Government Multiparty democratic republic with a popularly elected president and unicameral legislature
Currency New Taiwan dollar (TWD)
Area total: 35,980 km2 – water: 3,720 km2 – land: 32,260 km2
Population 23,354,061 (August 2013 est.)
Language Mandarin Chinese (official), Taiwanese, Hakka
Religion Mixture of Buddhist, Confucian, and Taoist 93%, Christian 4.5%, other 2.5%
Electricity 110V/60HZ (USA plug type)
Country code +886
Taiwan is an island nation of about 36,000 km² located off the coast of southeastern mainland China, southwest of Okinawa and north of the Philippines. The island is offically known as and governed by the Republic of China or ROC. Shaped roughly like a sweet potato, the nation is home to more than 23 million people and is one of the most densely populated places in the world. Besides its crowded cities, Taiwan is also known for steep mountains and lush forests. In addition to the island of Taiwan, the Republic of China also governs the tiny Pescadores (Penghu), Quemoy (Kinmen/Jinmen), and Matsu.
While the political status of Taiwan is a somewhat controversial and sensitive issue, from a traveller’s point of view, Taiwan is under the de facto control of a different government from mainland China, and in practice operates as a separate country. This is not a political endorsement of the claims of either side of the dispute.
Taiwan boasts some very impressive scenic sites, and Taipei is a vibrant center of culture and entertainment. The island is also a center of Chinese pop culture with a huge and vibrant entertainment industry. Taiwanese cuisine is also highly regarded. The Japanese enjoy taking short trips to come over and stay and enjoy its neighboring hospitalities. Lately with the relaxation of restrictions there is an increasing number of mainland Chinese visiting the Island nation.
Taiwan has been populated for thousands of years by more than a dozen non-Han Chinese aboriginal tribes. Written history begins with the partial colonization of southern Taiwan by the Dutch and the northern part by Spanish in the early 17th century. (The old name of Taiwan, Formosa, comes from the Portuguese Ilha Formosa for “beautiful island”.) Han Chinese immigrants arrived in significant numbers with the onset of European trade. Although controlled by the Dutch, the Ming loyalist Koxinga defeated the Dutch garrisons in 1662 and set up Taiwan as a rump Ming Empire with the hope of reconquering Qing, China. His grandson surrendered to the Qing in the late 1600s. Although contact between China and Taiwan dates back thousands of years, it was not until larger numbers of Han residents arrived during the Qing dynasty that Taiwan was formally integrated into the rest of China as part of Hokkien (Fujian) province. It became a separate province in 1885. Defeated by the Japanese in the first Sino-Japanese War, the Qing Empire ceded Taiwan to Japan under the terms of the treaty of Shimonoseki in 1895. Japan ruled the island all the way until the end of World War II in 1945, and exerted profound influences on the development of the island. Taiwanese entertainment and pop culture was and still is heavily influenced by that of Japan. Much of the Japanese-built infrastructure can still be seen on the island today, and has been in fact continuously used up to the present day (e.g. rail-road crossing gates, administrative buildings, and the old port at Kaohsiung).
In the early 20th century, the Nationalists and Communists fought a major bloody civil war in mainland China. Although the two sides were briefly united against Japan during World War II, they quickly began fighting again after the war was over. Eventually, the Communists gained decisive vitory in 1948/49. The Nationalist government, the remnant of their army, and hundreds of thousands of refugees then fled to Taiwan. From Taipei, they continued to assert their right as the sole legitimate government of the whole of China. Initially very repressive, the government began to loosen control in its fourth decade under the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek’s son, Chiang Ching-kuo. Taiwan also experienced rapid economic growth and modernisation under the leadership of Chiang Ching-kuo, becoming one of the world’s richest and most modern economies and earning it a place as one of the East Asian Tigers. Taiwan still remains a leader in consumer electronics and is home to well-known computer brands such as Acer, Asus, Garmin, Gigabyte and HTC. Democratization began in earnest through the 1980s and 1990s, culminating with the first direct presidential elections in 1996, and the first peaceful transition of power between two political parties in 2000.
Taiwanese politics remain dominated by the issue of relations between Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China, which still claims Taiwan as a “renegade province” and regularly threatens military action if Taiwan attempts to break away from the current awkward One China status quo, where both sides agree that there is only one Chinese nation, but disagree on whether that one nation is governed by the PRC or the ROC. To summarize a very complex situation, the Pan-Blue group spearheaded by the KMT supports eventual unification with the mainland when the political climate is right, while the Pan-Green group led by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) supports eventual independence under the name “Taiwan”. The split extends down to trivial issues like Chinese romanization — the KMT prefers the mainland’s Hanyu pinyin, the DPP prefers a Taiwan-made variant called Tongyong pinyin — and political demonstrations and rallies, always turbulent, on rare occasions even turn violent.
Taiwan was originally populated by indigenous tribes that spoke various Austronesian languages, which are closely related to Malay, Tagalog and Indonesian. Today the remaining tribes make up only about 2% of the population, while the other 98% are considered ethnically Han Chinese. The ethnically Han Chinese are further split into Taiwanese, who make up about 84% of the population and whose culture is derived from people who migrated during the Ming and Qing Dynasties, as well as mainlanders, who make up about 14% of the population and whose families fled to Taiwan from the mainland after the communist takeover in China in 1949. Among the Taiwanese group, Hoklo (Minnan) speakers form the majority, which is about 70% of the population while the remaining 14% are largely Hakka speakers. There is also a sizeable Japanese community, with many of its members working in the entertainment industry.
It should be noted that the Taiwanese (who make up 84% of the Taiwan’s population and are culturally Chinese) are to a large extent the descendents of immigrants from the mainland in recent centuries who intermarried with indigenous people. As a result, the genetic makeup of the Taiwanese is noticeably different from that of the mainlanders. In recent years there are also Vietnamese, Indonesian and Filipino migrant workers living harmoniously with other Asian minorities as well as Mainland Chinese immigrants. As for the 14 million post 1949 immigrants, they come from every province and consist of many non-Han residents.
