Taiwan was one of the few countries in Asia that I hadn’t yet visited.
Needing to leave Thailand briefly for visa reasons, I saw some good value direct flights from Bangkok to Taipei with Tiger Airways and decided to fly there for a 6 day stay.
Hotels are quite expensive in Taipei when compared to some other Asian cities. A room is around 3x the price that it is in Bangkok for the same standard and in the equivalent location.
Fortunately I found some good value, thanks to Airbnb, in a small 4-floor apartment building that had been converted into hotel rooms. A real hotel room, in the same central location next to metro station and of the same standard would have cost over $100 USD per night. These privately rented hotel rooms cost only $64 USD (42.50 GBP) per night.
I had $275 of free Airbnb credit from making referrals (thank you so much to everyone who signed up using my link) so I only had to pay $109 for the full 6 night stay.
When I arrived in Taipei it was lashing down with rain – not the best start to the trip. I hung out in a bar until the rain stopped and was fortunate enough to make some friends there. When the rain finally stopped we went to a local restaurant together.
I was very keen to try some local Taiwanese food. I’m a lot more adventurous now than I was when I first travelled to Asia. I have memories of myself and Amatay running around Hong Kong desperately trying to find a KFC or Pizza Hut because the local grub was unappealing.
We were handed a menu which was just a bunch of Chinese characters with no photos. If I had turned up at this restaurant alone I’d probably be on my way out the door and looking for nearest American fast food franchise. So I was very grateful to be with friendly locals who explained each dish to me and ordered food that they knew I’d enjoy.
We ate a bunch of different dishes including Mapo Tofu, Hainanese Chicken and something unpronounceable which was a stir-fry of squid legs, pork and vegetables. All very healthy and nutritious – a world away from Chinese restaurant food back in the UK.
After dinner we went for some Taiwanese Bubble Tea at a chain called 50 Lan. I enjoy drinking bubble tea a lot in Thailand so I was keen to try it in Taiwan, where it originated. It’s iced tea with milk, flavourings and chewy tapioca pearls that you suck up through a thick straw. My favourite is green tea with taro.
I tried to look cool, posing for a photo while drinking the bubble tea but goofed up and spilled it all down my front. I had spent all night avoiding the rain but still ended up wet.
The next morning I met with one of the girls, Karbo, for breakfast before she had to fly to Macau. We had a stroll through a fresh food market, sampling some food on our way, before going a small cafe to eat a typical local breakfast.
Some type of pancake with bacon pieces in the middle, noodles. fried radish and soy milk – all made for a tasty start to the day.
After saying goodbye to my friend I went straight to the gym in an effort to keep up with my workout routine.
I found a very modern and well equipped gym called 1st Fitness that works on a ‘Pay As You Go’ payment model. Most commercial gyms either require you to sign up to a lengthy contract or have a very expensive daily rate. 1st Fitness, however, only requires a one-off payment of $100 NTD (£2 GBP / $3 USD) for a membership card which you can pre-load with credit. Use of the gym is then charged at $1 NTD (£0.02 GBP / $0.03 USD) per minute from the time you enter until the time you leave.
While I was doing barbell squats I noticed a girl about half my weight in the rack beside me squatting the same weight as me. Rather than be embarrassed be this, I asked her if she wanted to work out together – since we’re lifting the same weight. And that’s how you make friends at the gym.
After the workout I asked her to “show me something cool in your city” and she took me to Memorial Hall, which is a large national monument with a history exhibit inside.
We raced from the flag to the top of the stairs and I can confirm that I’m much, much better at running than I am at lifting weights.
We then spontaneously decided to hike up Elephant Mountain, which has the best view of Taipei. It should have been an easy enough hike, about 1 hour walking up mostly wooden steps, but we tried out best to get up there in half the time so that we could watch the sunset from the top.
We made it with only 10 minutes to spare. As I stood at the viewing point, sweating and out of breath, I was constantly being bitten by mosquitoes.
Fortunately there was a well prepared German dude, wearing all the right clothes and a backpack with all the right supplies for a hike. He made me feel like a daft Scotsman, wearing cotton shorts and t-shirt with my only supplies consisting of a bottle of juice and a banana I picked up from the 7 Eleven near the bottom of Elephant Mountain.
He was nice enough to lend me some mosquito spray along with some information about Dengue Fever. “Taiwan has already had over 20,000 cases of dengue fever this year and over 50 deaths from it” he told me, “so it’s really important to protect yourself”.
Free from being bitten literally to death, I was able to enjoy the view…..
…. and take an awesome “selfie”!
We hiked back down the mountain and walked to Taipei 101, which is the massive tower in the photos. There they have a branch of Din Tai Fung, famous for their ‘XiaoLongBao’ (soup dumplings) and the fact that two of their branches have a Michelin Star.
Instructions were provided on how to eat the XiaoLongBao like a pro for maximum enjoyment.
The restaurant has a large glass wall between the seating area and kitchen so you can watch the team of chefs make the dumplings from scratch. The XiaoLongBao dumplings really lived up to the hype and were well worth the hour wait to get a table.
My new friend, Claire, asked me if I was feeling tired due to all the hiking and eating. “Nope, not even close.” I said, “Let’s do a real hike tomorrow.”
And that we did. At 7am we boarded a public bus which took an hour to drop us off at the east coast of the Taiwan where we went to hike up Teapot and Banping mountains.
