All Swans are White…
One of the reasons I love to travel is, like most, to discover new things – new places, attractions, culture, people and be inspired and enriched by the whole experience of discovery.
Almost everything in the modern world, I believe, can attest to the influences from the Western World (primarily the American and British Culture) – fashion, finance, entertainment, education, business… For me, anything else would be a poor copy. It didn’t help that, growing up, I was forced to learn (and memorize) Chinese in a strict Chinese school which made me detest anything to do with the language and, in return, galvanise my love for everything western.
I used to tell my wife Angie “I will only go to China or any Chinese-speaking country if someone pays me …even then I might still have to consider first”. So when she suggested that we go to Taiwan for our next family vacation, not only did I give her one of those” You must be kidding” look….I actually verbalised it….right till we left the boarding gate and into the plane. I relented for a few reasons:
First, we were running out of good, clean, safe and child-friendly places to bring my 4-year old to experience the great outdoors. Second, I can never make sense of shopping holidays (which Taiwan is famous for). I believe all sense of history and culture would implode into a huge black-hole void the moment I stepped into a shopping mall – as commercialisation robs a country of its true character. But apparently, according to friends who have visited this isle, Taiwan has MORE to offer than shopping so I gotta see it to believe it. Finally, I thought it would be fun to prove myself right – that Taiwan, like its motherland, would be a country of crass, uncouth new rich attempting a poor imitation of Western sophistication and refinement.
So, armed with a loose application of Karl Popper’s Falsification Theory which roughly states that ‘to prove that a theory is right, you must consciously look for empirical evidence to determine otherwise‘. In short, to prove that all swans are white, one must try hard to look for non-white swans! So to prove my perception of Taiwan right, this cynic set out to look for a worthwhile and enriching experience there. As much as it is a family holiday, it was also a journey to discover a new perspective for me. So…Game On!
Most dime-a-dozen travel reviews would introduce the country beginning with its geography and attractions, but for me, the true pride of a country is not its places and products but its people.
When we arrived in Taipei, I was expecting to be greeted by the smog and unending traffic jams synonymous with most Asian capitals. Instead, I was greeted by “the heaviest rainfall in hundred years”, breaking news of landslide, flooding and impending typhoons, so much so we kept receiving whatsapp messages from concerned family members and colleagues asking after our safety. With our first stop “Flying Cow Ranch” being nestled in a rustic area, I was really not amused. However, throughout the snarl, we were able to speak at length to the driver who impressed me with his warmth and friendliness, advising us of the safest route and alternative itinerary to our fragile plans which seemed threatened by the unusual weather phenomenon. He was just a hotel transfer driver and he could have just chosen to keep quiet.
Throughout our journey into Taiwan, we would get to meet more common folks like that – people who cared about people: Warm, sincere, helpful and approachable Taiwanese. At the Flying Cow Ranch, the lady at the souvenir shop volunteered to queue for train tickets on our behalf after knocking off from work knowing that we were planning a detour to circumvent the landslide and rainfall…and she actually did!
At Hualien, we went on a 2-hour whale watching cruise. Before the cruise began, the operator took pains to ensure that we were all briefed on safety procedures and that we had all donned our life jackets (including a small one for Dana) before boarding the vessel. This was a far cry from the terrifying trip we made in Phuket a few years back with Dana when our island hopping cruise went ahead amidst rough and choppy waters and with our life vests carelessly strewn on the floor in an overcrowded speedboat. I’ve vowed, from then, never to compromise safety for a cheap bargain. We didn’t get to see any whales that day and they gave every patron a complimentary return trip voucher to enjoy another full trip to view the whales.
Later on in the afternoon, our lady driver took us to a local gorge in Hualien to marvel at its picturesque scenery when it started to drizzle. We were a few metres down a steep muddy ravine admiring the crystal-clear emerald river up close when our lady driver just scooped our 4 year-old up, piggy-backed her and climbed up the ravine and swiftly whisked us away in her vehicle for fear of a landslide.
Safety, and not profit as priority, is very much in their service mindset. This had my admiration.
From the smallest retail packaging, to their public transport and tourist attractions, one can easily sense a deep sense of pride for the quality of work they produce and deliver. Arriving at the Flying Cow Ranch in Miaoli, I was instantly impressed by the details that went into their décor and maintenance of the place. Coupled with its warm and helpful staff, my one-night experience there left an indelible impression of pride, professionalism and personal attention to details.
The same attention to detail and warm customer service, was also evident everywhere we went. When visiting ‘MonCoeur’ – a local garden manicured and landscaped for couples to take their wedding photos, the attention to details really did make us feel like we’re in an old English hamlet.
Few days later, we would be travelling in a local interstate bus from Jiaoxi back to Taipei. There I stood with respect as the bus conductor waved and bowed to a departing bus …knowing full well that her gestures may not be noticed or reciprocated.