The climate of lowland Taiwan is marine tropical. Summers are hot and humid (above 30°C, 86°F from Jun-Sep). Winters are relatively cold, especially in northern Taiwan where temperatures can be as low as 8°C. Northern Taiwan rains year-round while southern Taiwan has dry winters. The best time of year to visit is from Oct-Dec, although the occasional typhoons can spoil the fun. Spring is also nice, although it rains more than during autumn. During the typhoon season, the east coast bears the brunt of the damage as it is facing the Pacific Ocean.
Taiwan has tall mountains, which are much colder. They are also susceptible to sudden heavy rains, which can endanger unprepared visitors, so advice on proper preparation should be obtained before visiting those areas. In fact, it snows every year on Taiwan’s highest mountains and occasionally even on mountains like Alishan.
The Minguo calendar, counting years from the establishment of the ROC (1911), is commonly used in Taiwan. To convert a Minguo date to A.D., just add 1911. Months and days are according to the standard Gregorian calendar. 2012 is 101st Minguo. However, most locals also keep track of Lunar calendar for holidays.
As Taiwan is dominated by ethnic Chinese, traditional Chinese festivals are celebrated by the Taiwanese. Among the most notable are:
Chinese New Year. This is the most important festival for the Taiwanese and many shops and restaurants close on the first three days so it is not an ideal time to visit. However, the days leading up to the festival as well as the fourth to fifteenth days are ideal for soaking up the atmosphere and listening to Chinese New Year songs.
Ching Ming Festival. This is when many Taiwanese would pay respects at their ancestors’ graves.
Dragon Boat Festival. This festival honours Qu Yuan, a patriotic official from the state of Chu during the Warring States period of Chinese history who committed suicide by jumping into a river when Chu was conquered by Qin. To prevent the fishes from eating his body, villagers threw rice dumplings into the river to feed the fishes and rowed dragon boats with drums being beaten on them to scare away the fishes. Since then, dragon boat racing has been carried out on this day and rice dumplings are also eaten.
Hungry Ghost Festival. This festival runs throughout the seventh month of the Chinese calendar. It is believed that the gates of hell open during this period and hungry ghosts are allowed to roam freely into our world. In order to appease the ghosts and prevent misfortune, many Taiwanese will offer food and burn joss paper for them. In addition, traditional Chinese performances such as Chinese opera and puppet shows are held to appease these wandering spirits.
Mid-Autumn Festival. Legend has it that on this day, a woman known as Chang E swallowed some divine pills to prevent her power hungry husband from becoming immortal. Afraid of being killed by her husband, she fled to the moon and it is believed that the moon shines brightest on this day. This is when many lanterns will be put up for decoration in various parks and shops, which is quite a beautiful sight. Mooncakes are also eaten on this day so it would be an ideal time to try some.
Taiwan is largely mountainous with a chain of mountains running from north to south at the centre of the island. The west coast is largely plains and unsurprisingly is where most of the population is concentrated, and is where all the larger cities like Taichung and Kaohsiung are located. The east coast also has some plains but is more sparsely populated due to the higher typhoon risk. It is also home to the cities of Hualien and Taitung with significant populations.
Baseball was brought to Taiwan by the Japanese during the colonial period. Its popularity rose greatly when the Taiwanese baseball team finished second in the Japanese national championships. Today, baseball retains a strong following and remains by far the most popular team sport in Taiwan. Several Taiwanese players have also gone on to successful careers in the U.S and Japanese Major League Baseball (MLB) and the Taiwanese national baseball team is considered to be one of the strongest in the world.
Basketball also has a sizeable following in Taiwan and is quite popular among teenagers. When classes are over, the basketball courts inside schools are not only open to students but also the public.
Billiards is another popular sport in Taiwan. It’s easy to find billiard rooms throughout the country and there are also many championship-winning players in Taiwan, most of whom started training when they were still teens.
Other sports that are popular include Taekwondo, table tennis and golf.
Northern Taiwan (Hsinchu, Hsinchu County, Keelung, New Taipei, Taipei, Taoyuan County, Yilan County, Yangmingshan National Park) the capital city, main airport and technology hub of the island
Central Taiwan (Changhua County, Miaoli County, Nantou County, Sun Moon Lake and Taichung) scenic mountains and lakes and major national parks
Eastern Taiwan (Hualien County, Taitung County, Taroko Gorge, Hualien, Taitung). Hualien and Taitung are cut off from the rest of the island by the central mountains; this is a region of great natural beauty
Southern Taiwan (Kaohsiung, Tainan, Chiayi County, Pingtung County, Yunlin County), the tropics of Taiwan with beaches and palm trees and the second largest city.
Outlying Islands (Green Island, Kinmen, Matsu, Orchid Island, Penghu). A couple of small islands that are popular getaway destinations with the locals. Some of them are very far offshore and near Mainland China.
Taiwan has many large cities and towns. Below is a list of ten of the most notable.
Taipei – the capital of Taiwan and the center of commerce and culture. Home to the world’s fourth tallest skyscraper, Taipei 101.
New Taipei, the city that surrounds Taipei and the largest city in Taiwan. The area includes a substantial stretch of Taiwan’s northern coastline and surrounds the Taipei Basin.
Hsinchu, a city in northern Taiwan that contains Hsinchu Science Park, which has the nickname “Silicon Valley of Taiwan” and is home to world-leading semiconductor manufacturing companies.
Hualien, a city located near Taroko Gorge, and is considered one of the most pleasant of Taiwan’s cities.
Jiufen, a former gold mining town located on the northeast coast that is now a popular tourist destination.
Kaohsiung, the second-largest city and also an industrial city. It has a busy sea port(the Port of Kaohsiung) along with the island’s second-largest airport, Kaohsiung International Airport (KHH)..
Keelung, the center of transshipment in the north, located about a thirty minute drive or a twenty minute bicycle ride from downtown Taipei.
Puli, a town located at the geographical center of the island. Serves as a hub for exploring the central mountains and Sun Moon Lake.
Taichung, the third largest city in Taiwan. Has many interesting cultural amenities and activities.
Tainan, the oldest city and former capital, famous for its historic buildings.
