The Christmas and New Year period always gives my wife and I the chance to escape Bangkok and enjoy some quality time in another Asian city. This year, we spent just over a week in Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, and one of the countries located in what I call the 'outer circle'.
The inner circle includes all the countries that neighbor Thailand - the likes of Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam and Singapore - but for various reasons we've always had little interest in these places. There is often the hassle of acquiring visas for both of us and as my wife says "why would I want to go somewhere that feels like an undeveloped version of Thailand?" Harsh words maybe, but these neighboring countries never feel like holiday destinations to us. They just don't represent a great enough change of scenery.
And so we always settle on one of the cities in the outer circle - Hong Kong, Tokyo, Seoul and now for a new experience, Taipei. All of these cities are just a several-hour flight from Thailand and offer the experience of being somewhere completely different. That's what we love about them!
Alas, Hong Kong we've been to many times and while we still love the city (it's worth going just for the Chinese food) we feel as though we've walked down every side-street and exhausted every possible tourist attraction. We went to Tokyo for the second time just last Christmas and although we pondered a return visit to Seoul, we liked the idea of ticking off Taipei. It felt like a place not all that many travellers get to see.
So rather than give you a day-by-day rundown of the trip, I thought I'd present just an overview of our experience particularly for those who fancy putting Taipei on their itinerary. And also to compare Taipei with Tokyo, Seoul and Hong Kong.
As we were coming to the end of our stay, one of my social media friends asked me how I would sum Taipei up in a single tagline. Hmmm....how about a 'poor man's Seoul' or a 'very poor man's Tokyo' or 'Hong Kong in a clean shirt'? For me any of those three descriptions fit the bill. That's not to say I didn't enjoy it there but I simply like Tokyo and Seoul more.
In terms of 'atmosphere' and the 'feel' of the place, Taipei is probably closest to Hong Kong (although with far more space as I'll touch on later) The streets are filled with the same cooking smells wafting from the backs of restaurants and you hear the same loud chatter of folks conversing in Mandarin Chinese.
After a few days in the city, I jokingly remarked to my wife that we had found Bangkok's 'twin town'. There were so many parallels to be drawn.
No speak English
There was a real reluctance to speak English, which became more frustrating when you realised that many of the locals could actually communicate in English quite well. In shops, restaurants and night markets, the Taiwanese tend to jabber at you in Mandarin and then when you indicate you can't understand a bloody word of it, they just speak louder and faster, hoping that will somehow do the trick. It's only when you shrug your shoulders in that universal gesture of "sorry, me no understand" that they switch to English and truth be told, make a very decent fist of it.
In Tokyo, and particularly in Seoul, the locals will always have a go where speaking English is concerned.
Feeling the heat
Taipei was hot. OK, at least very warm. Despite December and January being statistically the coldest months of the year, there were at least three or four days when the afternoon temperature reached 25-28 degrees. Wearing only a t-shirt, I could have been walking along the Sukhumwit Road in downtown Bangkok. However, when temperatures go down to about 15-18 degrees in the evening, the weather becomes perfect for strolling around a night market. You won't need your fur-lined boots though.
Call us mad but the extremely cold weather is one of our main reasons to journey to the outer circle during the New Year. Oh the joy of wearing several layers of clothing or a thick winter jacket. You know, all those clothes that are stored in a box on top of the wardrobe back in Bangkok and rarely see the light of day.
We love the cold weather! In December and January, Hong Kong can dip as low as 10 degrees at night, Tokyo will rarely get above ten degrees during the day, and I recall Seoul going down to a bone-cracking minus nine at night, barely rising above freezing point during the daylight hours.
Taipei was just too warm!
I found the Taipei folk a little bit slow, a trifle 'country-bumpkinish' (and I mean that in the nicest possible way) certainly when you put them up against their Hong Kong and Tokyo counterparts. No one is any great hurry to get things done.
In restaurants, waitresses would forget half the order and blame the cook. On subway trains, we lost count of the times the train would pull into a station and half the carriage would suddenly make a dash for the doors as they realized it was their stop. Streetfood sellers rarely upped their game when a rush hour queue of ravenous punters stretched halfway around the block.
Out of the way!
Just like Bangkok, Taipei seemed to have an underlying chaos. A sort of charming couldn't-care-less-ness, although probably one that becomes less charming if you live there as an expat.
Whereas in Bangkok the footpaths are a battle between pedestrian and motorcyclist, in Taipei it's the bicycle-riders who rule the roost. Even though the footpaths and main roads have designated bike lanes between them, the greedy cyclists always want more.
When crossing the road, Taipei traffic WILL stop for pedestrians using zebra crossings. Most of the time that is.
Oh, and there are no garbage bins anywhere. Or certainly not enough.
What I loved about Taipei
Cost-wise, we found it a very reasonable place to visit.
Between Hong Kong, Seoul, Tokyo and Taipei, Taipei is the cheapest by some distance, especially the excellent underground train system. We each put 1,000 Taiwanese dollars on an EasyCard and zipped around the length and breadth of the city for 8 days and still had credit remaining. We even used the card to take buses out of the city too.
Eating out was very affordable and the selection and quality of streetfood was every bit as good as the street food in Seoul - but felt like half the price. Only buying fruit from the supermarket struck us as expensive.
There is a tremendous feeling of space in Taipei, something you never get in Tokyo, Seoul or Hong Kong. The footpaths are wide and well-maintained and there is plenty of room to amble - except when you have a cyclist up your butt!
Where Taipei really trumps the other three cities in my outer circle is in the selection of places to go on a day trip. After two or three days walking around any major city, you get the urge to venture further afield by train or bus. Taipei has spa towns, mountainous regions, historical villages and national parks all less than an hour's ride away.
The downside to getting out of Taipei is that the trains and buses are often packed with tourists and make for a very hot, uncomfortable ride. When doing our research, my wife got some great information from a Thailand travel forum. Many Thai travellers advised against using buses and trains and choosing taxis instead. This struck me as odd considering Thais are usually extremely budget-conscious when they go abroad.
But they were absolutely right! Taxi fares in Taiwan won't break the bank and the drivers themselves are a decent honest bunch. They have also devised a neat system of approaching passengers stuck at the end of a long bus stop queue and offering a taxi pool option. So for example, my wife and I would buddy up with another couple of travellers going to the same destination, and the four of us would share a taxi and halve the fare. It's a system that works well and a taxi door to door can cost little more than a 100 Taiwanese Dollars each.
The final word has to go to Taiwan's incredible night markets. I read on a website that there are over twenty well-known night markets in Taipei and we managed to get around half a dozen of them. Night markets are open for business 7 nights a week and are great places to search for clothes bargains, electronic gadgets or just do what the locals do - eat, eat and eat some more!