Tell me about visiting Taiwan: should I do it?

So I just got e-mail from an old friend this morning who I haven’t seen in more than ten years, since he left the U.S. and returned to South Africa…he’s since finished college and law school and passed the South African bar, but had a really hard time finding work in South Africa, so he went off to teach English in Taiwan (but that’s a whole other thread). He’s been there for a year or two now, and seems to have settled in fairly well, is studying Chinese, and just got a real job in international law.

We’ve chatted via e-mail on and off, and he just sent another one of his periodic “how are you? What do you think of the state of the world?” e-mails. It came at a time where I’m feeling kind of burned out by my job, and that I need a brief change of scenery. Almost all my vacation time the past few years has been used dealing with family or personal obligations, and while I like my family, to me time off isn’t a real vacation unless a) it lasts at least seven consecutive days, and b) it doesn’t involve sleeping on any relatives’ sofas or living room floors.

I love to travel, and the only part of Asia I’ve ever seen is Siberia, and the closest I ever got to Taiwan would be Russia’s Altai Region, just across the border from Mongolia. The main thing that’s stopped me from seeing Asia so far is that although I love traveling, I hate to travel alone, and so I generally either travel with someone (and there aren’t many people with whom I would consider taking an international trip; a time like that certainly brings out any lingering incompatibility issues!), or to visit someone I already know. I’m pretty sure I could talk my friend into a visitor; he seems a bit lonely, and the cultural and linguistic gap between Taiwan and South Africa must be pretty vast. But I have no idea what it’s like to travel in Asia as a practical matter. How difficult is it for a non-Chinese speaker to get around without feeling like an idiot? What should a visitor to Taiwan absolutely experience? Am I insane to even think about Taiwan these days, with the SARS issue and my crummy lungs? How expensive a place is it, if one is a reasonably frugal and relatively experienced traveler? What time of year is best to go vs. when are airfares the cheapest (from Chicago)? Any other questions I should be asking?

I’ve been to Taiwan three times this year on business and I will be back there again the week after next. My business takes me to Hsinchu which is about an hour drive south of Taipei.

The whole SARS thing was overblown in my opinion but let’s not hijack this thread arguing about that. In any case, Taiwan was taken off of the WHO warning list a couple of weeks ago which meant no new cases in the 10 previous days. You should be safe there.

Where in Taiwan is your friend? It’s bigger than most people realize. There are a couple of big fun cities (if you like cities) in Taipei and Taichung. The center of the island is a very tall mountain and is supposed to be a great, though strenuous, hike. There is a beautiful nature area called “the gorge” in the south. The national museum in Taipei is a must see.

A good website is It has all sorts of English language information about each province of the island and also about special events.

It’s an interesting culture there due to the history. Taiwan is a melting pot of the over 200 different Chinese cultures. That also means that you get some fantastic food from all of the regions of the mainland. Get someone to take you to a Haka restaurant. The Hakanese are known as the best chefs in China.

That’s all I can think of for now but I may post more later. Feel free to email me if you have more questions.


Never been to Taiwan, but SARS is soooo a non-issue, and it’s just Hakka, not Hakkanese. Hakka is not a place.

I was just saying, not trying to be snotty or anything.

Not a problem. Thanks for the correction.


I was over in Taiwan about a year ago, and I recommend it too. I’m monolingual and had no problems to speak of. Taipei is a great introduction to the bustle of Asian cities. It’s busy and dynamic, but elegant and modern. I believe SARS is fading as a concern.

The gorges area in the mid-South is well worth visiting. As hajario suggests, there’s a great deal of countryside outside the urban centres that’s quite wild and very lovely.

The main museum in Taipei is amazing, and big enough and good enough for several visits. The Nationalists took a great deal of China’s treasures with them to Taiwan. If you go, I’d appreciate an answer to my question in this thread, which bugs me still.

Hey hawthorne, the picture links in your thread no longer work. If you can find more pictures, let me know. I’ll ask some of my collegues when I am back there in a couple of weeks.


Taiwan is well worth a visit. Taiwain has natural wonders, (Taroko Gorge, Alishan mountain), and the world’s most comprehensive museum of Chinese art, the National Palace Museum (it beats anything on the mainland).

Warning: Summertime travel in Taiwan involves choking pollution in the cities (breathing in Taipei should be declared an Olympic sport) and oppressive heat.