People tend to think of Taiwan as a small, crowded island filled mostly with electronic factories, and if you stay in Taipei or along the west coast you might indeed maintain that impression. However, the island is also home to high mountain ranges, great beaches and stunning national parks – many with hot springs.
Alishan – misty forests of giant cypresses and amazing sunrises at the center of the island, reached by a scenic narrow-gauge train
Kenting National Park – located at the extreme southern tip of the island, this park is famous for its beaches and lush vegetation.
Shei-pa National Park – a park spanning mountains and rivers located in Hsinchu County – great hiking trails
Sun Moon Lake – nestled at 762 m (2,500 ft) in lofty mountains in Nantou County, this lake is famous for its clear sparkling blue water and picturesque mountain backdrop.
Taipingshan – a historic logging area and one of Taiwan’s most scenic spots. Located in Yilan County.
Taroko Gorge- an impressive gorge located off the east coast
Yangmingshan National Park – spanning a mountain range overlooking Taipei
Yushan (Jade Mountain) – at 3,952 m (12,966 ft) the highest mountain in not just Taiwan, but all East Asia
Lalashan – “Lala” means “beauty” in native Atayal language. Mt. Lala is one of the natural protection zones in Taiwan. There are 500-2800 years old divine trees and the No. 5 divine tree, reputedly even older than Confucius. Lalashan is best known for its peach trees, and peach season (July – August) is the most beautiful time to visit Mt. Lala, which is located in Taoyuan County.
Visas. Foreign nationals of the following countries can enter Taiwan visa-free as a visitor provided that their passports are valid for at least 6 months upon entry:
For up to 90 days: All European Union member states, Canada, Iceland, Israel, Japan, Liechtenstein, Monaco, New Zealand, Norway, Switzerland, the United States and the Vatican City. For up to 30 days: Australia, Malaysia, Singapore, and South Korea
If citizens of the above countries present an emergency or temporary passport, they will be required to apply for a landing visa on arrival by supplying a passport photo and paying a fee of NT$2,400.
Citizens of Canada and the United Kingdom can extend their stay for an extra 90 days (i.e. a total stay of up to 180 days) free of charge.
Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport (formerly Chiang Kai-Shek International Airport (TPE) is Taiwan’s main international airport. Located 40km to the southwest of Taipei, it has good connections to major Asian cities and North America. The airport has direct buses to Taipei, Taichung and other nearby cities.
Kaohsiung International Airport (KHH) domestic and international airports are located in the same complex. International flights are only to other Asian cities (e.g. Hong Kong, Toyko Narita, Singapore, Bangkok…etc), as well as charter flights to mainland China.
Taipei Songshan Airport (TSA) in downtown Taipei serves mostly domestic flights only, plus limited daily charter flights to mainland China. Flights to Tokyo’s Haneda airport have commenced recently.
Taichung Airport (RMQ) serves domestic flights as well as international flights to Hong Kong and Vietnam and cross-strait charters to mainland China.
Hualien Airport (HUN) serves domestic flights as well as some international charter flights to Japan, South Korea (ROK) and Macau. It is also one of the airports designated to serve cross-strait direct flights.
Regular cross-Strait flights between Taiwan and mainland China resumed after civil war on 4 Jul 2008. From 15 Dec 2008, the frequency of these flights were increased to daily, and travel times on some popular routes have been reduced significantly as flights no longer have to be routed through Hong Kong airspace.
The main Taiwanese carriers are China Airlines and EVA Air.
ANA All Nippon Airways
Asiana Airlines (to/from Seoul Incheon)
Cathay Pacific – 2715 2333
Cebu Pacific (to/from Manila)
China Airlines – 2715 1212
Delta Air Lines (to/from Tokyo Narita)
Eastar Jet (to/from Seoul Gimpo)
EVA Airways – 2501 1999
Jetstar Asia (LCC) (from/to Singapore and Osaka).
KLM Asia – 2711 4055
Korean Air (to/from Seoul Incheon)
Philippine Airlines (to/from Manila, Kalibo)
T’way Air (to/from Seoul Gimpo)
For up-to-date information on cheap flights, check the advertisement pages of one of the three local daily English newspapers.
As of 2008, all scheduled passenger ferry services between Taiwan and Japan have been suspended. Star Cruises operates limited cruise services from Keelung and Kaohsiung to Hong Kong and various Japanese islands.
From Fuzhou, China, there are two daily ferries to Matsu. Take bus 69 from Fuzhou train station to Wuyilu, then bus 73 to the end station Mawei harbor. The ferry costs RMB350 from China and TWD1300 from Taiwan. The trip takes two hours. From Matsu, there are two daily ferries to Keelung in Taiwan. TWD1050 includes a bed, as the trip takes 10 hours. Bookings can be made at +886 2 2424 6868.
At Mawei harbour in Fuzhou there is an opportunity to buy an inclusive ticket all the way to Taipei that includes the Fuzhou to Matsu ferry above and a domestic flight from Matsu to Taipei (or Taichung). The price (RMB780) includes transfer between port and airport on Matsu, and a coupon for lunch at the airport while you wait for your connection. The ferry leaves Fuzhou at 9:30AM. Get to Mawei at 8AM to buy tickets.
There are also several ferry services between Xiamen and Quanzhou on the mainland and the island of Kinmen. Now there also is one weekly ferry from Dongdu Harbor in Xiamen to Keelung, that leaves on Thursdays at 6PM starting at less than RMB500, as well as one to Taichung leaving on Tuesdays. Call 0592-2393128 for information or 0592-6011758 for bookings from China. You can also check here for news.
Taiwan’s main domestic carriers are Mandarin Airlines, a China Airlines subsidiary; UNI Air, controlled by EVA; and TransAsia Airways. Flights are frequent, and it is usually unnecessary to book flights in advance. Taipei and Kaohsiung have regular services and links to most other domestic airports; however, it may not be possible to fly from one domestic airport to another. The popularity of the high-speed train has drastically cut flights on the once popular west coast sectors, with eg. Taipei-Kaohsiung flights only a shadow of what they once were.
