Life in the Fast Lane

A TRIATHLETE'S MULTISPORT ADVENTURES, TRAVELS, RANDOM MUSINGS, AND CHRONICLES OF HER OTHERWISE ORDINARY LIFE

Nĭ hăo, Táiwān!

By 9:09 PM , , , , , , , ,

A few months ago, my sister announced that there was a seat sale and that we had to book right now. Before I could even process things, she booked plane tickets for herself, our mom, and me to Taipei. "Girls' trip!" she said.

Weeks later, my brother Chuck decided to make a similar booking for himself, his wife/my sister-in-law, and their son/my nephew. It ended up being a most-of-the-family trip after all (our Dad and youngest brother couldn't make it anymore due to work and school, respectively).

As random as this trip was, I knew we had to be smart about several things since: a) none of us had been to Taipei (or anywhere in Taiwan, except for Chuck, who was only there for work and barely got to walk around); b) we wanted to keep to a budget; and, c) we had to factor in the different "needs" of our family (i.e. we had a toddler with us, we didn't want to tire our mom too much, I had a health condition).

First things first, though. We needed to book where we would stay. After much researching and asking around, the best thing to do was to book a place in a strategic/central area that was near several convenience stores (always a wise move) and close to an MRT station. Chuck and I went back and forth, deciding on several options, until one 3-star hotel from Agoda caught my eye based on pictures, seemingly good reviews, and a workable price range.

I ended up choosing the King Plaza Hotel, which is across a Family Mart, a 7-Eleven, and a Starbucks, had lots of shops around it (including a pharmacy), and was a stone's throw away from the Ningxia Night Market. It was also a 10-minute walk away from the Zhongshan MRT Station, and if you wanted to give yourself even more of a workout, probably a 20-minute walk away from the Taipei Main Station.

Unfortunately, I completely forgot to take photos of our rooms and the hotel itself, but if you've been to 3-star hotels in Hong Kong, then this is fairly comparable. The hotel itself is located only on the 3rd floor of No. 163 Nanjing West Road (don't make a mistake by going to the 4th floor, because that floor houses a different hotel), offers free breakfast (a typical simple breakfast buffet), and had acceptable amenities in the room (the rooms were quite small but not too cramped, and each had a queen-sized bed and a single bed).

Next on our list of priorities were our visas. Chuck and his family had US visas, so all they had to do was to get a US Travel Authorization waiver instead of a Taiwan visa. For my mom, sister, and yours truly, I got each of us e-visas.

The funny thing was, weeks after getting our visas, the Taiwan government granted visa-free access to Filipinos beginning November 1st. Our flight from Manila would be on October 31st, late in the evening, arriving in Taipei on November 1st early in the morning. True enough, when we landed, we didn't need to present our visas to the immigration officers. Yes, you could say that it was a waste of time (and money) to prepare our e-visas, but I would rather be safe and have them just in case we still needed to show them.

Anyway, after a late night flight, we finally landed in Taipei at 1:35am on November 1st. We were able to arrange a pick-up service, c/o a Filipino driver who was recommended by my mom's friend, so we were able to bring all our bags and a sleepy toddler to our hotel in peace.

Here are the things that we were able to do in Taipei. Not all of us were complete for each activity or destination (there were times we would split up, then meet for a meal) and we also tried to group the activities according to what were close to one another. Towards the end of this blog, I will list some tips that we learned along the way, that I feel you will likely benefit from.


1) Din Tai Fung

Anyone who is anyone knows that Taiwan is the land of xiao long bao (soup dumplings). And anyone who is anyone knows that when you say xiao long bao, you are referring to Din Tai Fung. We couldn't not begin our trip without a visit to the nearest Din Tai Fung, which was, thankfully, just a 15-minute walk away from our hotel. We had to wait about 20 minutes in line — which wasn't bad by DTF standards — and once we were ushered in, we were brought to a cozy corner table.

