Ayutthaya (Feb 23): Multiple Temples and a Night Train

My train from Bangkok to Ayutthaya left on Saturday at 12:55pm, and it only cost me 15 baht (65 cents AUD)! I went to the platform and found a seat in an already hot car. The train ride was only an hour and a half long, but it didn’t have any air-conditioning and we were heading to a city where the “feels like” temperature was 39 degrees. Needless to say, I was sweating like a pig and I was actually scared to get off of my seat because I knew it would be wet. I tried to open the window beside me and couldn’t, then two other people tried to help me and they couldn’t either. Now I know why I was able to find an empty seat so easily… I got to Ayutthaya at 2:30 and was planning to spend the day exploring the temples until my train to Chiang Mai at 7:45pm. I started questioning whether I had left too late when I started talking to another girl who said all of the temples closed at 6pm. Honestly though, I don’t think I could have went any longer with the temperature outside! I found a luggage storage at the station, which was open 24 hours and only cost 10 baht per bag (44 cents). Ayutthaya was the capital of the Kingdom of Siam, was founded in 1350, and the city is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The railway station is quite far from the city centre so I went to the information booth to ask how to get to the temples. The lady said that I could rent a bike, so I asked how long it would take and she said 30 minutes. There was no way I was going to bike 30 minutes in 39-degree weather. I asked how much the tuk-tuks would be and she said at least 200 baht ($8.93). I asked if there was a bus and she said no. She didn’t seem too keen on helping me out so I left. I went on the Grab app and I could get a car for 87 baht ($3.80) and since I didn’t have lunch yet, I asked it to take me to Malakor Cafe & Restaurant. While I was waiting for my Grab driver to come, a songthaew pulled up (a Thai type of bus) so I guess I could have tried one of those if the information booth told me about them. I have a sneaking suspicion that Grab is actually illegal in Ayutthaya because there weren’t many drivers (so I had to wait 10-15 minutes for my ride), and then he sped right by me and parked about 100 metres away. The thing with Grab is it automatically translates for you, so if I write my driver in English, it’ll translate to Thai and if he writes me in Thai, it’ll translate to English. He wrote me and said, “Can you come to me? I’m afraid of 3 wheels,” which I took to mean that he’d get in trouble from the tuk-tuk drivers if they saw me going into his car. Anyway, he dropped me off at the restaurant at about 3:15 so by that point, I was starving. I ordered a shrimp pad Thai with a coke, which cost me 125 baht ($5.45), and it was so good!

After lunch, I crossed the street to the first temple I wanted to go to, called Wat Ratchaburana. For every temple, I had to pay an entrance fee of 50 baht ($2.18) so I only went to three. I had read online that the temples in Ayutthaya weren’t strict about dress code, so I wore one of my tank tops with my longer shorts. However, I was stopped and asked to cover up, and thank goodness I actually put my sarong and a t-shirt in my bag because there weren’t any places to buy anything (as there are in Bangkok). This temple was the quietest as well as the smallest of the three I went to, so I got through it pretty quick.

I also noticed some ladies (likely late-30s/early-40s) were wearing shorts that were the exact same length as mine. I decided that for the next temple, I’d just wear my sarong around my shoulders because I was so hot. I went next door to the next temple, Wat Phra Mahathat, but once again, the man pointed to my legs and told me to cover up. While I was putting everything on, ladies were walking out wearing dresses and shorts that didn’t go down to their knees so I was confused as to why I was being picked on. Another girl my age said she had the same problem- maybe cause we’re younger 🙂 This temple was famous for having a Buddha head that got caught in the roots of a tree, and was now within the tree. It was pretty cool to see, but was only about a metre high so they had signs saying we shouldn’t be higher than the Buddha and therefore should be squatting down as a sign of respect. I walked around the rest of the temple grounds, which were quite nice.

The last temple that I wanted to go to (Wat Phra Si Sanphet) was about a 20-30 minute walk away, so I slowly walked through the park, which had a lot of random temples within it. I finally got to the temple at about 5:30 and spent about an hour there watching the sunset and just enjoying the tranquility of it all.

I was one of the last people to leave when they closed at 6:30, and the guard was waiting to lock the gate. I started walking back towards where I had started, but at about 6:50, I thought I should be on the safe side and order a Grab to take me back to the train station.

However, when I requested one, it said that all of the Grab drivers were busy! I kept trying but nothing was available. I searched how long it would take to walk to the train station and it said 40 minutes, but it included a ferry ride and I wasn’t sure how reliable that would be. After about ten minutes, I tried again and thankfully, something came up! However, I still had to wait about 15 minutes for him to arrive. I got him to drop me off at the 7-Eleven across from the station so that I could pick up some snacks and water since I didn’t know what would be available on my 12-hour train ride. I went back to the station, got my bag, and waited for the train to arrive. My train ticket was a bit more expensive and cost me 1266 baht ($52.69), but I guess it was a pretty long trip and got me out of having to pay accommodation for a night. As I was about to get on the train, I met my second Australian of the entire trip: Abbey, from outside of Sydney. She ended up getting the bunk on top of mine. We were in a female berth and everyone else had their curtains closed, so we seemed to be the only ones talking. The set-up of the train was pretty cool though!

A lady came around with a menu and when we tried to order the cheapest thing, she said that they didn’t have anymore. Therefore, we ordered the next cheapest thing, which was a meal with questionable soup, rice, juice, and a muffin for 140 baht ($6.11). The lady set up a little table in the middle of my bed and then Abbey and I had dinner together. After dinner, we talked for awhile and then I got ready for bed. The bed was actually really comfy, however I was constantly rolling back and forth because of the motion of the train. We were to arrive at 7:15, so I set an alarm for 6:45. I’m pretty sure I woke up at least once every hour because of the jerks of the train whenever it would stop and start back up again. At about 6:15am, they made an announcement saying that they needed to flip the beds back into seats, so they asked us all to get out of our beds. I guess I didn’t need an alarm after all! I changed and then went to the bathroom to wash my face and when I came back, my bed was back into two seats.

I actually felt pretty energised that morning, but it faded as the day went on. Abbey and I chatted until 7:15 and then we arrived in Chiang Mai, which I’ll write about on the next post! Love always

From Taipei to Bangkok (Feb 21-23): Two Flights and an Odd Coincidence

Well since the last time I wrote, I’ve already went to two counties! I got to the Taipei airport three hours before my flight to Kuala Lumpur (at 1:20pm). Surprisingly when I checked in, they didn’t ask for proof of onward travel. They DID, however, ask me to put my bag on the scale. Uh oh… it was the first time that I’ve been asked to weigh my bag and I knew that I’d definitely be over 7kg – I just didn’t know by how much. I hesitantly placed my big bag on the scale (hiding my handbag behind the counter, which had all of my heavy electronics). 8.5kg…. I was expecting the worst, like having to pay $100 per kilogram and waited to hear how much I’d have to pay. “Okay,” she said, and placed my passport and boarding pass on the counter. What? Really? Okay, I’ll take it! I didn’t have to talk to anyone at custom control (so no new stamp on my passport) – all I had to do was scan my fingerprints before being let through the little gate. Security was also pretty smooth so I got through a lot fast than expected. The first thing I did was convert all of my Taiwanese dollars (except 300 for lunch) into US dollars because I’ve been told that you can’t convert them outside of Taiwan. I then went to find some food, but found out that there were only two restaurants on the other side. How were there no restaurants in an airport? One of the restaurants was high-class (with dishes costing way over 300THB), and the other one was middle-priced (with dishes starting from 180THB). I found a cafe and just got a salad and caramel macchiato for 280THB ($12.45), which was a lot more than I was used to spending on a meal.

I thought that setting aside 300THB would be more than enough, but I guess not! I FaceTimed my sister while eating my meal and waited to check in. The flight was just over 4 hours so I arrived after 5:30pm. I had to take the bus back into Kuala Lumpur, so I followed the signs to the bus. However when I arrived, there were a whole bunch of bus companies selling tickets around Malaysia. I definitely didn’t recognise this area! I walked around for a bit and finally saw a stand that said KL Sentral, so I bought a ticket for 12 ringgit ($3.92AUD) and waited for the bus. The bus ride was an hour long, and then I had to take the metro to where my hostel was. This time, I was staying at Marquee Guest Houzz (which has now changed its name to ZigZag Travellers Home), and I had to pay 23 ringgit ($7.90) for the night in a 6-bed female dorm. I was pretty hungry since it was after 8pm and I was actually really looking forward to having an Indian meal. Conveniently, my hostel was located in the Central Market so there was an Indian restaurant called Yusoof Dan Zakhir right next door. I ordered butter chicken with garlic naan and a tea tarik (milk tea) for 13.50 ringgit ($4.41), and it was delicious!