Thanks, **gobear, ** for the environmental impact statement. That’s exactly the kind of thing I need to know…there are very few countries that are on my “do not visit” list (I can’t think of anywhere that has no redeeming attributes; it’s usually a question of balancing the redeeming attributes against the trouble and expense required to make the trip), but since I’m asthmatic, that sort of information is VERY handy. My first time outside the U.S. was to Mexico at age 13, and I still remember how my lungs reacted to the legendary pollution in Mexico City, and my lungs were much better behaved then.

Thanks to everyone else, too; anyone have a favorite guidebook? I’m generally fond of the Let’s Go series, but what other good ones are there for reading-up purposes? (This is all extremely preliminary at this point, of course.)

Unless you like oppressive humidity and heat, avoid the summer months altogether. I would include the surrounding months as well: June-September. Bad. Then again, I’m a wuss when it comes to humidity. I like going during the winter because it never gets that cold (even though you’ll see the Taiwanese bundling up like it is 50 below). Being from Chicago, you’ll have nooooo problems. The air tends to feel better in the winter, too. Smog is a big problem in Taipei, and I think they’re working on it.

The subway system was recently completed and it’s very convenient.

Like someone else said, Taiwan was recently taken off the WHO SARS warning list. FWIW, I’ve herad that Taiwanese health officials fear an outbreak in the winter months when it gets colder and people huddle closer and indoors for warmth. But you can’t run your life according to things like this.

I say go for it. Taiwan’s not the first vacation destination that leaps to most people’s mind and it’s fun to visit places like that. If you like the big city experience, Taipei can be a lot of fun and the exchange rate is decent (not great, but decent). Food is cheap (& good!), and if you’re into shopping, you may be able to snatch some hard-to-find-in-the-US items. Watch out for the pirated stuff though. They’re cracking down, but eh. Things like clothing aren’t really that cheap and you have to worry about taxes, etc. If you’re into the outdoors, the central and eastern parts of Taiwan are beautiful. On the weekends the trails can be really conjested as families like to take their outings in droves. However, I’d suggest this as it’s a nice break from city life.

A couple of things you can consider:

  1. A-Li Shan (A-Li mountain) is worth a visit, especially if you are lucky with the weather and you can get up early enough to see the sunrise out of the clouds.
  2. the Sun Moon Lake is quite pretty.
  3. If you want to see temples galore, Tainan is your city. It’s the “religious capital” of the island.
  4. Take a train along the southern tip of the island.
  5. the beaches are quite nice, especially on the eastern side. Most of the beaches in Taiwan used to be closed and reserved for military exercises but some have been opened in the recent decade or so.
  6. The nightmarket in Taipei is supposed to be an experience. Actually, any open air marketplaces are interesting.

As for language, students these days are required (more or less) to study English, so you can probably get around OK especially in the north. You’ll probably see more foreign business folks in Taipei than you expect. In the south, however, it could get a little tricker but then, you could be approached by the locals who want to practice their English. Major roads and tourist attraction signs are translated into English.

Free advice: when shopping for an airline ticket, bypass the internet and major US carriers. Well, you should check anyway, but head to your local Chinatown and find a Chinese travel agency. Sometimes they buy tickets in bulk from the major airlines (China Airlines, Eva Air) so you can find really good deals. You may have to transfer via LAX or San Francisco.

If you can hack Siberia (so cool!) you can do Taiwan. Plus, it’s just a short flight to Japan.

Parting thoughts:
Bring Pepto. There’s a decent chance that you may feel slight discomfort when eating at a little roadstand, which you should since they usually offer the best food.

Get your Hep A shots. (Hep B if you are extra cautious.)

Oh yeah…China Airlines supposedly has the worst safety record but so far, so good.

Sorry for such a verbose post! I’ll shut up now.

Yes, by all means go to Taiwan.

My visit there was one of the most pleasurable in my entire life. Beware the humid season if you can, it is utterly miserable. That said, you should still go no matter what. The Taiwanese people are among the most polite I have ever encountered. The food can be odd at times because they use this one spice in everything from tea to dessert (just kidding). Some recommendations:

While in Taipei, be absolutely sure to hit the weekend jade market. Bring lots of cash and prepare to return several times over your visit to secure the pieces you want. You must be able to walk away from anything you really want in order to bring the price down.