As expected, the food was great, which is why we spent quite a bit for this meal. This ended up being our most "expensive" meal of the trip, since 90% of the time, we were eating street food.


2) Taipei Peace Park

A historic park located near the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, it contains memorials to the victims of the February 28 incident in 1947.


3) Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall

Named after the former President of the Republic of China, this memorial hall is not just a national landmark, but has since become an increasingly popular tourist attraction.


4) Ningxia Night Market

Thankfully, this street (and night market) was a less than 5-minute walk from our hotel. We had dinner here twice, on our first and last nights. We particularly enjoyed the torched beef cubes, their version of an okonomiyaki, their dumpling noodle soup, and their Taiwanese popcorn chicken.




5) Yehliu Geopark

For your outdoorsy fix, make the long trip to this famous geopark, known for various rock formations beside a beach. It took a while before we were able to find the West Bus Station of the Taipei Main Station (we walked around 30 minutes from our hotel, and we had to navigate the entirety of the main station before reaching the West Station).


Eventually, we did find it, and we were able to use our Easy Cards (more on this later) for the bus ride. It took an hour and a half (costing around NTD 95, if I'm not mistaken) to get to the Yehliu Bus Station, then another 10-minute walk to the actual geopark where we paid the entrance fee of NTD 80 each. But the journey was worth it.




6) Taipei 101

While we didn't go to the roofdeck of this famous skyscraper, we were able to have dinner in the foodcourt, walk around for a bit and do some window shopping.




7) Taipei Zoo


Not that I've been to many zoos, but this is easily one of my favorite ones. It's accessible, the grounds are huge, and most importantly, the animals have lots of space and are well taken care of. The zoo is at one end of the Brown Line of the MRT, and the entrance fee is only NTD 60 per person. My three-year-old nephew had a blast. Unfortunately, it would rain every now and then, but there are many places where one can chill (and order food or a drink) while waiting for the rain to pass. Note, though, that the zoo closes by 5pm.






8) Shilin Night Market

From the zoo, we took the train back to the city to hit this famous night market. As with many other night markets (and street markets in general), you could food trip or shop the night away in this place.





9) Elephant Mountain Hiking Trail

An urban trail located within the city, this was really easy to get to by train, and my hiking-crazed sister loved the fact that the Taiwanese had this hiking option. It's an uphill stair climb, and once you reach the top, you can either choose to take on other connected trails, or admire a 360º view of the city. The day we went, it was rainy, cold, and incredibly foggy.




10) Shifen Old Town

Getting here required two changes of train lines and a bus ride (make sure to arrive on time because each bus to Shifen leaves every 20 minutes). We went there on the same day my sister and I hiked Elephant Mountain, and it was still cold and rainy all throughout. We had wanted to light our lanterns and send them flying later in the evening, envisioning really dramatic pictures, but unfortunately, the weather wasn't on our side and we had to rush things so we could get out of there without succumbing to hypothermia.






11) Modern Toilet

Believe it or not, this is a restaurant. Yes, a restaurant wherein you will be sitting on toilets and eating and drinking from toilet- or urinal-shaped bowls or glasses. It's as trippy as can be, and had my nephew cracking up. He didn't even want to eat the poop-shaped chocolate ice cream at first, until we managed to convince him that what was on the bowl wasn't actual poop, but ice cream. Food-wise, the selection was random (from curry dishes to sandwiches), and taste-wise, it was just so-so for me. Really, one would go there primarily for the experience.





12) Ximending

Shopping in Taipei, at least for my sister and me, wasn't as easy as it is for us in Hong Kong or Bangkok. Most of the clothes in the other night markets or side streets weren't to our liking; neither were they cheap. But we found the best deals and styles in Ximending. Sadly, we only discovered and maximized this wonderful shopping haven on our last day. 


