Archive for April, 2009
A few weekends ago, Jeremy and I took our first big overnight trip in Taiwan to Alishan National Scenic Area. Independent travel is not a big thing in Taiwan—probably because there aren’t that many Western travelers here, and Chinese people like the ease of a tour group. So, I was a little intimidated by all the stuff we had to figure out in order to get to Alishan: where to stay, how to get there, how to book the tickets, etc. Luckily, the tourist information center at Taipei Main Station will help you with all of this…seriously, the girls there went above and beyond (remember what I said about the aggressively helpful people here?): finding a cheap hotel for us, calling to make reservations, booking our train tickets and even walking us over to the counter to pick them up. They were amazing! We couldn’t have done it without them.
Alishan is located in central Taiwan on the west coast, about 250 km south from Taipei. We took the high-speed train down to Chiayi (gateway to Alishan), which took 3.5 hours and cost NT$600 each (approx. US$18). It was incredibly comfortable, clean, and spacious, and once again, we thought: damn it’s civilized here!
There are several “must-do’s” in Alishan, and the first is to take the narrow-gauge railway (one of 3 narrow-gauge mountain railways in the world or something like that?). Tickets are NT$399 (approx. US$12) one way, and it’s a good idea to book them in advance, as they often sell out and you’ll end up standing the entire 3.5 hour ride to Alishan (which can’t be fun).
It’s funny that it took the same amount of time to get from Taipei to Chiayi as it did to get from Chiayi to Alishan, even though the latter’s distance has to be about 1/10 of the former’s. Second realization: technology is a good thing. The ride, however slow, was totally worth it, as it was incredibly scenic, passing through cloud-shrouded cedar forests and mountainsides.
When we finally arrived in Alishan, it was around 5:30pm, and already quite cold: about 12°C (54°F, though it felt much colder due to the humidity). We quickly warmed ourselves with a meal of wild boar hot pot, a specialty (along with wild deer) of this region. Despite the fact that it was only about 7:30PM when we finished, we headed straight back to the hotel to bed…the other “must-do” in Alishan is to take the 4:30AM train to Chu Shan to watch the sunrise over Taiwan’s tallest mountain, Yu Shan (almost 4000m tall). I sort of doubted our mental stability over this decision, but it turned out to be awesome. Not only is the sunrise gorgeous, but the whole “cloud ocean” phenomenon here is breathtaking. Apparently we are super lucky to have actually seen the sunrise; Jeremy’s Chinese teacher has gone twice and not seen the sunrise due to cloudy skies. I would be pretty upset if I got up at 4AM TWICE and didn’t get to see the sunrise.
There are tons of people at Chu Shan…much more than you would expect with a 4AM wake-up call, but the crowds are not annoying; in fact, it was cute—everyone was eagerly awaiting the sunrise and they even started applauding when it finally happened. Also, some people buy these polarizing glasses so they can stare directly at the sun when it finally appears over the mountains. It’s awesome.
Since it was still ridiculously early, we took a walk through the Alishan Forest Recreation Area, which has many beautiful HUGE ancient cedar, fir, and oak trees.
There are also some nice temples nestled amongst the giant tree forests; outside of Shouchen Temple we tried something we were calling “wild boar toffee”: they were these super-thin sheets of boar meat rolled with sesame, sugar, and nuts, and fired to a crisp. While “wild boar toffee” may not be the best marketing on our part, we promise, they were really good!
Later on in the day, we took the train back to a town called Fenqihu, a town about halfway between Alishan and Chiayi. We were glad that we only had to sit on the train for an hour, because on the way back, the diesel engine is in front of the train, spewing it’s stinky emissions straight into the passenger cars. P.U.!
Our plan was to hike from Fenqihu to Rueili, along the 10km Fen-Rui Historic Trail. We made sure to stop and grab the famous Fenqihu lunchbox, consisting of a pork cutlet and carious pickled veggies over rice. I’m not sure why the Fenqihu lunchbox is so famous…don’t get me wrong, it was really, really good and the perfect thing to bring on a hike, but most lunchboxes we’ve encountered contain the same things!
The trail navigates you through some incredible bamboo forests…I felt like we were in the middle of the movie Hero.
When we finally made it out on the Rueili side, there was a big crowd of people from one of the tour buses hanging out by the trail head. Some kids in the group saw Jeremy, the foreigner (wai guo ren), and immediately started asking him questions in English they must have learned from their schoolbooks: Do you have any brothers and sisters? How old are you? Do you like Taiwan? The little boy on the right side of Jeremy even pulled out his camera and started taking pictures of the wai guo ren!
They were very enthusiastic and they had the cutest questions. Here’s one conversation we had with the little girl on the left side of Jeremy:
Little Girl (speaking Chinese): In English, why do you say “noodles” instead of “noodle”?
Hope (also speaking Chinese): Because one strand is a noodle, and a whole bowl of them together is called “noodles.”
LG: Then why do you say “rice” and not “rices”?
Hope: That’s a really good question!
LG: Ask him (pointing at Jeremy, as if he made up the language).
And another conversation we had with the little boy who took a photo of Jeremy:
Little Boy: Ask him if he has a girlfriend.
Hope: Um, he’s my husband!
LB (amazed): REALLY?!?
H: Yes, really.
LB: How come you can speak Chinese?
H: Because my parents are Chinese.
LB: So you were born here?
H: No, I was born in the US.
LB: Then why is your hair black?
The little frowning boy on the left side of the photo was not as outgoing as his counterparts…he was so nervous around us that he would interrupt the conversation by blurting out the most random questions, like “HAVE YOU BEEN TO CARREFOUR?!?” (Carrefour is like Target/Safeway). It was kind of adorable.
After much more raucous questioning, we finally tore ourselves away and headed down the hill to Rueili, passing a mountainous landscape full of tea fields.
Even though we had had a very long day, we weren’t going to miss out on one of Rueili’s most famous attractions: fireflies! The owner of our hotel guided a group of us over to a dark path bordered by a steep hillside, and the mountain came alive with hundreds of flickering little sparkles. I obviously could not get a photo of this, but suffice to say it was magical. Growing up in New Jersey, we used to catch fireflies in little jars and it totally made me feel like a kid again seeing these magical little creatures come alive.
