Temples, night markets, skyscrapers, lights and stinky tofu

If Paris is the City of Lights, then Taipai, Taiwan, is the City of Animated Lights. All over this fascinating, captivating city are light shows on buildings — playful characters dancing or colored lights flitting up and down the skyscrapers — as well as vibrant cartoon-like figures dotting city parks. We attended the Lantern Festival, which kicks off the Chinese New Year, and has more than 300 exhibits and brilliant masterpieces that signify different themes such as international friendship or prosperity. Many are animated and change expressions every couple of minutes.

One of the world’s great capitals, Taipei — and the rest of Taiwan — is a tourist’s delight with ancient ornamental temples, modern skyscrapers, night markets and food — glorious food. The sights, sounds and smells (we’re talking about you, stinky tofu!) will delight, astonish, amaze and educate.

If Taiwan isn’t on your to-visit list, write it down, now! Taiwan, officially known as the Republic of China and formerly Formosa, has a complicated history — not to mention present with China on-andoff making noise — but it is a vibrant country with more than 24 million inhabitants, centuries of history and a modern outlook with cutting-edge technology everywhere. But what struck our group right off the bat was that all those millions were polite and respectful — even the cars and hundreds of scooters whizzing by. There were even signs in elevators saying, “No talking”. Organized chaos, one noted.

All very civilized — which of course it should be. Taiwan has been settled for at least 25,000 years and over the centuries indigenous peoples, Han Chinese, the Dutch, the Ming dynasty, the Qing dynasty and the Empire of Japan (among others) all weighed in and put their stamp on the island, resulting in a mesmerizing, energizing, delightful country that is a full voting democracy with legalized same-sex marriage and the 21st largest economy in the world.

The bottom line is that it is a wonderful spot to introduce oneself to the charms and intrigues of Asia.

Taipai is a bustling capital with shops, night markets, temples and lots of city parks. We stayed at the Okra Prestige Taipei Hotel, which not only offered extensive buffet meals (expect soup and dumplings even at breakfast) but had a dream spa with a steam room, sauna and hot and cold whirlpools, perfect for relaxing after a day of sightseeing.

Our first stop took us away from the city to the mountains of Laochuan Borough and a visit with U-Theatre, a drumming and performance arts company unlike any other. Formed by Liu Ruoyu and her husband Huang Chih-chun, the company is as much a religious Tao experience as a musical one. The members lead a rigorous lifestyle that includes tai chi, meditation, hiking and drumming. The search for inner peace is as much a part of their essence as the drumming and a sense of peace and connection with the music was felt by all.

On the other spectrum of serenity was the Raohe Street Night Market, one of many in the city. A full-on culinary experience, there are rows of food being cooked, small corners with tables for eating, as well as boutiques, beauty shops and game rooms for about a mile. You could go every day and order something different and it would take a long time to repeat yourself.

Each item looked and smelled delicious except every once in a while, there was a foul order. Stinky tofu, our guide, said with a laugh. Yes, once you smell it, you’ll never forget it. We were assured it tastes better than it smells, which isn’t saying much. The tofu, which is fermented in a brine sometimes for months, has an odor more like rotten garbage or smelly feet than something you’d want to order.

The National Palace Museum showcases the incredible art of China over the past 8,000 years with a permanent collection of almost 700,00 pieces. Many of the pieces were moved from the Palace Museum in the Forbidden City in China and shipped to Taiwan fearing the threat of a Japanese evasion during World War II and later, a Communist takeover. The museum’s collection showcases impressive intricate jade, metalwork and ceramics that will leave you amazed at the craftsmanship.

After that we leapt into current times with a visit to the 101 Tower, a skyscraper that has — you guessed it — 101 stories and was the world’s tallest building until the 2009 completion of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. A structural marvel designed to withstand typhoon winds and earthquake tremors, the building reflects the country’s love of color, design and playful animation with Instagram-worthy photos, shops, children’s games and an area where if you sit down on the floor, it feels as if you’re moving — or maybe we were — who knows! There’s a lot to do besides looking out the windows; regardless, it’s fun for all.

While there is so much to do and see in Taiwan, here are two simple ones: get a Korean foot massage and drink bubble tea. Bubble tea, which was invented there, is a cold refreshing drink with tapioca pearls, and a bit off-putting when a small ball comes up the straw and into your mouth. The Korean foot massage is not for the faint of heart; my masseuse’s hands could substitute for the jaws of life.

Tainan City
While Taipei has the look and feel of the cosmopolitan city it is, Tainan City delights with its history and authentic feel. The oldest city on the island and with a tropical climate, Tainan is dotted with Taoist, and Buddhist temples as well as churches and remnants of earlier times. While there is much to see including the Aniping Old Fort (where the Dutch set up their commercial efforts) to the Anping Tree House and the Tainan Orchid Botanical Garden, what made our trip exceptional were the temples. Travelgirl tip: The Silks Place Tainan offers 5-star accommodations and dining.

Just walking through the alleyways was charming with old houses with colorful decorated doorways and transoms dotting the landscape while small birds in cages fluttered about and sang. The key is to look up because the many of the roofs feature ornately carved sculptures of dragons, bats, mystic figures brightly painted with lots of golds, reds and blues. The mind really couldn’t take it all in — it was that beautiful and so ornately overwhelming.

The Tainan Confucian Temple was built in 1665 and in addition to the temple there is Wen Miao (a lecture hall) to the right, Gun Xue (national academy) to the left and Ta-Cheng Hall, housing the mortuary tablet of Confucius and disciples. The temple itself is deep red with hanging wooden plaques honoring Confucius and are considered the most precious relics in any Confucius temple. The centerpoint is a small altar embossed with gold designs that could be fish, dragons or other mythical creatures as well as lettering with smaller altars to the sides for worship.

The other highlight of this magnificent city was, in fact, another temple, the Tiangong Temple or the Temple of Heaven built in 1954 and dedicated to the Jade Emperor. Old stone carvings of Chinese characters are on the walls and a pair of granite coiled dragon pillars anchor the palace hall. Inside there were red lanterns, pagodas, and flowers, red streamers with people praying and lighting candles making wishes.

As we said. the typography of Taiwan is diverse and with 973 miles of coastline, finding a beach is easy and worthwhile. There are a variety of beaches including gold and black beaches to the north and, to the south, fine white sandy beaches. We didn’t visit them but we did head up the mountains and panned for gold in New Taipei City and participated in a tea ceremony at the Jiufen Amei Tea House in Jiufen, a nearby mountain town packed with tea houses, street food shacks and souvenir shops.

Never having been to Asia, we had nothing to compare Taiwan to but we found it to be a country overloaded with history, varied scenery, great shopping, incredible food (be sure to bring home pineapple cakes) and a futuristic delight with bright lights, neons and sparkly things all around that will just make you smile.


Mary Welch


Editor, award-winning journalist and author

No Comments Yet

Comments are closed

Improving your travels....and your life!



Sign up to get a FREE issue.
Delivered straight to your inbox!