If you want to visit Taiwan’s smaller islands, the plane is still the best option, and is the only practical option of travelling to Penghu, Kinmen or Matsu. Fares are not too expensive, and local planes are very good. The domestic airport in Taipei is Song Shan Airport, which is in the north of the Taipei and easily reached by Taxi. Domestic destinations include Kaohsiung, Tainan, Chiayi, Taichung, Pingtung, Taitung, Hualien, Makung (Penghu / Pescadores), Kinmen, Hengchun, Nangan and Beigan. Travelers heading to Kenting can avail themselves of the direct and frequent bus service from Kaohsiung airport that connect with flights arriving from Taipei.
Navigation. In mid-sized and smaller cities, your main reference point is going to be the train station. If you’re having trouble finding English speaking people, try looking for college or high school students.
Taiwan has 2 train systems:
1.Taiwan High Speed Rail(THSR). THSR is a high speed train system that covers 345 km (215 mi) on the West Coast from Taipei to Zuoying (Kaohsiung) in 90 min. Other stops on the route are Banqiao, Taoyuan, Hsinchu, Taichung, Chiayi and Tainan. Note that many THSR stations have been built a fair distance from the cities they serve (e.g. a taxi from downtown Tainan costs up to NT$400, but there’s a free shuttle bus). A one-way ticket from Taipei to Zuoying(Kaohsiung) for adults costs NT$1,630 in economy or NT$2,140 in business class. Seats in economy class have plush seats and ample legroom, so there’s little reason to pay extra. All signage and announcements are in English as well, making navigation a snap.
If THSR tickets are costly for you, you should book your tickets. Tickets can be booked up to 28 days in advance by the internet, by phone(+886-2-6626-8000, English available) or at certain convenient stores. Payments can be made with credit cards (you may need to call your credit card company to authorize the charge, as the HSR website uses a unique identification), or made at stations or convenient stores when you pick your ticket up. The latter is recommended, since credit card users also pick up tickets at stations or convenient stores. If you book tickets more than 8 days in advance, you have a chance of getting a discount ranging from 10% to 35% off.
2. Taiwan Railway Administration (TRA)
TRA’s has stations in all major cities. Train stations are often located in the centers of most cities and towns and serve as a convenient hub for most types of transportation. In addition, the train system allows you to bypass the highways, which can become extremely crowded on weekends and national holidays.
Booking tickets is recommended when traveling on weekends, especially for long-distance trips. Train timetables and online booking (up to 2 weeks in advance) is available on the TRA website; however, the online services only works between 8AM and 9PM and there is a small charge, $7, for online bookings. Note that booking online only establishes a reservation as there is no Internet payment option. You must pay for the tickets you reserved at your local train station or post office to actually receive it. There are also vending machines at the larger stations.
Round island tourist rail passes are also available which allow the holder to embark and disembark a set number of times for a fixed price are also available at most larger train stations. A foreign passport may be required for purchase.
Tzuchiang: The fastest (and most expensive). Assigned seating. Non-reserved (standing) tickets are also sold at full price. 3 types of Tzuchiangs: regular Tzuchiangs, Puyumas, and Tarokos
Chukuang: Second fastest. Assigned seating.
Commuter: Cheapest. Stops at all stations. No assigned seating.
For trips to nearby cities, commuter is a good choice since they are very frequent (about once every ten to fifteen minutes). In some regions, you may use contactless smart cards, such as Easycard, to take any commuter, Chukuang or regular Tzuchiang train for 90% the price of commuters. This saves money and time. However there will be no assigned seats.
Also, do try to get your destination station written in Chinese and try to do some “mix and match” with the system map as well as looking out for the matching Chinese characters written on the station. Be alert and always be on the lookout for your destination station, or you risk missing it.
Taiwan has an extensive bus network, run mostly by private bus companies. Traveling by intercity buses are generally cheaper than by trains, especially for long-distance trips. However, on holidays, travel time may be much longer and tickets are more likely to be sold out.
The Taiwan tourist shuttle connects with many of the major train stations and offers direct services to many of the tourist sites which might be confusing for foreigners to locate by public bus. The website is confusing to navigate but English timetables and route maps are available from most tourist information centers and bus stops.
Most cities have local buses. Route maps, however, are almost entirely in Chinese, though the destinations indicated on the front of buses are in English. If you’re staying at a hotel, have the clerk suggest some routes for you, and circle your destination on the map. Show this to the bus driver, and he/she will hopefully remember to tell you when to get off. In smaller cities, there is often no local bus service, though the out-of-town buses will sometimes make stops in the suburbs. There are taxi ranks at all airports and bus terminals.
Occasionally a bus driver might stop a bus away from the curb at a bus stop. Sometimes it is due to a vehicle illegally parked at a bus stop. (Taiwanese traffic law and regulation prohibit vehicles from stopping or parking within 10 m (33 ft) of a bus stop.) However, a bus driver might stop a bus away from the curb just because he or she does not want to wait for overtaking traffic while leaving a bus stop. Therefore, be much more careful when getting on or off a bus stopped away from a curb, as many motorcycles, motor scooters, and bicycles will definitely be tempted to overtake on the right side of the stopped bus where people get on and off! (As traffic drives on the right side of the road in Taiwan, buses have doors on the right side.)
In Taiwan you need to hail the bus you want as you see it coming – much like hailing a taxi. Both end points of the route are listed on the front of the bus in Chinese and sometimes English, so it is important to make sure the bus you get on is going the right direction. In Taipei, you sometimes pay getting on the bus and sometimes getting off (whether with cash or the ubiquitous Easy Card). As you get into the bus there will be an illuminated sign opposite you. If the first character is 上 pay as you get in, if it is 下 pay as you get out (or just watch the other people).
Taipei MRT. Taipei Metro is an fairly comprehensive metro system that makes traveling around Taipei a snap. Kaohsiung also has a metro system, KMRT. The EasyCard is a contactless smart card that can be used in Taipei for public transportation, and are available at Taipei metro stations, train stations and convenient stores. Kaohsiung’s counterpart is I-pass. They are read via proximity sensors so you do not need to remove the card from your wallet or purse. Both metro systems are very clean, since eating, drinking, and smoking are prohibited.
