Every time I visit Taiwan I feel sort of odd. On the one hand, my parents aren’t ethnic Taiwanese and they weren’t born in Taiwan. (They actually grew up in Myanmmar–see this old post for a quick summary of my ethnic heritage.) On the other hand, they both spent their formative years there, and my Mom’s relatives all still live there. Most of my parents’ friends are Taiwanese Americans. Since my family largely adopted the Taiwanese culture, I’ve always self-identified as such.
Whenever I visit there’s a small part of me that wonders what life would have been like if my parents stayed in Taiwan and I ended up growing up there. There’s a lot to be said about life in Taiwan. It’s a lot cleaner, cost of living is lower, healthcare coverage is better, and the public transit is amazing, and they don’t seem to be beset by racial problems. That’s not to say they don’t have any problems–far from it. But it does seem to not have many of the problems we have in the U.S. The tradeoff is that Taiwan wages are much lower and it’s much more difficult to gain wealth.
Anyways this trip was different than my past trips because (1) I went with Mrs. Lexington instead of my family and (2) I stayed in hotels and AirBNBs instead of staying with relatives. Every other time I visited Taiwan I would stay with relatives on my mom’s side.
This was also the first time I’ve ever been in Taiwan (1) for a wedding; (2) in the winter; and (3) during an election. I haven’t been to Taiwan in over 10 years–the last time I was there I was pretty immature as you can see from this hidden camera video:
A Word on Stuff You Should Have on the Trip
There were 2 extremely important and useful things we brought with us for our trip to Taiwan.
Selfie-Stick: This by far was the most important thing we had with us on our trip. I’ve always ridiculed the selfie stick but man is it useful when you’re traveling and want to take lots of pictures. Sure you can ask people for their help but a lot of times you don’t want to bother them. Selfie sticks are really cheap too–you can get them pretty cheap–like $15 on Amazon. Definitely worth the money.
Backpacks: Taipei is a commuter city, so you end up spending a lot of time on the Taipei subway (MRT). It’s a big hassle to carry around luggage, especially if you’re staying in different places around the city (like we were). You could bring a messenger bag but I prefer a big daypack like my North Face Borealis backpack. It’s $80 on Amazon but well worth it in my opinion.
If you’re going to be taking buses and trains throughout Taiwan, I would even go as far as to say that you should replace your luggage with a backpacking/hiking backpack. We were able to bring all of our stuff with us while exploring different places. Unlike me, Mrs. Lexington is an experienced traveler so she made the right call when she bought that big blue hiking backpack in Europe years ago, and insisted on bringing it to Taiwan. You can pick up some decent hiking backpacks from Amazon starting at $40.
Ponchos: Given that we visited Taiwan in the winter/rainy season, picking up a couple of ponchos was CLUTCH. I wouldn’t buy these ahead of time though–you can pick them up from Seven Eleven for like $1.50 each. And you won’t look weird. I saw lots of other tourists wearing them. Guess it’s impossible to seem like a fob when you’re in the motherland.
Speaking of Seven Eleven, the Taiwan stores are nothing like the ones in the U.S. They come stocked with EVERYTHING. Oddly enough, they call Seven Elevens “Seven” in Taiwan. Not sure why they leave off the Eleven.
Eating and Drinking in Taiwan
My favorite thing to do in Taiwan is to eat. Those who know me well know that I love American food like fast food, fried chicken, etc. But I also love rice. So my absolute hands down favorite thing to eat in Taiwan is Fan Tuan (飯糰). It was the first thing I bought to eat when I arrived.
There are a lot of other Taiwanese cheap eats that are pretty damn good. You really can’t get this kind of stuff in the U.S. Some old favorites include:
We then washed down all of that delicious local food with some delicious Taiwan Beer (台灣啤酒). I guess you can buy these in the U.S. too, but I’ve only seen them around on the West Coast.
I also got to try Kao Liang (高粱) or Sorghum Wine or, as Mrs. Lexington’s dad called it, Taiwanese Soju. It’s pretty strong stuff. I considered buying some at the duty free shops but decided not to in the end. I kind of regret not buying some.
I also got to try some new street food that I’ve never had before. You can’t get any of this stuff in the U.S.
There was also comfort food that I NEVER eat that Mrs. Lexington LOVES.
And now I’d like to present to you my favorite Taiwanese hip hop song:
Okay now back to your regularly scheduled programming.
Traveling Around Taiwan
Before this trip, I never really visited many different places in Taiwan. Usually I’d stay with relatives in Taipei and keep my sightseeing to stuff in the city. This time though, Mrs. Lexington and I traveled around a lot. Our first stop was at her cousin’s wedding in Taichung (台中) which is about two hours outside of Taipei.
After the wedding, we headed out to Sun Moon Lake (日月潭) which was about an hour inland from Taichung. We arrived around 8 PM hungry and tired but found time to squeeze in this important activity:
Sun Moon Lake is a really popular tourist spot. I had to fight lots of other tourists to get this picture:
We stayed at the Sun Moon Lake Teachers’ Hostel which, despite its name, is actually a hotel. The views from our room were amazing.
We had a bunch of stuff on our itinerary, but didn’t get around to doing some of them. For example, we couldn’t go bike riding due to the heavy rains. (But we did walk around a lot since we had those awesome ponchos.) Instead we spent our time taking a boat all around the lake and hiking/walking around nearby towns. We also hopped on a scenic gondola tour.
Even though we were on a tight schedule because we only stayed for 2 days, we did take the time to pose for pictures with some locals.