Here’s how to bargain:[ul][li]Point to the object of your desire.[/li]
[li] The vendor will usually produce a calculator and punch in a number of Taiwanese dollars and show it to you. (Bring your own calculator or pen and paper to speed things up.)[/li]
[li] Take the calculator and enter a number equal to a little more than half the original value.[/li]
[li] Plug your ears to avoid a stream of amazing curses. (Kidding once more)[/li]
[li] Hand back the calculator and permit the vendor to enter another number. If the vendor acts too insulted by your offer and does not submit another amount, spin on your heel and walk off. Half the time they will pursue you waving the calculator that now carries a much more attractive figure.[/li]
[li] You must be willing to walk away several times in order to get the pieces you want at the price you wish. Rest assured that many prices will automatically double or triple because of your skin color.[/li]
[li] DO NOT attempt to bargain with the box lady. She and her husband run a corner location selling silk lined boxes of all shapes and sizes. You will want to buy some of these for any delicate and unprotected pieces you purchase. They are the only ones selling boxes at the market and are completely toffee-nosed about it. Their prices are quite reasonable, so there’s not much to whinge about anyway. Be sure to purchase boxes for any gift pieces you buy, they make for a spectacular presentation.[/li]
[li] Be wary of any ivory pieces. Many are legitimately made from Siberian mammoth ivory, but the customs inspectors may not make such a distinction.[/li]
[li] Look for the lady at a table piled high with jade medallions. Buy one for every friend you know. When purchasing more than twenty, you can get the price down to a few dollars apiece and she will attach a nice woven necklace to each of them. Take your time to search through them carefully and you’ll find rather nice pieces.[/li]
[li] The finest jade will have a near-adamantine quality to it. It will clink with a nearly musical ring and look like highly polished glass. Take time to educate yourself about jade before you leave to better gauge what you are looking at.[/li]
[li] Be prepared to have your breath taken away by some of the work you will see. Many of the pieces belong in museums. Bring a camera to record your shopping trip. It will be unforgettable[/li]
[li] Avoid the “Antiques Market” like the plague. Go there only after you have hit the weekend jade market. You will better understand the cost structures and be more immune to the rip-off prices found there. They do have some unique stuff you will not find at the weekend jade market plus old watches and cigarette cases and holders. It will all be a lot more pricey.[/li]
[li] If you see something that you absolutely must have, buy it then and there. You cannot count upon anything you see ever showing up again. That said, you must still bargain viciously and relentlessly. I recommend budgeting at least two hundred dollars for your jade purchases alone. Bring more money if you can, you will never regret it.[/li]
[li] Some examples of my purchases (in US$):[/li]
6" diameter medium grade green jade bowl with pewter wires and dragons around edges. Paid $24.[sup]00[/sup] for one and $30.[sup]00[/sup] for a second matching one from another vendor. Fine Burmese jade is sold by the gram and not subject to much bargaining. This is the glasslike green-white-orange striped jade of legend.

Jade cigarette holders were $5.[sup]00[/sup] to $10.[sup]00[/sup] each.

Red coral and jade beads were sold by the gram, bargain fiercely.

Jade combs were $10.[sup]00[/sup] to $15.[sup]00[/sup] depending upon size.[/ul]
Other places to go in Taipei:

The National Palace Museum. You will want to budget at least half a day to tour the entire place. It has an extensive jade collection and the pieces can be jaw dropping. Hit the gift shop for some great postcard collections of the pieces there.

For the best dim sum in town, hit Din Tai Fung (Tel: 23218927~8 Hours: 10:00 - 14:00 and 16:30 - 20:30). Be prepared for a Shanghai style instead of the typical Cantonese cuisine encountered here in the states. Still, it was excellent and I recommend it highly.

When it comes to everyday eating, look for the small Siu Hai Fu Long (The Dragon That Swims in Four Oceans) potsticker shops. These were fantastic and you could dine for less than US$5.[sup]00[/sup]. Get ten to twenty potstickers and a bowl of shan (hot and sour soup). Bring your own beer from a local 7-11 if you want any. They do not serve alcohol. I also brought my own high quality fire-oil as most being served is of low grade.

Drop by “Snake Alley” one night for an insane picture of Taipei night life. Be prepared for some barbaric treatment of snakes but don’t miss this unique facet of Taiwan.

Make sure to tour the grounds of Chang Hai Shrek’s [grin] mausoleum. It is a monumental edifice and a great photographic subject.

Try and find a Sea of Sky buffet. Seven words: All you can drink San Miguel beer. Cold, on tap and endless. They have Chinese, sushi, soups and desserts. I went to one in Taoyuan and it was incredible. The food was medium quality or better and the prices were great.

