Tainan & Kaohsiung:
I’ll start this post off with a spoiler alert. I ended my last post with hopes that our luck would turn around once we got to the bigger cities on the West coast and that our overall Taiwan experience would be for the most part good, with a few bumps along the way. Well, unfortunately, the road for us continued to be a bumpy one at times, at least through the start of our next two stops in Tainan and Kaohsuing. I think our luck is starting to turn around though!
Our book describes Tainan by saying, “expect a feast of original street snacks, flamboyant temples, and enduring relics available at every turn.” The food here was definitely much better and more abundant than what we’d been able to find around Hualien and the East coast, but I still wouldn’t necessary describe it as a feast. Maybe we’re just spoiled due to the abundance of great food everywhere you go in Thailand, but to me, a few food streets and night markets that you have to seek out, doesn’t quite shout “feast.” The temples were nice, but I wouldn’t describe them as “flamboyant,” especially after visiting the Lotus Pond in Kaohsuing, which we only decided to add into our itinerary after realizing how close it was to Tainan (less than an hour by train). Now those are what I would call flamboyant temples.
We went in once again with high hopes, only to leave feeling a little underwhelmed. Honestly, I blame our Lonely Planet for this. As great as it is, I think for Taiwan, it has exaggerated some of these places and talked about them a little too enthusiastically, making them sound much better than they actually are. It’s usually more on point when describing their “must sees” or “must do’s” and it usually even tells you certain things you can skip out on if they’re not that great, but I thought that it has definitely been missing some of this information when it comes to Taiwan. Combine that with the heat, the fact that so many shops/restaurants have been randomly closed, and the fact that for some reason which we still haven’t been able to figure out, there’s nowhere to swim in this country, it’s made for a long, tiring and sometimes frustrating few days. Moreover, the Taiwanese don’t really drink that much (not as infrequently as the Indonesians or Malaysians), but certainly not to the extent that the Thais, Vietnamese, Filipinos, Japanese or most other Asian countries do. So combining all of these factors, its left us a little stressed at times. Moreover, though Dave is usually an excellent trip planner, he’s been a little upset with himself (unjustifiably in my opinion) for not having worked out the logistics for Taiwan as much as he did for Japan and China, primarily because our parents were joining us for those two legs. Also, Taiwan is not the most tourist friendly country (the people are great and very friendly/helpful, but the country as a whole is not set up for tourism like the SE Asian countries that we’ve been to). In fact, we’ve seen less Westerners here than we’ve seen almost anywhere else we’ve been in Asia.
Anyway, our first stop the afternoon that we arrived in Tainan was to Anping, about a 40 minute bus ride from central Tainan, where we were staying. The main draw here is the Anping Fort, which is surrounded by a big food market, known to be one of the best places for street snacks in Tainan. It was still early, but when we saw a vendor selling coffin cake (basically like a pot pie, but instead of the filling being baked into a pie crust, it’s baked into a big piece of toast – it was delicious and one of the best snacks we tried) and then fried shrimp rolls (they taste just like they sound and are served with several different varieties of dipping sauces, our favorite was the wasabi flavor), we couldn’t pass them up. Both of these well-renowned Taiwanese snacks were good, but for a country that was just voted the #1 food country in the world and for the place that was supposed to have the best food in the country, in our opinion, it didn’t hold a candle to most of the run-of-the-mill markets we’ve been to in Thailand and elsewhere in SE Asia.
It just happened to be one of the big summer festivals (the Dragon Boat Festival) the weekend we were in town, and across the river from the fort, they had a big fest set up with lots of snacks, games, etc. At the end of the fest, there was a carnival with a couple of rides, more games and more food. Unfortunately, this was all just getting going when we were ready to leave (at around 6pm or so), so we missed the best of it, but at least we got to see it and see some of the dragon boat races which they race to celebrate the holiday.
We took the bus back to our area and got off at the Confucius Temple (the second one we’d seen in Taiwan so far). The main part of the temple was closed by the time we got there, but we were still able to walk through the grounds and then check out the street directly east of the temple, which is known to have some cute cafes and shops (though most of them were closed when we got there – and then were still closed when we went back to the temple a couple days later in the morning.. we’re not sure exactly when this street actually is open!). From there, we continued on our “food street tour” to Bao’an, a few blocks west of the temple. This street was filled with stands and little restaurants to sit down. We found a place that looked good and sat down for one of their popular bowls of noodle soup, which was good. Our next snack was the most surprising we’d gotten that day, but when we saw it, we couldn’t pass it up. A stand selling grilled cheese – we chose the bacon one. I can’t remember the last time I had grilled cheese so it was a nice treat. The last food street we walked down was near Chihkan Towers (a really nice old fort that happens to be open late, so we were able to walk around end enjoy the concert that was going on at the time) and was filled with more street eateries serving all kinds of snacks. We were full by this point though, so we didn’t stop for anything else, other than to see the fort. By the time we got back to our place at around 9 or so, we were so tired from having been up since 4:30 that morning, that we were asleep before we knew it.
