Taste Taiwan

Number one on my Taiwan Top Ten was food (anyone surprised?), so it deserves a post of its own. By far our favorite foods in Taiwan came from the famous night markets, which are as much of an activity as a place to get a meal. The night markets are filled with colorful stalls selling foods, but also souvenirs, carnival games, trendy clothing shops, and superb people (and dog) watching. We tasted until we were totally stuff, and there were still interesting and delicious-looking foods that we missed out on.
night market games
Carnival games at the Shilin night market in Taipei

These were our favorites.

(Stinky) tofu

Stinky tofu, left, and ‘devil fried chicken,’ right

Anything with stinky in its name is usually a big turn-off, and the smell of the stinky tofu is admittedly a bit pungent, but the taste is weirdly delicious. The stinky tofu is fermented, and can be prepared in lots of ways, but the most popular we saw at the night markets was deep-fried on sticks or fried in cubes with picked cabbage and other vegetables on top. It’s a bit salty, a bit sour—if you like pickles, kimchi, sauerkraut, or vinegar you’ll probably love it as much as we did.
bbq tofu
BBQ tofu sticks

Tofu in general is an ingredient of choice at the night markets, and we also enjoyed some tofu “fries” with cheese sauce, of the non-stinky variety. As long as you don’t question the sauces and methods of preparation too carefully, Taiwan seems like a good places for vegetarians to snack.
tofu fries
Tofu fries, covered in cheese sauce (of course)

Fried chicken

We also loved some of the fried foods of a non-vegetarian variety, and chowed down on some of the famous giant pieces of fried chicken, nicknamed “Devil chicken” at the stall we visited.  Just a deep-fried chicken breast with a spicy coating, served for on the go nibbling.
fried chicken bits
Our other favorite fried chicken were these little nuggets, deep-fried and glazed like kung pao chicken from a Chinese restaurant in the US. There were 5 different glazes to choose from, and they were topped with peanuts and served with a toothpick to eat while walking.

Coffin bread

Perhaps the most unique of the Taiwanese night market foods, coffin bread is something I had literally never heard of before visiting. And it couldn’t be more simple or more ingeniously delicious. It’s like a budget version of a savory meat pie, or a sandwich version of soup in a bread bowl.
line for coffin bread
Queuing up for coffin bread

making of coffin bread
The making of coffin bread

To make coffin toast, basically an extra thick slice of bread is buttered and deep-fried, and then scissors are used to cut a little flap in the bread. You pick your filling (from vegetable chowder, to crab chili, to satay beef) and it gets ladled into the bread and the flap is closed. Then you just eat your fried, oozy piece of bread like a sandwich…and then order another. The coffin bread place we frequented was at the Zhiqiang night market in Hualien and seemed to be quite famous because it had a long line of customers all night long and was doing a booming assembly line style business of churning out coffin breads.
coffin bread And the name? So called because the bread is like a coffin, closing its lid over the filling. And we definitely laid a couple of these toasts to rest in our stomachs…

Shaved ice

After all the savory snacks at the night markets, shaved ice is a classic Taiwanese dessert to finish. Ice cream and sorbet is frozen into giant blocks, and once you pick your flavors, it’s literally shaved off into your cup.  Some places have pre-sliced slabs and put them into a food processor type machine that dices them up into flakes.  There’s usually an endless array of syrups and jellies and fruits as toppings, or it’s delicious just plain, as seen below.
shaved ice
ice blocks
Shaved ice in blocks, pre-shaving

Steamed buns and dumplings

Steamed buns, aka bao, were one of our go-to breakfasts or anytime snacks in Taiwan (and also during our mainland China trip). These fluffy buns are found at dumpling shops, dim sum shops, bakeries, and just steaming on the side of the road all over the place. The inside is usually filled with sweet pork, and they’re delicious with or without soy sauce. I’m salivating just writing about them right now…
dumpling shop
We also enjoyed chowing down on some of the cheap dumplings found at similar shops, with either pork or vegetarian fillings, and just the right concoction of soy sauce, chili, and vinegar for dipping.

Hall of shame

Of course, some mishaps are inevitable when traveling in Taiwan without speaking or reading Chinese. Although we generally found a greater amount of English spoken in our day to day interactions (in Taipei and Hualien) than when traveling around mainland China, there were still plenty of situations where we had to rely on the gesture and smile form of communication.

We had a free trial of an app called WayGo (worth investing in the paid version for a longer trip in Taiwan or China), with which you can literally use your phone camera to scan Chinese text and offer a translation. Considering the difficulty of translating without any context, the app actually does a pretty good job, and we used it at a few places where there was no English menu or English spoken.