Other destinations:

If you go to Taoyuan, make sure to visit the old woodworking district. It has ancient temples and great shops selling beautiful wooden bowls for a dollar or three. In Taoyuan proper, DO NOT MISS the Happy Mouth restaurant. It is a small place not too far from the main train station. Their tangerine pork, shrimp and peas omelet but most especially the chung bing scallion pancakes were insanely good. Please remember I am a food Nazi and I’ll repeat that their cooking was simply superb.

Try to schedule time to go out to Yehliu on the coast. It was an epiphany for me to stand on the beach, taste the seawater and look across the ocean towards America. All my life I have sat on west coast beaches looking out to the horizon thinking about what lay across the water. For once I was staring back from the opposite side. The rock formations at Yehliu are incredible. Bring a camera or be prepared to buy lots of disposable cameras. Be sure to shop at the trinket markets for fun. They will have postcard packs showing formations with names like, “The Goddess’ Clitoris” and “The Sacred Peach.” If you have the time, take the mountainous route out to Yehliu and then scoot back via the main superhighway once evening falls. The scenery in the mountains is spectacular and you’ll get some glimpses of rural Taiwan.

My one big regret is not having seen Taroko Gorge. It is supposed to be magnificent and I urge you to schedule it in if possible.

Coming up soon is “Ghost Month,” in which one’s ancestors are celebrated. The temples will have offerings and other decorations will be in place. Beware of the humidity during August. It can just about kill you or make you wish it had. Wear a T-shirt under your clothes to stop your outer layer from sticking to you. Although counterintuitive, it keeps you cooler to have this second layer on your body.

Buy a guide book and read it through to prepare yourself. I purchased the Lonely Planet Taiwan edition and found it useful. Others have disputed its accuracy but it did not present any big issues for me. You’ll learn not to present gifts in sets of four and other important superstitions. Be sure not to speak about potential unfortunate events that might happen to people. If someone has had a close call, do not say “You could have been killed!” Merely to suggest such a thing is looked upon as ill fortune. A good guide book will cover these topics.

Be sure to bring cool stateside gifts for any hosts you might meet or stay with. It is a very polite and honorable thing to do. Maglite flashlights and Cross pens are great American made gifts present for people. As a single woman, you should exercise caution about traveling alone. I felt incredibly safe when I was there and crime is not very prevalent. You’ll have to search for graffiti and any other vandalism. The intercity rail is great. Always purchase a reserved seat as standing will wear you out before you get to your destination. Taxis are inexpensive and the Taipei subway system is clean and efficient. Always carry a slip of paper showing the address of where you are staying or going written in Chinese. Use this to direct a cabbie to your home or destination.

Wait until you get there to purchase a gigantic tote bag on the cheap. You will want this to carry home all of the fabulous things you buy while you’re visiting.

I’ll try to post more as I think of it. In the mean time, I refer you to my old thread, Zenster’s Far East Tour.

Woohoo! I’m liking this Taiwan idea more and more, although I should probably check how insane the airfare is before I get too excited. And it also sounds like it’s worth a chat with my grandparents, the retired antique dealers, about jade, open-air markets, Customs, and bargaining tactics (I’m a wuss when it comes to being combative). They didn’t deal too much in Asian antiquities, but they were in the business for more than 40 years, so they should know a thing or two (and also how to judge the quality and legitimacy of stuff).

On the bright side, United, which is based in Chicago, has a lot of Asia routes and some mighty attractive fares lately, as they try to retain market share in bankruptcy. And just think of the frequent flyer miles! I will check in Chinatown, though, if I do this for real. Chicago has a mighty decent-sized Chinatown, although it sure ain’t San Francisco. I will also talk to a friend who spent a couple of years working in Taiwan and speaks decent Chinese (which always astonished people, as she is nearly 6’ tall and blonde). Plus the brother of a childhood friend is a former NPR Asia correspondent; I’m sure he will have some tips!

Keep ‘em coming! And by no means should you worry about being overly verbose. More is better!

Woohoo! A roundtrip ticket, O’Hare-Taipei (with a brief layover either in SF or Tokyo) is about $700 on United, and I imagine even cheaper somewhere else. This could actually be feasible, folks!

Zenster beat me to the Din Tai Fun recommendation. If you like dumplings and find yourself on the eastern side of the island in Hua-lien (the big city in the region), you’ll have to go to the dumpling house. Darned if I can’t remember the name of the place, but any tour book should be able to tell you the name and location.

