'a country caught between two cultures'
Taiwan; so your thinking why the title? closer to japan than you think? well its quite simple when you visit this beautiful country you will notice straight away that this is a first world country unlike most of asia this to me is not a developing country its a country that has developed rapidly but has been conquered numerous times over its history but i felt that the japanese had the biggest influence on what you see in the country today...
from the far northern capital of taipei to lakes of the central region & sub tropical city of kaohsiung you will see the japanese influence everywhere from architecture to the way taiwanese people endlessly queue in orderly lines for the best restaurants in town. compared to south east asia where mostly chaos is a daily occurrence in a beautiful way it was refreshing to come here & see the advanced style of life..
now i don't want to diminish the taiwanese culture as its has a rich history. but i just wanted to give you a feeling of this island nation as most people think its similar to mainland china due to the political situation but that could not be further from the truth...
this mega city was my first port of call on my taiwanese adventure. i wanted to spend christmas & new year in a place that was not synonymous with these holidays.
i chose the ximen district as my base for both hostels i stayed in. wow hostel located right in the heart of this young vibrant area was my base for the first few days of my stay in taipei. its a cozy little hostel with great capsule style beds & perfect rooftop deck for the warm evenings overlooking the busiest street in the ximen area.
on christmas day i decided it would be a great chance to try some of the street food but with a twist as taipei is mostly known for its night markets this tour was in the morning making it an interesting way to explore the food scene in the city. taipei eats was by far the best rated food tour online so i decided to take the tour with them & wow what an experience it was. from the moment i met with the guides & other customers the whole group seems to gel as we made our way thought the historical area of taipei tasting some of the best street food this places has to offer. we hopped from street stalls with fried prawns & taiwanese congee to restaurants with one of my favourite dishes of the the whole tour
fishballs stuffed with pork. truly i have to say that this was one of the best foodie tours that i have taken in a while. i came back from the tour totally stuffed & didn't eat a thing for the rest of the day i think thats the mark of a great food tour..
some of the most interesting days was meeting friends especially my friend ethan, a photographer that has been taking amazing shots of this city for a while. we headed out on his bike exploring one of the main temples & historical areas in town where we shot some amazing street photos of the locals.
one of the best view points in the whole city is elephant mountain. located just a short ride away from the city my friend judy brought me here at sunset to view this cities glowing skyline. ascending the taipei 101 building for the views is great but for sure elephant mountain is by far a much better experience & it's free.
if your a night person then i can tell you that taipei is the place for you, the morning are quite here but from late afternoon until the early hours of the morning the night markets take over. night markets in taipei seem to be a ritual of most residents in the city with lots of them dotted around the city. the most famous being ningxia where a mind boggling amount of small street stalls vie for your business. you'll find everything here from deep fried crab to stinky tofu. take your time & order small things, taste as many different dishes as your stomach can hold & you won't regret it.
on my last days in taipei i stayed in what had to be one of the best hostels in the whole of taiwan. meander hostel located in the quite area of ximen district is a vast hostel with all the facilities that you would expect in a hotel.
from the moment i arrived i was welcome by some of the friendliest & most interesting staff in asia. they showed me around this vast hostel from the rooftop deck to the common area with foosball table, darts board & cinema area with projector for those rainy nights when a movie is on the cards instead of staying in the room. this is a social hostel with great vibe that has to be on your list to stay while exploring. they have lots of tours & every once in a while a hairdresser pops in to cut guests hair in exchange for a story, yes a story... no payment needed.
i also got the chance to check out their newly opened sister hotel meander 1948 this is more on the high end of the accommodation scale but for a reasonable price. it hasn't been open for long but it has a great onsite cafe, restaurant & common area. the rooms are super cool too..
sun moon lake & beyond
early in the morning i made my way to sun moon lake from taipei. the easiest & by far the fastest way around the country is using the high speed rail system that will take you down the the west coast at over 300km/h. at taichung station i bought the tourist ticket for the lake that included the coach to the main port along the lake; its around ($25) including boat trip, gondola & unlimited travel on the bus around the lake..
my accommodation here had to be one of the best places that i stayed in taiwan. yue lake backpackers. actually its more of a resort as i stayed in their riverside apartments & not in the building on the main road. you can come here as a backpacker or holidaymaker they have accommodation that suits everyone's needs. from the use of local wood in the room to the beautiful views of the lake from the bed side window it was the perfect place to relax in the evening after a heavy day exploring as i only had one full day here.
