taiwan

In March 2013 I spent 10 days in Taiwan: 3 in Kaohsiung, and 7 in Taipei.  These are the notes from my trip. Thanks to +Chris Lee+James Hua+Victor Wen, +鄧偉廷, and +Lin Hong-ju for their guidance and help.
A surprise may greet you if you belly laugh in Taiwan.
Trip Photos

Here's a link to my photos.


Part 1: Three days in Kaohsiung

Highlights
  • British Consulate - Former home of the British ambassador, next to Sun Yat Sen University. There's also a temple next door.
  • Talees Department Store - Upscale department store, with a good Cantonese dim sum restaurant in the 2nd basement level.
  • Martial God Temple (高雄關帝廟 | 武廟) - Large temple, lots going on, worth checking out.
  • National Science and Technology Museum - Mostly free science museum, 7 floors - it's huge, and has good exhibits.
  • Lotus Lake - Large lake with numerous temples around, and street shops for food and souvenirs (video).
  • New Taiwan Original Cuisine - This restaurant is decorated like old Taiwan from the 1940's, so it's a bit like eating in a museum. The menu is extensive and most of it has English translations. Get a set meal, which comes with the entree, rice, some side dishes, and soup. Cash only.
  • Ruifeng Night Market - Largest night market in Kaohsiung. Definitely a must-see, there's food, games, souveniers, and a lot of people.
  • Flower Bazaar - A huge flea market with mostly flower stalls, but also a lot of food and trinkets.
  • The Mansion 203 (瀾灣) - An upscale bar / nightclub / restaurant with good Taiwanese food.
  • Pasadena (帕莎蒂娜駁二倉庫餐廳) - Nice grill with huge burgers and other American food in an artsy district that was nice to walk around in.
  • Kaohsiung 85 - Tallest building in Kaohsiung, this is the hotel I stayed at (the Splendor), the rooms were very nice.
Friday March 8, 2013 - Arrival in Taiwan, Train to Kaohsiung
  • Depart SFO Leave Thu, Mar 7 12:05 AM San Francisco SFO; Arrive 6:15 AM Taipei TPE non-stop 14hr 10min EVA Air 17

I flew to Taiwan on Eva Airlines, one of the Taiwanese airlines.  It's nice to fly a non-American airline, to enjoy the service that can be provided when the airline isn't on the verge of bankruptcy.  Still, 14 hours on an airplane is tough under any circumstances. And at check-in I made a last minute decision to check my rollerbag, which contained my inflatable neck pillow and eye mask. I still managed to get some sleep though. I also watched the Alfred Hitchcock biographical movie, and an episode of Newsroom. Upon arrival in Taipei, my luggage didn't come off the conveyor belt, so the airline spent about 15 minutes looking for it and getting information from me.  Finally they found it.  I should really not check luggage, at least not on the outbound flight. I found an ATM and after a few attempts figured out how to get some cash (you have to specify what ATM network your card belongs to), and then I took the shuttle bus from the airport to the high speed rail station.
  • Shuttle bus to THSR Taoyuan Station - purchase ticket at UBUS service counters at Arrivals Lobby of Terminals 1 or 2. Buses run 5-10 minutes during peak times. Fare is NT$30.
  • Take Taiwan High Speed Rail from Taipei Station to Kaohsiung Zouying Station (2 hour ride). Train ticket is $52, purchase upon arrival. Trains run every 30 minutes. Get business class ticket because the seats have power outlets.
The high speed rail station was modern and easy to navigate.  I found the restroom, and bought some drinks at the 7-11 (one was a yogurt-looking drink that had the Quaker Oats guy on the bottle, and "100%" written all over it, so I'm hoping it was healthy).  I bought a business class ticket, found the train platform, and found my seat on the train. It was luxurious - power outlets at the seat, and WiFi on board. Plus complimentary snacks and drinks. It covered 250 miles in about 2 hours, with a top speed of 186 MPH.  Although in some ways it was comparable to the Japan bullet train, the Japan bullet train was a bit more high tech (in-seat electronic maps, etc.). The high speed rail dropped me off at the main train station in Kaoshiung, and I switched to the subway line.  The subway was easy to figure out, but then again, there's only a few subway lines in Kaoshiung.
Taiwan High Speed Rail
  • Check into hotel - The Splendor Kaohsiung (37-85F, No. 1, Tzu-Chiang 3rd Rd, Kaohsiung, , 802, +886 7 5668000, 1 Room: Deluxe room city view, 3 Nights: Fri Mar/8/2013 to Mon Mar/11/2013, Total:$411.00 , paid in full, refundable until 3/5/2012, Wired internet free; charge for wifi)