I love my Asian food, no matter what the cuisine!

On Friday morning, I got up and had breakfast at the hostel before walking around for a bit. My hostel was right beside Chinatown so I walked around the Central Market and Chinatown until about noon. Then, I made my way back to the hostel to pick up my stuff, took the metro back to KL Sentral, and got a bus back to the airport to catch my flight at 4pm. I was taking my time since I had ended up going through so quickly the day before. I wasn’t in a huge rush to get there three hours early since I had already checked in online – I only needed to get my boarding pass printed out. The first thing that I should tell you is that Kuala Lumpur airport (KLIA) has two terminals that are about 1.5km away from each other. I was trying to find out what terminal I had to get to, but I couldn’t find an actual answer (even my email and ticket didn’t say). I decided to go to KLIA2 since it would be the 4th time that I’d arrive or depart from there. I arrived at the airport at around 1:30 and checked the departure list to make sure I was in the right terminal. 4pm flight to Bangkok? Check. So I walked the 5-minute walk through all of the shops and up all of the escalators to the check-in desks. I searched for where the 4pm flight was located and walked to that section, but I could only find signs for Air Asia and I was flying with Malindo Air. Confused, I circled back to the departure board and checked it again. 4pm… Bangkok.. and then I looked at the flight number and compared it to my phone. Wrong one… Learn from my mistakes, people! Just because it’s the same time with same destination doesn’t mean it’s the same flight! I went to the information booth to double-check and he said that I’d have to take the shuttle bus to KLIA1. I ran back down the escalators, bought a ticket for 2 ringgit (65 cents) and saw that the next shuttle wasn’t for another 25 minutes, at 2:27. They come every half hour, so I must have JUST missed one. I tried to remain calm, and convinced myself that I’d still have 45 minutes to get my boarding pass, go through custom control, go through security, and hopefully get something to eat before the 3:15 boarding time. The other thing that I should mention about flying to Thailand is that in most cases, they will always ask for proof of onward travel because the airline doesn’t want to be stuck having to pay for your return ticket to leave the country. I’ve researched so much about this – I’ve read blogs, and it sounded like I’d have no choice but to find a ticket to prove that I’m leaving the country in less than 30 days (I was planning to leave by boat into Laos, so I couldn’t really provide a ticket). I’ve heard that there are rent-a-ticket sites, where you can pay 20 euro and they’ll print out a fake ticket for you. I’ve also heard of people buying cheap tickets to Singapore for 30 dollars that they won’t use. I even read that if you book on expedia, you can cancel your ticket within 24 hours and get all of your money back (which is what I was planning to do if I was forced to buy a ticket). I decided not to plan ahead this time so I could cross that bridge when I got to it. And thank goodness I did because when I finally got to the check-in counter, no questions were asked. And I probably would have been pretty mad if I went through all of the trouble of getting a ticket and didn’t even have to show it. Anyway, I went over to custom control and the line was so long. At least 15-20 minutes… I waited my turn, went to my officer who said something to the officer beside him. Then the officer beside him said, “Miss, he says you’re very beautiful.” “What? I didn’t say that, he’s lying!” “Yes, he said that. He’s just shy.” It was definitely nice that it wasn’t so serious for a change. He then flipped through my passport and laughed at the notes that I had written saying not to stamp any of the empty pages, then handed me my passport and let me through. I saw a sign that said flights to any gates that start with C have to take the Aerotrain. I looked down and guess which gate number I had to go through? One with a C, of course. By that point, it was 2:55pm so I still had 20 minutes until boarding time, and luckily the wait for the next train and the time to get to the gates was less than 5 minutes. We then had to go through security, but it wasn’t “official” security – there were signs saying that we could still carry our water bottles through. Finally, I was through! I was starving and had less than 15 minutes left, so I went to Boost to get a mango-lychee smoothie (which are way cheaper than the Boost smoothies in Australia!), and then I ran over to Burger King to get a burger. However, the person working there was so slow and she’d do everything with the least effort possible, while eating fries in between. It almost got to the point where I was going to walk away because I had been waiting in line for ten minutes and there were only two people in front of me when I got there. FINALLY, I got to the front of the line, ordered a double cheeseburger, and ran to my gate. However, I completely forgot that I still hadn’t went through ACTUAL security, which was right at my gate. I ate my burger as fast as I could, and then drank my smoothie even faster (while taking breaks in between brain freezes), and when I was the last person on the other side of security, I went through. I got to the other side and sat down while we all watched the suitcases being loaded onto the plane. They put on the last bag, closed it, but for some reason we still weren’t boarding. And then 4pm hit and we still weren’t boarding. Finally at about ten minutes after 4, an announcement came on saying that they had some technical difficulties and they’d let us know of our new boarding time. So those last two hours of stress were all for nothing… great! The worst part about being on that side of security was even though we weren’t allowed to bring any liquids through, they didn’t have any vending machines or water refill stations. By about 5pm, I really started getting thirsty so I did something frowned upon in the world of flying.. I left my bag sitting there and left. I had to set my boarding pass on the counter, go out, and walk about 5-10 minutes until I finally found a water refill station, which seemed to be the only one in the entire area. I went back, had to re-go through security, and grabbed my boarding pass from the counter (although I easily could have grabbed anyone else’s, or they mine, as no one was manning the counter), and sat back down. Finally after just over an hour and a half, we were asked to board the plane (apparently they were having lavatory issues, so we had to wait for them to fix it). It was then that they handed out water but they ran out of straws, so the water was inaccessible because the plastic would just rip anytime you tried to open it. I sat down and ended up getting the entire row to myself, which was great! I decided to finish watching the movie that I had started on my last Malindo flight nearly 7 weeks ago (Aloha). They soon handed out toasted sandwiches with a muffin.

I arrived in Bangkok two hours later but had lost an hour, so it was only 7pm. However, there was another plane still in our loading bay (of course) so we had to wait about 15 minutes until we could get off of the plane. The airline also didn’t hand out arrival cards, so everyone was frantically looking for them when we got to border control (so thumbs down for Malindo this time.. if it weren’t for the food and entertainment making up for everything). I finally got through, bought a 7-day SIM card for 180 baht ($7.85), and then needed to find out how to get to my hostel, which was by the railway station. I asked one information booth where to go and they directed me to the other side of the airport and told me to go to the second floor and then when I got there, they directed me to the side that I was just on and told me to go to the second floor. I was wasting more time than anything, so I just decided to catch the A1 bus to Mo Chit terminal for 30THB ($1.31) and then take the metro to Hua Lamphong station. I finally got to my hostel just after 9pm. I was staying at Loftel Station Hostel for 250 baht ($11.16) for the night in a 10-bed mixed dorm. At about 9:30pm, I decided to go for dinner back at Supa, where I had my Christmas Eve dinner the last time I was in Bangkok. Most of the restaurants (including this one) closed at 10pm so I wanted to go somewhere close. I decided to get a green curry dish with rice for 130baht ($5.67).

I headed back to the hostel at around 10:30pm and the weirdest thing happened. There was only one person sitting in the lobby, who happened to be a Canadian guy who I had met at my hostel in Skopje, Macedonia nearly two years ago(!). What are the odds that we would choose the same hostel on the same night in two different continents?! I think he was just as shocked as I was! After talking for a bit, we found out that we had both booked the same night train to Chiang Mai the following day (a ticket that I had booked months ago, before I even started my trip). So crazy!! Anyway, we said goodnight and went to bed, as I had a doctor appointment the next morning at 9:30.

