Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Random Taiwan Travel Tips and Advice

Book trains ahead of time, especially during the summer vacation period. This applies more to Tze Chang (the fastest of the conventional trains, used for example to travel from  Taipei to Hualien) than it does to High Speed Train tickets, though even they can sell out at busy times (a potential problem if going to the airport). Buying tickets a few hours or a day in advance can make the difference between having a seat or not for a three hour journey. If you don't have a seat, it's fine to sit in a vacant seat until someone with a ticket for that seat comes along (everybody does this so everyone is used to kicking someone out of a seat before they sit down).

Airlines and Airports
Fly Taiwanese airlines (EVA Air and China Airlines). Eva Air are, by any measure, an excellent airline, and always have been. China Airlines used to have a dire safety record (many years ago), but claim to have re-trained their pilots in the USA and improved their safety standards, and they haven't had any major incidents for several years. I prefer EVA but quite happily fly China Airlines when it's cheaper or more convenient (they fly to more destinations). I have been particularly impressed with how flexible China Airlines have been when I've made booking errors or needed to change my flights.
And, of course, being Taiwanese, both airlines provide good vegan meals - much better than any other airlines I've experienced. My worst experiences are with KLM and Air New Zealand, who from my experience seem to regularly forget their vegan meal requests.

If you're going to Taipei and coming from China or Japan, try to get a flight into Songshan airport in central Taipei, rather than the main Taiwan Taoyuan Airport (in Taoyuan County - next to Taipei). This is especially so if coming from Tokyo, as flights depart from Haneda Airport, so it save the annoying and expensive trip out to Narita Airport, and then another high speed train ticket or long bus ride from Taoyuan to Taipei. And when you land at Songshan, go straight to Sophie's Garden for lunch or dinner. There's not much worth eating at either airport, except starbucks (with soymilk) and their vegan blueberry bagels (ask for jam).

Always offer your seat to older people on public transport. It's very important in Confucian culture, and helps to maintain the generally good reputation foreigners enjoy here. However, offering a seat to someone who really isn't old enough (in their opinion) doesn't win any friends either!

Mobile Phones
It's easily possible to get a prepaid sim card in Taiwan (for GSM phones, used in most countries except Japan, Korea and some US networks). However, ID (eg a passport) is needed and it can take a while. Go to any phone store (located in all through the cities) and allow an hour or so. It's theoretically possible at a 7-11, but from my experience registering it can take a long long time, and may require a resident to show their id (in case the phone is used for crime).

It's difficult to get a prepaid mobile with 3G in Taiwan, however Taiwan Mobile are said to have one with an unlimited data plan, sold in 3-day periods. However, wireless is not hard to find, so unless you like to read your emails immediately, or plan on venturing well off the beaten track (ie into the mountains - recommended, but be careful) there's little need. Even in small towns, there are always 7-11s with wifi, and most rural ones have seating, so it's possible to sit down, have a drink, and go online. Most cities have free wireless (TPE-Free, iTaiwan etc) which requires a phone to setup a login, but is so slow it's hardly worth bothering with. The best deal I know of is Wifly, which can be found in Taipei MRT stations, Starbucks and 7-11s (and it's difficult to be far from one of these places!). It's 100NT for a day or 500NT for a month. This is what I use every time I'm in Taiwan. However, it also needs a mobile phone to send a verification message to, and the English instructions for this procedure often don't work, and if they don't it makes it very difficult to use the card at all, so it's best to ask someone to help you register the card in Chinese the first time, and thereafter you'll probably be able to figure it out on your own.

the front and back of a Wifly card from Starbucks

There are a few internet cafes around, but they're a dying breed now with computers so cheap and portable. It's possible to photocopy and print (from a USB etc) at all 7-11s, and prices are very reasonable.

Always talk to children in English if they appear to want to (or if their parents want them to). Some waiguorens complain that this is providing free English classes during off-duty hours, which it is (even if you're not an English teacher). However, the fact that most Taiwanese parents want their children to grow up trilingual (Taiwanese, Chinese and English) and want them to be comfortable talking with foreigners reflects the general welcoming attitude to the outside world that makes visiting or living in Taiwan so easy and rewarding, so a short five-sentence conversation with kids you meet is a small price to pay for this. And, of course, little in return for the help you'll likely receive from Taiwanese all over the country, whenever and wherever you'll need it. Ask children their name (they'll probably have an English name, even if they're too young to say it) and how old they are. Unless their English sounds very good, complement them on their English and stop there before you embarrass them, as they probably won't be comfortable conversing about anything else (though they may well have wrote-learned the Oxford Dictionary at school).

I personally like staying at simple budget hotels: a clean room with clean sheets and my own bathroom will do for me. Most cities in Taiwan have plenty of such hotels near the train station, usually for around 1000NT per night or less. Bookings are not usually necessary, but expect to pay more during the weekend. Note that most clientele are couples using them as a private space in a crowded society in which most people live with their parents until they get a good job or get married, but this alternative hotel use doesn't affect more traditional users.

One exception to this is Taipei, which has few such hotels. My favourite hotel in Taipei is T's Hotel, which I found by chance recently. It's in the trendy fashion district of Ximen Ding, and a short walk from Veggie Joy. A (tiny) single room starts at about 1200 NT. The rate includes free breakfast, but it's difficult to know what's vegan (and the chef didn't seem interested in entertaining any more than what doesn't contain obvious lumps of flesh) so I wouldn't recommend bothering with it. Another good bet is the City Inn close to Taipei Main Station and the original Huai Ning Loving Hut. From my experience, they'll usually have a room late in the evening (after guests paying by the hour have checked out).

Taipei has quite a few hostels, but from my limited experience they're pretty dire, and I don't recommend them. On the other end of the spectrum there are plenty of top-end hotels for those who want them.

In Kaohsiung, I stay at the Riverside Hotel. Rooms are simple but very clean, prices are very reasonable, and the location is close to Kaohsiung Station and the Loving Hut. Don't be fooled by the name: it may have been once, but the river is a filthy inner-city canal.

Expect to be sometimes be asked "Are you an American?" before "Where do you come from?". For non-Americans like myself this  may take a little getting used to, but it reflects the history between the US and Taiwan (not all good as one might expect: the US essentially watched on and did nothing as  Chiang Kai Shek and his ROC troops massacred thousands of Taiwanese and sent the country's development back decades). The situation is 'improving' as more foreigners from different places come to Taiwan and more Taiwanese travel abroad.

Pick up a copy of the Taipei Times, Taiwan's best English newspaper, for an idea of what's going on.

Like them or not, Starbucks are everywhere, especially in central Taipei, where there a probably at least half a dozen within five minutes walk from Taipei Main Station. They are one of the few places which serve soymilk (dou zhang) and they all serve blueberry bagels (the only vegan item as of April 2013), but you may need to ask for one if it's not on display. Also ask for strawberry jam, otherwise they'll give you butter.

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