as i only had a day here i decided that i had to do the most touristy things that this lake had to offer. from the gondola that takes you to a historical village to the lake side village of ita thao where some of the best food in taiwan is served up at tiny street food outlets. its a lake so of course i had to take a boat trip, you get to visit temple island & if you go in the morning you will have the chance to sail through the early fog that hovers above the water before the sun burns it away.
although i only had a day here i wished that i could have spent a few more days as its a peaceful part of the country & the colour of the lake is stunning. if your in the area then its a place that can't be missed.
one of my most memorable days was when i visited an old friend in the mountains above hsinchu. tai tai (my nickname i gave her a long time ago) was waiting for me at the station with her mother to take me up into the beautiful mountains of this region. after we arrived to the village i met friends & family at what i have to say is one of the best cafes that i have ever been too. its's alice cafe is perched on the side of the valley. it stands out from other village building like a disney fairytale with its use of colour & flora. we spent the afternoon chatting & i even had the chance to take a look at the bee hive's that alice the owner uses for her cafe. its was a truly inspiring day partly because i love bee's & honey but also because i had the chance to keep an old promise to come & visit my friend in taiwan, meeting alice was also inspiring.
less than an hour on the high speed rail system from taichung (sun moon lake) you find yourself in the 2nd city of taiwan. kaohsiung located on the south coast of the country was to me a more sub tropical city than taipei as here it was over 25c in december a huge difference from taipei where i was wearing a jacket on a daily basis.
so where to stay? well for sure your options are much more limited on the hostel front as tourists main flock to the north but here i found what had to be one of the most beautiful b&b / hostels that i have to say had the most beautiful breakfast, no really it was like having breakfast at a five star michelin restaurant.
with inn hostel is much more than hostel its a small old family home that has been transformed into one of the coolest accommodation offerings in the city. rooms are spacious, super clean and one of the most beautiful & well designed private rooms i have stayed in a while. staff are always on call to to guide you around this incredible city..
so lets get on to what you can actually do in the city....
i decided to stay for 3 days here as i was on a strict time schedule but i would recommend a few more just to make sure you can visit everywhere thats of interest in the city & region beyond.
first on the list of places to visit durning the morning i would suggest as midday heat can become crazy is the pier 2 art district. its a repurposed pier that has been transformed into an open air gallery with sculptures, graffiti & art installations over a huge area with shops, cafe's & bars to entertain you once you have finished all your selfies with the cool art work.
one on my favourite places to visit here was the was the zhangmen craft brewery, although expensive it has some great award winning beers for you to try.
sticking with daytime activities the dragon & tiger pagoda overlooking the lake was a cool place to visit also the temple opposite where you can get some great shots of people preying. it takes a little while to get here on the metro system with a 30 min walk afterwards but its well worth the time it takes to get here. you will find alot of local tourists in the afternoon so i would recommend going as early as possible. speaking of the metro system here its super simple with only a few lines & directions are in english. i navigated the city with ease you can also use the same metro card as in taipei.
so now we get into the night... most cities i noticed in taiwan are night time cities & kaohsiung is no exception. after 6pm is the this place come alive especially at the night markets that are dotted around the city. my favourite night market was rueifong market in the north of the city. its by far the busiest night market that i visited. set out in a square its has hundreds of food stalls catering for all tastes from frogs eggs to bubble tea you can get it all here. make sure to visit around 6pm its early for taiwanese to eat so you have the place to yourself. after 8pm is when the hordes arrive i definitely started to feel claustrophobic as the stalls are closely aligned together making small alleys that become overcrowded super easily. forgot grabbing some food quickly you will have to wait 30mins for a dish.
to sum up...
taiwan was more of a last minute decision to visit for xmas & new year but wow was i glad that i made that decision. i came here with a totally different idea of the country as i thought it would be more akin to china but as i found within a few hours its more like japan in mentality, culture & architecture.
i can truly say that i believe that taiwan will become one of the country to visit in the future, right now it is very under exposed to the main backpackers traveller trail but i believe this will change in the future. its a place of incredible cities, amazing people & nature on a grand scale not to mention the food.. ohhh the food if your a foodie get yourself to taiwan now.
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country travel tips
atm: most bank have free withdrawals. make sure not to select the on screen conversion.
sim card: emome is the best date provider. unlimited GB is ($20) for 30 days
transport: uber app in cities & high speed rail for long distance.
taxi: grab taxi app is cheap | uber? use promo: carlm5078ue for free ride.
accommodation: get ($20) off your first booking.com reservation here