Lunch consisted of pearl tea, juicy dumplings, and stinky tofu - from three different street vendors.  It was good.  Dinner was a towering cheeseburger at an Italian (probably more like contemporary American) grill called Pasadena in the art district.  I did get to pop my head into the local public art museum - it was huge, but contained a sparse amount of artwork. The jetlag was catching up to me. I checked into the hotel, which turned out to be much nicer than I had expected - it's on floor 60 of the tallest building in Kaoshiung, called Kaoshiung 85 (for the 85 floors...).  The view of the city at night is spectacular (although the city is mostly industrial), and most importantly the shower was very refreshing,  The bed is hard, but I slept well. My travel router proved very helpful in connecting numerous WiFi devices to the single ethernet cable in the room.
Dinner was at Pasadena (帕莎蒂娜駁二倉庫餐廳), a nice grill with huge burgers and other American food in an artsy district that was nice to walk around in.
The view from Kaohsiung 85
Saturday March 9, 2013 - Kaohsiung
It's not a good sign when people say, "We didn't think you'd eat that!"  (pig's skin, I was told).  It was actually tasty, apart from what it was.  I had noodles for breakfast, and then dim sum for lunch, that was tasty, but similar to what we have in the Bay Area.  

Kaohsiung is not as diverse as I had expected (I've only seen a handful of non-Chinese people while I've been here), and the pollution is visible (so everyone wears a facial mask when their on the scooters, which are very prevalent here).

I walked through the Talees Department Store (link above), a high end department store that mainly caters to rich Chinese tourists from what I can tell.  Cantonese-style dim sum was in the basement, and was reasonably good.  Then off to the old British Consulate near Sun Yat Sen University. In the afternoon an anti-nuclear energy march was taking place near the Arena, and then I had dinner at The Mansion 203 (瀾灣), an upscale bar / nightclub / restaurant with good Taiwanese food.
British Consulate
Talees Department Store
Anti-Nuclear March
Sunday March 10, 2013 - Kaohsiung
This morning after an authentic Taiwanese breakfast of a tuna omelette and cabbage buns, I stopped by the Flower Bazaar, which is a large flea market with flower stalls and other trinkets.  Then I went to the Martial God Temple. It's huge, and there were busloads of Chinese tourists visiting. But similar generally to what I had seen in China and Thailand. 

I stopped by the National Science and Technology Museum, which is funded by the city. It's massive - six floors, of science, free. I walked through one floor, which had an exhibit about the first Chinese emperor, and his mausoleum.   After lunch at a store-front mom and pop restaurant where I got an interesting peanut crushed-rice dish and a meatball, I rested at the hotel. Then I went to Lotus Lake, which is a large lake surrounded by parks and temples.  Some of the temples were huge, with massive statues of gods, tigers, and dragons. A parade walked by as I was there, playing music and dancing. Down one street I found the remains of a old military outpost that had looked over the district.

Lotus Lake
At Lotus Lake
Lotus Lake
Sunday evening I went to a restaurant called New Taiwan Original Cuisine, which was decorated like old Taiwan from the 1940's, so it's a bit like eating in a museum. The menu is extensive and most of it has English translations. I had a set meal of a beef dish, which came with an entree, rice, some side dishes, and soup.  Then I walked through the Ruifeng Night Market which was nearby.  It's the largest night market in Kaosiung, and it was filled with food, games, trinkets. I would have stopped to eat something except I was exhausted.