The highways of Taiwan are lined with brightly lit booths staffed by attractive, skimpily dressed girls, but they’re not plying the world’s oldest trade; instead, they’re betel nut beauties, who compete for the attention of customers to sell the mildly addictive stimulant Binglan, not themselves. The trade has prompted much moral hand-wringing and sale by scantily clad girls is banned in Taipei and a handful of other counties – mostly out of fears of a negative international reputation or more practically the fear of traffic accidents and congestion from rubber-necking. Nonetheless, the practice is still going strong in much of the country, and Binlang is available everywhere from small roadside shops and stalls. Binlang itself is worth a try and there is a chance you will be offered it in the company of farmers or working-class Taiwanese. Be warned – it stains your teeth blood red. To consume it, bite and spit off the cap at the top of the nut, then chew the rest of the bundle. Only the first mouthful of saliva must be spit and afterwards one can either choose to spit or swallow and enjoy the buzz. One sampling on your trip shouldn’t be a problem, but do keep in mind that this little treat is habit-forming and cancer-causing for long-term “users.”
Taxis are a dime a dozen in major Taiwanese cities. You don’t need to look for a taxi – they’ll be looking for you. Not all drivers can converse in English or read Westernized addresses (except for special Taoyuan airport taxis). Have the hotel desk or a Taiwanese friend write out your destination in Chinese, and also take a business card from the hotel. Taxis are visibly metered. Relative to American taxicabs, Taiwanese cabs are inexpensive.
From Taoyuan Airport (TPE), buses are a much more economical option but if you want a direct route Taoyuan airport drivers are the best choice. Taxis, as elsewhere in Asia, are not keen on exchanging large bills.
By scooter or motorcycle
Scooters with an engine size of 50cc require a license to drive, and should be insured and registered in the owner’s name. Foreign nationals with stay less than 30 days do not have an easy way to get a scooter license. Until 2003 it wasn’t possible to get a scooter above 150cc. Many of the scooters within cities are only 50cc and incapable of going faster than 80 km/h (50 mph). The more powerful versions known as zhongxing (heavy format) scooters are now quite common and can be rented for short-term use, or found for sale used at English In Taiwan if you’re going to need it for a while. They are not allowed on freeways even if they are capable of going faster than 100 km/h (62 mph) unless used for certain police purposes, but that just means you have to take the scenic route. If you’re just learning to drive a scooter on the streets of Taiwan, it would be a good idea to practice a bit on a back road or alley until you have a feel for the scooter – attempting to do so in the busier cities could easily be fatal.
Another option is to rent a motorcycle. Many foreigners swear by their 125cc Wild Wolf motorcycles, and a trip around the island on a motorcycle can be a great way to see the island up close.
An international driving license is required for driving in Taiwan and may be used for up to 30 days, after which you’ll need to apply for a local permit. The numbered freeway system in Taiwan is great. They cover many parts of the island and are in excellent shape. Most traffic signs are in international symbols, but many signs show names of places and streets in Chinese only. Take freeways tolls into consideration when renting cars. While driving may be the best way to get around the countryside, in larger cities like Taipei and Kaohsiung, traffic jams are a problem as well as the difficulty of finding a good parking space, especially during the rush hour and traffic tends to get chaotic so you might be better off relying on public transport instead.
While Taiwanese themselves don’t generally hitchhike, foreigners who have done so say that it was very easy. However, in rural areas people may not recognize the thumb in the air symbol, and you may have to try other ways – flagging down a car might work on a country lane with little or no public transportation, but doing so on a major road might lead to confusion, with the driver assuming that you are in trouble. A sign, especially one in Chinese, would therefore be of great help. The East coast around Hualien and Taitung enjoys a reputation for being especially good for getting rides.
Bicycling is again on the rise, both as a tool for commuting and recreation, and support infrastructure is slowly being put into place. Several bike paths have been built, and recreational cycling has become quite popular amongst locals, especially on weekends. However, you should also be aware that local drivers have a well deserved reputation for recklessness. As such, you should exercise extreme caution when cycling outside of designated bicycle lanes and trails.
In recent years, the government has been promoting bicycling as a method of clean recreation. Several designated bicycle paths have been built throughout Taiwan (especially along riverside parks). Additionally, long distance rides, including through the Central Mountain Range, and along the coastline around the main island have become popular. For long distance trips, bicycles can be shipped as is using standard freight service from the Taiwan Railway Administration between larger stations.
The romanization of Chinese used in Taiwan is not standardized. People know romanisation as ‘Roma-Pinyin’.
A mix of Taiwanese (Minnan), Mandarin, Hakka and other Asian languages are spoken on the island, as well as several aboriginal Austronesian languages. Mandarin is the lingua franca, but Taiwanese is spoken as the primary language by some 70% of the population.
Younger people generally speak a basic conversational level of English, especially in Taipei. Children often understand more English than their parents, especially with the emphasis on English language education today, and English being a compulsory subject in Taiwanese schools.
Nature. Many people think of Taiwan as a grimy, densely populated industrial island full of hard disk factories, and you may well maintain this perception if you only stick to the densely populated West Coast. However, for those who take time to venture to the more sparsely populated East Coast will quickly find that Taiwan is actually home to some stunning landscapes. The Taroko Gorge near Hualien in particular is very impressive, and should not be missed. Most of Taiwan is covered with mountains which offer breathtaking views, so hiking opportunities are very diverse.
The currency of Taiwan is the New Taiwan Dollar (NTD, but also referred to as TWD).As of November 11th, 2013, the exchange rate for US$1 is around $29.50, or €/$39.55. Easy rules of thumb are that $100 roughly equals US$3/€2.5; $1000 roughly equals US$30/€25. Coins come in denominations of $0.50, $1, $5, $10, $20 and $50. The $0.50 coin i s rare because of its small value and has very little practical use. Banknotes come in denominations of $100, $200, $500, $1000 and $2000. Perhaps due to counterfeiting problems, the $200 and $2000 banknotes are rarely seen.