We decided to spend the next day in Kaohsiung, Tawain’s second largest city. The biggest draw, for Dave at least, was that there was an island (Cijin island) about a 10 minute ferry ride from Kaohsiung with a swimming beach. I know, we couldn’t believe it either. Somewhere we could actually go swimming! But, it had been so hot (I think the heat in Taiwan has been comparable to what we experienced in India, which is the hottest we’ve ever been. The only saving grace here is that it’s not as crowded and none of the vendors harass you like they do in India) that all we wanted to do was jump in the water (even me, who doesn’t even like swimming that much!). The island itself was small, but had some cute food/souvenir stalls lined up from where we got off the ferry all the way to the beach. The beach wasn’t that impressive either, but at least it was somewhere to go swimming. When we got there, we saw groups of people standing on the sand (which was black, so it was especially hot), toes in the water but that’s it. There was one other person in the water with us and when he came over to say hello, we realized why – he was Filipino. No wonder he was swimming! But seriously, if you think about it, it’s pretty crazy that in a country with almost 30 million people, on an island surrounded by water, with some of the hottest weather we’ve ever experienced, no one is swimming. And even in the one place we’ve seen in almost two weeks where swimming was permitted, still no one was swimming. In Thailand (or any other SE Asian country), that beach would have been packed with locals swimming (even in Indonesia/Malaysia, everyone is swimming in their full garb, clothed from head to toe… but they’re still swimming) and also vendors selling everything from drinks to beach chairs (for rent) on the beach. But at this beach, there were neither swimmers nor vendors. Nevertheless, it was a nice dip and hopefully would keep Dave satisfied for the next few days (because the next place we’re going, Sun Moon Lake, doesn’t allow swimming either, despite being the largest lake in Taiwan; it actually allows swimming one day a year during an annual swim across the lake contest).
We took the ferry back from the island (after a quick snack of grilled squid, which seemed to be the specialty, and a mango smoothie – our first of 3 for the day and our new favorite drink) and then walked through a very big and pretty cool sculpture and art park. The first part was an actual park, but behind that were rows and rows of warehouses filled with shops and exhibits. It was pretty cool. After that, we tried to go to Fisherman’s Wharf but surprise surprise, it was closed (at 1pm on a Saturday). We then walked along Love River (the main river that goes through Kaohsiung) and like Anping the night before, they were setting up for a big festival that night, but once again, we were too early (our string of bad luck continued) and Love Pier was also closed. From there, we took the train and then a bus to the highlight of the day, the Lotus Pond. I would call this more of a lake than a pond, as it’s huge. All around the pond are temples, but not just any temples. These were the huge, beautiful, and “flamboyant” temples that we thought we’d be seeing in Tainan. They were colorful, had huge statues, and best of all, they all extended out into the water. My favorite was the dragon and tiger pagoda, which was two towers, the first of which you enter through the mouth of the dragon and the second of which you exit through the mouth of the tiger (apparently if you do it like this, which we randomly did – enter through the dragon, exit through the tiger – it’s good luck. Thank god we made the right choice, as we were needing some good luck to come our way).
We walked around the side of the pond with the big temples, and then made our way back to the train station to head back to Tainan. It had been a hot, tough couple of days for us, so there was only one thing we could do that night to get us back into our groove and feeling better… Western dinner and a movie. We found a pizza place right across the street from where the movie theater was. We thought they were just selling pies and pasta a la cart, but it turns out that it was an all you can eat situation…For about $10pp, you could get all the pizza, pasta, soup, salad, and (weirdly) fried chicken that your stomach could handle (plus ice cream if you were still hunrgry). After a great dinner (it seemed like it had been the first time in a while that we had a whole meal rather than just snacking our way through the day), we headed over to the movie theater to see Entourage. It was great to see our old friends Vinnie, Drama, Turtle, and E on the big screen. The other 10 or so people in the theater (it was pretty empty) definitely did not love and appreciate the movie as much as we did. That night was exactly what we needed.
We woke up early the next morning feeling refreshed and ready to check out the last parts of Tainan, a la one the famous Lonely Planet walking tours, which took us through 6km and about 10 different temples/forts/etc. around central Tainan. None of them were as impressive as the temples we’d seen the day before at the Lotus Pond, but my favorite (other than Chihkan Towers, which we’d seen our first night) was Lady Linshui’s Temple, where mothers go to pray for protection for their children. We even found a nice local market where Dave was able to pick up a new pair of sneakers (for $20) which he had been needing. It was a nice morning exploring Tainan, but we were ready to head out to our next and final stop in Taiwan, Sun Moon Lake.
Sun Moon Lake:
Of course, getting to Sun Moon Lake wasn’t quite as easy as it should have or could have been (instead of the bus stop being right at the train station in Taichung, it was about 6 or 7 long blocks away, and it was hard to get a clear answer as to exactly where we should go… plus, we missed one bus by about 10 minutes and had to wait another hour for the next one), but as soon as we arrived, we knew right away that our decision to come here would likely be the saving grace of our whole trip. Maybe walking the right way through the dragon/tiger temple (through the dragon and out of the tiger) really did do the trick!