On Saturday morning, I got up at 8:30, got ready for the day, and went to go for my doctor’s appointment at the Thai Travel Clinic. Back when I was there on Christmas Eve, I got bloodwork done to find out if I was immune to the chicken pox (because I only had a few pox as a child). I didn’t realise that I’d have to come BACK to the travel clinic to get the results… so here I was nearly two months later, ready to find out if I was immune to chicken pox or not. I decided to take a Grab Bike because 1) it would only take 12 minutes to drive and likely over an hour to take public transport, 2) a Grab bike was over half the price of a regular Grab, and 3) it was actually the same price, if not cheaper than public transport (at 56 baht/$2.44 for the trip). I requested my Grab bike, he showed up with a helmet, I got on and we were on our way. He started the trip by going down the wrong lane on a main road, which didn’t help put me at ease but I realised that I made a great decision when we started weaving in and out of traffic. He dropped me off, I went upstairs and I actually finished my appointment before my appointment was supposed to start. They got me to take my blood pressure and weigh myself (I’ve definitely gained weight since the last appointment, with the amount of food I’ve eaten) and then I was called into the room. The doctor was really nice and showed me the piece of paper that came up as positive, so I didn’t have to worry about getting chicken pox. Unfortunately, just getting this information ended up costing 450baht ($19.53). I requested another Grab bike to take me to the 12Go office, where I had my reserved train ticket for that evening. The driver dropped me off right after 10am, which was right when they opened! I got my ticket to go from Ayutthaya at 19:45 and arrive in Chiang Mai the next day at 7:15am. I then walked back to the hostel and ordered coffee and breakfast (which was toast slices with a soft-boiled egg).

I headed to the train station at about 11:30 and asked for a ticket to Ayutthaya, but the next train wasn’t until 12:55 so I had about an hour to kill. I found a coffee shop, ordered an iced tea, and waited. But I’ll save my trip to Ayutthaya for another post! Love always

Taipei II (Feb 18-21): Shifen, Wulai, and Pingxi Sky Lantern

My trip back to Taipei went by extremely quick, thanks to the high speed rail ticket that Mike and Sandy had bought for me. Mike dropped me off at the station in Tainan at about 10:30 and my train left at 11:13. I got some coffee and sat down for awhile, and then went to get some snacks at 7-Eleven. Before I went into the shop, I wanted to get reorganised because I didn’t have any free hands to buy anything, so I set my phone on a broken ATM machine, tied my jacket around my waist, and put some random stuff into my bags. I scanned my ticket to go through the turnstiles, went into the shop to pick up a couple of bakery items, and had five minutes to go to the platform. I was on my way up the escalator and I went to grab my phone. But where was it?! I must have left it on the ATM! I ran up the rest of the escalator, ran back down the next escalator, and went to the man working the turnstiles to ask if I could go back through because I left my phone. He scanned his card, came with me, and luckily my phone was still just sitting there! I grabbed it, he scanned me back through, and I bolted back to the platform and made it back just in time. So much for a stress-free journey! Mike and Sandy had booked business class for me so I got a massive seat, and they handed out coffee and snacks. I had an empty seat beside me for half of the trip (until Taichung), which was also nice! It was great to experience a seat in business class, as I’m sure it won’t happen again! I arrived in Taipei at 1pm, picked up some sushi to take with me from the station (for 10TWD/$0.46AUD apiece), and took the metro to my hostel. This time I was staying at Smile Taipei, which is by the Yuanshan station, and it cost me 330TWD ($15.07AUD) per night for an 8-bed female dorm. I arrived before check-in time so no one answered the door when I rang the doorbell. I was sitting outside, searching up somewhere to hang out, when someone opened the door to leave, so I asked if I could go up. I was able to drop off my stuff, pay, and they got my bed ready within 15 minutes. I ate my sushi at the hostel and then decided to do some more touristy stuff since I didn’t get a huge chance to before. Plus it was pretty much the only day that I’d be spending IN Taipei for the next three nights. I started by taking the metro to the Ximen area, which is a huge (and busy!) shopping area. I went to the Red House, which is a famous theatre, but it was closed.

I noticed that a bunch of booths were set up and saw that there’d be a light show going on every night that week for the lantern festival, so I made a mental note to come back in the evening. I walked down some of the streets, but it was really busy and it wasn’t really my thing, so I continued walking to the Bo-Pi-Liao Heritage Street, but it was also closed. I guess Mondays aren’t a good day to be a tourist… I went to Longshan Temple, where there were a bunch of people taking turns to do their three bows and place their incense sticks. There were people along the edges of the temple who all had hymn books, and they were singing along to the music, which was really quite beautiful – I always find it very moving to be a part of something like that.

After walking around the temple, I made my way back towards Ximen, and walked through a couple of night markets on the way. I found a park, which ended up being somewhere people would bring their dogs to run off-leash. I sat for quite awhile and people/dog-watched before going to a restaurant that serves all-day breakfast called What Day Kitchen. Apparently, it’s really popular in the mornings, so I was glad to be able to find a few empty tables in the evening (although it was completely full by the time I left). They gave me a Mandarin menu and then a photo book with English, but the two didn’t really match up so I wasn’t exactly sure how to order what I wanted. I decided to go for fried chicken with eggs, portobello mushrooms, a salad (with thousand island dressing!), some French bread with blueberry cream cheese, and a milk tea – all for 115TWD ($5.11)!

I can see why the place is so popular! I got back to Ximen Square right before 6:30 and saw a bunch of people waiting around for the light show, so I joined in. I was expecting something to happen at 6:30 but nothing happened. We all waited and then finally, I went over to the information booth and saw that the first show wouldn’t be until 7pm. Well, I might as well just continue waiting! I was right in the front and by the time 7pm hit, there was a huge crowd of people behind me. They had a massive pig in the middle of the intersection and at 7, it played a bunch of music, danced, and changed colours for about three minutes.

I then continued walking among the mass of people because there were different light displays along the main street, some of them done by different countries. By the time I reached the end of the street, the show at that side was just beginning! It was the same type of thing, except all of the pictures were put onto a building.

I walked back to the main station, got a passion fruit bubble tea, and went back to the hostel for the night.

On Tuesday was the Pingxi Lantern Festival, one of the biggest lantern festivals in the country. I had joined a group on Couchsurfing who was planning to go together, so we had a massive whatsapp group. Basically at 10am, the booths open for people to get vouchers, which will give them an official lantern, and one lantern can be shared between four people. Six people from the group were planning to go before 10am so that they could get vouchers for the group, and then the rest of the group was going to head over at 3:30. The event didn’t start until 5pm, but I decided to go a bit earlier and spend the day there. I left at about 10:30, got to the main station and asked for a ticket to Ruifang, which cost me 49TWD ($2.18). I read that there would be shuttle buses from Ruifang to Shifen (where the festival was taking place). My train left at 11:18 so I ended up having to wait for 20-30 minutes, and then I arrived in Ruifang about an hour later. When we got there, it was another big crowd of people and they were directing us to a table selling train tickets to Shifen. They said that the tickets would be 80TWD and that the next bus wasn’t until 12:59 (aka another 45 minutes of waiting). I was a bit confused and asked about the shuttle and they said, “No shuttle.” I said that I’d come back and walked outside the station, where there was a shuttle bus sitting there waiting. Imagine that! I paid 30THB/$1.37 (the return ticket is free!), got a seat on the bus, and it left within five minutes. About 30 minutes later, the bus stopped on the side of the highway and they said we had to walk into town, which was still a 20 minute walk! However, it was downhill on a quiet lane and it was actually quite enjoyable.

I arrived in Shifen right at 1pm so I walked towards the train station, where tons of people were already releasing lanterns on the train track (which happens everyday of the year here). It was crazy because the train track was still functioning, so someone would blow a whistle and everyone would sprint off of the track to let the overcrowded train go by. I found a food stand that I had read about and it debones a drumstick and replaces the bone with rice.

I got one for 65TWD ($2.89), and it was delicious but also messy to eat! I then slowly made my way down the entire street and checked out some of the shops and food stalls.

I wanted to spend the afternoon going to Shifen waterfall, which is also known as Niagara of Taiwan. I made my way across a couple of suspension bridges and then there were a few viewpoints to look at the falls. It was quite busy (especially on the day of an internationally-known festival!), so I had to wait awhile in order to take my own selfie after all of the other selfie-takers took their turns.

Unfortunately, a lot of the park was covered with fallen lanterns. After I finished my time at the waterfall, I decided to check out the Couchsurfing whatsapp group to see what everyone else was up to. There was another girl who had just arrived in Shifen and asked where the group was, but no one was replying. I wrote her and said that I was also in Shifen, so we decided to meet up. She headed towards the waterfall because it would close at 4:30 so I sat at a table and enjoyed a lemon drink. Yaritza (Yari) showed up about 20 minutes later. She’s from Chicago and is doing a one-month trip away from work. We chatted for awhile, walked back to the waterfall, and then headed back to where the main event was supposed to take place. People were already gathered around the stage area, queuing for their lanterns (and it was only 4pm!). We wrote the group, who pinned us their location so we could meet up with them. One of the girls (Val) had gotten to the voucher counter later than the rest of the group (10:30), so her voucher was for the first set of lanterns at 5pm (the rest of the group would be at 6:30). There was also a larger group of people on their way to Shifen, so the chances of all of us being able to use the vouchers was slim. Val wanted to get rid of her voucher because it would still be light when the lanterns were released, so she was about to give the voucher to a stranger. I cut in and said that I’d still go, just for the experience, and Yari said she’d come too. It was 4:40 at that time, so we walked the way that we came and got there right before 5. The organisation of this event was spectacular! They led us into a large area where there were people with signs numbered 1 to 14. They told us to choose a line, and there were probably about ten vouchers per line, so at least 140 lanterns per release (they performed a release about every 20 minutes). While we were waiting to go into the main area, a lady from Formosa News (an English television channel in Taiwan) came up to me and asked if she could do an interview, so I did. She said that I’d be on channel 53 that night, but I had no way of watching 🙁 We finally started leaving the area that we were in to go to the main stage area. We had to wait there for awhile and then finally, we were let into the main area.