Pride in the Taiwanese service and delivery is translated to their products. Be prepared that shopping for local delicacies to bring home can prove to be a herculean task. Everywhere we visited, may it be in downtown Taipei or in small towns, local cakes and titbits would be intricately packed into tastefully designed packages. It gives one a sense of loss just having to choose one against the other. The aesthetic appeal of the packaging actually masks one’s actual judgment on the taste (which, for most, is not too bad actually). I remembered seeing and sampling a local rice delicacy prepared in actual short bamboo sticks which I eventually had to turned it down due to the sheer weight of the package. It didn’t help either that the warm smiles and personable service of the promoters makes the service you receive in Singapore pale ghastly in contrast.
Looking beyond the surface of its people and products, I’ve made some observations that are quite telling on our own society. Walking through the cramped and busy night markets both in Taichung and Hualien whilst savouring their delicious (and sinful) delicacies, I noticed that there were no litter on the ground nor were there garbage collectors walking around picking up after us. Instead, there were bins strategically placed in the center of the busy lanes and patrons would civic-consciously dispose off their rubbish there. The lone garbage collector would come and renew the garbage bags periodically. This was observed again when we took the local interstate train to Jiaoxi from Hualien when we saw the locals carefully keeping their trash in plastic bags and waiting for the train ‘garbage collector’ to come by to collect their trash. To add…I didn’t notice any threatening signs of fines for littering around too.
Finally, many of the people behind these services and products in Taiwan, are their own locals. Young or old alike, you find them serving in eateries, promoting local wares, driving buses and trains etc. Back home in Singapore, I have had to remind myself when I’m dining out in a restaurant but waited upon entirely by teams of foreign service staff.
Angie knows I have but one criterion for trips – No Mindless Shopping please! To be specific, no modern commercialised malls please, they are all the same everywhere and we’ve given away enough things over the years to remind me how useless these touristy trinkets are. To her credit, she planned an enriching itinerary for her fussy husband and demanding toddler. The places we visited were added physical testament of the pride and passion the people have for their country. Here’s a quick highlight of the some of the key places we visited:
Flying Cow Ranch – We’re not new to farm stays and ranches but this was quite exceptional. Having been to similar themed farm locally and in Malaysia and Australia, this one truly sets a new benchmark in their level of professionalism and service. Hectares of picturesque lush greenery are punctuated by purpose-built barns offering complimentary experiences like milking, feeding of farm animals, hands-on craft-making and baking workshops ensure that it is an enjoyable and meaningful farm stay for everyone. Even a quiet walk in the farm premise would suffice to refresh. The cafés and restaurants situated within serves good, fresh food that is value for money. The resort-styled rooms are clean, cosy and comfortable. Don’t leave without trying their milk steamboat, their rich dairy products and their patented mango pudding.
Night Markets – Taiwan’s night markets in Taichung and Hualien were both more of a gastronomical experience then an educational one. As Asian night market goes, the range of dizzying products can be summarised into two words – Phone and Fashion. These are unfortunately, too commercialised and devoid of any traces of actual heritage and historical values unless one would include crass and gaudiness among them. So save yourself some time and money and go for the range of locally produced delicacies that are truly representative of the area’s culture. They are delicious, sinful and worth every calorie. Also, since we’ve experienced and see how safety conscious and clean the Taiwanese are we were cautiously optimistic in trying the street food…and have lived to tell the tale. So buy less, eat more!
Hualien – Coming from Singapore, the words ‘Hua’ and ‘Lien’ have their own uniquely negative connotations and combining them together didn’t really quite help my pre-trip impression. However I couldn’t be more wrong. Upon arrival and having stayed there for 2 nights, I must say it epitomises the Chinese saying ‘Clear Mountains and Blue Waters’. Seeing the mountain range embellish the azure Pacific Ocean and framed by a coast line which, incidentally, is littered by mile and miles of intricately designed pebbles…au naturel, leaves me awestruck. Our experience of the beauty of Hualien was further enhanced by the whale watching cruise and our visit to the local gorge Mukumugi – a less commercialised protected reserve frequented by locals compared to the touristier Tarogo Gorge. Nearby, we stopped at a shallow jade river bed, dunked our hands into the cold mountain stream and fished for precious jade. Every morning, we enjoyed some family bonding time by cycling along the shoreline, just steps away from the hotel. These proved to be such memorable experiences that even Dana still talks about them 3 months after our trip!
Shifen and Ruifang – Our last leg of our short Taiwan escapade saw us going back to Taipei. Again, to Angie’s credit, when we reached Taipei she planned for us to go to ‘Shifen’ – an old town about 2 hours by train from Taipei to experience the release of Sky Lanterns. We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves as we participated in this centuries-old tradition, wrote our wishes and prayers and sent them ‘heavenwards’ complete with fireworks! Along the way back, we had to transit for a while at ‘Ruifang’, also another small town which, I had no impression of until I walked out briefly of the train station and saw clusters of little quaint shop houses akin to a small Japanese village. Reading a brief historical account of this ancient town and precinct is enough to convince me to tell Angie to include a short stay there on our next trip.
