If you want a week visit an Asian country that is relatively (to an American) cheap, easy to get around, and packed with a lot of fun activities, I would highly suggest Taiwan. I stayed in Taiwan for two weeks, and each day was full exciting and new experiences. I didn’t know any Taiwanese Mandarin, and I had a budget of about $1,000 US dollars.
Following are a few guidelines, rules, and tips on how to survive Taiwan and how to maximize the quality of your experience in Taiwan. It’ll also, I hope, ease some of your worries about visiting an absolutely foreign country where barely anyone speaks English.
Taiwan prides itself on being a clean and healthy environment for the public and visiting tourists. Hence you’ll see and should follow a few guidelines when traveling around in Taiwan.
1. Don’t eat or drink (even water) in the metro stations or the metro trains and buses. The only exceptions are long distance buses and trains like the High Speed Rail (HSR). Look out for the no eating and drinking signs posted.
This rule is strictly enforced on the metro stations and buses, breaking it will get you whistled or yelled at by security, dirty looks from other passengers, or even kicked out of the station or vehicle.
2. Don’t sit in the handicapped/priority seats. Even during rush-hour when the trains and buses are packed, you’ll see that most of those seats are left empty. They’re usually colored differently from the other seats and are well marked.
3. On escalators, stand on the right side and let people who are in a rush pass by on the left side. Even if there aren’t any people walking, stand on the right side anyways. This also goes for any pedestrianism, usually try to stay on the right side and let people pass you by on your left.
4. When waiting for the trains, there are lines on the ground to indicate where to line up. Once the train arrives, wait until people off-board before on-boarding. Don’t crowd the entrance, and don’t push and shove your way in. It’s bad manners in Taiwan.
5. If you’re sick or want to avoid being sick, invest in a mask. It’s ok, half the people you see will be wearing one. There’s even a fashion industry around face masks. I got sick for a few days on my trip to Taiwan, I should’ve been wearing a mask.
6. Don’t tip. Taxes are included in all pricing, so what you see on the menu is all that you pay. No tipping for services either, you might offend someone if you do, or at least confuse them as to whether you understand math.
7. Don’t litter. That’s a given in any city or anywhere. But I mention this specifically because you won’t find very many garbage bins around in Taiwan except in mall food courts and night markets. That’s because Taiwan doesn’t have the same sort of garbage system as the US does. Instead of the people being charged for garbage collection through taxes, Taiwan charges people for bags to put garbage in. So not everyone pays the same, and so garbage becomes a personal problem, not a national one.
It’s such a personal problem that it’d be rude of you to throw your personal garbage in someone else’s garbage. That’s why people in Taiwan usually pocket their garbage till they get home or find a less-rude area (like night market or malls) to throw their garbage away.
Speaking the language
Taiwan unfortunately doesn’t have a lot of English speakers on the streets. But I didn’t know any Chinese and still got around buying food and souvenirs, and even getting directions to common tourist spots alone.
The best would be to have a Mandarin Chinese fluent friend of course, or become one yourself. My friend, and Taiwan tour guide, has a blog about Learning Chinese if you are interested. The blog even comes with a free app to teach you how to read pinyin and pronounce Mandarin like a pro.
But I was too American to try and learn any of the language before I jumped on a plane and headed for Taiwan. What saved my lazy butt was the fact that most of the signs and menus used English numbers for prices. And you can get by with the 10 fingers on your hand or just handing over a couple NT$100 bills at food carts when you have no clue what something costs, and they’ll figure it out for you.
One thing I loved about Taiwan was how safe it was. I wasn’t worried about getting pick-pocketed or of vendors ripping me off.
Feeding yourself right Taiwan
If you don’t have any diet restrictions from allergies or religion, then have fun and skip over this section.
Taiwanese people love their meat, especially their pork. So, if you’re a vegetarian, you are going to have some hard times. If you’re a Muslim (like me!) then it’s a bit easier because there are a few fish options, but even then you have to be careful about the broth that they cook the noodles in.
To help fellow Muslims and non-fellow vegetarians out, I’ve compiled a list of characters you should probably become familiar with when looking for food in Taiwan:
All people should be able to eat food marked as 素 (Sù), unless mushrooms or tofu is poison to you. 素 is the vegetarian character. There are a few fully vegetarian restaurants and even some stands that offer vegetarian mock-meat type of dishes
- 肉 - ròu. Generally used for any non-fish type of meat and pork
- 豬 – zhū. Pig meat
- 雞 – jī. Alone this character means chicken, together with 雞蛋 it means..
- 雞蛋 – jī dàn. Chicken Egg
- 魚 - yú. Generally used for fish
- 羊 – yáng. Lamb or goat
- 牛 – niú. Cow/beef. Usually for beef, Don’t get mixed up with 午, which means noon
- 火腿 – huǒ tuǐ. Ham
- 排骨 – pái gǔ. Ribs, might be from pig or cow
- 鴨 – yā. Duck
- 蛇 – shé. Snake
- 血 – xuè. Blood. Usually coupled as 豬血 (zhū xuè, pig blood) or 鴨血 (yā xuè, duck blood), or as 血糕 (xuè gāo, blood cake)
- 魚 – yú. Fish (general)
- 鱈魚 – xuě yú. Cod
- 鮭魚 – guī yú. Salmon
- 魷魚 – yóu yú. Squid
- 章魚 – zhāng yú. Octopus
- 鮑魚 – bào yú. Abalone
- 蝦 – xiā. Shrimp
- 龍蝦 – lóng xiā. Lobster
- 蛤蜊 – gé lí. Clam
- 蚵仔 – é zǐ. Oyster
To learn how to pronounce these characters, I suggest you checkout the the free Pin Pin Chinese app for both iOS and Android. It helps you understand how to read and pronounce the pinyin (like ròu) so that you can impress those night-market food vendors with your skillz.