But unfortunately, the app did not differentiate between different types of eggs, which is how we ended up with tofu covered in this black, gelatinous substance, and topped with flossy pork (tofu with egg sounded like such a harmless order).
century egg
Century egg all over a slab of tofu, topped with ‘flossy pork,’ on the right

The black is the yolk of a Century Egg—a Chinese delicacy, which is an egg that has been preserved in a mud/rice/ash/salt mixture for weeks to months. The egg turns black, tastes pungent and smells somewhat of ammonia. Although acquainted with Century Eggs from elsewhere in Asia, I have not learned to like them, so was disappointed to find one oozing all over our tofu.

Have a glance at these foods and more in my quick Taiwan food video:

For more on traveling in Taiwan, check out my post on our Top Ten Taiwan favorites.

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Taiwan Top 10

Taiwan Top Ten Title

Taiwan was exactly what everyone told me it would be—a surprise.   That seems completely contradictory, but before visiting, what I’d heard from my few friends and acquaintances who had visited, was: “You’ll be surprised how much you love it and that you never thought to visit sooner.”

And this is exactly what happened. After just 6 days in Taiwan, trusty travel companion A and I left the country wondering why it isn’t on more people’s travel bucket lists. Is it because it’s so small? Because people get confused about whether it’s a part of China? Because everyone disagrees about its status as an independent state?

love taiwan

But this is all irrelevant: GO. HIKE. EAT. EXPLORE. We thought that our quick 6-day holiday would be the perfect time to visit because it’s such a small country (about the size of Maryland), but the truth is that we could have easily spent all 6 days in Taipei alone (we ended up squeezing in 4 days in Taipei, one of which was a daytrip to Yehliu, and 2 days just south in Hualien (home to beaches and Taroko Gorge), and we left feeling as though there were far more things we wanted to do that we missed out on (to name a few: the Teapot Mountain hike, bullet trains, Taitung).

So what did we love about Taiwan? Perhaps rather than narrating our whole trip, a list would say it best.

coffin bread vendor

1. Food. Okay, okay, it’s cliché, and it’s also one of my favorite things about every single trip I take, but clichés exist for a reason, right? The street food scene in Taipei is superb. Night markets are abundant in every city, and they each have some of the same delicious foods, in addition to regional specialties. Unlike in other parts of Asia, these markets are not just grimy streetside stalls where you grab takeaway, these are places to browse, play arcade games, see and be seen. Teenagers stroll around on dates, people walk their designer dogs in strollers, trendy clothing shops open their doors late for shopping while snacking. And the food is inexpensive, so you can come hungry and try a little bit of everything. Some of our favorites were the Taiwanese classics: coffin bread, fried chicken, and stinky tofu. I even made a video paying tribute to Taiwanese food. It probably deserves a post of its own (coming soon). (Night markets visited: Xinyi Anhe and Shilin in Taipei and Zhiqiang in Hualien.
night market 2. Bubble tea. Can I count this as a separate thing from food? I drank (at least) one every day of the trip, so I think yes. The milkiness of the tea, the squishiness of the bubbles, getting to choose your sugar percentage, breaking the giant straw through the plastic seal, the endless varieties and flavors…I just love the whole bubble tea experience. bubble tea menu