Part II: Six Days in Taipei

Highlights
  • National Palace Museum:  That is a very good place to go and you can stay whole day to enjoy Chinese history. Much of the material came from mainland China. Take MRT to Shilin Station and then a shuttle to the museum.
  • Tamsui (Danshui) River:  Good place to see the sunset and old streets. Along the river, there are so many food stand with Taiwanese flavor. That is reachable place and if you love nature. You can take MRT the last stop of red line but takes time. This is a stop on the MRT and easy to get to. Watch the sunset over the river. Better to go on the weekend (it will be crowded).
  • Shilin Night Market: Famous night if you wanna some dinner or nothing to do after dinner. Night market is good place and not cost you a lot. You can take MRT to Jiantan Station and the entrance is there. This is a must-do - it is a prime example of what a night market looks like.
  • Taipei 101 - At one point the tallest building in the world.
  • Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall: Easy to get to with MRT at the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial station (exit 5).
  • Lung-Shan Temple:  If you want to visit the famous religious temple over 100 year, Lung-Shan Temple is good place to tour. It is near the MRT station. Attention: if you don't like too much people and incense, it's not a good place to go. However, It is full of history and the decoration of the temple.
  • Snake Alley: (behind Lung-Shan Temple). Not a fancy area of Taipei, known for prostitution and gangs.
  • Ximen Shopping District - This is basically the Times Square of Taipei - brightly lit, tons of stores, and tons of people.  Home of Red House and the Eslite Bookstore.
  • 228 Peace Memorial Park and 228 Peace Memorial Museum - The park and museum commemorate an event that occurred in 1947 and resulted in a significant loss of life (suggest reading up on this on Wikipedia before going to the park/museum).
  • HouTong Cat Village - Former coal mining town, inundated by wild cats, now a tourist town with cute cafes and art shops. 
  • Din Tai Fung: Rated the best dumpling restaurant in Taipei, located in the Taipei 101 shopping center. Sit where you can watch the dumplings being made. Order the black sesame dumplings for dessert.
Monday March 11, 2013 - Kaohsiung to Taipei
Reversing the process to take the Taiwan High Speed Rail to Taipei Station was relatively easy.  I walked a few blocks from the hotel to the subway, took the subway a few stops to the High Speed Rail connector station (during which time I learned that gum is not allowed on the subway, along with food and drinks as the signs indicate), and bought my business class ticket for the 1 hour 30 minute ride to Taipei.  I probably would have been equally comfortable in coach for less money, but splurging occasionally is nice.  I ate a ham and cheese croissant sandwich from a stand in the station.  The train headed north did not have WiFi on board, unlike the southbound train. Looking out the window as I leave Kaohsiung, the amount of industry, pollution, and small, dense apartments is striking. Also striking is the contrast between the rich mainland China tourists that Kaohsiung is courting, and the less wealthy locals. A few other comments about Kaohsiung: Food costs about 40% less on average than in the US, with street foodstands being closer to 70% less, and restaurants closer to 20% less. The afternoons are fairly hot and humid. And the people were all very nice and friendly.

  • Hotel: Royal Seasons Hotel Taipei326 & 330 Nanjing West Road, Taipei, , 103, +886 2 2555 6488, 1 Room: Corner Room, 6 Nights: Mon Mar/11/2013 to Sun Mar/17/2013 21 day advance purchase, Total:$863.04, paid in full, refundable until 3/7/2012): Redline subway north to Danshui station, get off at first stop (Zhongshan station), walk west on Nanjing West Road to hotel.
Royal Seasons, 12th Floor Suite (room 26)
I ended up just walking from Taipei station through the short underground mall to Zhongshan station, and exiting to the road, walking a few blocks, and arriving at the hotel.  The neighborhood looked a bit sketchy at first, but the hotel was nice.  My corner room got upgraded to a suite on the 12th floor, and it's rather amazingly comfortable, with WiFi, wired internet, a large jacuzzi tub, separate shower, bidet toilet, and a large California king bed.  There is also a minibar and separate wine fridge.  I'll be quite happy spending 6 days here I think.

