a statement of warmth and love. I’ve already talked about it at length but really it’s the kindness exhibited by locals that really struck a chord with me.
There are way more reasons to be stoked about Taiwan but I’ll leave it here. I’d love to hear from you on your thoughts about Taiwan. Did you get the same feelings when you were travelling through the country? Good or bad I want to hear it!
PLAN YOUR TRIP TO TAIWAN
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This trip was sponsored by the Taiwan Tourism Bureau but all opinions are my own because I had one amazing time there and I seriously need to share this with the world!