A mystical land

A mystical land

A short hop away, Taiwan is the perfect trip for foodies and those seeking an adventure

TRAVEL
A mystical land
Zhengbin Fishing Harbour is a major seaport in Taiwan's north.

With the chilly winter breeze subsiding, Taiwan is gaining favour with Thai tourists looking for short-haul affordable holidays. My recent trip to Taipei coincided with the launch of the "Taiwan The Lucky Land" campaign, which offers foreign visitors the chance to win NT$5,000 (5,470 baht) in coupons as pocket money until June 30.

The winners can choose to get the cash voucher in the form of hotel coupons or EasyCard/iPASS cards that can be used for transportation and at participating businesses. The card or voucher has a 90-day validity period once issued. This is a significant step to open the door for Taiwan's tourism bounce-back.

Just in time for dinner as our flight touched down in the evening, we immediately headed downtown to Ximending. The tree-like thoroughfare is flanked by a plethora of fashion boutiques and businesses, including street food vendors, tattoo parlours and anime shops, allowing visitors to observe local life both during the day and at night.

One of the busiest commercial districts in the city, this well-known pedestrian area is connected to the Hanzhong, Emei and Section 2 of the Wuchang street network as well as an MRT station. While our stomachs were growling, we wound through the crowds and chose to stop by the well-known Ay Chung Flour Rice Noodle shop despite the long line.

Founded in 1975, it is known for its exceptionally silky red thin noodles served in a broth with shredded fish and chewy soy-braised intestine. The prices range from $60 to $80, and chilli sauce, black vinegar and garlic can be added to enhance flavour. By the entrance, a little dining area is set up for speedy eating, which gave us the feeling of playing musical chairs.

Despite the drizzle, we carried on with our meal, enjoying popular savoury and sweet dishes like stinky tofu, soft turnip cake, sizzling oyster omelette, Hot Star's fried chicken and white bitter gourd juice with honey. While exploring, we saw that a group of young artists had turned some storefronts into an open stage for street dancing and busking.

Jiufen Old Street once served as a centre for the gold mining industry. The neighbourhood offers a wide selection of tantalising street food.

The next day, we departed Taipei and headed northeast to Keelung City, which serves as a significant port city in the country's north and Taiwan's second-largest seaport after Kaohsiung. With its turquoise waters, this region has been recognised for its unique marine biodiversity and abundance of coral reefs and marine life, including pufferfish and green turtles. It is also known as the Secret Garden in the Sea, making it one of the greatest diving sites.

As nimbus clouds were dispersing in the sky and rain fell in the hilly surroundings, we boarded a lovely painted railbike at Badouzi Railway Station, which resumed operation in 2014 and now serves as a time machine to transport visitors back to the Japanese colonial era.

It was originally built in 1936 by the Japanese Mining Corporation and was resurrected in 1965 by the Taiwan Railway Administration as a railroad extension from Badouzi to Ruifang to offer services for both general passengers and freight. The completion of the Northern Coastal Highway, however, forced the closure of the whole route in 1989.

Overlooking the tranquil seaside areas, this 1.3km uphill rail track was formerly used to transport gold, wood, sugar and salt from the mountain to the bay, and is today surrounded by a cluster of historic Chinese shrines, contemporary shophouses, vintage homes, chic cafés and art galleries. Some of their walls are decorated with funky street art that depicts local life to honour the co-existence of the old and the new.

Ximending is an excellent place for exploring Taipei's nightlife and dining scene.

While learning how to accelerate and reduce speed over the long route, it was delightful to enjoy the breathtaking views of the landscape on each side and take deep breaths of fresh air. We were then brought back to the present through a mystical tunnel illuminated with lighting installations and projection mapping.

The next stop was Zhengbin Fishing Harbour, which is situated 5km from the train station. It was built in 1934 and functioned as Taiwan's largest fishing harbour during the Japanese colonial era, but now is a popular tourist attraction with a picturesque backdrop of colourful houses.

We walked along the shore and noticed a fleet of fishing boats out at sea. Some of the older buildings on the land were painted in vibrant hues of yellow, orange, green, red and pink, giving the pier an exotic feel. A handful of villagers have also converted their shophouses into upscale hotels, coffee shops and restaurants, where visitors can unwind and observe the way of local life on a sightseeing tour.

