Just another subway station in Taipei with toy dispensers and a large mascot. (Photo: Greg Keraghosian)
Visiting Taiwan might make you think of that “Royale with Cheese” exchange in Pulp Fiction: it won’t feel vastly exotic to a Westerner, but it’s all about the little differences here that will stick with you.
One Tuesday night I walked through a seedy, lonely night market called Snake Alley, precisely because they have large snakes on display and on the dinner menu. Then I took a short subway ride to a bustling night market with gleaming neon lights, cheerful families strolling, delicious street food being cooked in front of me, and rows of people blithely playing carnival-esque games.
Taiwan has freakishly large spiders, exceedingly friendly locals, toy machines everywhere, and the most unusual 7-11 stores I’ve ever seen. And please, please, don’t bring any balloons into their bullet trains. Here’s a list of fun and quirky things you should look out for when you visit:
Go to Taiwan’s tallest building … to eat in the basement
The real high point of visiting the world’s sixth-tallest building. (Photo: Greg Keraghosian)
We normally equate famous landmarks with overpriced, mediocre food – don’t get me started on the tourist traps at Fisherman’s Wharf. But Taipei 101, the world’s sixth-tallest tower, is also a culinary destination with some of the best dumplings you’ll have anywhere.
While the original Din Tai Fung is elsewhere on Xinyi Road, you’ll want to mix the highs of viewing Taipei’s skyline from the 89th floor observatory to the lows of eating the restaurant’s famous Xiao Long Bao on the basement level. The thin dough is rolled at manic speed by employees for everyone to see, and they have to fit exact size and weight specifications or they’re promptly thrown away. Even if dumplings aren’t your thing, the bean curd is sure to impress.
The karaoke bars are like 5-star hotels
A typical KTV box lobby in Taipei. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
I forced a few travel companions to accompany me to one of Taipei’s Party World locations for karaoke – if you’ve heard my voice you know why I had to force them. They’re not called karaoke bars here – they’re called KTV boxes – and they’re nothing like bars at all.
Upon walking in you’ll encounter a grand lobby with chandeliers and a check-in counter that only needs a bell boy to complete the hotel effect. You’ll order alcohol and food there, and then you’ll take an elevator to your private karaoke room, where your order is delivered to you. Karaoke is like a civilized form of clubbing in Taiwan and a major social activity, and if I lived here I’d make this a Saturday night habit.
You can let a taxi driver take you wherever he wants
Courtesy: Taxi Diary
If you don’t mind giving control of your trip to a stranger , a service called Taxi Diary offers three-hour tours of Taipei by licensed taxi drivers who get to decide where to take you, and you won’t know where you’re going until you get there. Meanwhile the drivers will be picking up local commuters, so you can interact with them as if you’re in an Uber Pool. The drivers often don’t speak English, but they’re vetted for friendliness and the company insists the experience is all very safe. Sadly I didn’t have time to try this one out.
You cannot bring guns or inflated balloons on trains. Ever.
Almost too funny to be true. (Photo: Greg Keraghosian)
The Taiwanese take safety seriously, and this warning I found on a bullet train from Taipei to Taichung is an amusing example of that. Other examples of extreme safety are having to wear a helmet just to walk through an ordinary tunnel at Taroko National Park, and luxury hotels whose guestroom floors have large written advisories not to trip. How did you know I’m such a klutz, Taiwan?
The 7-11s don’t have Big Gulps, but they do have designer boxer shorts
This is some 7-11 food we can live with. (Photo: Greg Keraghosian)
You can barely walk more than a block in Taiwanese cities without running into the convenience store often equated with American caloric excess. But you actually want to eat at the 7-11s here. They have dumplings and other freshly cooked local fare, with seated tables so you can nosh inside. It feels more like a cafe than a messy convenience store.
Other unexpected 7-11 features include a post office and an aisle stocked with Muji items, including face scrub, stationary, and boxer shorts that I would actually wear.
Taiwan has the original toilet-themed restaurant, with over 10 locations
The massive facade outside Modern Toilet. (Photo: Greg Keraghosian)
Louis C.K. can try all he wants, but no one does toilet humor like the Taiwanese. At Modern Toilet in Taipei, I ate poop-shaped chocolate ice cream from a miniature toilet bowl while sitting on a toilet seat, and I did so willingly. You can also eat passionfruit shaved ice from a mini-urinal and drink milk tea from a bedpan, all while wiping your mouth with napkins from a toilet-paper roll.