Currency exchange is possible internationally, although you will get a much better rate if you wait until you arrive at the airport to exchange currency at the 24 hour window. Taiwan’s banking system is light-years ahead of most other countries, with the ability to use any of the abundant 24-hour ATMs to withdraw cash from anywhere in the world using the Plus or Cirrus systems.Most hotels and department stores accept credit cards, generally Visa and Master Card as well as JCB. Diners Club or American Express cards are seldom accepted. Most restaurants and small stores do not accept cards, and cash is the main form of payment. Because street crime is rare, it is common for people in Taiwan to carry large amounts of cash with them.
Taiwan is significantly cheaper than Japan, and somewhat cheaper than China. For a budget traveller on a bare bones budget, NT$1000 will get you by for a day, but you’ll probably want to double that for comfort. A meal at a street stall may cost NT$50 or less, a meal at a Western fast food restaurant will run you about NT$150 and at the fanciest restaurants, you can expect a bill in excess NT$1000. On the high end of the spectrum, hotel rooms at a swanky hotel might cost NT$5000 or more.
NO Tipping. Tipping is generally not practised in Taiwan, with the possible exception of bellhops in high end hotels. Full service restaurants typically impose a service charge and that is usually considered to be sufficient. Tipping is also not expected in taxis and drivers would usually return your change to the last dollar.
As in many Asian countries, night markets are a staple of Taiwanese entertainment, shopping and eating. Night markets are open-air markets, usually on a street or alleyway, with vendors selling all sorts of wares on every side. Many bargains can be had, and wherever prices are not displayed, haggling is expected. Night markets are crowded, so remember to watch out for your wallet! Shops selling the same items tend to congregate in the same part of the city.When bargaining at small stores, please note that the agreed prices are normally cash prices. If you like to use a credit card, the seller normally wants to add anything up to 8% to the price as a “card fee” etc. The fee consists actually of the credit company’s commission and also the local sales tax/VAT
What to buy
Jade. Although it can be hard to know for sure if the item you’re buying is real jade or not, some beautiful objects are sold. Most cities have a specific jade market dealing in jade and other precious stones.
Computers. Taiwan designs and produces a lot of desktops, laptops, and PC peripherals. Travelers might be interested in visiting the large Information Technology Market at Taiwan for the best prices. Desktop computers and components tend to be the same price in Taiwan as in other areas of the world, though peripherals such as cables and adapters tend to be noticeably cheaper.
Lingzhi. A type of bracket fungus that is often used as a Chinese herb. It supposedly has many health benefits with an apparent absence of side effects, earning it a high reputation in East Asian countries and making it rather expensive. Taiwanese lingzhi is particularly famous for being of the highest quality.
Tea. Taiwan is particularly famous for its oolong tea and this is available in at many tea shops. Tea tasting in Chinese culture is akin to wine tasting in Western culture.
Iron eggs. Irresistible delicacy
Stinky tofu. Undoubtedly the most infamous Taiwanese delicacy, stinky tofu (chòudòufu) is fermented tofu with a strong odor often likened to rotting garbage. It’s usually sold only by outdoor stalls, as the smell would overwhelm most restaurants, but if you can hold your nose long enough to eat it, the taste is quite mild — but with distinct earthy overtones that many visitors find off-putting. It’s most commonly eaten fried, but for extra Fear Factor points, find some mala hotpot with stinky tofu and gelatinized duck blood.
Taiwanese beef noodle soup
Lemon aiyu jelly
Generally speaking, the foods of Taiwan are derived from mainland Chinese cuisines. The Taiwanese are also passionately in love with eggs and seafood, as you will discover during your stay on the island. Fruits are another famous part of Taiwanese food. A wide range of fruits can be found at local fruit shops and stations. The subtropical climate allows different fruits to grow nicely.
Taiwan also has many of its own local specialties. A few found island wide include:
Beef noodle soup with chunks of extremely tender stewed beef and a dash of pickles
Oyster omelet – made from eggs, oysters and the leaves of a local chrysanthemum, topped with sweet red sauce.
Aiyu jelly, made from the seeds of a local fig and usually served on ice — sweet, cool and refreshing on a hot day
Taiwan Sausage (xiāngcháng), usually made from pork, it is a modified version of the Cantonese laap cheong. Taiwanese xiangchang is usually eaten on its own with some garlic.
Taiwanese Orange is a type of citrus fruit which is similar to usual oranges, except that the skin and flesh tend to look more yellowish like lemon. Unlike lemon, it is usually quite sweet.
Taiwanese Porridge is rice porridge cooked with sweet potato. It is usually eaten with several different dishes.
Taiwan also has remarkably good bakery items. Most specialize in sweet Chinese pastries or Western pastries adjusted to local tastes, but look out for We Care bakeries which also offer Western options such as whole wheat loaves, sour breads and ciabatta.
Vegetarians are better catered for in restaurants and variety than in most other countries.
Places to eat
If you’re on a budget, the cheapest food can be found in back-alley noodle shops and night market stalls, where you can get a filling bowl of noodles for around NT$35-70.
The Taiwanese love to snack and even many restaurants advertise xiaochi (小吃), literally “small eats”, the Taiwanese equivalent of Cantonese dim sum.
As with Chinese cuisine elsewhere, food in Taiwan is generally eaten with chopsticks and served on large plates placed at the center of the table. Often times, a serving spoon or pair of chopsticks is usually accompanied with the dishes and guests do not use their own chopsticks to transfer food to their plates.
The usual traditional Chinese taboos when eating with chopsticks apply in Taiwan as well. For instance, do not stick your chopsticks straight up or into your bowl of rice. This is reminiscent of incense sticks at a temple, and has connotations of wishing death upon those around you. When putting down chopsticks, either place them on the provided porcelain chopstick rest (at fancier restaurants) or rest the chopsticks across the top of your bowl. Also, do not use your chopsticks to spear your food or move bowls and plates.
Drink. As Taiwan is a subtropical island with the south part in the tropics, it cannot hurt to drink a lot, especially during summertime. Drink vending machines can be found virtually everywhere and are filled with all kinds of juices, tea and coffee drinks, soy milk and mineral water.
