Taiwan to stay here
EVERYTHING IS EMBARRASSING - Margarita Buenaventura (The Philippine Star) - September 28, 2014 - 12:00am

When I stepped into Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport, I really thought I was going to meet F4.

For those who are too shy to admit that they’re jologs, Taiwanese pop group F4 was the star of a television series called Meteor Garden. Filipinos of every age and creed went nuts for it. The craze didn’t last particularly long, but its mark is indelible: after our decades-long love affair with Mexican telenovelas, our eyes and hearts became fixated on East Asia. We now prefer the cutesy, banter-filled, and wholesome love stories of Japanese and Korean television shows — and that’s all thanks to the proverbial Cupid’s arrow that came in the form of F4.

Admittedly, there doesn’t seem to be much else about Taiwan that has captured our hearts so easily. I drew blanks thinking of any other strong influences of Taiwan in our culture and practices. Maybe it was all those years of mainland Chinese interaction, or that there isn’t anything else about it worth loving. Or maybe, as I learned from my recent visit, we just haven’t taken time to get to know this strange but lovely land.

Like the pop group that will remain in our hearts forever, falling in love with Taiwan was unexpected, but not hard to do. Chief among its virtues is that there is greenery everywhere: provincial back roads snake around lush hills; houses in small towns built to exist around their environments, not to bulldoze trees or cover up any nearby water. Most tourist hotspots aren’t uncomfortably dirty or crowded. Perhaps the only thing I wasn’t a fan of were all the squat toilets. But to each his own, I guess.

Just by that alone, you have to wonder why there aren’t more people flocking to visit. It’s pretty postcard-perfect without trying. During the tour I took, getting from one tourist spot to another usually took at least one or two hours, but I didn’t mind. There was always something to marvel at (the giant Buddhas sitting by the highways were some of my favorites) and the weather encouraged me to keep walking (because it was so hot, I just wanted to get to where we needed to be as fast as I could.) I didn’t even mind that I didn’t get to meet F4. Well, not totally.

CITIES THAT SLEEP

Even bigger cities like Taipei and Taichung have curiously quiet charms about them. They don’t boast of wild party scenes like backpacker favorites Bangkok or Saigon (most bars don’t stay open past midnight), but their night markets are just as full of life. Long lines usually crowd around the dinky food stalls at Fengjia Night Market in Taichung Shilin Night Market in Taipei, where the pungent smells stick to your clothes as you shop for Korean- or Chinese-made trinkets. Grilled snacks are a favorite among the Taiwanese, who enjoy eating them as merienda as well as a midnight snack.

There isn’t much about the shopping to write home about — most of the stuff you can find in Manila — but they’re priced pretty decently so the stores are worth taking a look at. They can be pretty on-trend too: a pair of normcore sandals can fetch from 300 to 600 Taiwanese dollars. (1 Taiwanese dollar is to P 1.75 as of writing.) Plus, vendors are quite open to haggling so prices are still negotiable.

Personally, I think the best things to buy in Taiwan are the food. The black sesame cookies, which you can buy in specialty shops or local supermarkets, go well with their black tea. Their pineapple cake is to die for, and I don’t use that term very lightly. There’s a huge selection of pineapple cake (they even have some with egg, which tastes much better than it sounds) at the Taipei 101 store, just by the huge Din Tai Fung branch.

That’s also something worth visiting, by the way. Din Tai Fung may be popping up in a lot more Asian cities, but it would be nice to taste it in the country where it came from. Plus, the waitresses have the most insanely beautiful skin I’ve ever seen. If they get their complexion from all that xiao long bao, I may have to rethink my current diet.

DIY delight

For those who aren’t keen to shop, Taiwan’s still got plenty of activities to enjoy. Taiwan’s got a pretty sweet do-it-yourself (DIY) scene, where tourists get a chance not to just see or taste local treats, but to make them as well.

Taichung, just two hours away from Taipei, is rich with wonderful DIY activities that highlight some of the Taiwan’s cultural gems. Perhaps the most notable is the bubble tea tutorial at Chun Shui Tang. For about TWD400, you will learn how to make milk tea using black tea, and another drink with black pearls. The lesson also comes with a cute plastic cocktail shaker that they use to make the tea and a certificate, because why not?

When you’ve finished cooling off with your self-made drink take a visit to Puli town’s Guang Hong Xing paper mill. Now, a paper mill doesn’t sound like a particularly sexy destination when you’re on tour, but it was fascinating to see how they still keep age-old traditions despite modern technology. The mill offers flower pressing, calligraphy, and hand printing, which we got to try. It also has a beautiful stationery shop, where you can buy souvenirs that can’t be found in Taiwan’s many markets.

The paper lanterns at New Taipei City are a must on anyone’s Taiwan bucket list. It’s a great activity to try with friends and family—the lanterns are so big that doing it alone might prove to be difficult. The nice old man who taught me and my fellow travelers how to put it together was pretty patient as we struggled with the glue and messed up the paper with our handwriting. But all that trouble was worth seeing them light up and float into the sky.

A bit of repose

With all the dizzying activities made available by this peanut-shaped island, any visit to Taiwan should start or end with their famous Sun Moon Lake. There isn’t much to do in this area, and it’s honestly a bit of a trip if you’re coming straight from the airport, but it’s definitely a sight to see. The tranquil lake set against a backdrop of misty hills and sloping, almost idle towns almost feels like a dream. It makes sense that Taiwan’s beloved former president Chiang Kai-shek loved visiting this place, if only to get away from city life for a bit.

A stay at the Lealea Garden Hotel, especially its sleek newly built annex, offers a wonderful view of the lake. Their breakfast buffet features huge windows so you can see boats zipping past as you eat your oatmeal (I now refuse to eat my oatmeal any other way.) Boat tours on the lake are also available, but strolling around the quaint shops in the area is pretty nice too.

I think the perfect way to wind down a visit is to go to Taiwan’s Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village, just a few minutes away from Sun Moon Lake via cable car. It offers a pretty interesting glimpse into the first people to inhabit Taiwan, before the ethnic Chinese migrated from the mainland. Some of the aborigines, especially in southern Taiwan, resemble Filipinos in a way, and their homes look like the stone houses in Batanes. I was surprised to see a bit of home in a foreign land, but it’s comforting. Suddenly Taiwan felt a little bit like home too.

* * *

China Airlines offers daily flights to and from Taiwan. For inquiries, feel free to contact them at 534-6700 to 09 or e-mail at mnlsdci@china-airlines.com.

CHIANG KAI CHINA AIRLINES CHUN SHUI TANG DIN TAI FUNG EAST ASIA FENGJIA NIGHT MARKET FORMOSAN ABORIGINAL CULTURE VILLAGE GUANG HONG XING TAIWAN
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