It’s a little hard for me to put into words my exact feelings about Taiwan overall. I went into this trip with extremely high hopes and high expectations… A rookie mistake, as I should have known that when you have expectations that high, it’s pretty much a given that you will be disappointed.
There were a lot of good things about Taiwan. Firstly, the people area great. They speak much less English than most other places I’ve been to (good practice for China, I suppose, where I expect that far fewer people will speak English), but they are very kind, generous, and always try to help when they can. People came up to us all the time asking if we needed help or knew where we were going. And, my personal favorite, you’d always get a smile from anyone you made eye contact with in passing. Of course, it’s always difficult with a language barrier (though people did try very hard to practice with us when they could), but other than that, I have no complaints about the people whatsoever. They were great. The scenery in Taiwan is spectacular too. You have a little bit of everything here from big city to mountains to ocean to jungle, and it’s all gorgeous. It has been some of the prettiest scenery I’ve seen. Multiple times throughout the trip I said “wow!” out loud… that’s how pretty it was. I especially love the forests of palm trees, which I have never seen anywhere before. And then there’s Taipei. Our first few days in Taipei did not disappoint. I thought I would love it there and I did. I mean, a big city with great food and tons of movie theaters surrounded by jungles and national parks? What could be bad about that? And there really wasn’t anything bad about it. By day two in Taipei, I was already thinking that I could live there. Honestly, I was picking out neighborhoods in my head. I loved Taipei. Not as much as I love Bangkok (no city has really even come close for me), but definitely my second favorite big city in Asia.
By now, you must be wondering what my problem could possibly be with this beautiful, friendly country with a big city that I love. Well, I will start out with a line that no one ever wants to hear and people don’t usually believe…. “It’s not you, it’s me.” I think a chunk of the problem had to do with us. We put so much time and effort into planning our two trips with our parents in Japan and China (well, mostly that was all Dave) that we kind of just put Taiwan aside and figured that we’d play it by ear. We had a general idea of what we wanted to do and thought that we could just fly by the seat of our pants and be fine, but I think that had we planned it a little more carefully and with a little more detail, then maybe we wouldn’t have had some of the problems that we did. Dave, especially, was disappointed and had regrets about how our itinerary ended up. In particular, he really wanted to visit a national park in the very south of the country (Kenting National Park) known to have the best (and in hindsight one of few) swimming beaches in the country. In planning the trip, he didn’t think we’d have the time to get there if we also wanted to see the East Coast (Taroko Gorge) and West Coast (Tainan and Sun Moon Lake), which we did. But shortly after buying our train tickets and booking our hotels, we realized we likely could have travelled a different route and been able to see Kenting (though we probably would have had to give up Sun Moon Lake). Even worse, going the different route would have saved us time (about 1-2 hours) and money (about $50). Oh well, such is life.
This all being said, and while I do take some of the blame for our trip not being 100% perfect, I still had some issues:
First and most importantly, the food. As the country that was just voted the number one food country in the world in a CNN poll, I was overall pretty disappointed with the food here. As I’ve said in posts before, I definitely think that I’m spoiled by the great food and the abundance of great food in Thailand, but even so, there are so many other countries that I would put so much higher on my list of great food countries than Taiwan (eg. Indonesia, Vietnam, Philippines, Argentina and several places in Europe—Italy, Greece). Taiwan is all about the snacks and all about the night markets. Snacks and night markets are great, but what happens when you want a real meal, rather than just eating a little bit all throughout the day? And what happens when you want food before the night markets open? There were times (most notably the day that we were driving up and down the East Coast), where it was hard to find any place to eat, let alone a good place (I joked before we spent our day biking the East Coast that I didn’t want to eat 7-11 for lunch, but then when we couldn’t find anywhere else to eat, we were wishing we could find a 7-11, which we didn’t). Even at dinnertime when the night markets are all open, you still have to get yourself to the market. In Thailand, I can be at a bus station or in the middle of nowhere, literally somewhere where there’s hardly anyone around, but I will somehow always find someone selling something delicious. Aside from the lack of food at times, I also just wasn’t that impressed with anything I tried. My favorite dish was beef noodle soup. I had it 3 times, the first two (in Taipei) were great and the third (in Sun Moon Lake) was just ok. I also have a new-found love for mango smoothies, which were a savior on a really hot day. My third favorite was the coffin cake, which was like a pot pie in a piece of bread rather than a pie crust. Other than that, they eat a lot of fried food in Taiwan and a lot of tofu. I like fried food as much as the next person, but not every day.. And tofu, well, I never really like tofu that much, and the stinky tofu just did not do it for me. I’d also like the food to be a little spicier. Amazingly and surprisingly, I miss my eyes watering and my tongue and lips on fire. I’m looking forward to getting back to that in China. Overall, we had some nice meals here, but we’ve also had equally as many not so great meals (and maybe even more of those). I’ve lived in Thailand for 2 years and have only had 2 or 3 bad meals that I can remember. That’s how it should be! For a country that is so well-known for their food, I just expected more.