It was full of people wearing purple, so they told each voucher-holder to go to a different person. We had to wait again (I think it took so long because we were the first ones, so they were building it up and explaining everything). Finally, they handed out the lanterns and then gave us markers to write wishes with. We decided to write a different wish on each side – love, peace, health, and safe travels. We had a full song to decorate our lanterns so we finished quite fast, and we looked around and saw that some people had completely filled their lanterns with beautiful mandarin symbols (any lanterns written using the regular alphabet really didn’t look that nice!).

Some guys came around with torches to light all of the lanterns, and then we brought it to the ground so that we could hold it down with our feet and it could fill up with heat. You could really feel the heat of the fire – it was intense! A couple lanterns unfortunately caught fire and flew up into ashes. They counted down and we all let go of our lanterns, which was a beautiful sight!

We were ushered back out after our helper asked if she could take a picture with us. By that time, it was 5:50 so the whole process took at least an hour. Getting out was so much more crowded because there were a bunch of people trying to get in as well.

We decided to walk away from the main stage area, find some food, and watch the lanterns from a distance. We found a food stall that served barbecued pork on a hot dog bun and paid 75TWD ($3.33) each.

It was delicious! We sat and watched the lanterns for awhile and then walked back towards the train station. On the way, we got a peculiar dessert, which was basically an ice cream taco with peanut brittle and cilantro on the inside (I skipped the cilantro) – it’s the least messy ice cream snack I’ve had, and it only cost 35TWD ($1.56).

I decided to head back at around 8pm because I knew that it would take at least two hours to get back, and we could see the lineups for the shuttle from the bridge that we were on. A few of Val’s friends met up with us and we walked towards the shuttle. I asked if those shuttles were going to Ruifang and the man replied that the Ruifang shuttles were really far (likely the same 20 minute walk that I had to do when I arrived), and he said that these shuttles were going to the Taipei Zoo station. He said if we were okay with standing, we could hop on right then and there or else we’d have to stand in line. Since everyone else was going to the Taipei Zoo station, I decided I might as well go too, as I wasn’t too keen on walking to the other shuttles. We hopped onto the bus and it ended up taking about an hour, plus the bus driver was a pretty crazy driver. There was a moment when I flew forward, and many of us were falling all over the place. Finally, we arrived at the station and then I had to take two metros back to my hostel. By the time I got back, it was just before 10:30 so I picked up a taro milk and went back to my hostel.

Wednesday was my last full day in Taiwan, so I decided to do another day trip to a small village called Wulai. One of the main reasons for this was that I was determined to see some cherry blossom trees before I left. The cherry blossom season was just beginning and once the flowers bloom, they only stay for about two weeks. Therefore, you really have to be in the right place at the right time. I wasn’t too sure whether I should go because when I looked at the weather, it was supposed to be sunny in Taipei (which hasn’t really happened during my time there), and it was supposed to rain in Wulai. I decided to just risk it since I didn’t want to regret not going. I had to take a metro to the end of one of the lines, at Xindian Station and by the time I got there, it was just after noon so I found a KFC to get a burger combo. I then had to wait about ten minutes for the bus, #849, to take me to Wulai. The bus ride only took a half hour so I arrived in Wulai just after 1pm and at that point, it was still sunny. I walked into the Old Town and saw a bunch of food stalls set up.

Then I saw some stairs which led to a little log cart railway. The log cart railway was finished right before the Second World War, but it was actually used to connect the two parts of the village together – the waterfall side and then the old town with all of the hot springs. Now in the Old Town, you can rent a room and sit in a bathtub full of hot spring water for 100TWD ($4.57) per hour. However, that didn’t really peak my interest because when I think of a hot spring, I usually think outside in nature. Anyway, back in the day, people used to have log carts just as now we have cars – they’d have to use them to get into town to get their groceries or whatever else they’d need. I decided I might as well go for a ride, and I paid 50TWD ($2.22) for a 5-minute ride to the waterfall.

I got a spot right in the front beside the driver, which was cool! It was at the waterfall where I finally got to see some cherry blossom trees! There were only about six trees and only half of them still had flowers on them, so I was lucky enough.

I was looking around and a little old man came out of a museum and asked if he could help me with anything. I replied that I was looking for anywhere to go hiking, and he told me to walk along the highway until I found a bridge, cross it, and there would be some “water for me to play in.” Well, I’m not sure I wanted to play in any water, but I took his advice and headed for the bridge, even though the skies were starting to look a bit dark. There was one point when I had to go through a narrow car tunnel, where there wasn’t any space designated for pedestrians, so I had to walk through quickly and hope that any cars that came through would swerve out of the way.

About 20-30 minutes later, I finally got to the bridge. I walked down the trail for another 20-30 minutes, passed four little waterfalls, and then it started lightly raining so I turned back. I decided to continue walking back down to town rather than take the log cart again because it was only a 1.5 kilometre walk.

I got back to the bottom and stopped at the Wulai Atayal Museum, which had different artefacts from the indigenous people who lived there. I then went back to the bus station and waited for the bus.

By the time I got back into Taipei, it was after 6pm so I decided to go to the Shilin Night Market. Honestly, I wasn’t too impressed with this market – it seemed more directed at tourists and didn’t have the same charm as other night markets do. I ended up in a basement food court and went to a stall that was completely full. I decided to get soup dumplings one last time since it was my last dinner in Taiwan, but I was most disappointed with these ones. They didn’t have any broth and they didn’t seem very fresh, but they were probably the most expensive ones that I’ve paid for at 100TWD ($4.57). I found a bubble tea place and got one last taro bubble tea and then I headed back to my hostel.

On Thursday, I had to get up and out of my hostel by 9pm to get to the Taoyuan airport. I decided to take the bus 936/937 to Linkou Station (which is where Liah lives) and then transfer onto the metro there because the bus tended to be a lot quicker. However, I’ll save my journey to Kuala Lumpur for another post. I really enjoyed my time in Taiwan! The people are so friendly and hospitable, it wasn’t too hot and it wasn’t too cold, and there was so much green everywhere! Plus the food was great! Everyone I talked to would say, “Wow, three weeks in Taiwan?! How are you going to spend three weeks there?” But I didn’t even feel like three weeks was enough time – there’s still so much that I didn’t have time to explore! I guess I’ll have to save it for next time… Love always

Tainan II (Feb 15-18): A Treehouse, Anping, and a Rukai Village

My second time in Tainan was just as good as the first, but this time I got to spend longer than just one night. I left my hostel in Kaohsiung at check-out time (12pm) with a guy who I had met at breakfast (Krister from California). We took the MRT to the main station and then stood in line to get tickets to go to Tainan. The ticket only cost 68TWD ($3.02AUD) but what I didn’t realise was that I could have swiped my Easycard for even cheaper (which Krister did), although it wouldn’t guarantee me a seat. However, the train was quite quiet so Krister and I both got to sit down. The ride to Tainan took just over an hour so I arrived just after 2pm. After hotspotting Krister so that he could figure out where his hostel was, we said our goodbyes and I started the 30-minute walk to my cousin’s school. Mike and Sandy weren’t going to finish work until about 9pm so I was planning to drop off my bags and keep myself entertained until they finished working. About halfway through my walk, I saw a soup dumpling (xiaolongbao) restaurant called 郭記蒸好味湯包 and I realised how hungry I was, since I had only eaten a couple pieces of toast that day. I decided to sit down and have a late lunch… 8 dumplings only cost me 55TWD ($2.44)!

