Travelling in Taiwan – Part 1

nic sim & krista goon
Nic and I at Jinguashi, a gold mining town up in the mountains.

I just got back from a lovely 10 days in Taiwan. I enjoyed every bit of my trip, even those days up in freezing cold Alishan mountains when I was in three layers of clothes and still felt the fingers of cold creeping up on me.

I admit it, I am a tropical gal. While I like spring weather (and it was spring weather, almost in Taipei when we landed on 29 March), I also love my sunshiny mornings. Those “throw open your window and feel the sun blazing” times were rare in Taipei; it was mostly grey and gloomy even at 10am!

The good thing was the gentle cold of 19 Celcius which made walking about a pleasant experience. Nic and I clocked each more than 10,000 steps a day (as faithfully recorded by my Apple app) and I actually lost some weight when I got back to Penang! All that walking daily did me good. So I did prove some people wrong. They told me I’d be eating so much street food that I’d come home 5 kg heavier.

But let me start in the beginning. Why would someone like me, someone who doesn’t read Mandarin, decide to visit Taipei?

I’d heard a lot about Taiwan from friends. I had wanted to go some years ago but other destinations came up (Bali, HK – multiple times, Phuket – twice, Chiangmai). I didn’t know why but this year, I felt the urge to visit Taiwan. It was quite a last minute trip as we had many projects going on – we had just launched a client’s website, we were rolling out a new system for our Redbox Easyweb clients, we were also having our Marketing Mojo in March and it seemed so many things came up on our schedule.

Yet, I knew more than anything Nic needed this trip. He had been working really hard and he needed the break. He’s not the sort to book holidays. In my family, I’m the one who sorts out flight bookings, hotel bookings, Airbnb bookings and plans the holiday itinerary. I’m the one who goes online diligently to research hotels, places to visit, things to eat, things to explore, MRT routes.

Taoyuan airport
At the Taoyuan airport

For this trip, I booked really late but it worked out fine eventually. A friend asked me to keep my itinerary – she implied that she might want mine the next time she goes to Taipei. I’m not so sure that my itinerary is the sort for most people. You see, Nic and I like the free and easy holiday gallivants – no fixed schedule, go as we please, decide on the morning itself what we’d like to see or do and let the discoveries along the way surprise us.

I never book tours because I despise them and their clockwork timings, the early morning calls, the shuttling from tourist spot to tourist spot. I would feel like a lamb and I would annoy the tourist guide as I like to mull over exhibits (if we’re in a museum) or take my own sweet time to check out stuff other people find intolerable.

So here’s my itinerary – if you have similar travel tastes, this could do for you. The thing is, I try not to be touristy. So we never went to Taipei 101 (oh I can hear your gasps of horror), we never went to Sun Moon Lake (I still don’t know where that place is!) and we never tried the stinky tofu.

29 March, first day

Flew Penang-KL on AirAsia (super early, 6.30am), layover in KLIA2 for 3 hours before we got on the 10.20am flight to Taipei. The flight took 4 hours. I booked AirAsiaGo which meant we got flights and hotel together. I’m not the type to find the lowest price for hotel and flights because I can’t stand over-researching. I am more concerned where my hotel is located and if it’s clean and quiet and most of all, if it is within minutes of the MRT.

However, I only needed the hotel for the first 5 days of my Taipei trip as I would be going to Alishan for 3 days and then back to Taipei (to an Airbnb) till we flew back to Penang. Sometimes I like using AirAsiaGo just for convenience sakes.

When we landed around 2.30pm, I was expecting a long crawl at the immigration/passport control. Surprisingly, the Taiwanese are pretty efficient. Many counters were open and the friendly yet firm immigration officers quickly processed the long queue of foreign visitors in a short time. When the officer hands your passport back to you, she actually smiles.

taoyuan airport
Fresh, bright and welcoming airport!

I loved the Taoyuan airport immediately – it was spacious, welcoming with real orchids and plants (AirAsia lands at Taoyuan airport terminal one – Taoyuan actually means peach garden). The next best thing, high-speed wifi that didn’t need a password! And then, the clean toilets. The toilets didn’t smell like toilets, unlike Malaysian airport toilets. The toilets were bright and sparkling clean.

