I’ll be honest to tell you that I was a teeny bit skeptical about backpacking in Taiwan. Amazing shopping? The only shopping I do is picking through my sister-in-law’s hand me downs. Culture? Taiwan is as Chinese as my Grandfather’s extensive China teapot collection.
Creeping into Taiwan from TaoYuan International Airport, Taiwan welcomed us with a pocket full of … rain. Make that 5 buckets full of rain. A passing monsoon was in town, the sky was grey and gloomy, the wind blew like ice to skin. Our first view of the country was through raindrops on a bus window, my outfit of the day for the next FIVE FREAKING DAYS was a very stylish yellow plastic poncho from 7-Eleven.
While the rest of the world is in this race to be technologically advanced with it’s 32-inch LCD TVs, the people of Taiwan seemed perfectly happy to watch their Taiwanese dramas on their old box televisions. Walking through the streets of Taiwan, it felt like I was back 20 years. Almost every town looked identical: blocks after blocks of shophouses line the dark, quiet streets, illuminated by the light from the signboard over head. Behind grilled gates, ageing husbands and wives sit amongst the messy clutter of their gritty little shop, silently having their dinner of rice and soup in front of the TV. Sometimes their mothers and children join them for a family dinner in full view of their potential customers.
These typical Taiwanese streets were fascinating at first, but after the third town with the same view and shops selling the same food, prayer items and box television repair services, it started to get repetitive. Where is the bustling, youthful energy? In fact, where are all the young people? Somehow, they were all at the night markets.
The young people of Taiwan are shopping. They are at Xi Men Ding Shopping District, or Shi Lin Night Market, in fact, any big night market in town. They are eating, buying, playing arcade games and pampering their pet dogs (we saw dogs in baby strollers, in children’s sunnies, and pampers like a human baby). Finally, some hustle and bustle, some laughter and chitter chatter! Music booming in the background, the sound of people bargaining, the latest fashion on display, smartphone accessories on sale, the smell of fried chicken mixed with smelly tofu… It was the kind of youthful energy that makes your feet bounce. There is a jarring difference between these shopping districts and the other dim streets. Besides the one or two odd elder selling food, the night markets were packed with energetic young people both buying and selling goods.
Sightseeing under the drizzling dull sky, we kept telling ourselves that Taiwan could have excited and inspired us if the sky were blue and we weren’t drenched in sky juice. However, I admit that we were impressed by the never-ending mountains in Taiwan. Taroko Gorge National Park, in all its green and marble glory, looks like those ethereal mountains out of the legends where travelling monks venture to meditate in absolute silent serenity. That reminds me, it could possibly be also where Kung Fu Panda went to practice his Kung Fu. How many times I went “wow” in Taroko Gorge as we drove up and down the mountain path, I lost count.
Down by the coast, Kenting, the best and most accessible beach on the island, was bursting with energetic teenagers on their getaways. Young adults on a romantic couple weekend, school children on a class trip, Kenting was infested with them. The beaches in Kenting were good to get some salt in your hair and some waves in your mouth, but don’t expect a great tan or anything pristine as the ones we have in Malaysia.
It wasn’t until our last full day in Taiwan that I fell in love with the country. The rain was finally gone and I can feel some heat on my skin. The sky was a clear blue, and the view of the coast from the mountain at Jiu Fen just blew my mind. After many days of yearning for something unique and special in Taiwan that I could fall deeply in love with, I finally did. When the sun sets and the lanterns along the stone footpath light up, it felt like I was in a magical Chinese fairy tale.
I was skeptical of Taiwan at first but I was very happy to be proven wrong. After 11 days of backpacking up, down and around the island, Taiwan grew on me and I started to develop a new found liking for this country.
What I loved most about Taiwan is the melodious way the locals talk. The way they invite you to buy their bubble tea and what-nots is in the most polite and sweetest tune ever. Once you’ve gotten a chance to have a conversation with the good people of Taiwan, their warmth and extreme friendliness will make you want to buy a house next to their’s and be their neighbour.
11 days backpacking in Taiwan, we made a loop and managed to see a gist of what Taiwan has to offer – the cities, the food, the shopping, the mountains, the beaches and even Sun Moon lake. For a small country (but big island), there is lots to see in Taiwan. It’s an easy going country, with splendid panoramic views of misty mountains, green woods and serene lakes.
Taiwan seems to be a little underrated amongst the backpacking community. The country was a sea of black hair, as most tourists were from mainland China, Hong Kong and Malaysia. I could count the number of Western tourists I saw with my hands and feet. It’s a shame though, because it is definitely a scene worth checking out. Trust me, I was a skeptic but it only took 11 days of backpacking in Taiwan proved me wrong. Just make sure you plan your visit in early summer to avoid the monsoon “fun”!
Taiwan is not a country that blows your mind and overwhelms you from the get go. It is the kind of place you learn to love when you have had the time to settle into the slow Taiwanese vibe.
Read more stories from backpacking in Taiwan:
6 helpful Taiwan travel tips and itinerary that you need to know
What to see and do in Taipei
This is the most beautiful national park of all Taiwan
Hualien is the wallflower of Taiwanese towns
Photos by Matthias Verschueren.