We HIGHLY recommend checking out Alishan if you’re ever in Taiwan. We absolutely loved it! From the incredible bamboo forests to the sparkling fireflies to the amazing tea plantations, much of Alishan felt like a little piece of magic, right in the middle of Taiwan.
While we were in Chiang Mai suffering over the food, I comforted myself with the thought that in a week we would be in Taipei, feasting like a King and Queen—the Royal Couple of Noodle-vania, as it were—and even though I’m in Taipei right now I still salivate at the mere thought of those chewy, glutinous flour noodles. SE Asia’s rice noodles are good and all, but in a noodle-to-noodle throwdown you know who would come out on top.
But really, “comfort” is exactly the right word, because this is the type of food I grew up eating. I may not know how to say “politics” or “municipality” in Chinese, but I sure as heck know my xiao long bao from by jiao zi.
Here is a primer on some of the best simple dishes that Taipei has to offer.
Dumplings (Jiao Zi)
This is a staple of Taiwanese cuisine, and you probably known them as gyoza. Jiao zi can be stuffed with all different kinds of fillings (xiar), but the most popular is minced pork or pork and leek. We’ve also tried a “Korean filling” version that is a little bit spicy, but we don’t like them as much as the good, old-fashioned pork or pork and leek versions. They can be steamed, boiled in water, or pan-fried (in which case, they are called potstickers). I like to dip them in a mixture of soy sauce, vinegar, chili sauce, and sesame oil.
Beef Noodle Soup (Niu Rou Mian)
One of my all-time favorite meals in a bowl! The beef used in this dish is quite tendinous, so it is stewed for hours on end, creating an ultra-rich broth and meat that falls apart in your mouth. Spinach or lettuce (they cook lettuce here) is added to your bowl along with noodles (your choice of thickness), and you can choose to add chili sauce and suan cai, a type of sour pickled vegetable that I just can’t get enough on.
Spring Onion Pancake (Cong You Bing)
This is exactly what it sounds like—a fried pancake mixed with spring onions. The dough is hand-rolled and the best cong you bing is somewhat flaky—they achieve this by scrunching up the pancake during the cooking process. It is so simple, but so, so good. It can be served with an egg fried on top.
Sesame-paste noodles (Ma Jiang Mian or Liang Mian)
This is a noodle dish served cold, tossed with a sauce of sesame paste (the black kind, like the stuff in the middle of mochis). It might seem a little strange to Americans since black sesame is often associated with sweet things, rather than a salty dish. But trust me, it’s good. There are usually some raw vegetables shredded on top…you mix it all up and eat it down.
Pork Buns (Zhu Rou Bao)
You are probably familiar with buns like these, filled with char siew, or barbecued pork. Char siew (or cha sao in Mandarin) buns are actually a Hong Kongnese thing; the buns in Taiwan are usually stuffed with the same pork filling as jiao zi, but the outer shell is made of soft, fluffy, and semi-sweet bread-like dough. We’ve also discovered a really delicious vegetable version filled with cabbage and spring onion (pictured on the right side in the photo below).
Soy Milk (Dou Jiang)
A very common Taiwanese breakfast consists of a bowl soy milk, served either sweet or salty. Yes, I said salty. And yes, it sounds weird, and for a long time, I wouldn’t eat it this way, but I’ve grown to like the salty version (though I still usually order it sweet). Salty soy milk usually includes some pieces of you tiao (which is Chinese fried dough), spring onions, pickles vegetables, and ginger. Chinese soy milk tastes almost nothing like American soy milk; it is chalkier and has more of the bean flavor than its American counterpart. It is often eaten with cong you bing (in this case, fried with an egg) or something called sao bing-you tiao. Sao bing is a flaky pastry covered in sesame seeds; it is shaped like a small envelope and indeed, you split it open and sandwich a you tiao in the middle of it. You tiao is often referred to as a “Chinese doughnut,” but I disagree with this assessment, as they are not sweet at all. Basically, it’s just fried dough.
Za Jiang Mian
Za jiang is like the bolognese of Taiwanese food, but obviously with a Chinese slant. The sauce is made with minced meat, soy sauce, and fermented beans. This version also has some baked tofu and steamed bean sprouts added. Also note that this particular version of the dish is made with dao xiao mian, or knife-cut noodles. A guy stands over a boiling pot of water, holding a huge block of dough in one hand and a special knife in the other, shaving off noodles off the block straight into the boiling water. He might as well just shave them straight into my belly, given how fast we gobble this stuff up.
Little Dragon Dumplings (Xiao Long Bao, aka XLB)
Kind of like jiao zi, except with a soupy surprise inside! Xiao long bao are stuffed with minced pork and they are ALWAYS wrapped in this way (with a little twist at the top). The chef wraps a frozen chunk of soup stock into the center of each bao before they are steamed to perfection, so when they come out of the bamboo steamer all piping hot, each bao will explode into your mouth with porky, soupy goodness. If for some ungodly reason I am given only one more meal to sustain me for the rest of my life, please let it consist of XLBs.
Cold Appetizers (Xiao Chi)
Most places that sell simple meals revolving around noodles or jiao zi will also offer cold appetizers so you can, you know, get some nutrition along with your carbs (what a concept!). You can order any number of things from sliced meats to intestines to pig’s ears. Since we are wusses and are too afraid to eat things like pig snouts, our favorites are the cucumber salad (small mini-cucumbers crushed up and tossed with chili, sesame oil, and vinegar), and the plate on the left, which consists of baked tofu, seaweed, and cha ye dan, or tea-leaf eggs. Basically, the eggs are hard-boiled in a tea-leaf concoction, turning them dark brown. They sell tea-leaf eggs in the 7-Elevens around here and rumor has it that each store (and they are ubiquitous here, like one every block) sells two huge boiler pots full of them every day. I guesstimate that each boiler pot holds about 60 eggs…that’s 120 eggs for EACH store!!! They must sell tens of thousands of tea-leaf eggs each day in Taipei alone!
Tomato and Shredded Pork Soup (Fan Chie Rou Si Tang)
I’m not sure if this can be considered a common dish in Taiwan, as I have never had it in a restaurant before I came here. We grew up eating this kind of tomato soup, though my mom didn’t usually add noodles—Wendy’s version had only tomatoes and poached scrambled egg (like the kind that comes in egg drop soup). I don’t know if it is the stock that they use, or if they stew the tomatoes in the soup for an extra long time, but the flavor is really particular; so much so that when I first tasted it, I turned to Jeremy and said, “this soup tastes like my childhood!”