In the evening, I went to a night market just a few blocks from my hotel on Ningxia Road and had some stinky tofu (#2 for this trip).  The market was a bit small though, so I took the subway over to the Shilin Night Market.  The subway (MRT) was easy to navigate, signage was all in English, and tickets were easy to get.  I also got a 5 day unlimited subway pass for about $25, that will come in handy getting to and from work and other destinations.  The Shilin Night Market is what all the guide books and websites say - a massive, 24 hour a day, 7 day a week night market.  They have everything there.  Everything.  I am pretty sure I saw a snake, and chicken ass. I had a little bit of hot pot soup made with milk broth (something I've never had before), some skewers of chicken and rice balls, and found a shaved ice place for some red bean shaved ice.  Then I found a $5 foot massage place - 45 minute foot massage, comparable to what we have in the states, but $5. This was all in the night market. 


Hotpot
Tuesday March 12, 2013 - Taipei
I took the subway to the Shilin station, and then hopped on a bus that took me to the National Palace Museum.  Note for bus users: You pay, or tag your bus pass card, when you exit the bus from the front (enter from the rear).  After walking up a lot of steps and buying my fairly cheap (~$4) entrance ticket, I did a fairly quick tour of the 1st and 2nd floors of the museum.  The 3rd floor was where the tourist traffic jam was, mainly around some jade carvings (including the popular cabbage jade) and some intricate miniature carvings.  After escaping the crowds, I headed back to Shilin station, and then took a 10 minute walking detour to Chiang Kai-Shek's official residence.  It was closed for the lunch hour, but I got the general idea of the place (including his limo).

National Palace Museum
Chiang Kai-Shek-mobile
For dinner I got some pork buns from a street vendor, and also some soup balls (doughy balls with meat inside), all of which cost about US$2.  Then I went to the night market near my hotel on Ningxia street and got a freshly juiced apple-banana drink for US$1, and a dessert cake (freshly made cream filled pastry).  I'll have to go back there, it was quite good.
Wednesday March 13, 2013 - Taipei
I took the subway to the Chiang Kai-Shek MRT (subway) station, exited through exit 5, and popped my head up at the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial area.  The area consists of three main buildings: The National Theatre, National Concert Hall, and the Memorial itself.  After taking some pictures of the buildings, I went into the Memorial building.  The building is not a mausoleum - CKS is not there (he's buried elsewhere), but two of his cars are there. Along with a lot of clothing, personal effects, and writings.  The upper two floors are classrooms and other special exhibits.
Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial
 For dinner I walked to the Ningxia street night market and got some dumplings, beef cakes, spring roll, and a yogurt drink from the 7-11. Then I headed over to the Ximen Shopping District. This is basically the Times Square of Taipei - brightly lit, tons of stores, and tons of people.  I went on a brief self-guided tour of the Red House theatre, a very historical theatre that is now an artsy shopping center.  Then walked around the Ximen shopping area, ending up at the well known Eslite bookstore.  Most of the books are in Chinese, but there is a coffee shop upstairs where I got a cold peanut-milk drink that was delicious.
Night Market
Red House Theatre in Ximen Shopping District
Ximen Shopping District
Thursday March 14, 2013 - Taipei
It was cool and a bit rainy in the morning, which was a nice change from the hot weather we had been having.  Although not as hot and humid as Kaohsiung.  The view from the 73rd floor of Taipei 101 was pretty bad.