It was a hot and sunny day which made it a challenging hike but we stopped to rest and eat every half hour. We brought plenty of food and drink with us.
The hike started off on a well trodden path but the closer to the top the more challenging it became and we frequently had to climb rocks or go through thick jaggy stuff. Not that much fun for me wearing shorts.
By the time we reached the top we were surrounded by thick fog, which was very unfortunate as it would have been an incredible and rewarding view from there.
We decided to take a different path back down but due to the fog and some misleading signs we got completely lost. By the time we had eaten all our food and drank all our water we were still lost.
We also had the misfortune to find two Taiwanese guys who were both hiking alone but got lost and were trying to find their way back together. They had seen some signs and now thought they knew the way back to civilization so we followed them for half an hour.
I switched on my phone, which I had earlier turned off with just 2% battery life left, to quickly open up Google Maps. That’s when I realised that we were heading in completely the opposite direction of civilization. One of the guys told me that he doesn’t trust Google Maps and that we’re going the correct way for sure. I do trust Google Maps so we argued about it for a while. It was very frustrating trying to argue with someone who doesn’t trust a compass and a map just because the compass is inside a phone and the map is an app, so we eventually agreed to disagree and go our separate ways.
A couple of hours later we reached civilization. I often wonder what ever happened to those chumps.
At the base of the mountain there was a dessert stall selling bowls of brown sugar water with ice, tofu and tapioca pearls. A very simple, cheap and ordinary dessert, but at that moment in time it tasted like heaven. Water, ice, sugary food – each mouthful contained everything my body was craving..
After the hike we boarded a bus for a short journey to Jiufen – an old gold mining town that’s now a bit of a tourist attraction with very narrow streets lit by lanterns, famous tea houses with incredible views and small shops selling local delicacies.
Everywhere you go in Jiufen you’re wither walking up or down steep streets. Not exactly fun after walking up and down mountains all day. Fortunately everywhere you walk in Jiufen there’s also food, so we did keep walking.
We tried many of the local foods but my favourite was one of the simplest. Tea eggs are just boiled eggs that are cracked open and then boiled again in strong tea to add flavour. A nice tasty protein snack.
To say that I slept well that night would be a massive understatement. With tired legs and a belly full of food I went to bed and woke up 12 hours later. With another 3 hours lying in bed watching Korean soap operas dubbed into Mandarin on Taiwanese TV, I was starting to feel guilty about wasting almost a whole day of my trip.
I finally left my room at 4pm to go for a wander around the city. That’s when I met a pretty local girl who had just returned to Taiwan after studying in USA. She asked me if I wanted to hang out and took me to her favourite night market – Raohe Street Night Market.
Night markets are an important part of Taiwanese culture, where many locals go to socialise and eat good but inexpensive food. At Raohe Street Night Market the focus was very much on the food as more than half the stalls were selling tasty treats.
Other than the cute Doraemon style sweet red bean pancakes (Dorayaki) my favourite was a stall selling steak. The steak vendor would cut up and blowtorch the steak to cook it then cover it with a spicy seasoning.
A delicious and excellent value protein snack for only $100 NTD (£2 GBP / $3 USD)
I ended up spending my remaining 3 days in Taiwan with my new friend. My best experiences of travelling have always been when I’ve had a local friend to show me cool places, teach me about the culture and bridge the language barrier.
After stuffing ourselves full at the night market we headed to the outskirts of town to her father’s jazz cafe. It was a great atmosphere with live music and packed with locals dancing and having a good time. It was also the first time a girl introduced me to her dad on a first date, so that was a new and interesting experience.
The next day we woke up in the afternoon tired and hungry. I suggested we eat something that’s uniquely Taiwanese and was given a few options to choose from. I decided on the most unhealthy and delicious sounding food – Gua Bao which is a Taiwanese bun with pork belly meat.
The meat was just pure fat. I really enjoyed the first one. The second one not so much and I was beginning to feel sick while trying to get through the third one.
Our bellies were full and we were lacking energy. It was approaching evening so the best thing to do was a sunset cable car ride on the Maokong Gondola. It only costs 50 NTD (£1 GBP / $1.50 USD) each way and is a 4km long ride up a mountain to Maokong which is a small area with restaurants, tea houses and a food court – where we got some delicious fresh watermelon and milk smoothies to drink as walked around and admired the scenic view.
We later visited the largest and most famous night market in Taipei, Shillin Night Market. For an idea of how big it is, there’s around 600 food vendors there.
Beef Noodle Soup is a popular local food and a lot more nutritious than the Gua Bao I had eaten earlier.
Another local speciality that I indulged in was Hot Star XXL Fried Chicken at it’s original stall. They sell one thing – famously massive pieces of fried butterflied chicken breast. The two of us could barely finish one piece and after we finally did there was certainly no more eating that day.
On my last day in Taipei we visited the Taipei Zoo which has some cute pandas.
The zoo is large, well maintained and very cheap at just 60 NTD (£1.20 GBP / $1.80 USD) as it’s heavily subsidised by the government. For comparison, the zoo in my home city of Edinburgh in Scotland costs £17 GBP ($25.50 USD) to enter – that’s FOURTEEN times the price.
We spent about 5 hours enjoying the zoo so it was a really good value day out.
One of my favourite things about the entire Asian continent is how easy it is to eat well and enjoy yourself without spewing money. I had so many enjoyable experiences and ate so much tasty food in my 6 days in Taiwan, and I barely spent any money.