Saturday, June 4, 2016

Fun Taiwan!

Taiwan is probably not among the most popular tourists destinations in Asia. But recently, it has become slowly known and a lot of travelers have started exploring this tiny island-country, formerly known as Formosa, to discover its secrets.

I, with four of my friends (we call ourselves the Stokers) wanted also to see what Taiwan could offer in terms of tourism. Unfortunately, only the three of us finally flew to Taipei as the other two had commitments that came up.

Here is what you would need if you decide to unearth the mysteries of Taiwan.

1. Get a Visa.

To get into Taiwan, you must apply for an online visa. Yes, no need to go to their embassy personally or get interviewed. Please click this link to be directed to the application site. For all those who have valid US Visa's you will not be charged a single cent. For more information, please check this site, as I can only speak of our experience of how we got our visa. Pardon me.

For us, the Stokers, we all have valid US Visa's so we were able to get our Taiwan visa approved right away at no cost. Just needed to fill in the necessary information being asked in the application. Once approved, need to save and print the visa to be shown to the immigration officers in exiting the Philippines and entry to Taiwan.

2. Book a ticket. 

As soon as the visa is approved and sent to your email, you can now book a ticket. We are budget travelers so we always get the cheapest flight available. Actually, when we plan a trip, we usually start with checking the promo fares. Since, a local airline has a promo for Taipei, we decided to go there.

3. Book your accommodations. 

We assigned one member of the group to check and book our accommodations. Budget travelers like us only need three things for a good stay: 

          (a) The hotel or inn should be accessible to all forms of transport such as airport buses and trains, near restaurants, within the area of our planned itinerary and most of all safe.

          (b) The restroom should be clean, with hot and cold water.

          (c) Room should be well-ventilated, with air-condition.

Our accommodation was a dorm-type room good for the five of us. We got a welcome xiao long bao stuffed with greens on our first breakfast. Tea all-you- can plus a wide choice of condiments to flavor the tea. Buffet breakfast was included in our accommodations.

4. Plan your itinerary. 

We also assigned another person to do our itinerary. This means making sure we will be able to visit the popular sites, eat at really good restaurants and try something different. This would be the most difficult and detailed task. Take note, we will be in a foreign country, which all of us has not set foot on. We need to ensure that we can find our way around. Thus, the need for specific instructions to get to and from the hotel to our planned escapade. Plus, estimated costs and fees for all the planned activities.

One thing to note also, is to make sure that the itinerary is flexible. Taking into account the weather and all other possible factors that would hinder in visiting a site.

With all the four items in place, we are now ready to get to Taiwan. Of course, we need to make sure that we have Taiwan Dollars. We usually change peso to USD through our depository banks. They would just need you to present the ticket and passport. USD is accepted everywhere so it would not be a problem. You can also have USD changed to TWD once you are in the departure area or once you to get to Taiwan airport. One TWD is approximately equal to one PHP.

Must See and Must Do in Taiwan

First Things First, Taipei 101. 

Officially the world's tallest building since 2004 until it was bumped off by Dubai's Burj Khalifa in 2009. It still is the tallest and largest green building in the world though, as per LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) and was awarded a platinum certification in 2011. The building looks like a tower of pagodas. The building was designed to withstand earthquakes and typhoons. The most important part of its design is the mass damper. The damper is to help prevent damage to the structure due to strong winds. The Damper Baby has become its mascot.

As its name suggests, there are 101 floors. Tourists can climb as far as the 88th floor to get a 360 degree view of the city for a fee.

Different perspectives of Taipei 101.

The city in the background.
Stealing a kiss from the Dumper Baby.

Gondola flight 001 ready for boarding.

Clear glass bottomed gondola.

If you have not had enough of heights, take a ride on the Maokong Gondola. The gondola is right atop the Taipei zoo. The zoo was closed when we were there and since it was not really part of our itinerary, it was no deal at all. They have a crystal clear bottom gondola and the regular one. We rode the clear-bottomed one going to the Maokong Mountain where there is a temple, a lot of tea plantation and fresh air. There was not much too see but the gondola ride experience was what we were after. And a chance to tease one of our friends who has acrophobia. 

As there were just three of us and the queue was long, they opted to fit different groups for the ride. We shared a ride with two locals who were courting. We were teasing them when we took their pictures but the girl was a little shy and made sure that the guy kept his hands to himself. She also made it clear that they were not yet a couple.

Refreshing view. Most of these greens are tea.