Water. Water or ice you are served in restaurants are usually filtered tap water, which is generally safe. However, it is best to drink water both filtered and boiled. Note that water quality in Kaohsiung is worse than in other cities. Another reason for drinking previously boiled or bottled water in Taiwan is that Taiwan is a seismic active zone. Because of the large number of earthquakes, the water delivery system (pipes) are easily damaged allowing contaminants to enter the water prior to it reaching the tap. Therefore drinking previously boiled or bottled water is probably a wise choice.
Alcohol. Taiwan’s legal age to consume alcohol is 18 years of age. Minors caught drinking can face fines ranging from $10000 to $50000. Traditional alcoholic drinks in Taiwan are very strong. Kaoliang is the most famous alcoholic drink. A distilled grain liquor, it can be extremely strong, usually with alcohol content of 38%-63% (76-126 proofs), and often drunk straight.
Taiwan also produces many types of Shaoxing, rice wine, which are considered by many as being some of the best in the world.
Taiwanese people enjoy beer on ice. A wide variety of imported beers are available, but the standard is Taiwan Beer, produced by a former government monopoly. It is brewed with fragrant penglai rice in addition to barley giving it a distinctive flavor. The beer is served cold and recognized as an especially suitable complement to Taiwanese and Japanese cuisine, especially seafood dishes such as sushi and sashimi. Beer on tap is uncommon in Taiwan, and most places serve beer in bottles.
Tea and coffee, Taiwan’s specialty teas are High Mountain Oolong – a fragrant, light tea, and Tie Guan-yin – a dark, rich brew. Pearl milk tea, aka “bubble tea” or “boba tea”, is milky tea with chewy balls of tapioca added, drunk through an over-sized straw. Invented in Taiwan in the early 1980s and a huge Asia-wide craze in the 1990s,
The cafe culture has hit Taiwan in a big way, and in addition to an abundance of privately owned cafes, all the major chains, such as Starbucks, have a multitude of branches throughout major towns and cities.
Soft drinks. Taiwan is a great place for fruit drinks. Small fruit-juice bars make them fresh on the spot and are experts at creating fruit-juice cocktails (non-alcoholic, of course). zong-he – mixed – is usually a sweet and sour combination and mu-gwa niou-nai is iced papaya milk. If you don’t want ice (though it is safe in Taiwan, even at road side vendors) say, chu bing and no sugar – wu tang..
Soy milk, or doujiang, is a great treat. Try it hot or cold. Savoury soy milk is a traditional Taiwanese breakfast dish. It is somewhat of an acquired taste as vinegar is added to curdle the milk. Both sweet and savory soy milk are often ordered with you-tiao, or deep fried dough crullers.
There are a lot of pseudo health drinks in Taiwanese supermarkets and convenience stores. Look out for asparagus juice and lavender milk tea for example.
For the budget-minded, there are hostels in Taipei and most other sizable cities. Camping is also available in many areas.
Motels can be easily found in suburbs of major cities. Despite the name, these have little if anything to do with the cheap functional hotels that use the name elsewhere; in Taiwan, motels are intended for romantic trysts and can be quite extravagant in decor and facilities. Many feature enormous baths with massage jets, separate massage showers, marble tiles, and so forth.
Taiwanese hotels range in quality from seedy to very luxurious. Despite the complexities of doing business with both mainland China and Taiwan, most Western hotel chains operate in Taiwan such as Sheraton, Westin and Hyatt. Also, there are plenty of five-star hotels around. Keep in mind, however, that many of the international hotels tend to be outrageously expensive, while comparable and much cheaper accommodation is usually available in the same vicinity. For example, the airport hotel at CKS International charges about three or four times as much as a hotel in Taoyuan which is a half hour cab ride away. Taxi drivers and tourist offices are invaluable resources for finding cheaper hotels.
Many hotels in Taiwan have both Chinese and Western names, which can differ radically. Find out and bring along the Chinese name (in Chinese characters), as locals will usually not be able to identify the English ones. Especially when you visit the regions less traveled by westerners (mostly because there is no business there), don’t be shy to walk in on the more pricey hotels, especially off-season. The Ceasar, the Chateau and the Howard Beach Resort at Kenting, for example, located at one of the nicest beaches of tropical Taiwan, can be of exceptional value if you stay there during wintertime, as the rooms not yet let for the night are offered far below their normal price at last minute.
Hotel beds in Taiwan are generally much harder than in the West because of the old Asian tradition to sleep on a wood board.
Taiwan has several good universities, many of which have exchange agreements with foreign universities, and these are a good way to experience life in Taiwan. The most prestigious university is National Taiwan University.
Mandarin Chinese. Some universities in Taiwan have Chinese Promoting Programs that offers Chinese lessons to foreigners who wish to live in Taiwan or to learn Mandarin Chinese as their second or foreign language.
Martial arts. There are many styles of kung fu taught in Taiwan, largely by masters who came here with the Kuomintang in the late 1940’s. Taekwondo is also extremely popular and is often a mandatory part of school children’s physical education.
The majority of travellers who work in Taiwan pick up temporary jobs teaching English. Jobs teaching other languages (mainly European or Japanese) do exist but have a much smaller proportion of the market.
Job requirements – in finding employment with a language school, experience, teaching qualifications and references are not required but obviously help. On paper, a big issue is also made about accents, with the North American English accent being heavily favored over British, Australian and South African accents in many language schools’ sales marketing. However, in practice, many schools that advertise ‘American English’ and claim that their teachers are all from Canada or the USA, actually employ teachers from anywhere. Age is a factor, with applicants in their 20s seemingly being preferred. More than anything, appearance is probably the major factor in finding employment with most schools – Do you ‘look Western’? – and reliability and turning up on time for work is then the major factor for keeping your job. This ‘look Western’ point has quite a bearing.
It is illegal to work without a work permit and an ARC (or Alien Residency Permit), and legal work officially requires a university degree and usually a long (two month+) application process. However, illegal employment is easy to find with many school managers being willing to pay under the table for short durations. Also, very few schools will arrange an ARC without at least a year-long contract being signed. Frankly, with all this inflexibility, it’s no wonder so many teachers opt for the non-legal route. That and tax evasion.