I’ve noticed that xiaolongbao is very inconsistent, and it can be pretty difficult to find some that are done right. Now that I’m somewhat of a connoisseur (haha), I can tell you that anything from the thickness of the dough, the flavour of broth and meat, and whether there’s actually broth IN the dumpling will have a massive effect on the outcome of the dumpling. This restaurant wasn’t the best, but it also wasn’t the worst (and at least it was an actual SOUP dumpling – many places don’t put any broth inside, or the dough breaks and all of the broth leaks out 🙁). Anyway, I arrived at the school right at 3, which was conveniently when Mike had a two-hour break. The kids had done a science experiment that day (making lemonade), so they had a bunch of fresh lemonade leftover, which I got to enjoy. The kids were also very curious – many would look over and wonder who I was, some would say hello, and some would ask Mike or Sandy who I was – they were pretty sweet though! Mike and I walked to the nearby shopping centre so that he could get something to eat, and then we picked up some breakfast stuff for the next day. We went back to the school, then Sandy and her coworkers suggested some places that I could check out for the next couple of hours. Luckily, Sandy was finished work at 7:30 so I didn’t have to keep myself entertained for too long. Everyone was so helpful with printing off metro maps, showing directions of where to go, and Mike even helped me look for flights to prove that I’d be leaving Thailand (I’ll get to that in another post). I decided to start my time by walking to the Confucius Temple, which was less than 15 minutes away. Unfortunately, it was undergoing renovation so I didn’t get to see much. One of the workers let me come through the barrier to take a couple of pictures. There was even a bride doing a photo shoot, which was nice to see!

I then walked to Wu Garden before it got dark, which wasn’t much… just a little area where people could sit and read a book or something.

I kept walking to an area where there was a bunch of food vendors and shops, and even stumbled upon a street that was filled with lanterns for the lantern festival – it was really nice!

I picked up a passonfruit bubble tea for 65TWD ($2.89) and then I noticed a shop trying to get rid of their last desserts. I’ve had them before – they’re kind of like two pancakes stuck together and have a filling inside. The guy said that they were 12TWD each ($0.53) so I asked for a chocolate one, and then he threw in a cream one for free! I headed back to the school and waited for Sandy to finish up, and then we took her motorbike to the Dadong night market. It was a pretty busy night market – people were everywhere and you had to get pushed with the crowd because the aisles weren’t very wide. We started by getting some barbecued pork, which is always so flavourful – I really need to learn how to barbecue like that! We then ordered an avocado milk smoothie, which was different but good. Then we got a beef soup, where they get the freshest beef (likely killed that day), put the raw slices in a bowl, and pour some extremely hot broth on top. The broth completely cooks the beef! However, as with basically everything in Taiwan, it’s difficult to eat anything without burning your mouth. You either have to wait for awhile for everything to cool, or just grin and bear it. Even the lids on their coffees say: “Caution, contents 120 degrees,” which seems overly hot. We got some stinky tofu (for my second time) and then sat down to eat all of our treasures, which were all so tasty!

I’ve joked that I’ll gain all of my weight in Taiwan because not only is the food amazing, but I seem to be eating constantly. And when I’m not eating, I’m offered more food! We walked through the rest of the market and then Mike had finished work so we went back to the school to get all of our stuff, and then headed to their house. We stayed up and chatted for a bit, and I was happy to get some cat cuddles from their two cats.

On Saturday, I was on my own for most of the day because Mike had to be at work from 9am-9pm. Sandy was up when I got up, so I had some of the cinnamon buns that we had bought the day before, and then she drove me to Anping, which is a historical part of the city. I started by going to Fort Zeelandia (which is coincidentally the same name as the small town of Zealandia near my hometown), which cost 50TWD ($2.22) to enter. Honestly, I wasn’t too interested in the fort or the ruins (which isn’t any different from other ruins I look at).

I didn’t spend too much time here and continued to the Tree House, which is a house built within and amongst a bunch of trees. This was definitely more my thing, and I was fascinated by how cool the structure looked.

There, it was the same cost to enter (50TWD) and when I entered, I met another Canadian named Andrew (from Toronto). We walked around the Tree House and then decided to check out the Old Town of Anping. We walked by the cutest ice cream stand (which had a huge line), and when I saw the ice cream cones it made, I had to buy one. The name of the ice cream cones that we got were literally called “Cute Ice Cream Cones,” and we got to choose from an assortment of animals. I chose a pig and Andrew chose a bear, and it cost us 70TWD ($3.11) each, which was definitely worth it!

Not only did they look nice, but they also tasted delicious on such a hot day. We continued walking through the Old Town, and then walked towards the central part of Tainan. We stopped at a famous shrimp roll restaurant called 周氏蝦捲 (Choi’s Shrimp Rolls), which obviously also had a huge line. I got two deep-fried shrimp rolls for 65TWD ($2.89).

They were really good! I was planning to go to Decathlon (a French outdoor store) because it’s my favourite store, and offers so many products at a good price. Andrew and I walked for about an hour together and then parted ways when I had to turn to go to Decathlon. My plan was to get some type of knee brace since my knees have been hurting lately. I got a compression band for each knee, for 199TWD each ($9.03), but I somehow walked out spending 1543TWD ($68.58)! I ended up buying a “few” new things such as some hiking sandals, a hat, a shirt, and a waterproof phone case – I just can’t resist when I’m at this store, I love it! I then walked back down into central Tainan to look at Chin-Men Theatre. Why? Because it’s one of the only cinemas (if not THE only cinema) that actually paints their movie posters. Master Yan Zhenfa spends his time painting these beautiful posters, which look so realistic. I was even lucky enough to catch him across the street painting the movie schedule, so I snuck in a cheeky picture.

I walked to the Blueprint Cultural and Creative Park, which starts with a 3D blueprint of a house, which is completely blue with white lines of the furniture. It was definitely creative! I then walked down the little streets of shops, which had some other artwork hidden all over the place.

I was close to the school so I went back to the shopping centre nearby, ordered a burger from Freen for 115TWD ($5.11), and worked on my blog until it was about 8:30. I headed back to the school and then when Mike and Sandy were finished, we drove back to the house to drop everything off and then went to go watch the fireworks for the lantern festival. There were a bunch of people parked on the side of one of the highway-like streets so we followed suit, waited until 9:30, and then watched the fireworks from there. We headed back home and of course, Mike and Sandy were starving. It was funny because Mike made his own Western-style meal of a turkey version of beef dip, and Sandy made her own Taiwanese-style meal of ramen noodles and fish sausages. I had both, which was a delicious mix, and I was so full afterwards!

On Sunday morning, we all slept in and then Mike and Sandy made a delicious American-style breakfast of eggs, bacon, sausage, and the bagels we had picked up from the bakery (chocolate with cream cheese, and sesame seeds with cream cheese).

Everything was so good, and it was nice to finally have a full American breakfast after such a long time. That day, we took the car and drove to the Maolin District, to a little Indigenous (Rukai) village called Duona. It probably took about 2-3 hours to drive, but the time went by so fast because the scenery was beautiful to look at. We walked around the village, checked out the elementary school, and walked up and down the streets, which were filled with their traditional slate-slab houses.

Everything was so colourful, which made everything really welcoming. We found a little restaurant at about 4pm and decided to get some food, but what was suggested as a “light snack” again ended up being so much! We had some barbecued pork and sausage, sweet potato, a dragon whisker dish (which was new for me), and some bamboo rice.

After our great meal, we started the drive back home. We didn’t get back until about 7pm so we watched “When Harry Met Sally” and ordered some pizza from Pizza Hut, which was another treat for me since I don’t remember the last time I had pizza. Mike and Sandy bought me a high speed rail train ticket, which is already a perk in itself. However, they didn’t buy me a regular ticket – they bought me a business class ticket, which was even better! I feel like they really spoiled me while I was there – I had such a great time!

On Monday morning, Mike and I left at 10am so that he could drive me to the station. I got there with about a half hour to spare, so I just found some coffee and relaxed before my train came. That day actually marked the halfway point of my entire trip, which made me sad that I was closer to the end than to the beginning. However, I was also a bit relieved and was looking forward to getting settled again. I had a great time in Tainan, and I’m sure I’ll be there again! Love always

Kaohsiung (Feb 13-15): Night Markets, Buddhas, and a Monastery

Kaohsiung (pronounced Gow-Sung) was another one of those nice cities with good vibes, so I instantly liked it as soon as I arrived. I had to leave my hostel in Taitung at about 8:45 on Wednesday morning so that I could catch the #8172 bus from the bus station to the train station. I arrived at the train station at about 9:30 so I had enough time to get a coffee before catching my 10:08 train, which would take three hours and cost me 351TWD ($15.60AUD). I arrived in Kaohsiung just after 1pm and had to get to my hostel, which was close to the Formosa Boulevard station. Little did I know, this station was actually a tourist attraction because it has the “Dome of Light,” which is a huge stained glass ceiling, which also does a light show a few times each day. The stained glass really beautiful!