Eat Your Heart Out at Themed Restaurants

If you love watching the travel channel, I'm sure you've heard of themed restaurants. Taiwan has quite a few of them. The most popular would be the Modern Toilet. This would give you an experience of sitting on a toilet bowl and eating on a glass-topped bath tub. Soups would be served on miniature toilet bowls, so if you order a curry, it would no doubt look like the real thing. Yeah, exactly that one in the restroom. My excuses to those whose tummy are a bit sensitive. Their breads are shaped like poo, too. 

It was a fun and new experience, a novel take on dining, too. We were not so hungry so we did not order any soup or heavy meals.

Bread and ice cream. Photo grabbed from the internet.

Next thing to try would be the world famous Hello Kitty Cafe. This was honestly the reason why we came to Taiwan- to eat in the Hello Kitty Cafe. I like Hello Kitty, though I am more of a Mickey Mouse person. The cafe was so girly with the walls and tables in pink. It has an ambiance of youth and freshness. The restroom was so cute and clean that you would want to stay there and may even want to take a nap. The cafe is known for desserts like cakes and smoothies which were what we ordered. Jellies are shaped like the kitty's head. Paper place mats are filled with kitty designs. You can't afford to be gloomy and cranky when inside the cafe.

Hello Kitty!
Ah, this is too cute to eat.

Here's what we ordered. I ordered the choco-banana smoothie.
Getting cozy in the restroom, eh?

Then, there was also the BARBIE Cafe, yes BARBIE! We didn't know about this until one of our ex-office mates told us that there is a Barbie Cafe nearby. She saw my friend's post on Instagram on Hello Kitty cafe. It was on the second floor about two blocks from the kitty cafe. Oh, I love Barbie animated movies, not the Barbie doll. 

Anyway, when we got there, we were held off by one of their hostesses. Not the warm welcome we were expecting. Of course she was wearing a Barbie outfit: pink tutu-like skirt and a black top. We were told that we need to order a minimum amount to be able to get inside the cafe, which was incredulous. Once we were in, it seemed like we were inside a really cute, girly and pretty doll house. Makes you want to be prim and proper just like a lady, raise your pinky and do a catwalk. I was almost tempted to sing the theme song in "The Princess and the Pauper" and do a pirouette.The seats and booths are in pink with the walls hung with Barbie photo frames. We made sure that we took a lot of pictures to compensate for little bitty pricey meal.

The waitresses 

Menu please.

Compulsory pose with the big Barbie wall mural.

Waterfalls in the City.

Yes, there is a waterfall that is just within the city limits. Datun Falls is about a 20-minute bus ride from the Central Terminal. It is a short walk from the Yangming Park which is within the Yangminshan National Park. A big Flower Clock will be seen on the way to Datun Falls.

Flower Clock modeled by Sarah.

Zen mode at Datun Falls.
Short hike to Datun Falls

Datun Falls in all its glory.

Detox at a Hot Spring.

Taiwan has hot springs too. Beitou Hot Springs. A lot of hot spring resorts are in the area. You can choose which suits your taste. There is a public bath house where you pay around TWD40 to soak in. Cameras are not allowed inside so we have no pictures. You have to bathe first with ice-cold water before immersing in the pools. There were four pools with varying temperatures. The hottest was about 42 degrees Celsius. We stayed at the 38 degree pool because it was not so crowded and the heat is tolerable enough. We didn't want to be boiled pork. There were mostly old people in the pools and the rest were tourists like us. The oldies were very nice. They would make space for you when you get in the pool. 

One no-no when bathing in the hot pools is to never dip your head. Stay in the pools for increments of 10 minutes only to prevent heatstroke. There was this Indian family with 2 kids about 9-12 years old. The kids were very rowdy, as can be expected. The boy decided to dip his head like he was swimming in a cool pool. He was submerged for about a minute or two. The mother was very oblivious. It was an old man who caught the boy and told him to rinse his face immediately with cold water so he won't irritate his eyes. The sulfur content of the water is not to be swallowed and should not get in contact with the eyes. We felt so sorry for the boy and blamed the mom for it, silently though.

Millennium Hot Spring. Public bath.

Thermal Valley, the source of the hot springs. Can you feel the hot steam and smell the sulfur?
Public Library

Along the way to the hot springs, you will pass by the Public Library, the Beitou Hot Spring Museum and a running water from the spring where you can just impulsively dive in and wash yourself. No need to pay for a resort. There is also the Plum Garden where the famous calligrapher and political leader Yu Yu-ren spent his summers. We did not explore the other sites except for the Plum Garden which is right beside Millennium Hot Spring.