The nearby bridge offered stunning views of the historic ruins of Agenna Shipyard, which was built under Japanese rule to gather and transport gold and other minerals from Jinguashi to Japan. Towards the end of Japanese rule, it was rented to an American yacht company before being left unoccupied. Erosion exposed its reinforced concrete structure, giving it a contemporary look.

After lunch, we wound through narrow spiral roads to reach Jiufen Old Street, a well-known shopping district in New Taipei City close to Mount Keelung. This village once housed 90 stoves for the production of camphor before becoming a hub for the gold mining industry at the onset of the gold rush under Japanese rule, earning it the nicknames Little Shanghai and Little Hong Kong.

On the railbike tour at Badouzi Railway Station, visitors can learn about the historic railway that was used to transport gold and other materials.

As the waves of foreign and local tourists converged on a maze of narrow alleys, hundreds of vintage Chinese-style shophouses caught our attention with a wide range of creative handicrafts, nostalgic souvenirs, bubble milk tea, local dishes and sweets, premium teas, fashion apparel and accessories, and handmade jewellery. At the top of the hill, there are several classic tea houses where visitors may stop and take in the beautiful views of the sea and the green surroundings.

Taipei basked in the sunlight and the sky was clear on our last day there. Our sightseeing trip began at the Lungshan Temple, which was built in 1738 in honour of the Goddess of Mercy. Its original construction was destroyed during World War II, and the only thing left standing after a bomb was a highly revered statue of Guan Yin.

The compound underwent a massive restoration between 1919 and 1924, and the government placed it on the list of National Historic Monuments in 2018. To celebrate top-notch craftsmanship, the towering stone pillars and roofs are embellished with elaborately engraved figurines of dragons, Confucian and Daoist deities, and other mythical Chinese animals.

The main hall is decorated with an eight-headed dragon honouring Guan Yin and a spiral caisson that symbolises the Buddhist wheel of fortune. Worshippers can also pray to Wenchang Dijun for academic achievement and career progress, Guan Yu for financial advice, and Yuelao Shenjun for matchmaking.

Just a 15-minute drive from the temple, the Si Si Nan Village provides visitors with the opportunity to take selfies against a scenic backdrop of the iconic Taipei 101 tower. Encircled by bunkers, the city's first military village has been transformed into a creative art and community space. It is now home to the Cultural Memorial Center, the Taipei City-Xinyi Parent-Child Center, cafés, a playground for families, and a weekend flea market.

Lungshan Temple is dedicated to the goddess Guan Yin.

Our journey came to a close at the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, where we learned about Taiwan's history. This complex was inaugurated in 1980 and includes the Liberty Square Archway, Main Plaza, National Theater and National Concert Hall.

The 15,000m² Main Hall's two-octagonal tiered roof is covered in blue glazed tiles, and four of the walls are constructed of white marble to evoke both the national emblem and the Kuomintang party banner.

The ground floor of the memorial hall is dedicated to an exhibition, showcasing a collection of old photographs of key political occasions such as the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, the Wild Lily student movement in 1990, the Anti-Nuclear March in 1994, and the Wild Strawberries Movement in 2008.

Another highlight is a display of vintage military uniforms from President Chiang's wardrobe, together with 1955 and 1972 Cadillac seven-seat limousines. Visitors can also act as special guests and meet President Chiang in his office. On the upper floor, an enormous statue of President Chiang sits in the middle and the caisson ceiling is designed to resemble the national flag, signifying the link between the man and the country.

The Si Si Nan Village was transformed into a creative community space.

Travel info

  • Travellers can register for "Taiwan The Lucky Land" campaign at 5000.taiwan.net.tw or find more details at taiwantourism.org/th/tourism-informations/taiwan-the-lucky-landbrtaiwan-nt5000-prizes-for-independent-travelers.
  • KTC World Travel Service and the Taiwan Tourism Board have created a special four-day tailored package that KTC credit card customers can benefit from through Nov 30. The prices start at 29,900 baht per person for travel between now and Dec 31. For more details, call 02-123-5050.
  • Starlux Airlines operates two flights every day from Bangkok to Taipei, with tickets starting at 8,770 baht. Find out more details at starlux-airlines.com.

The Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall opened to the public in 1980 and has become a gathering place for political activities.

Visitors can see the historical ruins of Agenna Shipyard close to Zhengbin Fishing Harbour.

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