Taiwan’s bakeries are amazing too, and it seems that you are never more than half a block away from a bakery (or a 7-Eleven) in Taipei. Jeremy and I have definitely visited the bakery one too many times, and just this week, we were noticing that our waistlines we complaining a bit about our bakery habit (though our stomachs made nary a peep).
This is a sticky rice cake, stuffed with various things like shredded pork, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, and peanuts. Then the whole thing is wrapped in a bamboo leaf (always in this tetrahedral shape) and steamed. When I was growing up, I preferred them with plain white rice (dipped in sugar), but now I like the salty ones (though we’ve recently eaten a few that have a weird white glob of fat in the middle of them, which we don’t like). They make a great hiking food since they’re self-contained!
Hot Pot (Huo Guo)
Taiwanese LOVE their hot pot! I counted five hot-pot restaurants within a 2-block radius of our apartment alone. Hot pot restaurants usually have tables with burners built right into them. You choose whatever thinly-sliced meat you want (you can even choose bacon!) and it is brought to your table raw, along with some frozen veggies. The hot-pot pictured above contains of wild boar meat—a specialty in the central-Taipei region of Alishan. Growing up, we just filled our hot pot with plain water, but all the hot-pot restaurants here fill the pot with soup stock. You drop your meat and veggies into the boiling liquid in order to cook it, and then you fish it out into another, smaller bowl filled with sauce.
In my family, hot-pot nights always begin with the whole sauce-making ritual: dozens of jars of strange and stinky pastes and sauces were laid out on the table…you add a small smidge of whatever looks/smells good into your bowl, and crack a raw egg into it before scrambling the egg/sauce mixture. When you fish your meat and/or goodies out of the hot pot, you transfer them into the raw egg concoction, and eat it up. The raw egg thing might scare some people, but I promise you, it is really delicious.
This is just a small sample of the stuff we’re in eating in while we’re in Taiwan, and I bet most people in Taipei wouldn’t even think to mention these dishes since they are so common (in fact, I bet my parents are thinking, “THIS is the type of food you find special?!?”). But to me, these dishes are special; with each bite I think of my Nai Nai (paternal grandma) lovingly rolling out the dough for jiao zi, my Po Po (maternal grandma) force-feeding me more za jiang mian despite protests that I was already full, or family dinners ending with that tomato soup. So while most of this stuff tastes like my childhood, it also tastes like family, and that’s the best flavor when you’re so far away from home.
Before arriving in Taiwan, I had no idea that the country was full of serious hikers. I guess I thought—like my own family—that the only hobby people from Taiwan really took seriously was eating. But it totally makes sense, this little island is blessed with a rugged coastline and a seriously mountainous interior (with several 3000m mountains!) and there are oodles of hiking trails to explore, many within day-trip distance of Taipei.
A few weekends back, Jeremy and I took a day trip out to the east coast of Taipei in order to hike the Cao Ling Historical Trail (căo líng gŭ dào), a 10km road (interestingly, most of the hiking trails we have encountered are actually stone-paved roads, unlike the dirt trails we have in the States) originally built in the early 1800s to provide transport from the ocean to Taipei. We started the hike in Dali and hiked to Fulong, though you could easily do it the other way around.
The train ride out there is quite beautiful…you pass through the longest tunnel in all of Asia before traveling along the rugged coastline towards Dali. This is the first time we have seen the ocean in Taiwan…weird to think that just on the other side of that blue expanse sits California (yup, Taiwan is bordered on the east side by the Pacific).
The trailhead begins right next to beautiful and elaborate Tiengong Temple (where, apparently, you can stay the night).
Early on in our hike, we acquired a four-legged friend, who stayed by our side pretty much the entire time, despite our best attempts to convince him that we weren’t going to give him any food. We even told him in two different languages!
The views of the coast were stunning as we climbed higher and higher into the mountains.
Cao Ling Historical Trail is most famous for two stone tablets that sit along the road. Both tablets were carved by an unfortunate traveler who got caught on the trail during one of Taiwan’s famous typhoons. Along the way, he carved the Chinese character for “tiger” (虎) into a rock (in Chinese mythology, the tiger is thought to control the winds), and the Tiger Tablet is now the trail’s most famous landmark.
A little while later, there is another enormous carved boulder reading, “Boldly quell the violent mists.” Poor guy, we had great weather while we were hiking, but even then it was still quite windy. I can only imagine what it must be like with a typhoon slamming into the side of the mountain!
Once you reach Fulong, you can head to the beach…there is a paid-entry area (I think it was NT$40 each, or about US$1.10), or you can walk a little further into town and access the beach for free (though the paid area is cleaner). Since we weren’t planning on hanging out at the beach for long, we just walked along the free area, but I can imagine that on a nice weekend this beach would be quite nice.
There is another really elaborate temple (I think it is Taoist? Apparently if the altar contains some fierce-looking bearded guys, then it is Taoist) on the far end of the beach in Fulong.
Taiwanese people may be serious about hiking, but there is another thing they take even more seriously (no it’s not food): hot springs! The country is full of them, and after Taiwan, I am not sure if I can face another hike if there is not a hot springs waiting for me at the end of it! From Fulong, we hopped on the train to Jiaoshi (about half an hour train ride south) to check out their public hot springs.
Jiaoshi’s public hot springs are segregated into men and women-only sections since no clothing is allowed. Entry is NT$80 each (about US$2.50), and women must wear shower caps (kind of bummer since it gets pretty hot in there).
This is actually Beitou Hot Springs (in northern Taipei), not Jiaoshi, but I thought you might like to see what a Taiwanese hot spring looks like. You can’t take photos inside Jiaoshi hot springs since everyone is, you know, naked.
A few things you should know before visiting Taiwan’s hot springs: first of all, they really put the “hot” in “hot springs.” If you dare to enter the hottest pool, be warned that the water will be scalding! You can tell by the myriad of lobster-colored Chinese men sitting around the springs.