An amphitheater right outside Beitou Hot Spring Museum

Need to wash off the dust, do it here. Test the waters if it is to your liking.

Go Take a Hike. Move Those Muscles.

There are a lot of hiking trails in Taipei that is just an MRT away. Yangmingshan Natural Park has a lot of biking and hiking trails. In fact, the way going to Datun Falls was actually a short hike. Good enough for cardio. Another one is the Elephant Mountain Trail also known as Nangang District Hiking Trail. The hike is about 15-20 minutes to the top where you have a stunning view of Taipei 101. The trail includes a lot of stairs. It starts at a temple and it goes a long way to a monastery on top of the mountain.

Resting at a nearby park bench on the way to Elephant Mountain.

The starting steps of the Elephant Mountain trail. Farther up, the steps are wider.

A view of the Taipei 101 from the Elephant Mountain trail.

Visit Temples. It is good for the soul.

One of the famous temples in Taipei is the Longshan Temple which houses both Taoist and Buddhist icons. There was a prayer service when we visited the temple. We have to wait for it to finish in order to explore. There was no dress code implemented when entering the temple grounds. We bought bracelets made of bamboo beads for souvenirs at their gift shop which were supposed to be for good health. 

Manka Longshan Temple facade

Faithfuls wearing black togas praying at the temples.

Right across the temple is a pavement painted with the characters of the zodiac. 

Are you a Libra?

Fun Facts about Taiwan

  • Their water dispenser use paper cups. Literally, PAPER cups.
Paper drinking cups
  • They use electronic warning flag waiver for on-going road works. No need for additional manpower and cost-saving.
Watch out!

  • Need to know if the restrooms are full? Just look at this led indicator board to know which cubicles are being used. Cool!
Red means in use. Green means vacant.

  • Don't get lost nor disoriented. It may seem like a stadium but it is an airport. Don't let the ceiling intimidate you.
Welcome to Taipei.

  • Beware of the Taipei 101's elevator. It is the Guinness Book of Records' fastest. It takes about 40 seconds from the ground to the 89th floor. Hold your breath.
Here's the proof. Guiness World Records fastest elevator.

  •  Being beautiful is definitely not a crime in Taipei. Large billboards inviting everyone to get a nose lift, a tummy tuck and other face and body-enhancing procedures are seen everywhere, especially in the MRT stations. They even include a before and after picture for proof.

  • They have night markets too and their street foods look very tasty and clean. We didn't get to try them though. We were stuffed just watching the hustle and bustle of Shilin night market which was where the Modern Toilet is located. We did not buy anything also as their RTW's are expensive compared to Divisoria and Baclaran. 

Taiwan is a small country in terms of area compared to the Philippines but it has a lot of its natural beauty preserved. When on a bus or an MRT, you can see green everywhere and you can still smell fresh air even in the metropolis. There is no fear of getting lost as the signs are also written in the English alphabet. You can ask for directions but make sure that s/he speaks English. Most of them are very polite and would say "no English" but would offer to direct you to someone who may be able to help. The people are probably the nicest of the Chinese-speaking countries I have visited so far. That is my opinion, no offense intended. 

One funny experience we had in Taipei was when we were having dinner in McDonald's right across our hostel. It was almost midnight and there was an announcement in the PA system. We did not mind the announcement as we did not understand it. It was in Mandarin. We saw some of the customers leaving. We did not know what was going on. The shift manager approached some tables and talked to the customers and then they stood up and leave. Then, suddenly out of nowhere, the manager was right in the back of my friend speaking loudly in Chinese, complete with hand gestures. My friend got a fright, panicked and we ran out of the store, laughing at our reactions. We were like scolded and scared teenagers thrown out into the sidewalk. At least we were amused at ourselves, all the while holding on to our drinks and belongings. It turned out they were closing instead of being open for 24 hours. As to the reason, we didn't know. Good thing, we have finished our meal.

I would like to go back to Taiwan and this time go into the countryside. About 2-3 hours train ride from the city and explore its wonders. Like Keelung City, it holds a lot of treasures waiting to be discovered. 

Hopefully this time, the Stokers will be complete. I bet it will be a memorable and hilarious trip. When all five us are in one room, it sure will be chaos. Officially and terribly missing you guys.

Special thanks to Sarah and Prizy for some of the pictures. I grabbed them from Facebook and Instragram since I am still rendered incapable of accessing my external hard drive.

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