Certain food in Taiwan is relatively cheaper than food in the States, some are way more expensive. If you want Westernized food (burgers, pasta, etc.), they’ll be about the same prices as you’d pay in the US. If you want fruits and vegetables, expect to pay more than US prices unless they’re local fruits like durian.
But if you’re looking to stuff yourself silly with of pork buns, noodles, fish balls, and fried squid, expect to spend fractions of what you’d pay in the States. A dish of noodles, enough to feed two, could run you NT$60-90 ($2-3 USD). A bun, can fill up one hungry stomach quick, could be about NT$25 (less than $1 USD). An entire fried squid from a food-cart in a night market could be NT$45.
The price of food varies by where you get it from. Street food is the cheapest. There are carts on the corners of main streets or against the sides of alleyways, especially near businesses during breakfast and lunch times. Night-markets also have rows and rows of them.
Your other option, a little pricier, is to go down to the basement of any of the malls you come across and there will be a food court with way too many options.
A full plate of food in these malls will usually be around NT$120 or more (More than $4 USD), but they’ll be good and will definitely fill you up. You’ll also have lots of Japanese options like Ramen and Japanese Curries and even Teppanyaki. Usually these malls also have a large dessert section and might even have a bread store.
DEFINITELY visit the bread stores and get yourself some garlic cheese bread or creme filled scone.
But lets say that you’ve been in Taiwan for a couple days now and you’re hankering for some familiar food. Don’t fret, there are McDonalds almost everywhere and the food there are half the price of the ones in the US. But instead of going to McDonalds, I suggest you hit up the local Japanese Mos Burger chain instead. Here you can find something you won’t find anywhere else, a rice burger.
But what if you’re jet-lagged, it’s 4 AM, and you are very hungry and everything around is closed? Well not everything is closed. The local 24 hrs 7-Eleven or Family Mart convenience stores in Taiwan not only have the usual chips and cookies (or rather unusual Taiwanese variety chips and cookies, like seaweed doritos) but they also have Onigiri, hard-boiled eggs (in hot tea of all things), and other food stuffs. They even have frozen or chilled ready-made food trays that they’ll warm up in the store for you.
These are just the tip of the ice-berg as far as eating is concerned. There are so many other experiences with food you can have in Taiwan. Expensive but eclectic Cafes, fruit juice carts, or 12-course meals in a restaurant in the mountains, there are far too many things to try.
Getting Around In Taiwan
Get an EasyCard as soon as you can from any of the MRT information / service desk. It will be the only card you’ll need for most train and bus transportation. These can be filled up at any 7-11 or family mart. All you do is show them the card and hold up in fingers how many NT$100′s (they can only be filled in $100 increments) you want on the card and they’ll guide you through the rest of the 10 second transaction. Don’t worry about over filling it, you can get that money reimbursed.
Check out the last part of my How to get to Taipei post which will explain how and where you can get an EasyCard.
Most of my two weeks spent in Taiwan has been situated in Taipei, so I’m not familiar with the metro system in the other large cities, like Kaohsiung (South City). But if it’s as easy to get around there as it is in Taipei (which is what I hear) then you’ll have no problems. The Taipei Metro Trains are nicely color coded for each of the lines. Each stop is announced in 4 languages, English being the last one. And most of the stops are situated around major locations you’ll want to visit anyways, like Taipei 101, Ximending, Taipei Zoo, etc.
The transportation is fairly cheap too. It’ll cost you about NT$30-$40 to get to and back from most places. I spent less than NT$1,000 ($33 USD) the entire two weeks I spent in Taiwan for transportation. And the trains are so frequent that I haven’t spent more than 5 minutes waiting for one.
The busses are a little more complex to navigate, but cheaper to ride. I’d suggest you get a local friend to guide you around on busses. Some busses you pay when you enter, some you pay when you get off, some both. Once you get a local to show you around, you can get the hang of it fairly easily.
High Speed Rail (HSR)
If you want to get out of the city FAST, you can use the High Speed Rail, Taiwan’s bullet train.
It’s not cheap though. To go from one end of Taiwan (Taipei) to the other end (Kaohsiung) will cost you NT$1580, about $50 USD. But for a 200 mile trip in 2 hours on the smoothest 186 mph ride you’ve ever had, $50 aint bad at all.
The HSR stations have automated ticket booths that has the option for English. They’re very easy to understand (especially since you can go only two directions on the bullet train, South and North). But watch out, the machines return change in coins, so make sure you have smaller bills and coins.
For a detailed explanation on how to get an HSR ticket and use the train, take a look at my How to get to Taipei post which explains how to get from the airport to Taipei using the HSR.