Secondly, unbearably hot weather and no swimming do not mix…. And just makes no sense. The weather here has been some of the hottest that I’ve ever experienced (which I suppose makes sense due to the fact that we visited the Tropic of Cancer and are right on the equator). I haven’t been this hot since India. India was still worse because I had to cover up more and it was much more crowded, but sometimes the heat was just unbearable. And what do you want to do when you’re covered in sweat and you are on an island surrounded by beautiful beaches and lakes? You want to swim! Dave loves swimming and will jump into any ocean, pool, or lake that crosses his path. I don’t love it so much, but even I was dying to jump in to any body of water I could find. There are plenty of those here, but for some reason, they do not allow swimming. If you go swimming where it’s not allowed, you will be fined. We’ve vented about this a lot in other posts, so I won’t get into it too much, but honestly, it makes no sense and was very frustrating. The only thing worse than being unbearably hot is being this hot and seeing a solution (eg, an ocean, lake, etc.) but not being able to do anything about it. Regardless though, the heat just makes any bad situation even worse.
Third, Taiwan is not the most tourist-friendly country. By this, I mean that it’s just not as set up for tourism as many of the other countries we’ve been to. This was really the least of my complaints and it didn’t bother me that much, as I know we’re just used to living in SE Asia, where they depend on tourism and they get much more of it. They know where the tourists want to go and what they want to do, and they make it very easy to get to those places and do those things. You get off one bus and can immediately get on another for the next leg of your trip. There’s always someone there waiting to take you where you need to go or set up a tour to help you do what you want to do. In Taiwan, you get into one place and have to get yourself somewhere else for the next leg of your trip. The trains go all around the country, but they don’t go through the middle so you need to go out of your way at times and it’s not as fast as it could be to go from the East to the West coasts. Overall, it wasn’t that difficult or that expensive or even that time consuming, but we found ourselves saying “well, that could have been a lot easier” a lot of times.
I don’t quite know how to describe this, but at times I felt like we were in this beautiful, great country, but then you get up closer and you realize you’re on a movie set or just driving up and realizing that you’re approaching a big poster (ie, it’s not real). I have no idea if that makes any sense, but that’s how I felt, especially when driving through all of this gorgeous scenery but then realizing that all of the stores are closed and the towns are dead. It was strange and even a little eerie at times.
Overall, we saw a lot of places we liked in Taiwan but the combination of all of the above made our trip a little rocky and very frustrating at times. If anyone were to ask me if I liked it here, I would say overall yes, but I wasn’t wowed like I thought I would be (other than in Taipei) – like I said though, that’s likely my own fault for having too high of expectations. For those thinking of traveling to Taiwan, if you have a few extra days around Northern Asia, I highly recommend checking out Taipei. If you have a week, add in Taroko Gorge and Sun Moon Lake. With two weeks though, I’d probably urge you to spend at least part of your time elsewhere, especially if you only have two weeks for your whole vacation, rather than two weeks in the middle of a three month trip, like ours.