Taiwan remains largely undiscovered and seriously underrated by Western travellers, but those that make it here are in for a real treat. In the 1990s Taiwan became the first true Chinese democracy, developing a sense of civil society bewildering to its giant neighbour across the Taiwan Strait. Since then, popular culture has blossomed on the island, an eclectic mix of Chinese, Western, Japanese and indigenous influences. It has sensational food, traditional Chinese and aboriginal festivals and exuberant temples, yet the biggest surprise is Taiwan’s hinterland: think towering mountains, eight national parks, a selection of alluring offshore islands and numerous hot-spring resorts.
Taiwan’s perception problem stems in part from its astonishing economic success. The Taiwan Miracle, the island’s transformation into one of the world’s richest countries in less than fifty years, created images of endless manufacturing plants and overcrowded cities. The long struggle to establish a distinct political and cultural identity in the shadow of its big brother on the mainland hasn’t helped – for years its rulers insisted that Taiwan was the “real China”. Not any more: Taiwan has preserved much of the civilization and many of the traditions lost on the mainland, but while its political future remains uncertain, Taiwan has developed a dynamic culture all of its own.
One of the most endearing things about the island is the overwhelming friendliness of its people – Taiwan is one of the most welcoming countries in the world, and you are bound to encounter numerous acts of generosity or kindness throughout your travels, whether it’s a taxi driver rounding down a fare, a stranger helping with directions or a family providing a bed for the night. Eating in Taiwan comes a close second, with a vast array of Chinese food and local delicacies on offer. Travelling around the island is relatively straightforward, though the lack of English can make things a challenge at times, particularly as most timetables tend to be displayed solely in Chinese. Taiwan is a relatively rich country compared to China or southeast Asia, but prices are generally lower than in most other developed nations, and the willingness of almost everyone you meet to help means it’s almost impossible to get stuck.Read More
With over 150 locations scattered all over the island, Taiwan has the world’s second highest concentration of hot springs after Japan – many were developed commercially during the Japanese occupation and offer the same quality, scenery and therapeutic effects at a fraction of the cost. Many of the most famous springs are piped directly into hotel rooms and spa pools, where you can sample the waters via public baths or private tubs, but there are still places, usually in the mountains, where springs gush naturally from rocks or rivers and can be experienced for free. It’s important to acquaint yourself with hot-spring etiquette before having a dip: unless the pools are mixed sex, you’re expected to be naked, and you should shower before getting in.
Betel nut beauty
Betel nut beauty
Betel nut, the seed of the Betel Palm (Areca catechu), has almost iconic status in Taiwan, where chewing it is often viewed as stereotypically Hoklo or Taiwanese behaviour. It’s also big business: some estimates claim the industry nets annual revenue of around NT$20bn. In Taiwan it’s particularly popular with truck drivers, who prefer its stimulating effects to coffee: the nut is wrapped in areca leaf, topped with slaked lime paste and chewed without swallowing. Its most celebrated by-product is the betel nut beauty (bīnláng xīshī), scantily clad girls hired to sell the nuts from glass-encased booths on roadsides all over the island. More ominously, betel nut is a known carcinogen: Taiwan has one of the highest rates of mouth and throat cancer in Asia, primarily as a result of chewing the nut.