Where is Taiwan?
Located somewhere to the East of Mainland China, North of Philippines, and South West of Japan and South Korea, this island is 3 times smaller than New York and 19 times smaller than United Kingdom. While Taiwan is well-known around the world for making semiconductors, computers, laptops, smartphones, bicycles, bubble tea, peculiar snacks, indie films, serial dramas, kaoliang wine, Taipei 101 and having some of the most beautiful natural landscapes, it is somewhat a laid back country.
As advanced and beautiful as Taiwan might sound in glossy tourism brochures, and news reports, there are some important things to know before coming to the beautiful island of Formosa (its ancient Portuguese name) so we compiled a few points below to prepare for your trip to Taiwan.
1. Is Taiwan part of China?
Taiwan is independent of Mainland China or People’s Republic of China(PRC). PRC only rules Mainland China and has no control of Taiwan but claims the island as part of its territory under its “One China Principle”. Some time in its history, the KuoMinTang a powerful chinese political party controlling Mainland China was ousted by Mao ZeDong’s Communist Party, and the party and many of its loyal followers relocated to the island. Taiwan is also known as Republic of China (ROC). Taiwan had also been under the rule of Japan for half a century. Taiwan’s history is messy but you can read all about it on your flight over!
If you have visited China, Taiwan will be a surprise to you. Because of its independence (from Mainland China), democratic-style of government, high education level and advancement in technology, the island is so different from what you might find in Mainland China. It is well-managed. It is very clean, roads are organized, operations are structured, and its countrymen (and women) are well-educated and polite. Taiwan has a balance of modernity and tradition. In some ways, an initial impression of Taiwan might be its resemblance to Japan.
2. Brush up on your Mandarin!
This is obvious.
Mandarin is the official language of Taiwan. In Mainland China, Mandarin is Putonghua (普通话) and in Taiwan as Guoyu (國語). What is the difference? Mostly the way the Chinese characters are written, grammar and pronunciations.
Min Nan, a Fujian dialect is widely spoken in Taiwan. Fujian province is located in Mainland China, the coast is just ‘across’ from Taiwan. Hakka language is spoken to a smaller percentage.
Sure, English is taught in schools, used especially by the younger generation and appear in most public signages, it is however not widely used or practiced by the general public around Taiwan. You could get by with Google translator on the smart phone if you have data or a mobile wifi setup. Taiwan is very ‘connected’ – even in the smaller towns. To make your vacation more enjoyable, it is best teach yourself some basic Mandarin before you arrive and maybe list some important words on ink and paper, just in case you get ‘disconnected’ (GASP!).
Oh, Taiwan taxi drivers do not speak English! If you have limited time and patience then learn Mandarin quickly, keep a translator next to you or buy a packaged tour service.
3. Credit and Debit cards are NOT widely accepted. Cash is King (or Queen)
For a country that is well-known for information technology, electronics and computers, credit and debit cards in particular, Visa and Mastercard, are surprisingly not widely used. All convenience stores including 7-Eleven and Family Mart do NOT accept them. You have a better chance at using UnionPay or JCB cards at these convenience stores and other retail outlets.
Chances of using credit cards are higher at very large shopping malls, hotels and maybe Starbucks but it’s better to bring hard currency to convert to New Taiwan Dollars(NT$ or TWD) when you need it most. Of course, you can try withdrawing cash at ATMs with credit and debit cards.
With Taiwan dollars in hand, you can sort of go ‘cashless’ in Taiwan by buying smartcards like EasyCard, IPass and ICash at conveniences stores and MRT (Mass Rapid Transport), and top them up to use while traveling around Taiwan. These smartcards can be used for shopping, buying transportation tickets, entrance tickets and paying for many other services. Some products and services even come with discounts when purchased with smartcards. Top ups can be made at most ubiquitous convenience stores. Unused funds can be refunded to you.