British and German citizens aged 18-30 can apply for a working holiday visa. For more information, visit the Bureau of Consular Affairs website.
A lot of the illegal teaching work that the majority of English teachers partake in is simply through private student tuition with payment being cash-in-hand. Teaching English in Taiwan can be lucrative, as the salaries are very high compared to the cost of living, typically ranging $500-650 per hour before deductions in most language schools, with anything between $500-1000 per hour being negotiable for private students
Taiwan is very safe for tourists, even for women at night. Police departments in most jurisdictions have a Foreign Affairs Police unit staffed by English speaking officers.
Natural hazards. Taiwan often experiences typhoons during the summer months and early fall, especially on the East Coast. Heavy monsoon rainfall also occurs during the summer. Hikers and mountaineers should be sure to consult weather reports before heading into the mountains. A major hazard following heavy rainfall in the mountains is falling rocks.Taiwan is also located on the Pacific Ring of Fire, which means that earthquakes are a common occurrence. Taiwan’s wild areas are home to a variety of poisonous snakes, including the bamboo viper, Russel’s viper, banded krait, coral snake, Chinese cobra, Taiwan habu, and the so-called “hundred pacer”
Traffic. Local drivers have a well-deserved reputation for being reckless. It is possible to obtain a driving license in Taiwan without ever having driven on the roads. If you happen to drive a car or a motorcycle, the obvious rule is that if someone turns in front of you, you should be the one to adapt. To avoid collisions, drivers need to be extremely vigilant for other vehicles creating hazards and always be willing to adjust speed or direction to accommodate. Do not expect drivers to yield way, or respect traffic lights in many areas, especially in central and southern Taiwan. Sounding the horn is the usual way a Taiwanese driver indicates that they do not intend to accommodate a driver trying to encroach on their lane, etc, and does not necessarily imply the anger or criticism, as it does in other countries.
Eating and Drinking
Westerners should be cautious of relatively undercooked food. Many Taiwanese restaurants offer plates of raw, sliced red meat and uncooked seafood that are brought to the table and either barbecued or simmered in a pot of stock. As this constitutes a staple of the Taiwanese diet, any bacteria that may remain doesn’t affect the locals, but it can wreak havoc with foreigners. The best policy is to make sure you cook the food in a manner to which you are accustomed.
Don’t drink tap water without boiling it, though it’s safe for brushing your teeth.
Healthcare. Medicines are available for minor ailments at drug stores. You may also find common drugs requiring a prescription in the west (like asthma inhalers and birth control pills) cheaply available from drug stores without a prescription.
Taiwan has both Chinese physicians and Western doctors, both of which are taken equally seriously. However, as a foreigner, the assumption would generally be to direct you to a Western doctor. The quality of the hospitals in Taiwan is excellent and on par, if not better, with those found in the West.
Watch out for mosquito bites when hiking in the mountains. Especially in the summer, the humid and hot weather makes mosquitos very active. Most mosquito bites only cause skin irritation and itching, but in some areas of Taiwan it’s possible to contract Dengue Fever or Japanese Encephalitis (though they are both on the rare side in Taiwan).
Culture. Taiwan shares several cultural taboos with other East Asian nations.
Some Taiwanese are superstitious about anything connected with dying – unlucky things should never be mentioned. One thing to note is that the number 4 (four, pronounced ‘si’) sounds like the word for death in Mandarin.
The Taiwanese are certainly not puritanical and enjoy a drink, especially the locally brewed Taiwan Beer and Kaoliang. However, Taiwan does not have a culture of heavy drinking and is rare to see anyone drunk on the streets.
You are expected to remove your shoes before entering a house. You will find some slippers to be worn by visitors next to the entrance door. It is likely to be the same ritual for bathrooms and balconies.
In addition, upon entering and leaving a temple, do take note and avoid stepping on the extra step (a single raised step, similar to that of a stair’s, often found at the gateways) that divides the outside and the inside of the temple. Always try to step over it instead of on it.
Taiwanese society is rather polarized by allegiance between supporters of the two major political blocks informally known as “Pan-Blue Coalition” and “Pan-Green Coalition”, although there are large numbers of people who are either centrist or who don’t care. To simplify a very complex situation, pan-blue supporters tend to be more favorable toward the idea of (re)unification or maintaining a status-quo with China and pan-green supporters tend to be more favorable toward the idea of establishing a formally independent Republic of Taiwan, among other differences.
Unless you know your listener well, it is unwise to say anything (either positive or negative) about the current government, about historical figures in Taiwanese history, about Taiwan’s international relations, or about relations with mainland China. Some political figures such as Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Ching-kuo are generally seen positively, but others (Chiang Kai-shek, Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian in particular) arouse very polarized feelings.
Gay and lesbian travelers
Taiwan is quite liberal when it comes to homosexuality compared to its neighbours. Taiwan does not have laws against homosexuality, though same-sex marriages and unions are currently not recognised.
Internet cafes are plentiful, although you may have to wander around before finding one. In addition, a wireless internet accessing net covering all of Taipei City is available (it was free before May 2006 and is now payable at convenient stores in Taipei City) and Kaohsiung City is currently under construction; it already works in some huge MRT stations and on some special points. You will need some sort of login.
If you want an internet connection to your smart-phones, you can purchase a prepaid 3G data sim card from Chunghwa Telecom at a cost of TWD250 for 3 days, or TWD450 for 7 days. Just walk in to any official Chunghwa Telecom office counters to apply. They need your passport and identification documents of your country of origin.
As the People’s Republic of China (PRC) does not allow other nations to have official diplomatic relations with both itself and the ROC in Taiwan, many of the world’s major nations do not have official embassies or consulates in Taiwan. However, as the PRC allows recognition of Taiwan as a separate economy, many nations maintain a “Trade Office”, “Institute” or something of similar nature such as American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) or European Economic and Trade Office and these usually perform limited consular activities such as issuing visas.