Secondly, Taiwanese people have these funny exercises that they do in the hot springs (I think they are trying to promote blood circulation). You’ll often see these old Chinese guys doing pelvic thrusts or gyrating madly around the pools while slapping their own asses or beating themselves on the chest. It’s pretty amusing, to say the least.
Jiaoshi is also known for it’s cōng yóu bĭng (spring onion pancake). The most famous place is next door to the Jiaoshi post office; there will be a huge line out the door. Their version is deep-fried until the dough is puffy and glutinous, and you brush on your choice of three different sauces (soy, chili, and something else that tasted good) before they topped off with an egg. I don’t have a photo of this because I ate it too fast. YUM!!!
Cao Ling Historical Trail was a great outing and we recommend it if you’re ever out this way. It’s super close to Taipei (about an hour on the train) and a beautiful way to spend a nice day in Taiwan.
Taipei is an awesome place to live. Really. I mean, the food is great (don’t think there’s not a post on that topic coming!), there is almost no crime to speak of (in fact, the only arrest we’ve heard of is a man who caused a riot by emptying a sack full of money in the middle of Taipei—yes, you read the correctly…the only crime we’ve heard of is someone giving out money), and the people here are incredibly polite and helpful, almost forcefully so. I always love discovering the peculiarities of a place, and Taipei has no shortage of distinctive qualities…read on if this is the type of thing you’re interested in too.
These Have to be the World’s Longest Addresses
No joke, this could seriously be someone’s street address:
#3, Alley 15, Lane 80, Zhong Shan North Road, Section 2, 4th Floor, #5
OK, let me help you decipher: this person lives on Zhong Shan North Road, Section 2. All major streets in Taipei are aligned to a grid, with a central axis point more or less around Taipei Main Station (an absolutely enormous labyrinth-like confluence of buses, subway, high-speed rail, and regular railway…with 4 underground shopping malls thrown in for good measure). All major roads are broken into north/south or east/west depending on where they are located in relation to the axis (i.e., Zhong Shan North Road is the length of road to the north of Main Station). Major streets are further broken into sections, and the closer you are to the axis (i.e., Taipei Main Station), the smaller the section number (i.e., section 2 is closer to main station than section 5).
To find this address, you need to be in section 2 of Zhong Shan North Road. Taipei also has numbered lanes that run perpendicular to major streets. To find Lane 80, walk up to where the building numbered 80 should be…that’s where you’ll find the lane. Similarly, alleys are perpendicular to lanes and you will find alley 15 where the building numbered 15 should be (luckily, there is nothing smaller than an alley).
Here, let’s give your brain a break…look at a pretty picture:
Taipei cityscape, taken right outside of Taipei Main Station’s entrance M8.
OK, we’re almost there…we are at Alley 15, Lane 80, Zhong Shan North Road, Section 2. Now you need to find building #3 in this complex, head to the 4th floor, and find apartment #5. Schwoo! That wasn’t so hard, was it?
Once you get the hang of it, this address system works really well—actually, Jeremy thinks it is brilliant. In effect, every address is like a built-in map. You really only need to know the major roads in order to find an address…and quite honestly, in a city as densely populated as Taipei, this is a really logical way of organizing things.
Yeah, OK, Not So Fast…Wades and Giles were Smoking Crack
Alright, the address system is very logical and organized, but there are a few complexities. All streets in Taipei are labeled in both Chinese and English, but the difficulties arise in the Romanization of the Chinese language. Namely, Taipei used to use the Wade-Giles Romanization system (which I find quite unintuitive), but recently switched over to the Hanyu Pinyin system, in line with mainland China (BTW, I am only familiar with the Hanyu Pinyin system, so any Mandarin words that are mentioned on 12FOOT3 will use this system).
The view of the street below from our 14th floor balcony.
Taipei has done a good job of switching all street signs over to the Hanyu Pinyin system, but most business addresses still use the Wade-Giles system. So, you might get an address that reads, “Chung Hsiao East Road,” but try Googling this and you’ll get nowhere, because the Hanyu Pinyin version is actually “Zhong Xiao East Road.”
In fact, if Taipei were to be named according to the Hanyu Pinyin system, it would actually be Taibei. Note that while the street names have been translated over to Hanyu Pinyin, all city names are still spelled according to the Wade-Giles system.
Public Transport: Get Your 上 and 下 on!
The Taipei subway system (MRT) is cheap, super fast, clean, and easy to use (all signage is in English and Chinese, so even non-Mandarin speakers can find their way around). The bus, however, is a different story. Although the subway is awesome, it doesn’t reach every little nook and cranny of Taipei, but the bus system does. The problem is, there is no bus guidebook in English, so you’re just going to have to ask for help getting where you want to go (see the next section for more on getting help).
The buses have this weird system where you pay when you get on or get off (and depending on how far you’re traveling on the bus, sometimes both). There is a sign above the driver’s head that has the Chinese character for “up” (上) or “down” (下). If “up” is lit, you pay when boarding the bus; if “down” is lit, then you pay when you get off. If “up” is lit when you get on and “down” is lit when you want to get off, then you pay both times.
People will Fight Each Other to Help You
If you happen to get lost in Taipei, don’t worry, because someone will help you. Seriously, don’t ask anyone for help unless you really mean it, because Taiwanese people are aggressively helpful. On more than one occasion, we’ve asked someone for directions, only to have the person next to them start arguing that their directions are not direct enough. Pretty soon, the entire bus is arguing about what is the fastest, most efficient way for the two foreigners to get to point B (in at least three different languages).
Which way to Taipei 101?
We’re not exaggerating—we’ve been out on the middle of nowhere, lost on a hiking trail…finally, someone comes along and we ask directions. Without fail, another person will magically appear out of the ether and start arguing that the path person 1 has recommended will take too long and that he knows a quicker way.
Welcome, Oh Glorious Benefactor!
The Lonely Planet suggests that Taiwanese are helpful towards foreigners because they are just happy that you know they exist, given the fact that they are often overshadowed by the bigger, more controversial neighbor to the north. But I disagree—I think it is because Chinese kids are raised to be extremely well-mannered and polite (ke qi), and respectful towards others, especially towards the elderly. I understand this firsthand because these are some of the values that my own parents stressed to my brother and I when we were growing up. Of course, Eddo and I grew up in the States so we’ve sort of got the worst of both worlds…Chinese enough to know better but American enough to rebel against it (ahem, just kidding, Mom and Dad!).
