“Thailand? You went to Thailand?”
And so begins any conversation about Taiwan. Many expatriates will tell you the confusion between Thailand and Taiwan is common. I mean, they sound the same. And isn’t Taiwan in China? Why go there and not Japan, Thailand, Laos, (insert favorite Asian country)?
After two years living in Taoyuan, Taiwan, I can tell you: there is every reason to make your next stop Taiwan. Forget Thailand, forget Laos. Come to the rolling hills of bamboo, the marble mountains, the people welcoming you at every turn. And, of course, these five gems.
1. Mei r mei, the beautiful breakfast shop serving Dan Bing
The greatest gift that Taiwan has given to man is the dedicated-to-breakfast restaurant serving simple dishes to the bleary-eyed, hungover English teachers. Of these restaurants, Mei r Mei was the most ubiquitous and wonderful with its small boxes of treats and kittens stamped on every cup. And of all the dishes served, Dan Bing took the cake.
How can something so simple be so wonderful? Picture a thin-bread pancake wrapped around egg, perhaps with ham and cheese, sliced to bite-sized little pockets of goodness. It’s so simple; it’s hard to explain the tear in my eye while thinking of its absence. No words can describe the glory of this sumptuous dish. It must be tasted.
Dan Bing, I miss you.
2. The party and the festival: Spring Scream and Chinese New Year
There is nothing quite like a fireworks display during the week of Chinese New Year in Taiwan: weeks of pyrotechnics, thunder at 3 a.m., skies filled with explosions illegal in most of the 50 United States. Go to any barren field in Taiwan and a group of kids or adults returning from the night market are lighting off payloads with the potential to blow out your eardrums and windows.
The most intense display comes at a little-known music festival, Spring Scream, held on the very southern tip of Taiwan. For three days, the young, old, poor, and rich come together to celebrate bad punk music, drink on the beach, and watch the skies fill with thousands of dollars worth of fireworks. Skip the music, and watch your step (third-degree burns are common), but stay for one of the most impressive displays of light and fire you’ll ever see in your life. It’s something that must be seen to be believed.
3. Teaching, and learning, English.
For the traveller who intends to stay a bit longer, the most common route towards employment is to teach in Taiwan. The cost-of-living-to-wage ratio is the best in Asia, and English jobs are plentiful. Teachers often get jobs working nights, instructing students who have already had a full day of school. These students can be, and often are, tired, cranky, and emotional.
Still, despite the drama, these students work harder than anyone you will ever meet. They will inspire diligence, care, and work ethic in you. They will inspire a love for a language you thought you knew, only to learn it again in their interpretations and the struggles to help them understand everything from the names of fruits to the past-future-subjunctive.
4. Sheep, mountains, and hot springs: the nature of Taiwan
Taiwan holds an impressive amount of biodiversity for such a small land mass. For the sheep-lover, there is the famous farm in Nantou that offers petting and sheep shows. The famous rolling marble cliffs in Taroko Gorge promise a treacherous scooter ride around winding and washed out trails in exchange for the most beautiful views you’ll see in your entire life.
Then there are the natural hot spring baths peppered around the country and even piped into hotel rooms. Hot spring baths often come with their own brand of excitement, allowing individuals to sit and have tiny fish nibble on their feet. This effervescent experience feels a bit like sticking your feet into a pond full of 7-Up.
5. The locals and the foreigners
Never will you feel more accepted than when you land and meet your first local in Taiwan. Everyone in the country seems to want to practice English with you, treat you to a hot pot, or show you their favorite night market. Consider offering your English up for a language exchange on a site like taiwanenglish.com or tealit.com while you’re there, which generally consists of a thirty minute sit-down with a local where you can practice Chinese and they can practice English. You may not learn a ton, but you’ll have a great time.
Beyond the locals, you’re bound to meet some of the strangest, most fun foreigners you’ve encountered before. Taiwan seems to be a magnet for Canadians and Australians who have crazy schemes cooked up at every turn. Go with them, and see where they take you. Be sure to stay hydrated. Be ready for anything.
Pack your bags.
Do it now. Get out of your comfort zone, and ignore those silly folks who didn’t know that there’s more to Asia than Thailand. You’re going to Taiwan.