These Two Sights Outside of Taipei Will Wow You

Concrete proof that there is more to do in Taipei than just strolling shopping malls. 

What? 5 days in Taipei? What did you do? Just shopping?” the cheerful and smiley 20-something year old biker asked me while shaking his head in disbelief.

I met him at the guesthouse in a rural township called Chishang, which I will talk about soon. He along with his four friends was about 2 or 3 days into their adventurous, once in a lifetime bicycle ride around Taiwan. His English was limited; my Chinese was virtually non-existent. But we somehow managed a conversation. It’s really amazing how laughing, gesticulating and being open help shrink the language barrier.

Of course, my answer to his question was a resounding “No”. I did NOT spend five days shopping my away around Taipei. I’m old, so that would be exhausting. However, I have to admit there is some modicum of truth to what he said. If you are an on-the-go kind of traveler and like to fill your days with exciting places to see and things to do, you will get bored in Taipei after a day or two because shopping malls, not landmarks, dominate the city’s map. It was good that the conversation happened after I had visited Taipei; otherwise, I would have heeded his advice and shortened my stay. Which would have been a sin.

Because I would have missed this…

and this.

So, what exactly did I do? First, an inordinate amount of time wandering and watching the world go by. And then, I took two day-trips from Taipei. Both of them were great, and thus are highly recommended.

1. Yehliu Geopark

Word of warning before we proceed further: This place is obscenely overrun with tourists. You won’t be able to snap a single photo without getting photo-bombed by at least several dozen tourists unless you are patient and have all the time in the world like I did. Don’t be deterred, though because the scenery is very special and absolutely worth a visit. As long as you prepare for what’s in store, you will handle it well 🙂

For instance, prepare to be awestruck by the Mars surface-like landscape (note: I haven’t been to Mars yet, but I guess this is how it looks like over there). I had to wait for a long time for this spot to be clear of people. It lasted for about 5 seconds before someone jumped into the frame.  

Yehliu Geopark is located in the Yehliu Village of Wanli district, New Taipei. The park, or more accurately cape, stretches approximately 1,700 metres into East China Sea, and was formed as geological forces pushed Datun Mountain out of the sea. These days, it’s widely known for its sea-erosion landscape and unique rock formations.

Rock that looks like candle. 

And rock that looks like flip-flop. Actually, its name is Fairy’s Shoe because legend has it that a fairy came down to earth to tame some monster and forgot half of her shoes (source)

One of the many ocean erosion potholes.

Before Taiwan, nature never figured prominently in my travel itineraries. Partly because I never thought about getting in touch with the inner nature lover in me. I was afraid of being on my own, of the physical discomfort and of other million things that could be avoided by sticking to big, convenient cities. And also partly because I used to travel with people who would rather go shopping than go out of their way to visit an awe-inspiring scenery. I lived in the States for five years, and didn’t visit Grand Canyon (even though I was in Vegas) or a single national park. How deplorable, right?

So when I saw with my own eyes the wondrous creations of nature at Yehliu (and at other places in Taiwan I will be talking about), I felt a wide range of emotions. First, I was blown away, wondering how all of this could happen. Then, I started feeling a tinge of regret over all the natural wonders that I had missed. But then, I was grateful and motivated to do something in my capacity to protect this beautiful planet we live in. The mere thought of these beautiful sceneries vanishing one day- in fact, many of them have already disappeared thanks to human beings’ exploitation- fills me with dread and sadness.

The weathering patterns on the surface of the rock. Otherworldly!!!

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5 most enjoyable things to do in Taipei. Most of them are free, by the way!

One of the hundred lovely visual treats of Taiwan.

I got home from Taiwan two weeks ago, but couldn’t write about my trip sooner. I was too busy recovering and daydreaming about living in Taiwan someday!

For me, the toughest part of traveling anywhere for an extended amount of time lies in dealing with the emotional and financial aftermath. I always have a difficult time with re-entry. After all, it has been almost three years since I returned to Vietnam after living in the States for five years, and I really have just started to get my bearings.

I have also come to realize that where I decide to go is directly linked to how long it will take me to readjust afterwards. The more similar a host country is to my own, the shorter the recovery time. So, my best bets would be countries in Asia.