The first example you’ll see of this famous politeness is on the bus. Whenever an old person gets on, people will immediately get up and offer that person their seat. Same goes for someone with a small child, or a pregnant woman. There is no hesitation; and often several people will stand up at the same time in a rush to offer the old person their chair.
Perhaps the most amazing display of good manners is on escalators. EVERYBODY stands in a neat, single-file line to the right side of the escalator, with those who wish to walk passing on the left. Jeremy was amazed by this! Don’t believe me? See for yourself! Not a person out of place.
This politeness means that people never, ever say “can I get by?” if you are in their way. Instead, it’s “dui bu qi” (”I’m sorry”). Also, if you ask them a question that they can’t answer, a simple “I’m sorry, I don’t know” won’t suffice: it’s “bu hao yi si” (”I’m embarrassed”). In fact, the other day, Jeremy was sitting in someone’s train seat and the guy came up and said, “bu hao yi si,” instead of “hey, buddy, you’re in my seat.” Of course, when he saw that the reason why Jeremy was sitting in his seat was due to an old person sitting in Jeremy’s, he wouldn’t claim his seat, even though it meant he would have to stand the 3.5 hour ride back to Taipei.
This politeness does get a bit extreme in the stores. When you walk into a 7-Eleven (they are everywhere here), you are immediately greeted with “Huan ying guang ling!!!” Which, roughly translated, means something like “Welcome to you, Oh glorious descendant from the heavens!!!” When you leave, they will say “Xie xie hui gu!!!” Which equates to “Thank you for your benevolent patronage.”
All of these little curiosities make Taipei a breath of fresh air after the madness in SE Asia. It is one of the most civilized places we’ve ever been, which is awesome considering we will be here for a good portion of our trip. Of course, it will also make it difficult to leave.
About a week after we arrived, my grandfather came back to Taiwan from a multi-week trip to China (and he has since gone back to the States, where he now lives most of the year). A couple of years ago, he had an operation that damaged some of his vocal chords, and he couldn’t really speak for a long time, but he has since recovered from that and it was fun to “get to know him” again. For a large majority of the time that Jeremy has known my Gong Gong (that’s Mandarin for “maternal grandfather”—Chinese people have different words for “grandma,” “grandpa,” “aunt,” “uncle,” etc. based on what side of the family they are on and whether they are older or younger than your parents), he has been more or less mute, so J was delighted to discover his personality: about 50% grumpy old man, 50% elder statesman, with a wicked sense of humor mixed in.
While Gong Gong was here, it just so happened to be Tomb Sweeping Day (Qing Ming Jie), a national holiday where you honor to your ancestors by praying before their grave sites, offering food, and burning paper money. It’s called “Tomb Sweeping Day” because traditionally, you clean up around the grave site and make sure your ancestor’s final resting place is clean and comfortable for them.
On Tomb Sweeping Day, we went to pay our respects to Gong Gong’s mother and his older brother at a nearby…I don’t know what you call it…mausoleum? It is a large building where a loved one’s remains are kept indoors in small cubbies. We brought lots of food:
And we paid respects to our ancestors by lighting incense and praying to them (bai bai) at a small altar:
Meanwhile, my grandpa, his niece (my Da Ah-yi), and her son were writing wishes for their loved ones on large red envelopes and filling them with paper money.
Then, we burned the paper money in a large outdoor furnace. FYI, paper money is burned so that your ancestors can “spend” it in heaven. It is often embellished with gold or silver foil stamps. It is important to fold the papers before placing them in the furnace (though I’m not sure why). I found out later that the paper money with a silver foil is for the newly-deceased, and gold-foil stamped papers are burned for gods or for your loved ones that have been gone for a while (and have therefore taken on god-like status). However, they also have paper money that looks just like the US and New Taiwan dollar. It is, after all, all about the Benjamins.
The furnace routed the smoke from the burning paper money directly towards the mausoleum (where my great-grandmother’s ashes are kept), which I thought was quite poetic.
I am really grateful that we had the opportunity to take part in Tomb Sweeping Day. Though I don’t remember my great-grandmother, my mom told me that she held me when I was little, and since I didn’t know how I was supposed to pray to her at the altar, I just closed my eyes and thought of myself as a little baby being held in her arms before bai‘ing. It was really meaningful to me to make this connection with my ancestors, and to take part in rituals that are part of my family’s culture and history.
We’re in Taipei! Actually, we’ve been here for about 3 weeks…I’ve been lagging on finishing up the SE Asia posts. Taipei is the city where my parents grew up; like many Chinese nationals, my grandparents moved to Taiwan around 1949 because of the Communist Revolution in China. If you are an ABC (American-born Chinese), like I am, this is probably part of your family history too.
I’ve been to Taipei a couple of times, but I was really young and don’t remember much about either experience, except that it was really crowded and the food was good. Apparently much has changed (the buses are no longer human sardine cans due to the introduction of a super-modern high-speed subway), but much has not (the food is still really, really good). The last time I was here, I was a mere 10 years old (and incidentally, I left Taipei with a perm and 10 extra pounds—just about the only time in my life I could be considered “pudgy”). Don’t believe me? Behold, the awesomeness of the visual evidence (click on the photo for a larger view):
Yes, that is me on the left. But look at Eddo!!! So adorable! (Sorry, Eddo).
My maternal grandparents still own an apartment here, though they live in San Diego most of the year now. Jeremy and I will be here for almost two months taking Chinese lessons. I can speak but have forgotten how to read/write; Jeremy took about 6 months of lessons 2 years ago and will continue on trying to master basic Mandarin, which is about as difficult as me trying to learn orthopedic surgery. But, as is Jeremy’s usual style, he has taken on the challenge like a champ and our language skills are improving day by day.
Though I haven’t set foot on this island for over 20 years, on the plane ride over here, I was still struck by the unmistakeable feeling that I was going home…and in a way, this is the closest to home we will get on the trip. Two months in the same place feels like an absolute luxury after all the traveling we did in SE Asia. And what a place to grow some (albeit shallow) roots! My grandparents’ apartment is rad…3 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, and best of all, a kitchen (!!!) AND laundry!
