I was sitting on a rock wall sipping a latte in Taipei’s 228 Peace Memorial Park when George Huang stopped and asked me where I was from.
This was a common occurrence during my visit to Taiwan. Firstly, I don’t look like 99.9 percent of the people on the streets of Taipei. Taiwan isn’t one of the Asian countries westerners tend to visit. Clearly, I came from somewhere else. Secondly, Taiwanese are some of the friendliest people on earth. They’re also polite and helpful. Just look like you’re lost and in need of assistance, and chances are someone will come to your rescue. And thirdly, Taiwanese are proud of their country and genuinely want you to enjoy your stay.
So it came as no surprise that George asked me what I liked about Taiwan. I started with the people, moved to the food and a few other standouts, and then jumped to the transportation system. I could have gone on and on and on, but I was meeting friends at the Beitou Hot Springs at 07:30 and that was about 45 minutes away. As eating and drinking are prohibited on the metro, I had stopped to finish my latte by the entrance to the NTU Hospital station. My comments about Taipei’s impressive MRT (Rapid Transit System) provided just the segue needed to exchange goodbyes and head downstairs to catch the train.
But back to George’s question, there’s so much to like about Taiwan.
I’d read that some of the friendliest and most hospitable people on earth make Taiwan a special place. Sure enough, within minutes of my arrival, this proved to be true. I’d prepared the name and address of my hostel on a slip of paper but it wouldn’t have helped get me to where I was going. The bus from the airport to the city would arrive after midnight, just after the metro shut down. This meant I’d need a taxi for the short ride to the Space Inn. While I waited for the bus, a friendly local stopped by for a chat. This led to his obligingly writing out the street name in Chinese characters. Without it, my taxi driver wouldn’t have been able to get me to my destination.
Taiwanese seem to be shy, but perhaps that description has more to do with my own cultural lens. Nevertheless, smile and say “nǐ hǎo” (pronounced “knee how”), and your greeting will invariably be reciprocated with “nǐ hǎo” (meaning “hello”) and a smile. Often, “hello” or “welcome” will be tacked on. If the person speaks more English than that, you might be rewarded with a conversation.
People are impeccably honest. So many times when purchasing something from a street vendor, I simply held out my hand containing a collection of coins. Each vendor would carefully pick from among the coins to take exactly what was owed. On many occasions, I received change. Not once did I imagine I was being ripped off, or charged more than what locals pay. Maybe it’s got something to do with “face” and the importance of maintaining honour and integrity in social relations. Whatever its origins, it’s a great feeling carrying around a higher degree of trust than usual.
Named as the second safest country in the world in 2014-2015 by Press Cave (Iceland garnered the top spot), I believe the ranking speaks more about crime than earthquakes, typhoons, mudslides and traffic accidents. The #2 spot comes as no surprise. Of all the countries I’ve visited, Taiwan is the place where I’ve felt a need to take the least number of precautions to safeguard my possessions and personal safety. The chances of losing something because of my own carelessness were hundreds of times greater than having something stolen.
Taking what doesn’t belong to them isn’t part of the Taiwanese DNA. Leaving our unlocked bikes and helmets at the trailhead when Cycling Taiwan’s Taroko Gorge was consistent with what I had already observed in Taipei – thousands of unsecured bikes lined up on the sidewalks.
Taiwanese are polite and considerate. They wait for subway cars to unload before entering, and take crowded elevators, steps and escalators in an orderly fashion. Queues are formed for tickets or food. Pushing, shoving and queue jumping don’t exist. I didn’t experience or observe rudeness of any kind. When speaking on mobile phones on the metro, a hand covers the mouth so as not to disturb others. If a person is unwell, s/he wears a surgical mask. It’s a society where people outwardly demonstrate respect for the safety and comfort of others.
On many occasions, people went out of their way to get me to where I was going.
I was greeted warmly when returning to food stands and coffee shops, and showered with gifts on numerous occasions. It’s a calming and peaceful atmosphere that encourages a person to remain even-tempered and patient at all times. Just what our world could use more of.
OMG. The FOOD. People have said that no trip to Taiwan is complete without savouring its dietary delights—the soups, the noodle bowls, the seafood, the hot pots and “xiǎochī” (small eats).
The rhetorical question, “Have you eaten?” is used as a greeting. The answer is always “yes” because the culinary philosophy in Taiwan is to eat often and eat well. I was determined to put this philosophy to the test.
For an organized introduction to Taiwan’s food culture, I signed up for a Taipei walking food tour with Taipei Eats. It turned out to be an excellent decision.