We had had a great first few days in Taiwan in Taipei and then at the Taroko Gorge, but the past few days of our trip (on the East Coast, and in Tainan and Kaohsiung) had been frustrating, almost unbearably hot, and quite disappointing at times. So, it was really up to the last two days in Sun Moon Lake to make or break our time here.
The second we stepped off the bus, there was a) a man who came up to us asking where our hotel was and offering to give us directions –he wasn’t trying to sell us anything just helping; b) our hotel, which was literally 2 minutes away from the bus station; c) three women who came up to us offering us samples of wine; and d) a motorbike rental shop, which we needed for the following day. At first glance, the town looked really cute (it was dark already when we arrived so the lake was hard to see), but more importantly, this was the first town that we’d been in Taiwan that seemed as though it really catered to tourists. After a week or more of not having this at all, it was exactly what we needed. And, we realized that as much as this can get annoying at times in Thailand and SE Asia (when the second you step off a bus and 10 people are calling you over and saying “hello, where are you going. Do you need a taxi?”), it also makes it SO much easier to get where you’re going right away. Seeing all of this here in Sun Moon Lake, I literally let out a sigh of relief. Plus, it was at least 10 degrees cooler than it had been since we stepped off the plane in Taiwan – another saving grace.
Since we had gotten in on the later side (and since we’d eaten a big snack on the bus on our way), we weren’t quite ready for dinner by the time all the restaurants would be closing (8pm). Mostly all of the restaurants in town were serving Chinese food, and we decided that this would be a great night to spend in our hotel with Chinese take-out, catching up on things before leaving for China in a couple days (who knows what our internet situation will be like there). Plus, our hotel had a washing machine that we could use for free, and we were in desperate need of doing laundry. In mostly everywhere we’ve traveled until now (S. America, SE Asia), there are always places where you can drop off your laundry and for $10 or so, they’ll do it for you. Here, we haven’t seen any of that, only a few guesthouses that have a washing machine and maybe a dryer where you can do it yourself. This hotel had a washer and also a big rooftop where we could hang up all of our stuff to dry. So, after taking a quick peek around the very cute town we were staying in (one of two around Sun Moon Lake. Ours is Suische, where the main bus stop is. The other is a town across the lake, known to be more aboriginal) we spent the night doing laundry and then in bed, on our computers, with Chinese food (somehow still hot after an hour or so) and it was just what the doctor ordered.
We were out in the morning and on our motorbikes (with coffees and you won’t believe it… a bacon egg and cheese bagel!) by 9am and starting our ride around the 30km lake. The lake itself was beautiful, with water in a greenish-blue color that I have only ever seen ocean water in. Our plan was to get to the the other main town around the lake (about 15 km from our town) around lunchtime to sample some of the famous aboriginal food. Along the way, we made various other stops at temples, view points, and even a peacock farm, where I saw my first ever white peacock (which I didn’t even know existed). We got to the other town a little early for lunch, but they had tons of shops and places to eat, so we spent a while walking around, picking up some souvenirs, and then getting a few snacks for lunch.
There was a detour that we wanted to take on the way back around the second half of the lake, to another highway that our book mentioned was nice, highway 131. We finally found it (and luckily also a gas station) and stopped at a cute town along the way (where we got the biggest mint chocolate chip ice cream cone ever), but other than that and some more pretty scenery, the detour was nothing too special.
Finally, we made it back to our town, finished the loop around the lake and then we were back by 4:30 or so. We had thought about taking a boat ride around the lake, but when it started raining, we went home to take care of a last few minute things before heading to China the next day, most notably, setting up our VPN (if you don’t see any emails or posts from me in the next 5 weeks, you will know that this was unsuccessful). For dinner, we got our last (somewhat) Taiwanese meal – Beef noodles, wonton noodles, and another noodle dish that is popular here (though actually this was the first time we saw it), Dan Zai noodles. It was okay but nothing special. Sort of a fitting ending to our time in Taiwan.
Now, a long day of travel back to Taipei and then to China, where Linda and Bob are waiting for us!
I head to Taiwan in about 3 weeks, any tips or must sees/dos that you would recommend? (not Lonely planets!) 😛
Hi there! Definitely spend a good amount of time in Taipei and then try to see the Taroko Gorge and Sun Moon Lake if you can. I’ll be making another post about my overall thoughts about Taiwan in the next day or so, so look for that as it has some more specific reccos. Let me know if you have any specific questions, as I may be able to help you out. Have fun and safe travels!
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Will look out for it and ask some more specific questions 😀
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I can totally relate…I basically arrived two days ago in Kaohsiung hoping to see something beautiful but honestly the only things I noticed where 1)air pollution 2) heat and humidity 3) lack of monuments/temples/stuff to do.
Hopefully I am coming back to Taipei!
Thank you for writing a so detailed opinion about Taiwan! I really needed it.