Let’s Go Exploring! Taiwan: The Heart of Asia

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FIRECracker

FIRECracker is a world-travelling early retiree. She used to live in one of the most expensive cities in Canada, but instead of drowning in debt, she rejected home ownership. What resulted was a 7-figure portfolio, which has allowed her and her husband to retire at 31 and travel the world. Their story has been featured on CBC, the Huffington Post, CNBC, BNN, Business Insider, and Yahoo Finance. To date, it is the most shared story in CBC history and their viral video on CBC's On the Money has garnered 4.5 Million views.
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“Duìbùqǐ. Bùhǎoyìsi (I’m so sorry. So embarrassed).

This was by far the most common phrase I heard in Taipei, Taiwan.

No matter how bizarre or ridiculous my request was. It was always met with a sheepish smile, a polite nod, and the re-assurance it was always their fault for not going out of their way to give you whatever you wanted.

The Taiwanese love being helpful.

My friend and fellow early retiree Jeremy (a.k.a GoCurryCracker) who lives in Taipei says that the biggest difference between getting on a subway in China versus Taiwan, is that if you see an old lady get on board, the crowd parts to lead her have a seat, whereas in China, watch out because she will gladly crack open your skull with her cane because she knows she’ll never get a seat otherwise.

He’s right. Queuing was the norm in Taiwan. In China? Not so much.

That’s just one of the main reasons why I love Taiwan.

Here are a few others:

Adorable Mascots

If China and Japan had a baby, Taiwan would be it. Just like in Japan, Taiwan has adorable mascots for everything.

Postal Services? There’s a mascot for that.

Solomon203 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]
National Park? There’s a mascot for that.

Chi-Hung Lin [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)]
Xiao Long Bao? (soup dumplings) Hell, there’s even a mascot for that.

And speaking of delicious soup dumplings…

Night Markets Galore!

If you decide to visit Taiwan, bring stretchy pants because I thought I’d have to throw out my entire wardrobe after binging on everything that wasn’t nailed down in their dizzying array of night markets.

Raohe? Shinlin? Gongguan? Ningxia?

No market was safe from our watering mouths and growling stomachs.

Ay-Chung Flour Rice Noodles? Yes please.

Candied Haw Berries? HELL YEAH!

Ice Cream Runbing? Shove it in my pie hole please.

Taiwanese Fried Chicken? Shut up and take my money, dammit!

And after you’re done with the night markets, there’s still mind-blogging list of restaurants and food stands to ensure you’ll never fit into your clothes again.

Do not, I repeat, DO NOT leave Taipei without going to Ding Tai Fung, the mecca for paper-thin, melt-in-your-mouth, soup dumplings (“Xiao Long Bao”). The line outside looks insane but it moves quick. Plus, they give you a menu right away so you can check off your items in line, ensuring you get your food within minutes of sitting down. Bonus points if you can do it in Mandarin.

Paper-thin soup-filled doughy pockets of perfection

Our favourite Ding Tai Fung location is the one beneath Taipei 101.

Why?

So you can kill two culinary birds with one stone by also going to “Hawker Changs” afterwards and getting some of their to-die-for soy chicken and crispy pork. And if you’re feeling adventurous, add a side of refreshing winter melon juice to wash it all down.

So good.

For those who like spice, get your Sichuan hot pot on at Old Sichuan. The combination of numbing hotness (“mala”) and out-of-this-world flavouring will make you question everything else you’ve ever eaten before this meal.

Mmmmmm…

Crap, now my keyboard is soaked because I can’t stop drooling. *sigh*.

Well, the good news is I have plenty of money left over to buy a new computer because guess what? Even though Taiwan is bad for your waistline, it’s great for your wallet!

Affordability

From food to transportation to entertainment, Taiwan is extremely affordable. I’d say the cost was less than Japan and similar to South Korea. So, if you come to Taiwan, you won’t have to worry about budgeting too much.

That being said, I didn’t find Taipei as affordable it terms of accommodations. Maybe I’m spoiled by fancy new Thai condos with pools that I can rent for $500 a month, but in Taipei, there were no such deals to be had.

You could find something decent for $1200 a month or $80/night for 1 bedroom, so compared to North America it’s still a good deal, but not that amazing for Asia.

We considered 4 areas while looking for an Airbnb in Taipei:

XinMenDing – the loudest, hippest, and most crowded area we looked at, that’s considered the “Harajuku” of Taipei. It also turned out to be the location for the best thing I put in my mouth in Taiwan– Ay-Chung Flour Rice Noodles. Yum!

Da’an – as the expat district of Taipei, it’s close enough to the action by also far away enough for those who want to avoid the crowds. We originally requested an Airbnb in this area, but the host was only willing to accept monthly rentals.

Songshan – The financial district, known as Taipei’s Wall Street. Songshan had a lot going for it—it’s close to Raohe night market and easily accessible to most attractions, but rent was expensive here compared to the other districts, and I wasn’t sure if it was worth it.