While there are lots of high-end restaurants in Taipei, I never felt a need to visit any. Frequenting small storefront diners, food stands, sidewalk stalls and night markets satisfied my every need for the culinary adventure I expected. And most meals cost the equivalent of $5 USD or less.
Taiwan welcomes travellers
It’s westerners’ loss that so few countries have full diplomatic relations with Taiwan, also known as the Republic of China. Perhaps this is one of the reasons Taiwan isn’t on the radar of travellers from other continents. Or, maybe it’s because many people have a vision of endless factories and crowded cities, with little to offer when compared to other Asian countries like Thailand or Vietnam. Nothing could be further from reality. Thermal hot springs, towering sea cliffs and lush tropical forests contribute to a varied landscape appealing to a diverse range of tastes and interests. These features, and more, can be expected from a place named Ilha Formosa (meaning “Beautiful Island”) by early Portuguese sailors. Combine all this with a vibrant democracy, tolerant religious culture and rich cultural traditions, the country is a traveller’s dream. And its remarkable support system for tourists puts other countries to shame. Many countries hang out the welcome sign, but Taiwan walks the talk. The tourism infrastructure is superb.
Transportation, cellular service and Wi-Fi are all visitor friendly. And English-speaking travellers are accommodated with bilingual signage and English-language capability throughout the country. Taiwan’s Tourism Bureau boasts a user-friendly website, and a host of visitor centres in cities, towns and metro stations offer a huge array of free maps and printed materials.
Many spots frequented by visitors have free admission or low entry fees. At many attractions, I spoke to people who volunteered their time, knowledge and passion so visitors are able to appreciate the history, culture and beauty of Taiwan. In Taipei, I had the pleasure of being introduced to Mr. and Mrs. Wu who volunteer at the Yehliu Geopark. Their contribution gives them membership cards guaranteeing free entry to other attractions. Consequently, they can repeatedly accompany guests to other sites without having to pay an entrance fee. This translated into their being our enthusiastic guides on a visit to the Chung Hsing Cultural and Creative Park in Yilan County.
If you enjoy experiencing a place by bicycle, Taiwan will not disappoint. Would you expect anything different from the home of Giant Bicycles? Within 24 hours of my arrival in Taipei, I was sitting on a Giant and couldn’t have been happier. Bike share stations and shops offer rentals at affordable rates, and bike lanes and trails make cycling in Taipei a safe and enjoyable experience.
Running down the western side of the island is Taiwan’s HSR (High-Speed Rail). If you don’t use it to travel the full 345 km down to Kaohsiung from Taipei, it’s worth the experience to take a short return trip to one of the towns along the route.
Taipei’s MRT has to be experienced to be believed. Within minutes of my introduction, it shot to the top of my list of the best subway systems I’ve encountered in my travels so far. Each ride brought new examples of how the diverse needs of people had been incorporated in its design and operation. It’s as though representatives from a diverse cross-section of society had been gathered to identify what was needed to make it as people friendly as possible. No detail seems to have been overlooked.
Signage promotes a culture of respect. Passengers are encouraged to keep the metro a clean, safe and accessible system for everyone. On several occasions, I observed persons with disabilities being escorted to and from platforms by metro staff. Once safely guided to a carriage, contact is made with the destination for another escort to meet the passenger and safely deliver him/her to street level. Signs encourage other passengers to assist anyone with a visual impairment by guiding them to an information counter.
The whole system is impeccably clean. Drinking and eating are prohibited and passengers actually observe these rules. Workers constantly clean washrooms, empty trash cans and wipe down surfaces. Even escalator rails are sanitized on a regular basis to encourage passengers to ride them safely.
Stations boast charging/Wi-Fi stations, ATM machines, staffed information booths, ticket vending machines, meeting points and bilingual signs in Mandarin and English. Some of the busier stations have tourist information centres. There are breastfeeding rooms, and waiting zones for female passengers travelling at night. At station entrances are dispensers for plastic bags to cover umbrellas during wet weather.
Each exit is numbered, and clearly marked with a street name. Following directions or establishing meeting points is easy. There’s nothing confusing about “the street entrance to Exit 4.” Which was the perfect segue to thank George Huang for the conversation and make my way through Exit 1 and head to Beitou.
Indeed, there’s so much to like about Taiwan.
Have you been to Taiwan? If so, how does this compare to your experience?
Might you be interested in other posts on Taiwan? If so, check out:
- Cycling Taiwan’s Taroko Gorge
- Hiking Taroko’s Old Jhuilu Trail
- Yehliu Geopark – bizarre rocks and succulent seafood
- Visiting Beitou Hot Springs
- Taipei walking food tour
- Space Inn, Taipei