I have no shame. (Photo: Greg Keraghosian)
Most of the food I tried here was just OK (the shaved ice being the exception). But it’s worth a visit for the novelty. And since the idea of a toilet restaurant bombed in Los Angeles last year, the idea seems unlikely to spread to the U.S.
You can make and shake your own bubble tea in the place that invented it
The dessert of champions: bubble tea and Chia Te pineapple pastry. (Photo: Greg Keraghosian)
At the original Chun Shui Tang in Taichung, you can learn how its owner, Lin Hsiu Hui, is widely credited with inventing pearl tea in 1983 as a hot-weather alternative to regular tea, then inventing bubble tea with its tapioca balls in 1987.
And if that’s not education enough, they give you all the tools and ingredients to make your own bubble tea on the spot, including those addictive tapioca balls and a shaker to pretend you’re Tom Cruise in Cocktail. The tapioca balls here are frozen for freshness and soaked, boiled, and mixed with a sugar syrup to make them extra tasty. When your tea is ready, don’t forget to drink it with the Chia Te pineapple pastry that’s famous here – it’s a tag-team dessert combo you’ll never forget.
The locals will approach you to drink beer with them
A toast with the locals. (Photo: Amalia McGibbon)
The highlight of my Taiwan trip happened at a plain-looking restaurant in a small fishing village called Su’ao. The locals were celebrating their youth basketball team’s victory over dinner and going from table to table drinking shots of Taiwanese beer. Though the adults didn’t speak a lick of English, they generously came over to us and drank with us as well, and we exchanged pleasantries with them and their kids. Meeting friendly Taiwanese is hardly unusual, but that interaction will stick with me the most.
The spiders here look like they’re on steroids, and they’re everywhere
Just a cute and cuddly spider. (Photo: Greg Keraghosian)
If you go anywhere outside the urban areas of Taiwan, you’re bound to run into the giant golden orb weaver – probably while it’s munching on an insect it caught in its beautiful 3-foot-wide web. At almost 8 inches in size, there’s nothing ironic about their name, and if you have arachnophobia, they’ll look something like your worst nightmare. They even have a body mark shaped like a skull, as if they’re teasing you. They aren’t venomous, and I surprisingly found myself staring at them in wonder for minutes up close.
There’s a giant wood sculpture of an NBA player in a national park, and it changes jerseys when he does
Wooden Jeremy Lin takes it to the hoop. (Photo: Greg Keraghosian)
Jeremy Lin is a Taiwanese-American NBA player, and this country loves him. So much so that in Taroko National Park, there’s a large wood sculpture of Lin shooting at a basket – and because Lin changed teams to the Charlotte Hornets this summer, the sculpture’s jersey was recently swapped. Lin is something of a journeyman these days, so there may be more jerseys to come.
If you want to find the sculpture, it’s in front of the Leader Village restaurant, where you can enjoy some Aboriginal-style boar ribs.
Yes, you can eat snake in Snake Alley
A bite of fried snake skin.
Snake Alley is part of Huaxi Night Market, and while it used to be popular with tourists it’s now mostly a drab-looking strip of restaurants, salons, and stores. There are also cobras and other large snakes kept in glass, and on demand you can have one killed for you to eat, as if you were ordering lobster.
From a restaurant that wouldn’t let me take pictures, I ordered stir-fried cobra, fried snake skin, and a snake soup that came with shots of snake bile and (non-toxic) snake venom. It will gross out some, but the skin was light and crunchy like popcorn, and the stir-fried cobra tasted good too. The venom tasted something like ouzo.
Some Hello Kitty poker at Shilin Night Market. (Photo: Greg Keraghosian)
If you want a less creepy night market experience, you can walk outside Snake Alley at Huaxi, or head over to the more modern Shilin Night Market, with its cavalcade of family-friendly games.
You can’t go far without finding toy dispensers
If you have some spare change in your pocket, there’s always something fun to buy. Miniature toy dispensers can be found in just about every convenience store and subway station. The Taiwanese are nothing if not playful.
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