And of course on the morning we were going to leave, it finally stopped raining. We snapped this picture shortly before we headed out to our next destination.
Bus Ride from Sun Moon Lake to Alishan
Next, we headed off to Alishan (阿里山) which was about a 3 hour drive away. It’s not a direct route, however, so there are few transportation options. Fortunately there’s a direct bus to Alishan from Sun Moon Lake that takes you through the mountains and gets you there in about three and a half hours for about $8 per person.
It turns out that the bus ride isn’t all business–the bus makes pit stops in various scenic areas and farmers markets. It was a welcome surprise.
Since the journey took us through the mountains, we were able to see some beautiful, scenic views of the mountains.
At some of the stops we saw monkey statues all over the place. We weren’t sure exactly why they loved monkeys so much but we made sure to pose for some pictures with them.
Later, we learned that there are tons of monkeys living in the mountains between Sun Moon Lake and Alishan. Some of them even stopped by to say hi.
Our next stop was Alishan (阿里山) which according to Wikipedia, is known for its hiking trails and sunrises. We were there for just one night so once we arrived we went hiking immediately because there was just so much to see.
The trail was largely man-made, with a lot of high platforms and stairs.
There were also ample warning signs about walking carefully:
We spent the night at Alishan House which I highly recommend. The next morning we headed off to see the sunrise, which involved getting up at 4:30 AM, taking a shuttle, and then the Alishan Forest Railway to a viewing platform. It was cold but the views were pretty awesome.
Chiayi and Tainan
Following breakfast, we checked out of the hotel and hopped on a bus to Chiayi (嘉義市). There, we took the train to Tainan (臺南) where we spent time with Mrs. Lexington’s relatives. One of her uncles hooked us up with a hotel room at Justwin Grand Hotel which I didn’t really have any expectations for. It turned out to be one of the fanciest hotel I’ve ever stayed at.
Travel back to Taipei
We spent just one night in Tainan, and then it was time to head back to Taipei. Tainan is about 200 miles away from Taipei (roughly the distance between NYC and Washington D.C. or between San Francisco and Reno). We hopped on the Taiwan High Speed Rail which took us from Tainan to Taipei in just 83 minutes–which according to my calculations meant we traveled at an average speed of 140 MPH. This was incredibly impressive given that we made several stops to pick up and drop off passengers along the way.
Later, I read up about the HSR and learned that shortly after it went into service, all domestic flights within Taiwan were discontinued. Man, imagine if we had one of these in the United States, between SF and LA, or SF and NYC. That would be nuts!
While we were in Taipei, we stayed at a hotel in Ximending (西門町) and at an AirBNB near the Dongmen (東門) station on the MRT red line. We visited the standard Taipei tourist spots:
Instead of going up Taipei 101, we decided to head out to the outskirts of the city and hiked up Elephant Mountain (象山) to catch this beautiful view. We were also able to hear fireworks (this was when election day results came in) throughout the city but couldn’t see them unfortunately.
Here’s a random video I took in Taipei. Note the ubiquity of mopeds and the animated walking guy on the traffic crossing signal:
We were also fortunately able to head out to Jiufen (九份) which is a popular tourist spot in a mountain area outside of Taipei. According to Wikipedia, it was a former gold mine town that suffered after the gold rush ended in the early 1900s. Jiufen experienced a revival over the past ten or twenty years as a tourist spot. There wasn’t a ton to do there when we visited, since we went at night when it was raining. We did get to have some tea, which is apparently the thing to do there.
We also remembered to visit Danshui/Tamsui (淡水) which was one of my favorite places the last time I visited in 2005. There’s a boardwalk with lots of street vendors and carnival games, as well as some picturesque views of the rivers/mountains.
On our last day in Taiwan, we were all ready to head out to the airport until we realized that our flight didn’t depart until 3 hours after we thought it would. With our extra time we decided to head out to the Mekong Gondola (貓空纜車) (that’s two cable car trips for those counting at home) for a quick last trip.
I always have somewhat mixed feelings about traveling to Taiwan. On the one hand, it’s always fun and great to hang out with relatives I rarely get to see. On the other hand, I always get these phantom feelings of nostalgia. What would life have been like if I was born, raised, and stayed in Taiwan? I looked back and found this from my journal the last time I visited in 2005:
I try to imagine what it would be like living here instead of the U.S. Not just living here, but growing up here . . . People here in general are not as well off as in the U.S. but they all seem to be content.
My impressions this time around are’t much different. However, despite suffering from the grass is greener syndrome, I still love America and living in America. There are a lot of things we take for granted here–things you can’t really see from spending just 10 days in Taiwan. We have tremendous amounts of political freedoms. Geopolitically, we are never really worried about attacks from other sovereign nations.
I really hope to visit Taiwan again soon though. In 2005, I predicted that I’d be back within a few years, or definitely after I graduated law school. For one reason or another, it took me a full 10 years to go back. I really liked hanging out with my relatives, and meeting and hanging out with Mrs. Lexington’s side of the family. Hopefully when I’m super busy with work or life in the near future, I’ll stumble on this post again and remember to go back soon.
Thanks to all of our family and relatives who were extraordinarily generous with us–from taking us out to visit different places to treating us to lunch and dinner. Also special thanks to my brother in law who helped put together an entire travel guide so our travel plans would go smoothly. I’m also grateful to my parents for making sure I visited Taiwan when I was a kid so that it wouldn’t feel so foreign or strange to me when I now visit as an adult. And of course thanks to Mrs. Lexington for taking care of most of the planning/reservations and being the best damn travel companion in the world.