Taipei – Our stay in commercialised Taipei, though was short but was truly enriching. True to the nature of any Asian metropolis, it has its share of cramped streets, traffic jams and greying apartments. We were blessed not to have had to experience the full spectrum of that as we spent our first day going to Shifen and the whole of the second day going to BabyBoss – BabyBoss City is Taiwan’s first indoor themed simulation city made for children. The city is designed to create an environment for children to play and learn at the same time. There are 50 professions and over 70 different occupations waiting for kids to explore ranging from being a pilot to astronaut, paramedic, chef, archaeologists and more! I had my doubts at first on how worthwhile this would be, but having spent one entire day there and seeing my 4 year-old enjoy herself with nearly half of the occupations there, I dare say that BabyBoss, with its cleverly designed programmes, props and uniforms for each occupation, has succeeded in delivering a fun and authentic learning experience for the young ones. Disneyland should have been THIS good.
Finally, to make our stay in Taipei complete, we did stay at a new chic hotel (Amba Taipei) in downtown ‘XiMenDing’ – their shopping district and it’s worth the experience to walk thru the shops at night to feel the electrifying energy that is downtown Taipei.
Gripes – Any review worth its salt would have to be balanced, let alone one which started off on a footing like mine. You’d have to arm yourself with a good grasp of the Chinese language or at least arm yourself with a good companion who is proficient in it because EVERYTHING is in Chinese and English ‘subtitles’ are limited to names of tourist attractions and toilets. I am truly blessed to travel with my Chinese-proficient wife. Bring along a good baby carrier / harness if you’re travelling with your infant. Though generally clean and safe, there is a lack of stroller-friendly provisions and breastfeeding places in public places and attractions.
Summary: The Portugese, which were among the first few to discover the island in 1544 named the island ‘Ilsa Formosa’ which means ‘Beautiful Island’. For this once cynical and reluctant traveller, i stand humbled enough to state that Taiwan is an isle where its beauty not only emancipates from her natural landscapes but more importantly, it radiates freely from the pride, passion and warmth of the people we meet at every turn; these make Taiwan such an irresistible destination.
So finally, in case you’re wondering, not all swans are white.
All of us are spoilt for choices when it comes to airlines which can bring us from Singapore to Taiwan. Depending on your preferences and budget, you can pick from full service airlines like SQ, Qantas, Garuda, Eva Air, TransAsia and China Airlines or budget airlines such as Jetstar, Tiger Airways and Scoot. The direct flight to Taiwan takes under 4 hours. You can either land at Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport (Northern TW) or Kaohsiung International Aiport (Southern TW).
Travelling within Taiwan
Taiwan is serviced by an extensive local transportation network. During our trip, we relied on a combination of the Rail (Known as TRA – Taiwan Railway Administration), High Speed Rail (HSR for short), Taxis and Intercity Buses to get us around. We found it useful that we were able to pre-book our TRA and HSR tickets online and then self-collect the tickets from any convenience stores on day of travel. The websites also contain up to date timetables and fares which make trip planning a breeze. Taxis in Taiwan are clean, efficient and run by meter (except for out-of-town or long distance travel which requires pre-booking). We do have good taxi drivers to recommend should you need one for your trip.
Where to Stay
We researched extensively on Trip Advisor before deciding on any accommodation for all our Free & Easy trips. Based on our trip, these are the accommodations we’d recommend:
Our Suggested 10 Days Relaxing Northern Taiwan Itinerary
Day 1 – Fly SINGAPORE to TAIWAN Taoyuan International Airport.
Taxi pick-up from TAOYUAN to MIAOLI: Flying Cow Farm. Spend 2 nights at Flying Cow.
Day 2 – Partake in Farm Activities at Flying Cow Farm.
Day 3 – Taxi Pick-up from MIAOLI to TAICHUNG.
Tour Sinshe attractions enroute to Taichung. Dinner at FengJia Night Market. Spend 2 nights in Taichung.
Day 4 – Tour Sun, Moon, Lake and other sights in Taichung.
Day 5– Take HSR from TAICHUNG to TAIPEI, change to TRA onward to HUALIEN.
Dinner at ZiQiang Night Market. Spend 2 nights in Hualien.
Day 6 – Tour attractions in Hualien – Taroko Gorge, Mukumugi Reserve, Whale Watching Tours (Apr to Oct only) etc.
Day 7 – Take TRA from HUALIEN to TAIPEI. Explore Ximending! Spend 3 Nights in Taipei.
Day 8 – Full day at BabyBoss Taipei! Your kids will love it!
Day 9 – Take TRA to explore outskirts towns e.g. Pingxi or Shifen to release Sky Lanterns or visit Beitou for Hotspring experience!
Day 10 – Depart TAIPEI for SINGAPORE. Home Sweet Home!
For more of our Taiwan photos, do check out Dana Mommy’s Facebook albums. And do leave us a comment to let us know what you think of our trip or if you have any questions on the itinerary, we’ll love to hear from you!