Taiwan, or the Republic of China (not to be confused with the People's Republic of China aka mainland China), is a small island nation in East Asia. It's one of the more densely populated countries in the world, but outside the major cities, there's a surprising amount of natural space to be explored.
Taiwan's nation status is a serious point of contention with mainland China, and it is also something that we are not going to discuss (but this video does a good job of breaking it down). However, as far as travel to Taiwan goes, it is decidedly a different place than the mainland (your mainland China visa has no meaning here).
QUICK TAIWAN FACTS
- Capital: Taipei
- Language: Mandarin
- Currency: New Taiwan dollar (NT$) (TWD)
- Population: 23,476,640
- Time Zone: National Standard Time (UTC+8)
- Calling Code: +886
- Drives On: Right
- Drinking Age: 18
- Drinking In Public: Legal
- Drinking Tap Water: Not okay
- Flushing Toilet Paper: Okay
- Vaccinations Required: CDC
- Credit Cards: Visa/MC widely accepted
- Tipping: Not expected
- Emergency Number: Ambulance/Fire 119, Police 110
- Outlets: Plug Type A, B (110-120 V / 60 Hz)
- Visa Requirements: External Link!
- LANGUAGE | The official language of Taiwan is Mandarin Chinese, and no, it's not an easy language to pick up (just focus on learning “hello” and “thank you“). Fortunately for you, English is widely spoken and most signs are written in the Roman alphabet in addition to Mandarin. I got to the point of assuming people spoke English and was usually proved correct.
- GEOGRAPHY | Taiwan is an oval stretched north to south and split down the middle by the Central Mountain Range. Taipei, the capital and home to nearly a third of the country's population, is at the northern tip of the island, and Kaohsiung City, the second largest city, is located at the southern tip. The west coast is home to Taiwan's other large cities whereas the east coast is home to smaller and more laid-back cities and communities.
- GETTING AROUND | Getting around Taiwan is easy (and inexpensive). The Taiwan High-Speed Rail runs the length of the western coast with eleven stops terminating in Kaohsiung City and Taipei. Slower trains that circumnavigate the island are also available. Inexpensive buses are another viable option (less than $15 US to travel the entire length of the country).
- THINGS TO DO | The major cities to visit are Taipei, Kaohsiung, Taichung, and Tainan, but even outside the cities, Taiwan is packed with awesomeness. Night markets are extremely popular, and they can be amazing places to just go get lost. Taroko National Park (or Taroko Gorge) is a must as far as nature goes, but it's just one of nine national parks in the country. Exploring the east coast is definitely something to do, and you can do everything from river tracing to surfing (Hualien and Taitung) to scuba diving (Green Island).
- WHEN TO GO | The weather in Taiwan is a bit varied from north to south, but you can expect hot and humid summers with cool and damp winters (with dampness increasing as you travel north). July through September are generally considered typhoon season (aka heavy rain). If the weather is a big concern, March through May may be the best time for a visit.
WHAT TO EAT
- STINKY TOFU | Stinky tofu (臭豆腐) is exactly what you think it is: tofu that stinks like your filthy gym sock after you've had to use it as toilet paper. It's typically sold at night markets or by street vendors, and if you ever catch yourself thinking, “God, what's that smell?” then you know you're in range. Yes, I tried it; no, I didn't like it.
- SPICY BEEF NOODLE SOUP | Spicy beef noodle soup (牛肉麵), the national dish of Taiwan, is as delicious as it sounds (and it almost makes up for the stinkiness of the aforementioned tofu). It's not difficult to find somewhere to get yourself a bowl, and whether you're keen on eating gourmet or sticking to a budget, there's a beef noodle soup shop for you to stuff your face in.
- PINEAPPLE CAKE | Pineapple cake (鳳梨酥) is exactly what you think it is – and it's delicious. Since they're commonly brought back to friends and family as souvenirs, you can easily find boxes of individually wrapped cakes ready for immediate consumption. Depending on who you're talking to, they might be called tarts or shortbread instead of cakes, but make no mistake, that's the sweet you want to fill your belly with.
- SHAVED ICE | Shaved ice, also known as baobing (刨冰), in Taiwan is delicious. They way it's prepared is as if a snow cone and some cotton candy were forced to fornicate and then that offspring was in turn forced to mate with a fruit of his or her choosing. Just imagine that for a second. Now go and buy some (Ice Monster is a good bet).
- BUBBLE TEA | Bubble tea (珍珠奶) or boba, is a Taiwanese drink that has been a part of the trendy foreign food parade for some time now. If you see someone drinking out of a transparent container filled with what looks like a pile of rabbit poops at the bottom, that's boba. Those little balls are tapioca, and the drink itself can range from a tea, to a fruit juice, to a smoothie. The top of the cup is commonly sealed with a sheet plastic that you must violently stab an oversize straw through to get at the deliciousness inside (said straw is excellent for blow darting tapioca). Basically, you want to get some of this.
- SPICY HOT POT | Do you like food? Yes? Well, a Taiwanese hot pot (火鍋) is probably what you want then. It's basically a pot of simmering goodness in the middle of your table that is used to cook a variety of other items – from fish and meat to vegetables and noodles. You can get it in a lot of different varieties and could probably eat a different hot pot every day of your travels.
TAIWAN TIPS & TRICKS
- THE EAST COAST | I mentioned it a few times above, but the east coast of Taiwan is where it's at. It's got a ton of mountains, lakes, national parks, and coastline to be explored. There's a highway running all the way down the coast, so getting around is simple (there's a train as well). The big cities are great, but a trip to Taiwan isn't complete without a stint on the coast.
- SCOOTERS | Scooters. There are so many scooters. Everywhere. If you're up for it, I would highly recommend renting a scooter to explore Taiwan (or at least Taroko Gorge). Scooter rentals are inexpensive (as little as $5 US/day), and gas is incredibly cheap. Just remember to bring your international driving permit (or your persuasion skills).
- HITCHHIKING | My experience hitchhiking in Taiwan has been awesome. Public transportation is very affordable, but not nearly as fun as hitching. It has been incredibly easy to catch rides and I don't think I have waited more than ten minutes for someone to pick me up. I've been picked up both in cities and along highways, and people (even those speaking zero English) have been happy to help me out. Everyone told me that if I was Taiwanese, then nobody would pick me up, but because foreigner, it's cool.
- NIGHT MARKETS | If you find yourself searching for “things to do in (name of Taiwanese city”, then you will probably find “night markets” ranked among some of the top attractions. These markets (which happen at night) have everything from food vendors to carnival games. They're great for just walking around and getting lost in. And yes, you can find stinky tofu there.