Shilin – The best place to access the two most well-known attractions in Taipei: Shinlin night market and the National Palace Museum, so this is the area most tourists gravitate toward, thinking it’s the best place to get to the biggest attractions. We also managed to find a cozy, self-contained Airbnb for only $40/night.

I wanted to stay within walking distance to a night market, So why not stay near the largest, most famous night market of all?

Big mistake. Shilin was the most famous night market but turns out the best time to come to Shilin was 10-20 years ago. Now it was packed with tourists, overpriced, and full of kitschy crap. My favourite night market turned out to be Raohe, and different restaurants in XinMenDing.

The space we stayed in was tiny, ancient, and at one point, the roof even started leaking when it rained.

But true to the Taiwanese “Duìbùqǐ. Bùhǎoyìsi” spirit, our gracious host happily upgraded us to a much bigger, much newer condo and even took time off work to drive us there.

Gotta love that Taiwanese hospitality.

But seriously though, if you go to Taiwan, avoid the mistake we made and stay in Da’an, Xingmending or Songshan instead. Songshan will be my pick for next time, due to its closeness to the Raohe night market (饒河夜市).

The Airbnb we upgraded to.

Fantastic Entertainment

Hair Wash/Scalp Massage

This might seem like a weird attraction but it’s all the rage in Taiwan. If you want to have squeaky clean hair and be pampered within an inch of your life, get a scalp massage. Hell, some places even have special devices that give them a microscopic view of your scalp, so they can do an accurate consultation on the best shampoo and product to use on your skin.

At 700 – 1000 TWD  ($23 – $30 USD) for a hour treatment, it was money well spent.

Plus, they let you take fun pictures like this:

And after an hour of blissful massaging, my scalp felt minty fresh and I walked out of there with hair so clean, you could eat an entire portion of xiao long bao off of it.

Beitou Hot Springs

With your scalp nice and massaged, you can’t possibly leave the rest of your body unrelaxed!

Say hello to the Beitou hot springs!

Since Taiwan is in the zone between two tectonic plates, it has a ton of hot springs. And the most well-known one in Taipei is Beitou, which is easily accessible via the subway. You can have a blast simply soaking your feet in the piping hot thermal foot bath for free, alongside the happy locals.

Or if you want the full experience, go to the “Spring City Resort Beitou Hot Spring Spa”.

source: https://www.befreetour.com/en/detail/4846-spring-city-resort-beitou-hot-spring-spa

An outdoor spa with 9 thermal pools of varying temperatures. Simply buy the ticket from the vending machine outside (another thing that reminds me of Japan!) for a very affordable 40 TWD ($1.30 USD) each. The only caveat is that men need to have tight swim shorts for some reason. No board shorts or trunks with pockets. Weird.

Taipei 101

The engineer in me loved visiting this iconic skyscraper. Not only did the Taiwanese manage to build the tallest, most earthquake-proof structure, they put all sorts of symbolism into it too!

Made to look like a stalk of bamboo, representing growth and learning, as well as strength. And if you look closely, you’ll also see lots of money symbols, like ancient coins, which spoke to the FIRE part of me.

license: Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

The most interesting part is the world’s biggest and heaviest earthquake damper.

This massive steel sphere sways to counter the tremors from earthquakes. And guess what? There’s also a mascot for it!

If you decide to go to Taipei 101, buy the ticket through the Klook app. You’ll get a discount from 600 NWT to 540 NWT.

Elephant Mountain

Not interested in going up Taipei 101? No problem. You can get the best views of this iconic building from the top of Elephant Mountain:

Be warned. You must love climbing stairs, because there are a lot of them.

Yang Ming mountain

For those who prefer more of a longer, scenic hike, you can head to Yang Ming mountain.

Day Trip: Jiufien

If you have time for a day trip outside Taipei, be sure to visit Jiufien, a hillside town that inspired the animated movie “Spirited Away”.

I told Jeremy that I had read that Jiufien was known as the “Santorini of Taiwan” and his response was uncontrollable laughter followed by “that’s very generous.”

Okay, so Jiufen may not have the glitzy glam of the Greek isles, but it did come with fantastic food and a breathtaking view. Plus, parts of it did remind me of my childhood:

Reminiscing about my country bumpkin life.

Oh and also these weird ass souvenirs that reminded me nothing of my childhood:

my favourite part is the sign next to his head

You can get to Jiufen easily via bus 1062 from “Zhongxiao Fuxing” metro station which takes you on a scenic 45min drive outside the city.