If you want to buy jade and antiques and the like, (1) watch for US customs, and (2) watch that you don’t get ripped off. Despite being named after the stone, I can’t tell real vs. fake jade worth beans.

If you don’t mind the history of (mis)treatment of the aborigines, try and visit some aboriginal areas. A-li shan should cover this. There’s a traditional song about how the A-li Shan (Aboriginal) women are gorgeous.

Airfare will depend highly on the season and sometimes day. Summer tens to be very busy as a lot of people take their kids back for vacation. The week of Chinese New Year will also cost you a pretty penny, even if being in Taiwan during Chinese New Year is one of the best things to do. I’ve flown to Taiwan for as low as $580 (as high as $800), but that was direct from LA.

I can’t remember exactly when this happens, but there’s a grapefruit-like fruit called Yo-dan (my phonetic spelling) that’s (I think) native to Taiwan. Matou, a town near Tainan, is famous for it. If you happen to be in Taiwan during this season, try it! One good thing about going to Taiwan in the summer is that you can have the most amazing tropical fruits.

When riding in a taxi in Taipei (anywhere, really), hold on to your hat!

Oh, and if you’re planning to stay for more than 21 days (I think it’s 21 days) you will need a visa. Check this out for more information.

If you’re into tea, especially black teas, make a trip to the central region where some of the world’s best and rarest teas are grown and harvested. You may be able to get someone to take you on a tour & do a tasting. Tea makes a very nice (& light!) gift for folks back home.

Just so you’re not lulled into a sense of wonder however, here are so not great things about Taiwan (but getting better all the time): streets can be littered; cities are crazy crowded; lots of smoking; hygiene habits vary; lines? we got no stinkin’ lines!; bring disposable toilet seat covers if you’re concerned with that sort of thing; understand that especially in out of the city places, you may have to squat in bathrooms (no toilet, basically a glorified whole in the ground) although I have not seen these in a while; mosquitoes. Crud, they are aggressive and have good aim. I’ve yet to escape without at least 1 bite or 4.

Despite all this, Taiwan is a beautiful island and worth visiting especially during this politically interesting time in its existence.

If you’re really feeling burned out with your current job, why not teach and travel for a year?

If you do work teaching English in Taiwan, you can save up several thousand dollars to fund travel all throughout Asia. Many people make a year-long project of working in Taiwan a few months, then travelling elsewhere for a few months (such as Phuket, Thailand . . . aaahhh . . . :cool: )

If this sounds good, be sure to get a 60-day multiple entry tourist visa. If you end up wanting to stay and make a hefty chunk of change teaching English, this will be essential. Go in for two months, take a brief trip to Hong Kong, and come back for another two months. Repeat until your visa expires. When you go to the visa office, make up some good excuse for wanting a two-month multiple entry visa, but DON’T even hint that you intend to work during your stay.

Get plenty of useful information for jobs, survival, and fun by staying at a backpacker’s hostel. I recommend Formosa II on Chung Shan Road in Taipei (011 886 2 2511 6744)–ask for Lin Tai Tai.

Know ye that your Bible for this trip will be the Lonely Planet guide, written by the esteemed Mr. Robert Storey.

Do not miss the National Palace Museum. Absolutely make it a priority. You might even want to go twice during your visit. It tends to burn people out after a few hours because there is so much.

Check with your friend if there are any religious festivals going on. There are some pretty wild things with the Matsu (goddess fo the sea), spirit mediums, flagelents, etc. Beigang (north port) has a 5 day festival that was flat out one of the most amazing things I did.

Taibei has the best Chinese food in the world. No one style dominates, lots of fresh veggies, seafood, cuisines from all over China.

Depending on what you’ve seen in the world, some of the “famous” sites can be a let down. I mean if you’ve spent months in Hawaii and the Bahama’s, Kenting beach is not going to impress. On the other hand, if any beach is a good beach in your book, then you might want to go. Same holds true IMHO for Alishan, Sun Moon Lake, Toroko Gorge, etc

I also repeat that you should avoid June-Sep, as it is so hot and humid.

Tie me to a hog and throw me in the mud!

This is the same guide I used and it stood me in very good stead. I’m glad to see someone else has felt the same way. I found few contradictions to what I had studied for decades.

Nah. They got some excellent stuff there, but I wouldn’t say they are the best. :slight_smile:

Here’s a jade cabbage link for hajario. Thanks.