Thursday, 4 May 2017

10 things about Taiwan - fun stuff and observations!

Bitch, I'm fabulous.

Hey, everyone!

So I'm finally embarking on the final installment of my 2014 Asia trip blog post series - on Taiwan! If anyone's still reading my blog, I know you were probably thinking I was never going to get around to it. Well, I'm an excellent procrastinator, but apparently I am also committed to finishing what I start. So here we go!

I thought for this travel series, it would be fun to do a general introductory post about the country. There are so many fun and interesting aspects about Taiwan that I keep noticing again and again. So without further ado, here's my list of 10 things that I noticed while we were travelling in Taiwan...

1) The juxtaposition of old and new. I found this contrast quite fascinating. Decrepit buildings next to modern skyscrapers, and other similar scenes. This is quite a common sight in many countries around the world anyway, especially in Asia, but for me, it somehow seemed particularly pronounced in Taiwan.

The contrast of old vs. new.

2) Yes, Taiwan really is heaven for bubble tea aficionados. Bubble tea shops are everywhere, and Simon would indulge pretty much everyday. I found the bubble tea here to generally be of splendid quality - many of the bubble tea shops use fresh ingredients rather than artificial colours and flavours. Delicious and wholesome, what's not to love?

Delectable fruit-filled bubble tea in Taiwan - I think this one is passionfruit and apple.

3) Dumplings by the piece. Have you ever wished that you could order one of every flavour when you go to a dumpling restaurant - by the piece, not the plate? Well, in Taiwan, many dumpling shops allow you to do just that! You just have to put the appropriate number next to each of your desired items in the order form provided. Each dumpling usually cost us around 5 NTD. It's such a fantastic, consumer-friendly system that works well for solo and couple diners who want to try a variety of exciting flavours (kimchi, curry, and sauerkraut dumplings, anyone?), I wish more dumpling joints around the world would adopt this method.

A scrumptious selection of dumplings.

4) Betel nut beauties. They're not as ubiquitous as they once were, but scantily-clad lasses selling betel nuts from flashy neon-lit shops still exist. Not so much in the major cities, due to government intervention based on concerns that they are unfavourable to the country's image and reputation, but they're still around in smaller towns, at least from my observations. The first time I saw them was in Luzhu - there was a spectacular string of brothel-like glass kiosks on one stretch of a street that we were strolling down, and I have to confess that at first, I wasn't sure if they were the famed betel nut beauties or if they were, perhaps, sex workers. Then I saw them preparing betel nuts, and the mystery was solved!

A betel nut beauty in Luodong, selling her wares to a truck driver.

5) Deep-fried foods. The Taiwanese love their deep-fried snacks, and they do it well. You won't ever have to walk far before you come across a stall selling some deep-fried treats such as deep-fried seafood, deep-fried mushrooms, deep-fried tofu... even deep-fried milk! Yeah, Taiwan can be a dangerous place for people who are trying to watch their weight.

Deep-fried milk on a stick, a custardy treat!

6) Truly convenient convenience stores. Convenient store chains like 7-Eleven go above and beyond in Taiwan. Some 7-Elevens have restrooms, isn't that great? It has definitely come in handy a couple of times as the best option to visit when I needed to go. I get the vibe that they don't mind you using the toilets even if you don't buy anything, but I am very grateful for this service so I will typically purchase something small like a packet of chewing gum as a token of appreciation. Aside from that, some 7-Elevens also have dining areas. You can add hot water to instant noodle bowls, or microwave frozen meals, and eat it then and there! Moreover, you can get foods like oden, onigiri, and tea eggs at 7-Elevens. I believe other chains, such as FamilyMart, also provide similar products and services. Nice!

7-Elevens in Taiwan are truly convenient convenience stores.

7) The little soup dumplings I know as xiaolongbao (小龍包) in Australia is usually called tangbao (湯包) in Taiwan. I think the Din Tai Fung restaurant chain does still refer to little soup dumplings as xiaolongbao, but most places call them tangbao. Outside of Din Tai Fung, if you ask for xiaolongbao, you'll probably get little pork buns, rather than little dumplings. I got caught by this difference once or twice! I can read Chinese characters, so I'd see a sign for xiaolongbao, get all excited and buy some, only to be left bewildered with what I received. Once I figured out the twist, though, I confidently got my tangbao at every available opportunity!

