Taiwan: the not so ugly duckling of Asia

Living in South Korea as an English teacher is a great way to travel around Asia. Last month my boyfriend and I decided to leave the snow behind and find the absent sun.

Taiwan, known for pleasant seasons year-round, averaged a temperature colder than expected this winter. Not only was the weather unpredictable, but New Year’s Eve proved to be an unconventional chain of events. With poor judgment and lack of planning, our midnight was spent on the side of a busy freeway. The night ended with a “suite” upgrade and VIP service at a local club. Let me start from the beginning.

We had decided to celebrate New Year’s Eve in Taiwan’s capital Taipei. Taipei was previously known as the “ugly duckling” of Asia. Many tourists seemed to overlook the small island.

My first impression of Taiwan was that of a traditional country struggling to be modern. There were old deteriorating buildings alongside new cars and expensive shops. I loved the unique ambience of the city and the night life was bustling with markets, street food vendors, and small art exhibits. We visited Shilin Night Market which features a  wide range of fashionable shops, authentic Taiwanese games, and eclectic food stalls.

The locals were exceptionally helpful when we haggled with taxi drivers in English. They went so far as to offer us rides which made my first hitchhiking experience a breeze. A friendly stranger in a minivan welcomed us on board where we sat cramped between crates of eggs and jugs of milk. Arriving unharmed at our destination, we bathed with locals in a beautiful hot spring and enjoyed a breathtaking view of the mountains.

The evening ended at a traditional Taiwanese restaurant where the menu looked more like a Latin tome. English was non-existent here and knowing little Mandarin made things quite difficult. We pointed to a picture and prayed we didn’t order any domesticated animal meat. To be sure, there was Adam on one side of the table moo-ing like a cow and I had my elbows bent, trying to mimic a chicken. The waitress smiled politely and walked away. Our melodramatic performance left us feeling defeated, but dinner ended up being pleasantly appetizing.

After spending five wonderful days in Kenting it was back to Taipei. A simple error in hotel rooms, ended with a huge upgrade to a family sized suite. We took advantage of our newfound luxury before heading to Taipei building 101, famous for its annual fireworks display at midnight. Until the tower was trumped by Dubai’s Burj Khalifa in 2010, it was the world’s tallest building.

At 11:58 p.m. we were still in the cab but could see the distant tower. We paid the fee and stood with other pedestrians in the middle of the highway trying to get a glimpse of the lit-up sky. Jam-packed with locals and Westerners wishing “Happy new year,” the crowds outside were electric with excitement. We found a bar where friendly locals shared their VIP booth and drinks with us.

The eclectic cuisine, vibrant night markets, stunning nature reserves, and welcoming locals make Taiwan a unique and exciting vacation spot for tourists of all ages. Taiwan is no longer an ugly duckling. It has blossomed into a truly dynamic country.