My hostel was called Trip GG Hostel and I paid 400TWD ($18.15) per night to stay in a 6-bed female dorm. This was by far the nicest hostel that I’ve stayed in during my time in Taiwan, and perhaps on my entire trip so far – it had breakfast included, a nice common area that looked over the entire city, and the beds were soft and spacious. Unfortunately, I couldn’t check in until 4pm so I dropped off my bags, and took the metro to the west part of the city. Conveniently, I had went back to the Formosa Boulevard station at the exact time that the light show had started, so I was able to enjoy that.

 

The thing that I’ve really liked about Taiwan is that the Easycard can be used in every city – on buses, trains, metros, etc. Therefore, you just have to add money on the Easycard (which you can even do at a 7-Eleven or Family Mart), and you don’t have to worry about finding individual tickets everywhere you go. I went for lunch at a restaurant called 港園牛肉麵 (Gang yuan beef noodles) and got the dry beef noodles (which still has a bit of liquid, but not as much as you would get in a soup).

This dish was so good! The beef was tender, and the noodles and broth had such a nice flavour. For the meal, it cost me 110TWD ($4.89). I then walked towards Pier 2 Art Center, which is basically what the name describes – a pier that’s full of different art work. It also had many shops so I checked a few out and walked down the pier.

I headed back to my hostel around 5 so that I could check in and get my stuff organised. Conveniently, I was less than a ten-minute walk away from one of the night markets (Liuhe Night Market) and even though it’s not supposed to be as good as some of the others, I decided to still check it out. There’s a famous stand that sells papaya milk so of course, I had to go try some. The man working there is so friendly and as soon as he saw me in the lineup of tourists, he gave out a cheerful, “Hello!” The papaya milk cost me 60TWD ($2.67), which is quite a bit higher for night market standards, but the tourists still keep coming! After walking down the short two blocks of the Liuhe Night Market, I walked about 30 minutes all the way down towards Central Park, where there’s another night market with shops nearby.

I spent some time there but still couldn’t find anything that I wanted to eat. I’m not sick of the food here (I love it!), but I’m slowly getting sick of not knowing what everything is and not knowing what my options are when ordering food. Out of the countries on this trip so far, Taiwan has definitely been the most difficult in terms of available English translations, which is bizarre because it’s also the most modern-feeling country. I walked back to my hostel and nearly everything was closed since it was after 9:30. However, I noticed a bunch of people sitting outside nearby and saw that there was a 24/7 restaurant called 老江紅茶牛奶 (Lao Chiang). It’s known for its milk tea but I figured it wouldn’t be a good idea to have a bunch of tea before bed so I just ordered a pork floss & egg sandwich, which was actually amazing! I headed back to the hostel and went to bed.

On Thursday morning, I slept in a bit and then had some breakfast at the hostel (which was just toast and coffee). I decided to visit the Fo Guang Shan Monastery, which was about 50 minutes outside of the city. First, I had to take the metro to the Zuoying station and then I had to catch a bus to the Monastery. The bus E02 only left about once every hour, so I timed it just right. I arrived on the grounds just before 1pm and got something to eat for lunch, which ended up being a Taiwanese tortilla for 35TWD ($1.56). Then, I decided to check out the Big Buddha and eight pagodas area. The Big Buddha is the tallest seated bronze Buddha in the world, and is 108 metres tall.

It was quite the sight to see! I walked towards the Buddha and at the bottom, they had a calligraphy room, where you could get a scroll and pen to trace the symbols that were on the paper. It seemed cool to do but when I asked about it, they said it would cost 1000TWD ($45.39!) so I decided to pass. I walked back towards the main area and then walked in another direction towards the monastery (there were three main areas to visit, so I focused on two of them). I had to walk up a huge hill along a road and then at the top, they had a beautiful garden.

I kept walking and eventually made it to the monastery. It was good timing too, because I arrived during classes and I saw a large group of (what I assume were) monks-in-training slowly walking down a hill two-by-two while balancing bowls on their heads. They were all wearing darker coloured robes, and there were about four actual monks wearing the traditional lighter robes who seemed to be guiding them. Out of respect, I just stood still and watched, so I didn’t happen to get any photos of them. I continued walking and found one of the shrines, where I also wasn’t allowed to take any pictures. A lady gave me a flower and I wasn’t too sure what to do with it. She showed me to take it with both hands, bow down to the shrine, and place the flower with the other ones on the shrine. I did what she said and then continued on my walk. I finally found Great Buddha Land, which I had been trying to find but due to the lack of English signs, I never knew if I was going in the right direction or not. There were hundreds of Buddha statues in this area and it was so peaceful – I only ever saw two other people there at one time.

I sat for awhile just to enjoy my surroundings and then I had to start the long 20-30 minute walk back. I made a few stops along the way to get some more pictures, as the beauty of this place was overwhelming!

I knew what time the next bus would come and arrived with about 10 minutes to spare but when I got there, there was a huge line-up of people waiting! I joined the line, but wasn’t too sure if I would make it on. Once the bus arrived, everyone boarded and when I was the third person in line, they said that there wasn’t anymore space. The next bus wasn’t for another hour and a half until after 5pm! I did some research (because I didn’t really want to wait around for an hour and a half) and saw that there were some non-direct buses that would still go into Kaohsiung (they’d just take longer). However, all of the buses that arrived were written in Mandarin so I couldn’t tell which direction they were going. I went on the next two that arrived and asked “Kaohsiung,” but the drivers shook their heads. I noticed some people waiting at the 8501 bus stop and when I looked it up, I saw that it would be going where I wanted. It would arrive in about 15 minutes, so I switched lines (and basically everyone else followed suit). I’m glad I did because once again, the bus completely filled up when it arrived. I got back to the Zuoying station just before 5:30 and by that point, I was starving. I was planning to go to the Ruifang night market later that night, so I just went to McDonalds and got some fries and a McFlurry for 97TWD ($4.31).

Up until this point, I’ve managed to spend my entire time in Taiwan without going to an American-style fast-food restaurant so I did pretty well! I went back to my hostel to relax for a bit before going to the night market. My dad’s best friend had invited me into a group chat on Facebook with a guy who also had roots from Saskatchewan (and more specifically from Kamsack, where my dad is from). Apparently, our dads used to hang out when they were younger and since we were both in Taiwan, my dad’s friend suggested that we meet up. Tyler and I made plans to meet when he finished work (at 8pm) and go to the Ruifeng Night Market. Tyler had been teaching in Kaohsiung for the past 11 years, and was only five years older than me. Even though neither of us had heard about each other’s dads, it was still nice to meet up with someone from home. We walked around the night market for a bit, where I got some soup dumplings (60TWD/$2.67) and tried stinky tofu for the first time!

Honestly, I liked it – you don’t even smell it while you’re eating it because the smell already hits you by the time you get to the stand. I then tried a crepe-like dessert, which was filled with sesame seeds and was so good! Tyler and I met up with his flatmate, Christine, who had an extra bike helmet that I was able to borrow. She was meeting up with some of her friends, so she bought a bunch of flowers and gave each of us one for Valentine’s Day. We then picked up some bubble teas (I got a grapefruit one, which was delicious!) before getting on the motorbike to go to our next destination.

This time, I had to hold the flowers and bubble teas with one hand, which meant I only got to hold on to the motorbike with one hand – not bad for my third time! We went to Shoushan mountain, where there’s a viewpoint overlooking the city. Forgetting that it was Valentine’s Day, we realised that we were surrounded by tons of couples and had a saxophone busker, whose music travelled throughout the valley. We chatted for quite a bit and then Tyler drove me back to my hostel.

On Friday morning, I got up and had breakfast at the hostel. There was an older man named Henry who was from Taipei, and he came up to me and said, “Your face look like movie star,” which was honestly such a nice thing to say first thing in the morning when I hadn’t even had my coffee yet. Henry introduced me to a guy from California named Krister who was also planning to go to Tainan that day. We chatted until checkout time and then we both left for Tainan, which I’ll save for another post. Love always!