I've always known this type of soup dumpling as xiaolongbao, but in Taiwan, they're called tangbao.

8) There are some very nice, chilled-out cat cafes in Taiwan. I think cat cafes can be hit and miss - personally, I prefer a cat cafe that feels relaxed and not too commercialized: Sure, you're running a business, but you gotta remember, cats are cats, and you gotta create a space that is comfortable for them. If your cats are not happy, as a cat-lover, I can tell, and I'm not gonna be happy, either. What I'm getting at is, the cat cafes I visited in Taiwan have my tick of approval. Admittedly, I only visited two, and both were in the more laid-back city of Tainan, so my sample size is lacking, but whatever. Anyway, I didn't know at the time, but the first cat cafe in the world originated in Taiwan, so perhaps they've had more time to figure out what works and what doesn't. The other factors may be that Taiwan isn't very touristy compared to some other countries, and there are plenty of cat cafes to go around. As a result, cat cafes here are less of a novelty, and less likely to get overloaded with visitors. So that's my thoughtful hypothesis on cat cafe culture in Taiwan, and you're welcome.

Relax, it's just a cat cafe.

9) Eating out is a way of life. It is not unusual for Taiwanese students to stay in cheap and basic apartment rooms with no kitchen facilities, and eat out everyday for their meals. The popular night markets can get incredibly busy - on more than one occasion, Simon and I would just give up and go somewhere else because the crowds and the queues were just ridiculous. Don't let that put you off, though - we had many satisfying experiences, too, and sometimes, lining up for something special can be worth it!

Night markets can get pretty packed!

10) Dogs are in prams, dogs are on motorcycles, dogs go everywhere in Taiwan. Their owners dote on them and take them along wherever they go. In Australia, people take their dogs for walks. In Taiwan, people integrate their dogs into everyday life. Running an errand? Bring your dog. Grabbing a bite to eat? Bring your dog. Weekend outing? Bring your dog. And boy, are the dogs adorable. Small dogs are prevalent, probably because they don't take up too much space in apartments and are easily portable, but some people go for medium to large dogs, too. We've even seen a dude zoom around on a scooter with two big dogs - it was both impressive and hilarious, I wish I got a picture of that trio!

Doggies on a motorbike! Their owner was just a few steps away, purchasing food from a street stall.

... Alright, I know I said 10 things, but I feel like I have more to say! So here are a few notes related to money stuff in Taiwan. I don't have fun photos to accompany these points, but it's all about the information, right?

Buses in Taiwan don't provide change. We just drop our fare into a box upon entry, and that's it. So here's a hot tip - if you need to break a note so you have the right money for your bus fare, you can nicely ask a betel nut seller if they can break a note. Otherwise, convenience stores are probably also a good source for small change. People here are generally happy to help.

There is a distinctive verbal clarity to transactions in Taiwan. For example, when I pay for my items, the store person will typically say something like, "received $x from you, and here's $y change." When I think about it, this attentive practice probably reduces the likelihood for careless errors quite significantly.

There appears to be no tipping culture whatsoever in Taiwan. Sometimes I'm not particularly fussed about getting my few NTD in change, so I'll be all "eh, keep the change", but it's like a totally foreign concept to them and my words don't even seem to register. No one has ever kept the change!

Receipts are a big thing in Taiwan. If you go to a place that issues receipts, they will insist on giving you the receipt. At times, I've walked off with my item right after I pay, and they would urgently call me back - "hey, your receipt!" Apparently there is a thing called a receipt lottery in Taiwan - you gain a free entry to a government-run lottery with every eligible receipt, so I'm guessing that accounts for why receipts are so important here!

Okay. I think I'm done talking, and now, over to you. Have you been to Taiwan? And if so, what are the interesting things that you've personally observed?

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