The thing is because I come from an archetypal South East Asian country, I’m so inured to all the cultural quirks and idiosyncrasies that often intrigue the rest of the world. The relentless stream of scooters coming at you from every direction? Not only do I NOT get any adrenaline rush out of that, but I also hate that it’s one environmentally un-friendly mode of transportation. The ridiculously heavy loads carried on motorbikes that leave every traveler eyes wide open? If you had visited Vietnam 14 years earlier, you would have seen me squeezed in between enormous green recycling bags on my mother’s motorbike. The last thing I want when I go to a new country is more of the Asian chaos that I have known since…forever. These days, it takes quite a lot for another Asian country to impress me and make me fall deeply in love with it. (But I do not decline the opportunities to visit other Asian countries, even those I have been to before, so invite me to yours. Don’t be shy :D)

Another hard part of traveling is being separated from my two adorable kids. But if every country were like Taiwan where many people treat their fur-ever friends with love and care, I would feel slightly better. 

With all that ‘mental’ baggage and a paucity of knowledge about the country, I came to Taiwan with very low expectations. I was excited for sure, but more because I finally got to travel again after staying put for a long while rather than because the destination was Taiwan. I didn’t romanticize or fantasize about it hard like I had done prior to my American and European trips. But in all seriousness, I couldn’t do so even if I wanted to because the information about Taiwan travels is generally paltry, and the reviews on popular travel forums are lackluster.

I was, in a sense, very prepared to feel so-so about Taiwan.

Taipei’s charming alleyway bathed in golden light. 

In retrospect, this very absence of lofty expectations has made my falling for Taiwan all the more special. I knew beforehand that I would hike in the beautiful Taroko National Park, but was still way overwhelmed by its sheer size, numerous powerful waterfalls and lush green, sky-high mountains when I arrived at the site. I knew that Lanyu (Orchid) is a pristine and sequestered volcanic island with a green-velvet mountain and the azure-cycan sea, but that foreknowledge couldn’t keep me from having some over-the-top reactions when I disembarked my boat and saw the untouched beauty of the place. But most importantly, I didn’t expect to be showered with such an outpouring of hospitality and kindness from Taiwaneses from all walks of life in every city and town I visited. As sentimental as it might sound, I told each and every one of them that: “You touch my heart. You are the reason I will come back to Taiwan”. They had to know that I am truly grateful.

Having a bit of a Scarlet Johansson-in-Lost in Translation moment right here. No kidding, without the help of friendly and kind-hearted Taiwaneses, I would have been very lost. 

The first stop of my 2-week trip was Taipei, the largest city and the capital of Taiwan. During the course of my stay in Taipei, I repeatedly asked myself why I was so enamored with it even though at first glance, it seemed noticeably similar to other cosmopolitan cities in Asia. On my first evening, while waiting for the traffic light to cross the streets, I overheard a Taiwanese man proudly tell his American friend who looked fascinated at the hundreds of scooters: “All the crazy motorbikes, huh?” I chuckled and thought, “wait until you see the traffic madness in Vietnam”. So, definitely not the motorbikes that interested me.

The interesting part is that all scooters in Taiwan are the same Taiwan-made type. In Vietnam, they come in all shapes, sizes, colors and prices.  

The answer was also not the ever-expanding list of sleek shopping malls that has come to define Taipei even in the minds of many Taiwaneses, especially those who live in different parts of the island. These days, I can say with relative confidence and conviction that I’m so over shopping malls.

I’m sad to say that the food scene was not it either. I know this might strike a cord with many travelers, but overall I found Taiwanese food underwhelming, not to mention a tad too oily to my liking. And that famous beef soup is nowhere near as delicious as my country’s pho.

Green squash and shrimp XiaoLongBao at Din Tai Fung, an institution in its own rights in Taiwan. It was heavenly and one of the very few delicacies of Taiwan I’d love to eat again and again and again. 

Crab Roe and Pork XiaoLongBao. When you go to Taipei, this restaurant is not to miss. Prepare for the ridiculously yet understandably long line, though. 

So how did Taipei win me over then? The seamless juxtaposition of old and new and the positive and welcoming vibe that the city exudes are the primary reasons. Unlike, say, Manila where the stratospheric gap between old and new, wealth and poverty left a very bad taste in my mouth or Singapore which is a little too sterile and suffocating at times, Taipei, from my observations, has successfully embraced modernity without losing its distinctive Asian identity. The public transportation system is superb and, guess what, much cleaner than that in the US and Europe. Except for Xinyi which is a commercial and affluent district, all the different neighborhoods of the city I wandered feel authentic and offer a glimpse of Taipei’s everyday life. And best of all, the transition from a wealthy neighborhood to a less wealthy one was smooth and actually stimulating.