Taitung (Feb 11-13): A Forest Park, a Rut, and the Cinema

I have to be honest… I kind of fell into a slump while I was in Taitung (pronounced Tai-dung). Originally, I was only planning to go there as a stopover on the way to Lanyu Island, but two things stopped me from going to the island: 1) A lot of my Taiwanese friends said that because it’s winter, boats wouldn’t be going out to the island as regularly so I could end up being stranded there for a few days longer than planned, and 2) I spent more time in Taipei than planned, so I ran out of time to go to the islands. Instead, I got a train ticket from Hualien to Taitung for 12:30, so I was able to sleep in a bit, pack up my stuff, and go get breakfast in Taroko. However, when I went to get breakfast, the place that I had went to the day before was closed. I picked up a snack and coffee from 7-Eleven and FaceTimed my parents while waiting for the bus. The bus that I was meant to take was the 1133A, which only comes every hour. I waited for quite awhile and it still didn’t come when it was scheduled to come. Suddenly, a bus came speeding down the road and by the time I could actually read what number it was, it had already whizzed by. That was my bus! I started chasing after it and when some locals saw that I was supposed to catch the bus, they waved down the driver. Luckily, he stopped so I ran down the street and got on. The trip to Hualien was about an hour so once I arrived, I still had 45 minutes to find some lunch before catching my train. I walked around and found a place that had an English menu called Mo Dou Dining Room, and decided to order a Teppanyaki with a latte. I didn’t realise how small the Teppanyaki would be and would have ordered more had I known, but I only had enough time to walk back to the train station and share some of my food with a stray dog that looked so desperate for food. I arrived in Taitung 2.5 hours later, just after 3pm. I went to the information booth and they said that I had to take a bus (#8172) to the bus station, and then my hostel was only a ten minute walk away from there. I stayed in Hostel Who Knows in an 8-bed female dorm, and I paid 390TWD per night ($17.70). The woodwork in the hostel was really nice, which I’m pretty sure the hostel owner did himself (bunk beds, showers, and more). When I asked the hostel owner what to do, he suggested taking a bus to the hot springs the next day. I think Taitang is more-known for the region and not for the city itself, so he didn’t give any suggestions about what to do IN the city. I was starving, so I asked where to go for lunch/dinner and he told me to try 老东台米台目 (Lao Dong Tai), which is known for their rice noodles. I went and I was given a Mandarin menu with a checklist (which is how many of the restaurants work here), and then another menu with pictures and English. I decided to go with the noodle soup for 45TWD ($2.04) and was curious to try the “white gourd juice,” which I recognised as wintermelon (I love it!) for 25TWD ($1.13).

Honestly, I didn’t think the noodles were that spectacular, and I had to add quite a bit of soy sauce and hot sauce just to get some flavour. I spent the rest of the evening walking around, but it seemed like all of the stuff that was going on (Tiehua Music Village and the night markets) only happen from Wednesday to Sunday nights, and I was inconveniently there on a Monday and Tuesday.

On Tuesday morning, I got up later and got ready for the day. I really wasn’t feeling like doing anything touristy.. it was day 60 of my trip and I was feeling worn out. I walked to a restaurant called 綠房子 (Greenhouse), which is known for their grape juice and dumplings. This was another Indigenous-inspired restaurant, and the owners didn’t speak any English. I came prepared with the help of Google Translate. If anyone has difficulties with menus, you HAVE to use this – it’s the coolest thing! Basically you need to upload a picture of the menu (which you can often find on the internet) and then you can highlight different symbols and it’ll translate it for you. I had found grape juice and dumplings on the menu, and was excited to put my skills to use.

I came in and they gave me the checklist menu, and a translated English menu. I checked what I wanted but then the owner pointed to the dumplings and said, “méi yǒu,” which luckily I understand means none. I pointed to the vegetable dumplings and he nodded his head. The dumplings and juice were good – nothing super spectacular, and they were 110TWD ($4.89).

I decided to take it easy that day. And my “taking it easy” translated into spending 3-4 hours walking through a park (and doing 24,000 steps that day). However, part of me still felt guilty for not going to check out a museum, or going to the hot springs. I first walked to Seaside Park and saw a neat building, which is an art piece.

Then I found the entrance to Taitung Forest Park. In order to go inside, I had to pay 30TWD ($1.33). Most people rent bicycles and bike around the trail, but I didn’t see any bikes at this entrance. It was a nice walk, and there were many lakes and colourful flowers. It was a pleasant and relaxing way for me to spend the day, and for the first time, I felt completely away from most of society. The further I got into the park, the longer it would take for me to see another person, which was a nice break from the usual hustle and bustle of most cities and parks.

I got to the end of the park about two hours later, but then had to turn around and go back. By that point, I was hungry again so I walked a half hour to one of the supermarkets called Carrefour, which is actually a French supermarket (so I was surprised to see it!). I picked up a couple things from the bakery and headed back to my hostel to relax for a bit.

That night, I walked to the cinema because all I wanted to do was sit down and watch a movie. Yes, me… The one who has only been to the cinema once in over three years. The one who has never had Netflix and usually won’t watch a movie unless I’m with someone who suggests it, or if I’m stuck on an airplane. This is how deep my slump was… But I think I just needed a day to recuperate. There is only one theatre in Taitung and it was offering about 7 movies, some of which were in Mandarin and the rest were superhero movies. Therefore, I decided on Mary Poppins Returns for 260 TWD ($12.56), which didn’t start until 8:40pm so I had a couple of hours to kill. I walked a half hour to a restaurant called 鄰家蒸餃 (Lin-Jia Dumplings) because I was hoping to get some soup dumplings (yes, dumplings for lunch AND dinner – I could probably eat them every meal for days!). I chose some pork and vegetable steamed dumplings, but they weren’t the soup dumplings that I was hoping for.

However, they were still good! To get eight dumplings and a coke, it cost me 90TWD ($4). I slowly walked back towards the theatre and checked out some of the shops. Then I walked down Tiehua Music Village, which was a tiny bit more active compared to the night before. There were TWO buskers that night, and one was really great! The entire street was filled with lanterns that were decorated by elementary school kids, so it added a nice charm.

Finally, it was time for my movie! There were only six other people in the theatre so it was another getaway. The movie was good – lots of songs, and of course I cried (I rarely cry in everyday life, but play a movie or a sad commercial and I can’t help myself!). I got back to the hostel quite late so I just went straight to bed.

Honestly, I probably could have skipped over Taitung and spent more time in my next destination, but it was still nice to have a day of relaxation! Love always

Taroko National Park (Feb 9-11): Mountains, Hiking Trails, and Stairs

I left Liah’s place at 8:50 on Saturday morning so that I could walk to the Linkou station and catch the MRT at 9:05. The metro took about 40 minutes to get to Taipei Main Station, so I had a half hour to spare before catching my train at 10:25. My train ticket was 411TWD ($18.27AUD), and it would take about two hours. Now, I was completely and totally alone for my first time in Taiwan (other than my train rides), so I didn’t have anyone to translate for me anymore. I was told about lunchboxes by both Mike and Yeh so when I saw a bunch of people eating them, I decided to finally give them a try. The person working didn’t know much English but she said “Pork,” and I went for it.

To get a lunchbox and a coffee drink, it cost me 80TWD ($3.78), so I can see why all of the locals were eating them. The lunchbox included rice, a porkchop, and an egg. I mostly just ate the rice and some of the porkchop, but skipped out on the egg. After eating, I went to find my spot on the train (booking ahead gives a reserved seat – otherwise, you might get stuck having to stand the entire time, especially when it was still the Chinese New Year holiday). I got to Xincheng station just after 12:30 and then I had to figure out how to get to my hostel. My hostel was in a convenient location near the Taroko National Park entrance, in the Fushi Village of Sioulin Township. The people at the train station information booth told me to take the 302 bus and get off at Taroko, so I waited at the stop. Another bus came that was going in the same direction (the 1133A), so I got on and was able to tap my Easycard to pay. I actually ended up missing my stop 10 minutes later because the driver yelled something in Mandarin and no one did anything, so he just kept driving. However, the next stop was at the Taroko Information Booth, which was less than a ten minute walk from my hostel. The main street was breathtaking, with enormous mountains surrounding it – it definitely reminded me of walking down the streets of Banff.