Here’s how much we spent in Taipei:

CategoryCost in USD/coupleCost in CAD/coupleNotes
Accommodations:$30 USD$40 CADWe found a very simple self-contained studio in the super touristy Shinlin area. It was extremely cheap for Taiwan but you get what you pay for. I was not a fan of the size (microscopic!) and the location. Luckily, our host was great and upgraded us to a 2 bedroom condo after the roof started leaking. Next time I would definitely splurge for a bigger place in the SongShan area. Aim to spend at least 50 USD per day to get a decent place.
Food:$33 USD$43 CAD ($34 for eating out, $10 for groceries)We didn't do any cooking and mostly ate out at night markets and restaurants. Food in Taiwan is super cheat if you mainly eat out at night markets.
Transportation:$4USD/day$5 CAD/day Riding the subway in Taiwan is super cheap and only cost us $5 a day when we bought a weekly pass. The bus to Jufien was also cheap at less than $10 for the 2 of us.
Entertainment:$7/day$9 CAD/dayWe mostly spent our time eating our way around the city so night markets were our biggest sources of entertainment. We also bought tickets to Taipei 101, entry to the national museum and entry to the Beitou springs spa, but most of our attractions were free since it involved climbing mountains and enjoying nature. Some days were also spent going to cafes, working on book promotion or blogging.
Total:$73 USD/couple/day$97 CAD/couple/dayThough not as cheap as SE Asia, Taiwan is very affordable and what won us over was the exceptionally friendly people and the out-of-this-world food.

There’s so much to see in Taiwan, I can’t fit it into one post, so I’ve broken it into parts 1 and 2.

Stay tuned for Part 2, Tainan, the foodie paradise of Taiwan.


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19 thoughts on “Let’s Go Exploring! Taiwan: The Heart of Asia”

  1. Do you happen to know if they use rice flour for noodles, dumplings, rolls etc or is it wheat based? Being celiac I had major problems avoiding gluten (soy sauce has fermented wheat) and is in everything. I’ve heard Thailand and Vietnam are pretty good for avoiding wheat, and was wondering where Taiwan falls.

    1. Not sure about the ingredients, but I believe most foods in Taiwan are NOT gluten-free. Gluten allergy is very rare in Taiwan. Most people in Taiwan don’t even know what gluten is.

    1. Hi,

      Wheat flour is definitely used in xiaolongbao dumplings and in most (yellow) noodles as well. White noodles might be made with rice flour but are often mixed with wheat flour so it’s a bit tricky. Stick with rice! I’m gluten intolerant and got by in Taiwan by ordering rice and asking for stir fried dishes with just salt, pepper and garlic, no soy sauce or oyster sauce. Carrying a gluten free card is definitely helpful. I agree that it is easier to get gluten free food in Thailand compared with Taiwan, but found Taiwan easier than Japan when it comes to getting gluten free food. Good luck and hope you will enjoy visiting Asia!

  2. Yep, definitely reminds me of Japan a little. Looks like you did plenty of eating and soaking in the hot springs! Those are like the national past-times of Japan.

    Culturally, which place is nicer for visitors? Thailand or Taiwan?

    1. Hmm…hard to say. The Thais are wonderful as well (“Land of Smiles” for the win!). I will say that Taiwan has much fewer tourists, so they’re less weary of hordes of people constantly coming into their country. But then again, outside of Taipei, if you don’t speak Mandarin, it’s going to be a bit of a pain getting around. In Thailand, there are English signs all around (unless you’re in a really rural location) and it’s widely spoken to cater to travellers.

      So it depends on whether you care about being surrounded by less tourists but are willing to put up with the bigger challenge of a communication barrier.

      In terms of treating you well, the people in both countries are phenomenal. Just like the Japanese.

    1. And to help translate when your hubby doesn’t speak mandarin 😉 Thanks for that, Dan. You’ve now convinced Wanderer that he needs to learn mandarin. It’s pretty embarrassing when the white guy’s speaking fluent Chinese and the Chinese guy’s like “say what?” LOL.

  3. Taiwan is such a GOOD and decent place. People are nice, cool, creative. The food goes well beyond the night markets and truly have a great sense of balance. I keep thinking how civil Taiwan is. There are the Buddhist, Japanese underpinnings but also the fact that there is not much potential for a ton of money makes things much better overall – less corruption, less greed, less rat race. There are lots and lots of adventures to have there, and endless food to eat. My wife is from there (she used to run a B&B, which is a ‘thing’ there) and we eventually want to retire there (or Thailand) when we’re done with our adventures in the states and abroad (maybe 18 years or so.

    1. Agree. Love both Taiwan and Thailand. I’m slightly more obsessed with Thailand because I like the weather and the cost of rent better, but they’re both amazing 😀

      Where in Thailand or Taiwan would you want to retire in?

    1. Thanks for the tip, BikeMike! I’ve heard it’s a mecca for bikers. Will need to come back and do more biking and hiking the next time 😀 (especially to work off all that food I stuffed in my face)

  4. Intraday Tips . : – Intraday is also called as day trading, is the buying and selling of stocks. You need to trade in the intraday segment using the right broker, one who offers you with research support as well as technical support. Given the high frequency of transactions, it is important to choose a right advisor.

  5. We visited Taipei about 15 years ago with our friend from college. It was awesome to have a local with us. We tried a bunch of different food, visited a hot spring, and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. I don’t think Taipei 101 was done back then so we didn’t see it.
    I’d love to visit again and eat all the different food. We went to the original DTF. It was my first XLB experience and it was unforgettable. Yummm…

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