Now, for some notes/observations/tips that could be hopefully be useful for you, should you decide to make the two-hour trip from Manila to Taipei:

1) Decide on your money-changer plan ahead of time. We decided not to convert to USD before converting to NTD because of the low exchange rate from peso to USD. However, not all money changer stations in NAIA had enough NTD for us to "buy" using our pesos. We were only able to convert about PHP 2000 each into NTD in the airport, and the rest of our pocket money, we had to exchange when we got there; the only place in Taipei that accepted and exchanged our pesos was the Bank of Taiwan's main branch.

2) The Easy Card will be your best friend. I highly recommend that you get one, which you can reload at any time in any MRT station. It can be used for riding the train/s, the bus, and it can even be your mode of payment in select places like convenience stores. Really handy and it'll spare you from falling in line and having to repeatedly buy single-entry tickets or chips.

3) Prepare for the weather. One day, it would be sunny (Manila-level of sunny); the next day, it would be rainy and cold (colder than Baguio). It's best to layer instead of wearing a long-sleeved shirt as your base (in case the day happens to be a hot one), and always bring an umbrella in case of unforeseen rain.

4) Their shops come alive at night. My sister and I tried to explore Wufenpu (another shopping district) during the daytime, but many of their stores were closed. You might want to try hitting the shopping areas in the late afternoon or early evening. 

5) Double and triple check your accommodation bookings, especially if you will be arriving/checking out late. Most budget flights are red eye ones, which will likely mean that you will be arriving early in the morning and checking out at night. Make sure that your hotel/Airbnb bookings are for the correct dates, and if you plan to check out of your room/s late because of your late flight, that you are willing to pay the extension rate of your hotel. 

6) Get a pocket WiFi. Not just for social media purposes, but for being able to get around the city with much more ease (i.e. Google Maps, downloading Taiwan travel apps). I had two routers on standby (in case we had to split up into two groups); the first, I got locally (EZ Travel WiFi), and the second, from Taiwan (WiFi Taiwan). Both were very affordable, considering our six-day stay. However, I didn't realize 'til our 3rd day that the EZ Travel WiFi package had a data cap (it downgraded to 2G speeds after consuming 4GB worth of data) while the other one had unlimited data. The EZ Travel package was sent to my house and I returned it via LBC the day after I arrived in Manila, while the WiFi Taiwan pack was picked up in the Hi-Life convenience store in the Taoyuan International Airport and brought back there just before flying out.

7) Try as much of their food as you can. Believe me, you won't run out of things to try. Their dumpling noodle soup variants alone are countless. I was actually game to try the (in)famous stinky tofu, but for some reason, didn't get to come across any stall selling that. My sister bought milk tea from every conceivable stall or kiosk that she saw, and my mom became a huge fan of their peanut mochi. Taiwan is also well-known for their pineapple cakes (and their various permutations).

8) You can live off P15K in pocket money. Not counting what you will spend for airfare and accommodations, you will be able to get by with about PhP 15K; this will include all your meals, your transportation, and other expenses. With this amount, I was even able to buy a new pair of Nikes from the Shilin area. It's actually pretty affordable in Taipei; much cheaper than what you would shell out for a trip to Osaka, Singapore, or even Hong Kong.

This trip was definitely a pleasant surprise, considering that it was a spur-of-the-moment booking (darn you, seat sales!). It reminded me of the energy of Hong Kong with the spaciousness of Shanghai's streets and the cleanliness of Singapore. I enjoyed the food (too much!), being able to walk an average of 15,000 steps a day, taking their modes of transport, and exploring what their city had to offer first-timers like me and my family. There's something to do for everyone, regardless of age or interests, and I'm pretty sure I'll be back for more. 

Xièxiè, Táiwān, for the wonderful time that we had!

Missing Dad and CJ, who weren't with us!

P.S. The photos featured here were mostly taken by yours truly using a Canon EOS 550D and an Olympus Pen EP-2. Additional photos were taken by my brother, Chuck, using his Panasonic Lumix GX85.

P.P.S. I forgot to mention that we were able to go to church in Taipei. Thank you to the Bread of Life community for the warm welcome!

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