I got to the hostel right after 1pm but to my dismay, the hostel was closed from 11am-3pm for cleaning. There was a girl outside named Yana and she was from the States (but teaching in Vietnam), so we talked for a bit. She said that she was going for dinner with some girls that she had met the day before, and said I could meet them at 7pm to join. There were some lockers outside of the hostel so I paid 30THB ($1.33) to store my backpack and then I went to find some food because I was starving. There isn’t a huge selection of places to eat in this village – there’s a 7-Eleven, a few expensive restaurants aimed at tourists, and a few cheap restaurants aimed at locals. I saw a sausage stand on the street when I was walking to the hostel so I stopped there and got a Taiwanese sausage wrapped in a rice sausage – I love these things! It cost me 60TWD ($2.67) so it didn’t break the bank either. I sat down for a bit and researched what hikes I could do the following day and then I headed back to the hostel at 3pm so that I could check in. The hostel was called Taroko Liwu Hostel and just like all of the other hostels and hotels, the price was greatly increased for the Chinese New Year holiday. Therefore, my first night was 700TWD ($31.88) and my second night was 450TWD ($20.49) in a 4-bed mixed dorm. I’m so glad that Liah’s family allowed me to stay with them for the duration of the holiday, since the hostels cost just as much as an Australian hostel would! I got my stuff settled in my room and then asked what hike I could do in less than two hours (because the sun sets before 6pm). The hostel owner’s mom suggested a hike and said that I could do a round trip in 40 minutes. I walked to the tourist centre to grab a map and then tried to find some signs leading me in the right direction. I saw a sign leading to Dekalun Trail (which I don’t think the hostel owner’s mom was suggesting), but I saw that it was 1.3km one way. The hike started off really nice, with trails just going back and forth up the mountain (which I prefer rather than going straight up). However, all of a sudden, it just changed into stairs. And continued. And continued. Taroko is supposed to be known for being cold, but I had to take off all of my layers, and I still couldn’t stop sweating. I swear I did about 2000 stairs (the trail elevated by 300 metres). I ran into a French guy who was coming back down and was finishing a longer 5-hour hike, and he suggested that I do the hike that he did tomorrow. He also warned me that I still had about 1000 steps to go in order to get to the top. I also met two guys from Kyrgyzstan (never met anyone from there before!) who were going to school in Taiwan and were on holiday. We’d stop and chat for awhile every time there was a rest area on the way up.

The good AND bad thing about the hikes there was that every 100 metres was marked, and I noticed that the 100 metre signs felt like they were getting further and further apart. I must admit that the constant signs with warnings of venomous snakes didn’t really put me at ease either. I finally reached a signed that said I had 200 metres left but then I saw the two guys from Kyrgyzstan heading back down. They said that there was nothing at the top, not even a nice view to take a picture. I felt bad coming all this way and having nothing to look at, so I just decided to head back down. Who knows, maybe they were lying and it was the most spectacular view and I missed it! We headed back down together and they further convinced me that going to the ‘stan’ countries should be my next trip. I was hurting by the time we got back down, and my butt muscles were feeling it for the next few days, plus I think I started getting shin splints. I keep vowing never to do more stairs and then what do I do? More stairs! Anyway, I headed back to the hostel after stopping at 7-Eleven to get a refreshing drink and then I relaxed until dinner. At 7pm, Yana and I met up with two other girls from the States named Caroline and Anna. They work for Peace Corps and had been living in China for the past 1.5 years (their contracts are for two years). They both seemed fluent in Mandarin, and I was amazed when we were in the restaurant and they were easily able to talk to the waitress and read the menu. It made me even more curious about how easy it was to learn Mandarin – I feel guilty for not knowing it because it’s been around me since I was 13 when my sister moved over from China. I might have to buy some children’s activity books while I’m here – I’m sure it would be entertaining for the locals to watch me attempt these books while sitting on the train. Anyway, we went to a restaurant called Truku 的屋頂, which is the name of the Indigenous Tribe in the area so the restaurant was obviously of Indigenous background. I decided to get a salted pork dish, which was served beautifully on a huge leaf as a placemat. The pork came with lots of vegetables, a soup, and some bamboo rice and it cost me 180TWD ($8.00).

It was really good food, and the servers were so friendly! After dinner, we all just got ready for bed because we were completely worn out.

On Sunday morning, I got up and got ready for the day. The hostel owner told me to go for breakfast at one of the restaurants next to the 7-Eleven so I headed over (I’m not actually sure what the name of it was). They luckily had an English menu, so I got some fried noodles along with one of the best milk teas I’ve had. My whole meal only cost me 35TWD ($1.56)! I picked up some water at 7-Eleven and then set off on the hike that was suggested to me by not only the French guy, but also by Caroline and Anna. The trail was called Shakadang Trail and was 4.5km one way (2.5 hours). I was already hurting from the day before so I wasn’t sure it was a good idea to do another hike, but I only had one full day left so I wanted to take advantage of it. In order to get to the trailhead, I had to walk about 15 minutes from the Tourist Information Centre through a car tunnel, which led to the Xiaozhuilu trailhead. The Xiaozhuilu trail was only 600 metres long and had the only stairs that I encountered on my whole walk (thank goodness!).

At the end of the trail, there was a huge bridge which started the Shakadang Trail. As these were the only toilets that I might see for the next possibly 5 hours, I decided to use them. Liah actually pointed out to me that in most cases where there are only squat toilets, there will almost always be a handicapped toilet that has an actual toilet. I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of this before! So yes, now I’m the a****** that uses the handicap toilet, but I just feel so much cleaner – I haven’t fully mastered the squatting technique yet!

The walk was really nice, except for all of the slower people who were literally hiking while on their phones, so they were walking at a snail’s pace. And of these people wouldn’t leave any space for other people to pass because many times, they’d walk two-by-two. About halfway through the trek, there were a bunch of stalls set up by Indigenous groups, who were selling sausage, roasted mochi, and jewellery.

This was also the last place where there was phone service, so the amount of people who continued the rest of the hike greatly diminished (thank goodness!). The water was so blue and it was surrounded by beautifully polished rocks and green mountains – it was such a nice place to be!

The end of the hike was pretty anticlimactic, as it was just a spot where there used to be some houses that were built by the tribes but were no longer there. Therefore, it was just forest. I made it to the end of the trail in 1 hour, so the 2.5 hour suggestion must have been made by someone who was walking while on their phone. I headed back and sat by the river for awhile and then decided to get some food from one of the stalls. I love mochi (which is kind of like a rice cake made with really sticky glutinous rice) but I’ve never had roasted mochi before, so I decided to try it. The lady put it on the grill and then cut it up and added sesame seeds on top, and it only cost 40TWD ($1.78).

It was pretty good – it had a crunchy outside with a soft, sticky inside, and the sesame seeds added a sweetness to it. I went back to the hostel to relax and to do my laundry. The hostel owner said that I was the only person left in the hostel and that he was going to the main city (Hualien, which is about a 40-minute drive away) for dinner and asked if I wanted to go. I said yes and we agreed to leave at 6:30. I finished my laundry and then got ready to go. The hostel owner (Ken) has two kids (a 4-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son), but he told his wife to take them to her family in Taipei for the holiday because he was really busy with the hostel that week. However, we still ended up listening to Disney songs on the drive, which I was okay with. When we got to Hualien, he dropped me off at the night market and we agreed to meet up again an hour later. As much as I love night markets, it’s a lot more difficult to know what everything is when VERY FEW places are written in English. I took the advice of Yeh, who told me that Taiwanese people are very curious and will stand in line for anywhere that’s good. Some people will even go stand in a line and they won’t even know what they’re in line for! The first place that I noticed was really busy was a dumpling place, which was selling my favourite type of dumplings: soup dumplings (or Xiaolongbao, which I was introduced to at their most popular restaurant Din Tai Fung, which is all over the world now). I got a set of of 8 dumplings for 60TWD ($2.67) and they were delicious!

Then, all I wanted was some bubble tea. I searched around until I finally found a stand that had English and recognised a big sign that said taro milk tea – my favourite flavour! Taro is a purple potato and I absolutely love anything taro-flavoured (although some of my Taiwanese friends hate it).

My taro bubble tea was only 35TWD ($1.56) and it hit the spot. I walked around the night market for the rest of the hour and then went back to the meeting spot to find Ken. I was so exhausted by that time, I was ready to just go straight to bed as soon as we got back to the hostel. My train to Taitung wasn’t until 12:30pm the next day from Hualien, so I didn’t have to catch the bus to the Hualien station until about 10:30, which meant I could sleep in for a little bit.

I absolutely loved my time in Taroko National Park! I wanted to stay longer and try more hikes, but I don’t think my body would have let me. I think I started getting whatever Liah had when she was feeling sick, because I wasn’t feeling 100% during my time there. However, I still enjoyed feeling so small in such a massive area – I definitely want to go back again sometime! Love always