We saw a huge crowd at the telco counters and decided we’d get a local SIM card too. The thing is, there were 3 different telcos side by side and each one had its own queue. We ultimately decided that we’d go with the longest queue as it seemed the most popular (which proved to be as well as a Malaysian guy told us that Chung Hwa was quite reliable across Taiwan).

The packages offered by all three telcos were similar and later we discovered that Chung Hwa Telecom (the one we chose anyway) had really good coverage even when we were up in the mountains. It was a reasonable deal – NT500 for 10 days of unlimited calls and data use. The telco staff even switched up the SIM for you in super speed.

I had initially wanted to rent a pocket wifi but we couldn’t decide on this till we landed. We would be getting wifi at our hotel and most public places in Taiwan so I figured a SIM card would be better. We needed the number so that our Taiwan friends could reach us (they don’t use WhatsApp, preferring to use Line and WeChat).

I believe pocket wifi is good if you’re travelling in a large group (4 or 6 persons) and want to share wifi but since it was only Nic and me, a SIM card was good enough. He could always share his wifi with me if I needed it. Not having wifi also gave me a much-needed break from WhatsApp!

The next thing was to get our Easycard – the Metro cards with preloaded credit so that we could travel easily on the MRT. It was NT1000 per card with a non-refundable NT100 deposit. The card was great for travel on buses too. We didn’t even finish using up the credit so we got back the rest of our money when we exchanged our Easycards on the day of our departure (conveniently at the Airport Express stop).

We weren’t in a hurry after collecting our luggage so we went in search of food at the airport. Our first meal upon landing was a piping hot bowl of pork balls with noodles at the food court one level below the arrival hall.

taiwanese pork ball noodles
Our first meal in Taiwan – shared, of course!

Nic always taught me this: always eat when you travel. You never know when you’d get to your next stop and if you’re hungry, you’re going to be grumpy. Not fun travelling if you’re grumpy! So even if the airplane food isn’t fine dining, we’d still order and eat in the plane first (as you never know how long the passport control queues are). And when we land, we will look for food first.

We were quite lucky as Joyce, my friend who lives in Taipei, puts it. March 2017 was the month that the airport metro was finally completed and we could now travel from Taoyuan Airport into Taipei (Main Station) in 36 minutes. Since it was just opened, we even had a promotional 50% discount off the NT160 fee. In the past, it was either taxis or buses going to Taipei Main Station which took an hour or so and cost more than NT1000. 

Even with the conversion rate (and our bloody devalued ringgit), it was only RM24 per person for 36 minutes of travel on the airport express metro into the city! How is it that our KLIA express is like RM50 for 28 minutes of travel? Something to think about, isn’t it? 

Going out of Malaysia can be enlightening in many ways. It helps us compare where we are in relation to the rest of the world. I really can’t help but question why is it that our airport express is so expensive? How does this encourage people to use the airport express? 

Taoyuan airport express
Waiting for our express ride into Taipei. Taoyuan is an adjacent district to Taipei.

Upon reaching Taipei Main Station, we opted to grab a taxi to our hotel, City Suites Beimen* on Chang An West Road. Actually our hotel wasn’t that far away. We could’ve walked from the Main Station all the way to the Beimen MRT exit and from there it was only a 10 minute walk to the hotel except that the MRT staff told us that it wasn’t reachable on foot! Very confusing indeed. 

*The hotel was new and clean. It wasn’t a big room and it didn’t have windows (though even if we had, we’d probably be staring at the next building – that’s how buildings are in Taipei. Like back to back). I thought I’d miss having a window but I didn’t. If you’re looking for a contemporary hotel within 10 minutes walk of the MRT station, try this one. The staff are young and polite and try their best to speak in English but we lapsed into Mandarin since we saw them struggling to communicate! 

Anyway, we got into a taxi (called ‘da di’) and there was a bit of jam along the road as a mass protest was going on. The Taiwanese take it in their stride. They’re cool about protests and demos unlike Malaysia. And taxis use the meter so taxi rides are affordable and our short ride was about NT105 (when you get into the taxi, the base price is already NT70). When we reached the hotel, it was already 6pm and getting dark. We decided to shower before we headed out to the Ning Xia night market, some 20 minutes away on foot. 

Since this has been a super long post, I’ll keep the Ning Xia night market for the next post! 

nic sim & krista goon
Excited to be in Taiwan! Pardon the horrible double chin selfie!

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