As for the positive and welcoming vibe, I’m aware that it’s relatively subjective and intangible, and whether you feel it or not depends on locals you meet along the way. But I firmly believe before you can be friendly, open and helpful to strangers from far-away lands, you have to be happy to some extent in your own life. I mean, you cannot be cranky with your loved ones at home one minute and be all nice and smiley to strangers on the streets the next minute, right? So, through the myriad encounters and conversations I had during the two weeks, I concluded that the positivity and hospitality exist not because Taiwanese people are out to get your money or tourism board tell them to behave like that, but because the vast majority of them are genuinely happy on some levels and proud of their country. They want to share that with us visitors. For what it’s worth, Taiwan ranked 46th happiest country in the world and 3rd in Asia behind Singapore and Japan in 2012, according to the UN report.

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Now onto to the tangible, all-important questions: what should you do in Taipei? How to enjoy Taipei on budget?

The good news (no worries, there’s no bad news) is Taipei is one of the more wallet-friendly cities in East Asia. Unless you stay at W Taipei, eat the $300 noodles at Niu Ba Ba and shop at Chanel, most activities won’t eat up your budget. Before I flew out, I did some light research on what to do in the city. But this time, it was only for reference purpose. I skipped a lot of activities that popular travel guides consider mandatory and only did what truly interested me at my own pace. Thus, the guide below is by no means comprehensive, but these five activities were the real highlights of my stay in Taipei. If you’re on budget, I think you’ll find them enjoyable as well. Without further ado, here are top 5 things to do and see in Taipei.

1. Paying respect at Longshan Temple

I figured I should pay respect to Taipei’s most well-known (and one of the oldest) temple before I did anything else, so Longshan temple was my first sightseeing stop. Like everybody else at the temple, I prayed. Now that I’m writing all of this, I can share with you that my prayer was answered. I asked for a good traveling experience in Taiwan, and my experience in Taiwan was beyond marvelous.

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Aside from some spirituality and intricate architecture, what I remember most about Longshan Temple are the two acts of kindness that I got to be part of. I was sitting there near a girl who I later learned came from Germany and was on her way to New Zealand. She had a 24-hour layover in Taipei so decided to head out of the airport for some exploring.

We were both resting and people watching when a woman with the aww-inducing dog in the photo above sat down in the middle seat and let him out of his carrier to play on the ground. Reunited by the cuteness overload, the three of us, with age, language and background as varied as they could possibly be, started nodding in approval and exchanging smiles. As for the dog, his pint size surely belied his big personality. He jumped up and down, tortured his toys, and within mere minutes began to pull on my and the German girl’s pants. Our hearts totally melted right there and then.

Seeing beads of sweat trickling down our foreheads, the woman took her tea bottle and the disposable cups she had just purchased at 7-11 and poured out two cups of tea for us. When we both finished our cups, she grinned and refilled them despite our polite refusal. After half an hour of running and playing, the dog got thirsty and started lapping the dirty puddles on the ground. As the woman picked him up from the ground, the German girl took out her brand-new plastic lunchbox from her backpack and filled it with clean water and gave it to the dog.

To me, these two acts of kindness represent the core essence of Buddhism or any religion for that matter. At the end of the day, it all comes down to treating people and animals with love, kindness, respect and generosity.

Oh and as for the tea, it was sweet both in taste and in meaning.

Seeing me with my camera, one of the local worshippers patted on my shoulders and pointed at the ceiling…

A friendly monk who happily let me take her portrait. 

How to get there: 

– By metro, take the blue line to Longshan Station. Entry to the temple is free!

2. Giving yourself a sweaty workout with Elephant Mountain

My absolute favorite activity when I visit a new city is to look for spots that offer spectacular bird-eye views of its skyline. In Taipei, these two spots are the observation decks on the 88th & 89th floor of Taipei 101 building and Elephant Mountain, aka Nangang District Hiking Trail. I purposely skipped the observation decks for three reasons, the most important of which was there would be no Taipei 101 in my photos. To me, that would be a real bummer because Taipei 101 really is one of most awe-inspiring skyscrapers I have ever seen; Taipei’s skyline wouldn’t be the same without it. The other two reasons were the obscenely long line and the tickets that cost about US$ 10. 

Elephant Mountain, on the other hand, doesn’t cost any money (unless you factor in metro expenses) but will cost a certain amount of calories 😀 It’s a 20-minute cardio workout to climb to the top. However, the views are so well worth it especially when the sun is about to set. And the crowd is very manageable. Which cannot be guaranteed on the 89th floor. I loved it so much that I went twice, though at different times.

The view of Taipei is best served during sunset…

and half an hour after sunset when Taipei 101 and adjacent buildings are lit up. Blew my mind. 

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