In the afternoon, I went to Longshan Temple, one of the must-see temples in Taipei.  The temple itself is pretty similar to others.  Using my new-found knowledge of temples, I entered on the right, and exited on the left.  There were a lot of tourists here, since it's a must-see spot.  To the right of the temple was a Chinese herb market.  It is tucked away in some narrow, dark, back alleys, but easily accessible if you know where to go.  There were a lot of herbs, roots, and other medicinal plants.
Longshan Temple
I then tried to find Snake Alley, which is on the other side of Longshan Temple, a few blocks away.  I had some trouble finding it, but once I found it on the map (Huaxi Night Market) it was easy to locate. Unfortunately that area is not a great area - it's the former red light district, and I got propositioned to "sing karaoke" (hint: they have a different idea about microphones).  Snake Alley itself is a night market, but even during the day there were restaurant stalls open, and I saw a few very large snakes.  The snakes can be eaten (meat, heart), and one can drink the blood.
Snake Alley
For dinner, I went to Din Tai Fung in Taipei 101.  It is rated as the best dumpling restaurant in Taipei (there are also locations in LA, Beijing, Bellevue Washington, and a few others).  The dumplings are made-to-order, and you can watch the chefs work through a huge glass window.  I had a variety of dumplings, and the black sesame dumplings for dessert.  Afterwords I walked around the Taipei 101 shopping center (with very high end shops), and then went to Stream, a restaurant/lounge near Taipei 101, with a nice view overlooking the city.
By the way, the view of Taipei 101 at night is amazing.
Friday March 15, 2013 - Taipei
On Friday I walked through 228 Peace Memorial Park and the 228 Memorial Museum.  The park and museum commemorate an event that occurred in 1947 and resulted in a significant loss of life (suggest reading up on this on Wikipedia before going to the park/museum).
I then walked around the Presidential Palace, which has a direct view of Taipei 101 from the front.  The Palace has very high security.  Tours are apparently available, but prior registration is necessary.  I then took the MRT over to Ximen, the outdoor shopping center, and had a ramen lunch.
Presidential Palace
In the evening I took the red line MRT (subway) to the northernmost stop of Danshui (AKA Tamsui).  This is a coast/port town with a vibrant downtown area and night market.  I watched the sunset over the river, and had stinky tofu (again) and some cream pastries.
Saturday March 16, 2013 - Taipei
For my last full day in Taiwan, I went to HouTong, the cat village.  The cat village is an old coal mining town, and when the coal mining ended, wild cats were everywhere.  The cats have been tamed, and now the small town is a tourist destination.  I took the slow train there from Taipei Main Station.  After about an hour on the train, I arrived, and got some cool drinks at one of the cafes overlooking the town.


Relaxing at a cafe / art house in the Cat Village
Box Cat
When I were done touring the cat village, I took a bus to Jinguashi, to visit the Gold Museum, commemorating the old gold mines that used to inhabit the area.  The museum and tour are free.  Then I walked around the very popular (crowded) market, ate some food (including the local specialty - a bowl of sweet, cold taro, sweet potato, and soybeans).  I then took a very crowded bus back to Taipei.
In the evening, for my last day in Taipei, I had a hotpot dinner in the City Hall area (including eating duck's blood cake for the first time), and drinks at the 5 star bar at the W Hotel.
Sunday March 17, 2013 - Departure
Getting from Taipei to the airport was a bit of an exercise. I walked to the Taipei Main Station, and then had to walk to the Taipei West Bus Terminal where I paid 90 NTD for a bus ride to the airport. The bus made about 10 stops along the way, making it a 1 hour bus ride (maybe longer). One of the women on the bus clearly hasn't anticipated this and was panicked about missing her flight. I had several hours to kill, so this wasn't a problem for me. Once at the airport I got lunch at Burger King and tried to find a power plug (there is open, free WiFi at the airport; there's a power plug on the 4th floor, in the TKK Fried Chicken seating area).

Tips / Misc.

  • The Taiwanese people I encountered were extremely friendly to visitors, going out of their way to help when I had questions, and were not hesitant to use even limited English to communicate.
  • The infrastructure (sidewalks, availability of ramps) is less than that of most big American cities.  People with wheelchairs may have difficulty.
  • Get a 5 day unlimited subway (MRT) visitor pass for about US$25. The pass can be used on all the subways and buses.  
  • Consider getting a local SIM for data/cell access. This isn't really necessary because there is WiFi in most major areas, although you will need an account (some free) for access. You can get a local SIM (or a WiFi hotspot) from the vendors at the airport.
  • WiFi - most subway stations, the airport, and some convenience stores and restaurants have open WiFi. You may need credentials to log-in, such as an iPass account.
  • 7-11 convenience stores are everywhere, often two on the same block. They're a good go-to place for beverages, foods, sandwiches, restrooms, and WiFi. The stores with open restrooms and WiFi indicate that on their signage.
  • Tipping at restaurants and other establishments is not necessary and basically improper.
  • Locals don't expect Americans to eat stinky tofu or duck/pig blood cakes.  Stinky tofu (fermented tofu) smells bad, but tastes fine in my opinion.  Try both, it's a good experience.
  • Traffic lights are a bit different from in the U.S.: The lights are generally timed longer, although many display a countdown timer indicating how much time is left on a given light color. Pedestrians have the right of way but cars and motorscooters are very aggressive (by U.S. standards).

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