And just to make sure we’re absolutely pimping, we’re located on the 14th (top) floor…
…in an absolutely prime location (Taipei 101 is just down the street). We are stoked!
A bit of clarification on my Chinese language skills: Mandarin was my first language, but I pretty much only speak with my family. More accurately, we speak Chinglish, which my brother defines as “40% Chinese, 40% English, and 20% grunting.” As a result, even though my grammar is pretty good, my vocabulary is quite limited. For instance, before I got to Taipei, I did not know the words for “subway” or “passport.” Since my accent is halfway decent, people in Taipei assume that I can understand everything they are saying, but when they ask me a question, I can understand everything except for the noun that the entire sentence is built around. For example, I had this jewel of a conversation when I went to get my hair cut:
Hair stylist: Would you like some sfadsogn?
Me: Uh, what’s sfadsogn?
Hs: Oh, hmm…sfadsogn is like fudbhimm.
Me: I don’t understand.
Hs: You know, normally do the rwerfffl after the dfnskjn.
Me: I still don’t understand.
Hs: It will make your hair soft.
Me: OH!!! Conditioner! Yes, I want it.
Typically, this lack of vocabulary is not a problem when I am speaking…for instance, I don’t know how to ask for the “tourist information center,” but I can ask for “the place where foreigners who are traveling go to ask questions.” The problem only arises when other people are speaking to me.
This made our first couple days in Taiwan pretty interesting, as we went straight to work taking care of things like: getting a SIM card for our cell phone, acquiring internet access at the apartment, getting a haircut, and finding a school. You know, normal stuff you do in your everyday life. But just imagine that everyone is speaking to you in Pig Latin. You can figure it out, it just takes a little while to decipher.
Since we’re planning on a much less aggressive travel schedule while we’re here in Taiwan, we’ll use this opportunity to do a bit of maintenance on the site and (hopefully) finally get to some oft-requested posts about stuff like gear and trip prep. Thanks for all your hilarious comments and sweet messages. Having you all traveling along with us makes it easier to be away from home for so long.
Note: I had intended to do mini-recaps for each country we visited in SE Asia, and then tie it all up with one big, pretty SE Asia recap bow, but the country-specific recaps turned out to be quite in-depth, so I’ll keep this one short too.
Wow, where to even begin? Well, if the measure of an experience is what you are left with after it is over, let’s examine what gifts traveling in SE Asia bestowed upon us, shall we? An intense love for swimming in the ocean. Consciousness, complexity, and compassion. A new pair of flip-flops. The most amazing thing I have ever seen. An unforgettable birthday experience. The ability to peel and eat a bamboo shoot. New friends. And perhaps most telling: the desire to travel to more undeveloped countries (seriously, there are changes a’coming to our travel itinerary…stay tuned). New Zealand and Australia were amazing experiences in their own right, but it was only through our travels in SE Asia that our Internal Normality Indicators (INI) were recalibrated: a family of 5 on a single motorbike? No problem. People walking their pet elephants on the street? OK. Children who just barely learned to walk trying to sell you tourist trinkets? I don’t like it but I understand it. Congealed pig’s blood cakes? Yes. These are things that you just won’t encounter in the Western world, either because they aren’t necessary or because we have other options. And that’s why we travel, right? To challenge our familiar; to make sure our understanding is always growing wider and not narrower; to hit that INI reset button.
Days spent here: 59
Pre Rup at sunset. The Temples of Angkor, Siem Reap.
Places we would like to visit next time: Southern Laos, Myanmar/Burma, Indonesia
Average daily expenditures: US$80
Prices: The word is out…SE Asia is no longer the super-cheap destination it once was. Don’t get us wrong—it’s still very affordable, but we were expecting to spend about US$50 per day (between the two of us) and we ended up at US$80 per day. We still don’t understand how we managed to do this…our typical accommodation cost about US$15 per night and our meals averaged between US$2-10 (for the two of us). We moved around quite a bit so perhaps all the transportation costs hurt our bottom line more than we expected.
Guide books: We’ve already mentioned how indispensable Lonely Planet’s Southeast Asia on a Shoestring is to traveling in SE Asia…but it can be quite thin if you want to get off the beaten path. Here’s one way to remedy the situation: there are lots of copy books for sale in SE Asia (basically, a printer just Xeroxes a book and binds it). The copies are typically of very poor quality (it will be difficult to read the maps), but they are cheap (between US$2-5). You can buy these copy books to supplement the info in your original copy of Southeast Asia on a Shoestring. Not that we would ever buy pirated books. No sir.
Internet: Coming from Australia, where we had to spend the better part of the afternoon at the public library if we wanted a wireless connection, we were shocked by how widely available wireless access was in SE Asia. In many countries, guest houses and restaurants have wireless, but access is password locked. Here’s a hint: try “123456790.” Seriously, we were able to access at least 10 wireless connections using this password. Let us know if you want to hire us as hackers when we get back to the States, we obviously have very advanced technological skills that cannot be replicated by mere mortals.
Children: It’s not just us, because we heard it from many other travelers: the kids in SE Asia with break your heart. Even if you are a card-carrying member of the Anti-Breeder Association of Steel-Hearted Non-Procreators, these kids will get to you. And there are a lot of them! In Vietnam, something like 75% of its population is under the age of 30 (that may not be the exact figure, but it’s ridiculously high like that).
Little Laotian troublemakers.
The deal with TP: Remember how I complained that Khao San guesthouses did not provide TP in their rooms? Well, we figured out why: most people in SE Asia don’t use it. Now before you get all grossed out, here’s the deal: next to every toilet, there is a hand-held spray nozzle. SE Asians use this to clean themselves instead of toilet paper. Not to get into too many details, but we learned to really prefer this method too (though we didn’t eschew TP altogether). It is much more hygienic than just using TP. Jeremy swears that he is building a bidet into the next house we live in.
In case you’re confused as to the specifics of using one of these hoses, our guest house in Chiang Mai posted a rather humorous but helpful sign on the bathroom wall:
Also, note that you should carry toilet tissue with you at all times since most public restrooms do not provide it.
In short: Just go.
