Wednesday, December 16, 2009
15 very specific reasons to love Taiwan.
When I left Taiwan in August of 2008, I planned an entry on PRIMITIVEculture to be simply entitled 'Go to Taiwan!' I had been skeptical about going at first, but once there I was continually blown away by what an incredible island it is. Taiwan really must be one of the most underrated destinations in all of Asia. Admittedly, the Taiwan tourism bureau isn't helping much-- their slogan 'Taiwan touch your heart' is about as effective as it is grammatically correct, and their magazine ads are often too full of text, and loaded with uninviting colours. This is an island with an image problem, and it isn't helping itself.
I'm not sure if I'll do it more justice, but I'll give it a go. So I've finally decided to give that entry another try, but rather than simply giving you the stock tourism reasons of why to go-- delicious food, beautiful scenery, friendly people-- I've decided to be very specific. So here are my 15 reasons why you should go to Taiwan, and why I think you'll love it. And yes, I'm aware most of these are food related. You should know this is how I work by now.
People who have never been to Taiwan might imagine a city dominated by cities, coloured grey from concrete buildings and factories. And ok, this is true of some of the cities... but outside of the cities, much of the island is in fact staggeringly green. There are emerald rice paddies along the coasts, verdant forests in the mountains, and lush betel nut palms in the tropical south. But much of the island's green comes from thickets of bamboo. Cool and shading, and they make a beautiful sound in a light wind.
2) Mango and Green Tea from Coco
Taiwan may not be located quite in the tropics, but you would certainly think so given how hot and steamy the summers get. Thankfully, the streets of Taiwan are packed with drive-up shops selling big, refreshing cups of juice or tea. Particularly good on a sweltering day is the Mango and Green Tea from Coco.
3) 4 AM Dan bin
Life in Taiwan has a 24-hour schedule, and if you're in a decent sized city, you'll likely be able to find something open at all hours. That can be quite a god-send at 4 am, after a busy social evening, when there is nothing better than a late night breakfast of dan bin-- eggs rolled in a thin pancake, and drizzled with sweet soy sauce.
4) Papaya Milk from 7/11
7/11 isn't just a convenience store in Taiwan, it's practically a way of life. They sell all the essentials, and they do it 24 hours a day. One of the best things about 7/11 is their fantastic selection of boxed and bottled drinks-- like this version of a Taiwan classic, creamy papaya milk.
5) Pigs on leashes
What a lot of people don't realize is that Taiwan is an offbeat place, where it pays to have a sense of humor. Buses in Hsinchu play 'It's a Small World' when you press the stop button, and garbage trucks island wide belt out music to alert people to come toss out their trash. And yes, you may encounter people walking their pet pigs by the leash.
6) Taroko Gorge
Of all the misconceptions about Taiwan, the greatest one is that the island is just a string of overpopulated cities and factories. Ok, that might be somewhat true of the west coast... but head to the east coast, and you'll be blown away by its natural beauty. Check out Taroko Gorge for the pinnacle of Taiwanese natural beauty-- a valley of green peaks towering over a rushing river, with delicate temples and shrines tucked discreetly into coves and nooks.
7) Dust masks
Considering that a large part of the typical Taiwanese day is spent on a motorbike, it only makes sense that a whole range of fashion accessories for biking would spring up. There are the obvious, like helmets, which can accessorized with stickers and designs, or even with wigs to be made to look like human hair. But there are also long gloves, worn so the ladies can protect their white skin from the sun, and dust masks, to keep out the smog from the road.
8) Neon plastic sunglasses
Taiwan has a very funky youth culture-- influenced by Japan, China, Korea, and the US, but put together in a way that is distinctly local. When we were there, the fashion focused on bright neon colours-- which are best viewed through a pair of neon coloured sunglasses.
9) Scallion pancakes
Taiwan is famous for its 'xiao chow', its 'little eats'. These are small snacks, which can be sampled at tea houses, night markets, or simply from street stands. One of my favourites was the scallion pancake, a flacky flat bread flaked with sliced green onion.
10) Avocado Shakes
The idea may sound gross to the uninitiated, but avo shakes are surprisingly delicious: rich and creamy, with a decadent flavour that isn't overly sweet. They're great to sip on while strolling through a night market.
11) Open, the 7/11 Mascot
Japanese 'cute' culture has definitely made its way to Taiwan, and you'll soon notice that nearly every major business has an adorable icon in its marketing. Not all of these are effective-- like Taipei 101's 'Damper Baby', whose shape is based on the counter-weight that helps keep the skyscraper from falling over in strong winds (sounds cute? no, it really isn't). But some, like 7/11's puppy faced mascot 'Open' really are kind of fun.
12) Chaiyi turkey rice
Every town in Taiwan seems to have its own local specialties, a dish or two that it's famous for, making it possible to take a grand eating tour of the island. Chaiyi turkey rice wasn't necessarily my favourite famous dish, but its humble flavours were suprisingly tasty, and rewarded being searched out.
13) Mango shaved ice
A Mango and Green Tea Slush might be the most refreshing way to counter Taiwan's heat, but a bowl of Mango shaved ice might be the most fun.
14) High Speed Rail
Taiwan's High Speed Rail is the perfect symbol of this country's modernity. It's plush, comfortable, and so fast that you can easily zip up and down the West Coast for a quick day out of town or an overnight trip.
15) Ghost month
And yet, while Taiwan is unquestionably a modern country, by no means have the reach for the future left the past behind. Ghost month is a great chance to encounter the traditional side of Taiwan, as crowds at temples surge, people gather outside to burn piles of paper money, and
parades of masked figures may appear unexpected on the street. It's a time for visitors to reflect on how much the little island can surprise you, and how it always seems to defy expectations...
And now that I've put this list together, I keep thinking of other things to add... pudding milk tea, random acts of kindness from locals, warm soy milk and soupy dumplings from a breakfast shop... But hey, these are really all just my reasons. But I think you should get to the island, and come up with your own.