4. High Speed Rail (HSR) is available
Short trip to Taiwan? Well, high-speed trains are available to get you around fast to 12 Taiwan cities. From that point, there are taxis (besides uber and local ride-share apps), buses, and regular trains ready to get you to your final destination. In Taipei, there’s the metro which connects to many districts and the International airport. Because Taiwan is so technologically advance and competitive, there are many phone apps to help you book your transportation services in advance.
For HSR rates and destinations, check out the website.
Taipei Metro website
5. Long distance taxi services
If you have limited time, don’t want to ride the high-speed trains and don’t mind paying for private transfers, there are long distance taxi services which offer transfer services to almost all Taiwan towns and cities. Again, there are smartphone apps that can be downloaded and ready to serve you. Remember, taxi drivers don’t speak much English.
6. Night markets are not open daily
Night markets are one of the key attractions of Taiwan cities. The downside is that they are not open daily unless it’s the biggest ones like Shilin Night Market in Taipei so do some research before arriving to Taiwan or any of the cities.
7. Old Streets
If you can’t stay up for the night markets, besides museums and temples you can hit the old streets which offer historical charm, and of course, food. Spread between Taipei City and New Taipei City respectively, there are the old streets of Yingge, Jinbaoli, Shenkeng, Bopiliao, Shifen, Jiufen, Sanxia, and Tamsui. In Tainan, there is Anping and Xinhua. Taichung has Wuqi, Dajia, and Dali. Kaoshiung offers Cishan (Qishan).
8. Taiwanese eat early
Unless you are in major cities like Taipei, Kaohsiung, Taichung, and Taoyuan where there are plenty of dining options and have late closing hours, the regular Taiwanese person eats early and smaller town restaurants close by 8 or 9ish. Even lunch starts and ends early. We discovered this on our recent trip. Having to feed a difficult baby first then worry about your own food later became a rush to complete our meals before the shop brought down its shutters.
As consolation, 24hr convenience stores offer snacks and microwaveable food. Obviously not the most nutritious offerings.
9. Cheap meals are available
If you are poor South East Asian traveler, Taiwan night markets are not cheap. With the abundance of snacks and attractions available, they make you just want to spend, spend, SPEND! Before you know it, you’ve spent an amount equivalent to buying yourself a fancy meal. You can, however, get by with hot food at small restaurants with Lu Rou Fan (Braised Pork on Rice) or Lu Rou Mien (Noodle version) at TWD20-30 onwards (approximately USD1) for a small bowl, a very small bowl. You can order a large version and with other dishes if you are feeling a little more generous.
If you are not on a tight budget, plan to pay minimum TWD100 (USD3) for a main dish and drink at a simple restaurant.
10. Practice riding a bicycle, scooter and hiking
Bicycles are a great way of getting around to see attractions at your own leisure (and having to avoid the language barriers with bus and taxi drivers). Bicycles are available with bike sharing services on the street, and sometimes from your lodging so practise riding the bicycle and defensive riding skills. Taiwan drivers are generally mindful of pedestrians and cyclists plus there are plenty of speed traps to curb speed-fiends on major roads.
While regular petrol scooters/motorbikes require international riding license to rent them. Electric scooters are available for use without any restrictions. Motorbikes and scooters cover more ground.
Get your fitness up for walking the towns and trails (um… and covering the night markets). Taiwan has 9 National Parks therefore there are many outdoor trails that take you from flats to steep inclines crossing hotsprings, farms, grasslands, waterfalls, etc etc.
So this is a brief round up for anyone who is preparing to visit Taiwan. We’ve left out visa requirements and if you are a Taiwan travel pro and have further points to share, please leave a comment to help other travellers. Other important things to know about Taiwan, include the fact that Taiwan has a ‘hotline’ numbers for travellers, and expatriates to help them with travel, and settling-in matters.
Tourist Information Hotline: +886-2-2717-3737
24-Hour Toll-Free Travel Information Call Center: 0800-011-765
International Community Service Hotline: 0800-024-111