Ever since I caught the travel bug on my first trip to Central America, I have wanted to visit Thailand. Something about the place held my fascination, though I had but a few expectations before we arrived: that the land would be beautiful (it is), that the people would be peaceful (they are, though the protests right now may suggest otherwise), and that the food would be good (well, you know where we stand on that issue). It’s funny, though…traveling to a new country can be just like shopping from a catalog, you never know if something is going to fit unless you try it on. Despite the beautiful landscape and the gracious people, I have to admit that we left a bit disheartened by some (definitely not all) of our experiences in Thailand. I think it has to do with the fact that there are so many Western tourists in the country…but before you throw up your hands and say, “Oh, Hope and Jeremy didn’t like Thailand because it’s too touristy,” let me explain. It’s not the fact that there are so many Westerners here, I mean, if that’s the case, then shame on us for only adding to the problem, right? Rather, it is tourism’s effect upon the local people that didn’t sit right with us. Perhaps it’s because so many party people and sex tourists come to Thailand, or maybe Thais are just tired of working so hard to embrace the hordes of travelers coming to their country and not getting anything out of it. We found it difficult (in some places) to connect with locals beyond the standard service-industry interactions, leaving us discouraged and a little depressed. To be clear, I don’t blame Thai people at all…they are more than polite and accommodating towards travelers in their country. Rather, I think it is just a social condition that has manifested itself as a result of a few wayward Westerners treating parts of Thailand like their own personal playground.
That being said, I do want to point out that we had a wonderful time with Oak and his wife in Bangkok. I mean, this is a guy who told us (as we were leaving his house for the airport), “You know where your home in Bangkok is.” We know that it’s not every day you encounter that kind of open-heartedness and generosity. So even if Thailand could taste a bit sour at times, we were also left with a sweet taste in our mouths from the experience.
Days spent here: 19
Places we would like to go next time: Similan Islands
Prices: With the exception of Chiang Mai (which is super cheap), we found Thailand to be quite expensive, especially in terms of accommodation. One of the worst rooms we stayed in in SE Asia (in Krabi) was also one of the spendier ones (at US$18.50 per night), and the most expensive room we stayed in all of SE Asia was in Ko Lipe (at US$26 per night). Food in Thailand can be quite cheap, however, as long as you like pad thai and fruit shakes.
Weather: The weather was beautiful while we were in Thailand. It was hot and dry in the south (at the end of January), and hot and humid in the north (mid-March).
In order to deal with the heat, Thais (apparently) bathe several times a day. They also use baby powder to keep themselves dry, and the options are amazingly broad. There are baby powders with cooling agents, baby powders that help control acne, baby powders that shimmer, baby powders with deodorant…the list goes on. We tried the baby powder thing and we have to say, it is quite refreshing!
Transit: We traveled in Thailand on plane, mini-bus, boat, and train. Mini-buses in Thailand are not the holy terrors that they are in Vietnam…we enjoyed a very comfortable 5-hour ride from Chiang Khong to Chiang Mai via mini-bus transport. Similarly, the train from Chiang Mai to Bangkok was very comfortable, but try to get a bottom bed, as they are much wider than the top berths.
Internet: Wi-fi connections in Thailand are plentiful, though we always had to pay for access (usually between 30 and 50 baht per hour: approx. US$0.85 to US$1.50).
Culture: Thailand is a very Buddhist country, which accounts for the peaceful nature of its people. There are many opportunities to do 10-day introductory meditation retreats at Buddhist monasteries here (which we really wanted to do but alas did not have time for). If you do decide to take part in one of these courses, be prepared to sleep on a concrete bed with a wooden pillow, wake up at 4AM, and deal with rats, snakes, and mosquitos (Buddhist monks do not believe in killing any living creatures, so rodents of all sizes can take safe shelter at their local monastery). Also, you are not allowed to eat after noon (this tenet in particular scared Jeremy).
The other person (besides the Buddha) that Thais worship is their King. Oh my god, do they love their King. You cannot walk a block without seeing his face. Every little hole-in-the-wall restaurant has a small shrine devoted to him with shells and flowers and stickers decoupaged around his portrait. His face is all over their coins and bills, and it Thailand it is against the law to step on money, since to do so is to disrespect the King. By the way, as far as we could gather, the King’s role is sort of like the Queen of England—purely ceremonial.
The final bit of Thai culture that I wanted to mention is the wai, the standard way of greeting people in Thailand. Basically, you hold your hands together in front of your face and say, “sawatdee” (”hello” in Thai). If someone wai’s you, it is polite to wai back, though the position of your hands does matter. It seems that wai’ing so that your fingertips are touching your forehead is a sign of utmost respect, but when in doubt, just make sure your fingertips are right underneath your nose. Hold your hands too low in relation to your face, and you risk offending someone.
In short: I don’t mean to be too negative about Thailand…in fact, if I think back to the places we visited, we liked all of them and had a really nice time in each location (especially Ko Lipe). It’s just that you can feel the effect of tourism in Thailand more than in other SE Asian countries. I guess it was the surprise of encountering this reality that threw us a bit off balance.
Check out our photos from Thailand:
We’ve come full circle…our final stop in SE Asia was the same place we started: Bangkok. As many backpackers will tell you, you really don’t want to hang out in Bangkok for too long. We did our best to avoid the place but we had some visa issues that needed some attention, so back to Khao San Road we went. It’s funny how much your view of a place changes after you have something to compare it to…when we first flew into Bangkok, Khao San Road seemed fine; nothing to write home about, but we weren’t repulsed by it either. I guess it’s because we had no point of reference. After seeing what the rest of SE Asia has to offer, Khao San seemed like an absolute pit and we couldn’t wait to move on (next time, we think we will stay in the Siam Square area instead).
We didn’t do much else in Bangkok except take care of our visas, but we did manage to see Oak one more time. Oak invited us to stay with him and his wife in their newly-built house as their first overnight guests. It was quite a shock to go from Khao San to their gorgeous, multi-level house. Since the house is so new, it is very sparsely furnished, but you can already see that Oak and his wife Auey’s tastes veer towards the modern: everything is black or sparkling white.
It was against this stark white background that we realized: we were dirty. Seriously, we never felt so dirty in our lives…and we fancy ourselves much cleaner than other backpackers! It was embarrassing. We quickly took showers and changed into our nicest (cleanest) clothes. I even put on a pair of earrings, hoping that might distract from our disheveled bodies. I guess we had been amongst dirty backpackers for too long…our hygiene scale got a little skewed.
We also got to see Oak’s Muay Thai (Thai Kickboxing) manufacturing plant, and he gave us free t-shirts from his line…so nice!
Thai kickboxing gloves at Oak’s warehouse. Buy them here: muaythaistuff.com!
Oak also took us out to a steakhouse…which was amazing! Even better, the restaurant had a Western theme, complete with wagon wheel chandeliers and Thai waiters dressed in Western gear. Thais have this strange fascination with the wild west…we saw many an “Ol’ Saloon” and “Wild West Steakhouse” in Bangkok and Chiang Mai.
It was a great way to close out our trip: great food (notice that we did not want Thai food for our last meal in SE Asia) ;), followed by a night out with new friends, ending in the comfort and luxury of sleeping in Oak & Auey’s (gorgeous) house. We had a great time in SE Asia, but we’re looking forward to the next chapter in our trip: Taiwan!
Chiang Mai is the only major stop on the backpacker circuit in northern Thailand, and it seems to have a little something for everyone. For the spiritually-minded, Chiang Mai has a plenitude of wats, some offering 3-10 day meditation retreats (which we seriously considered but didn’t have time for) or afternoon “monk chats.” For the active traveler, Chiang Mai is a very popular place to book a multi-day trek to visit hill-tribe villages, including the famous “long necks” (i.e., women from the Kayan-Padaung tribe who wear brass rings around their throats, giving their necks an elongated look). And for the shopper, Chiang Mai is famous for it’s handicrafts and night markets, selling everything from embroidered textiles to paper umbrellas. With so much to see and do, you can’t go wrong, right? Well, read on, my friends…Chiang Mai was really lovely but one thing in particular really ended up being the thorn on our rose.
As a city, Chiang Mai is pretty cool. The city center used to be walled in and protected by a moat, though little of the wall remains except for the corners and the city gates. Still, it’s pretty neat! I mean, how excited would you be to live in a town with a freakin’ moat?!?
Within the walls sits a plethora of wats…you can’t walk a block without running into one, they are like Starbucks here. We spent many a day wandering around wats. The “Big Three” within the walled city are Wat Prasingh, Wat Chiang Mun (the oldest wat in Chiang Mai) and Wat Jedi Luang.
In the back of Wat Jedi Luang, there are some beautiful old teakwood buildings that contain life-size wax replicas of monks within plexiglass display cases. Needless to say, we were surprised, fascinated, and a bit creeped out by these.
One day, we rented bikes and rode out to Wat Umong, a forest wat outside of the city center, in order to attend a talk by a western monk entitled “What Buddha Taught.” It was really informal…there were only about 6 of us sitting around an outdoor gazebo listening to a monk talk about the Buddha’s teachings. Jeremy and I have been practicing meditation lately and we’ve become really interested in learning more about Buddhism. The talk was super interesting and the monk (we think he was English) was surprisingly well-versed on current events; during his talk, he mentioned the credit crisis, iPod touches, and the contemporary Australian philosopher Peter Singer. I didn’t take any photos at the talk, but Wat Umong itself was really lovely. It is not ornate and gilded like the wats in the city center, and the rustic nature of the grounds is thoroughly charming.
Also, this wat is unusual in that it has an assortment of tunnels that lead to little altars and shrines to the Buddha.
There are a few sights right outside of Chiang Mai that are really popular, too. You’ll have to rent a scooter (as we did) or take a tuk-tuk to get to Bo Sang, a “handicraft village” (if by “village” you mean, “street with shops”). It was kind of lame, but we did wander around some of the alleys off the main drag and there are families actually producing things like handmade paper and painted umbrellas (apparently Chiang Mai is really well known for these).
We also scooted out to Mount Suthep, where Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep (a.k.a. “The Wat on the Mountain”) is located. It was a really lovely place, but incredibly crowded, too.
There weren’t any wax-figure monks in plexiglass cases at this wat, but they did have this weird thing:
Apparently whoever made this statue did not think too highly of their mother. Or there is a cultural “lost-in-translation” moment here that we are not understanding.
So enough about wats…what about the other activities that Chiang Mai has to offer? Well, we didn’t end up going on a trek because, like northern Laos, it is burning season in Chiang Mai too, and after our Luang Nam Tha experience, we decided to skip it. I think this was a good decision, because the day we rented the scooter, both Jeremy and I had problems with the smoke…I ended up with a sore throat and cough for days, and the white spots on my purse had turned completely grey. Gross!
We did, however check out Chiang Mai’s biggest tourist attraction: the markets. We were lucky enough to be in Chiang Mai on a Saturday and Sunday, so we got a taste of the weekend mayhem. Saturday night’s market is much smaller and more relaxed…Sunday’s market is absolutely nuts! The entire length of the main street in Chiang Mai’s city center is blocked off and the road is filled with handicraft stalls, people offering cheap massages, and snack treats. Even if you had the energy to walk from one end to the other, it would take you hours, since the wall of people is so thick. It was so crowded, Jeremy couldn’t deal with it and went home early.
So…wats, treks, and markets, what more could you ask for, right? Well, the thing is…are you ready? You might want to sit down.
Jeremy and I don’t like Thai food.
I know! Can you believe it? Us! Lovers of all cuisine! Equal opportunity eaters! We just don’t care for one of the world’s favorite ethnic foods! I was shocked to find out too! But guess what? It was a two-way street: Thai food doesn’t like us either. We had (ahem) issues in Chiang Mai…to the point where we were afraid to even eat Thai cuisine. We actually sought out Western food like spaghetti and hamburgers in Chiang Mai. I know! Us! Can you believe it? I mean, we ate congealed pig’s blood cakes (unknowingly, but still) in Penang, and something called “cockles.” And it was northern Thai food that took us down.
It was depressing. When you love food as much as we do, you can have the most amazing time in a place, but if the food’s not good (much less, making you sick), then it’s hard to really enjoy yourself. And the weird thing is, we like Thai food in the States. We just didn’t like it in Thailand.
So, there you go…that was our Chiang Mai experience: days spent lazily wandering in and out of beautiful wats, an incredibly interesting talk by a local monk, riding around the walled city on our rented bicycles…but the pea under the princess’ mattress was the food.
Sorry, Chiang Mai. Let’s just agree to disagree, shall we?