3. Taipei. I can imagine living in this city. While I love a lot of cities I’ve visited, I wouldn’t say that about many of them. It’s a big city booming with life, arts, music, food, events, culture, shopping…but also polite, efficient, natural, clean, and environmentally-conscious. On our first evening in the city we walked up Elephant Hill (Xiangshan) at dusk for an amazing panorama of the city and Taipei 101 (once the tallest building in the world, until Dubai’s Burj Khalifa took that title in 2010) watching the sun set.
4. Transportation. Clean, quiet, fast, convenient, easy. In part, living in Laos for so many years has made me appreciate any form of public transportation, but I think even without the inconveniences of living in a developing country, I would still appreciate Taiwanese transport. The subway is clean and efficient and connects almost everywhere, while trains and buses can connect everywhere else outside of Taipei. In Taipei, you can be in a big city, but take the bus only 30 minutes to an hour and suddenly be on the beach, or hiking. You can book train tickets online and then print them out at any 7-11 and hop on the clean, quiet, fast and inexpensive trains south a couple hours and you’re in another city.
taiwan train 5. Roadtripping. Driving around (on two or four wheels) is one of our favorite ways to travel, because we can stop for snacks, or photo ops or side adventures whenever we want. Plus, travel is boring without the near-death experiences, close calls, fear of getting lost, and arguments that come with roadtripping (this is only half a joke). We originally wanted to rent a car to drive from Taipei to the south, but neither of us had up to date international driver’s licenses and Taiwan doesn’t accept home country licenses, so we were out of luck. We still wanted to get a motorbike for driving around Hualien, but only barely managed to do this without an international license, by looking sad and explaining to the man at the shop that we both owned motorbikes and I had been driving one for five years, and proving it to him by driving his bike up and down the road “better than he expected.” So in the end we still got this stylish electric-powered ride pictured below and scooted around Taroko Gorge. (Traveler’s tip: renew or get an international license before coming if you want to roadtrip!)
taiwan motorbike
6. Culture. Taiwan’s culture is fascinating—at first glance it is obviously very Chinese, but we visited shortly after our three week trip through mainland China (blog posts coming soon!) and in many ways it feels completely different than China. Taiwan has in some ways a very Japanese vibe, which makes sense as it was once a Japanese colony. At the same time, it seems to have aspects of Pacific island culture, as it has its own indigenous people with a very distinctive island culture.
taroko temple
7. The cute and artsy aesthetic. I just loved the “cuteness” of Taiwan. And not necessarily the pop-cartoony Hello Kitty variety of cute, but just the sense of aesthetics and attention that seems to go into spaces, like all of the hostels and guesthouses where we stayed. I guess I’m a sucker for the Taiwanese hipster style.
taiwan chic
8. Coasts. From the rocky outcroppings of the north at Yehliu, to the light sandy tropical-looking coastline at Hualien, every bit of Taiwan’s coastline that we saw was gorgeous. I wish we had more time to travel north to south, but that will have to be next time. I had no idea there was water and sand like this in Taiwan, though!
yehliu coast
9. Taroko Gorge. Taroko is a National Park 45 minutes from Hualien, best known for its scenic marble gorge. We were there on an overcast rainy day and it still was gorgeous, and we didn’t even have time to do any the hikes that we wanted, so it definitely would be worth a two day visit (at least if you’re like us and spend half your day sleeping in, eating dumplings and taking a side trip to the Cingshui Cliffs). We just rode our rented scooter from one end of the gorge to the other with a map guiding us to all of the shrines most scenic spots along the way. There is such heavy tour bus traffic on the road through the park that I wouldn’t recommend it for a beginner motorbike driver.
10. Yehliu. On our second day in Taipei, we took the bus 90 minutes out of town to the northern coast to visit a little town called Yehliu, known for its Geological Park, a natural playground of interesting rock formations created by erosion over time. Different shapes have names, based on what they look like—Mushroom Rocks, Candles, the Princess, the Love Heart, the Dragon, and so on. One, the Queen’s Head, so named because someone decided it looked like the profile of the young Queen Elizabeth, has become so famous that there is actually a guard monitoring a line to take photos by it one by one to keep people under control. It’s an extremely touristy place, which was overrun by masses of umbrella-wielding senior citizen tour groups from mainland China when we visited, but quirky and interesting enough for an afternoon’s excursion.
candle rocks

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Four Days in Maafushi, Maldives: Part Two

This is the final post in a series on a trip to Maafushi, Maldives back in April.  Read more about the cost of budget travel in the Maldives, and about the first half of our trip.

The morning after our night fishing excursion and following a hearty Maldivian breakfast (chapatti with potato curry and tea), we took an excursion to a sandbank. The water around many of the islands in the Maldives is so shallow (fun fact: the Maldives is the world’s ‘lowest’ nation with an average elevation of only 4ft 11in above sea level!), that sometimes at low tide small sandbanks are exposed, and you can picnic on what looks and feels like your very own ‘private island’—until the tide comes in. We packed some snacks, snorkels, and sunscreen (essential!) and set off in the hotel speedboat for about 15 minutes until we reached an exposed sandbank on which to set up our cooler and umbrella.

sandbank Sandbank paradise

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Four Days in Maafushi, Maldives: Part One

Back in April, we took the plunge to go on the ‘impossible’ budget excursion to the Maldives during a trip to Sri Lanka.  (For more on costs on non-resort islands of the Maldives, have a look at my previous post.)  After two initial days in Colombo, Sri Lanka, we woke up at 4:30am to head to the airport, eager to see something like this:
classic maldives

The main airport of the Maldives is actually on its own island (one of nearly 1200 islands that make up the small nation). A short 15-minute ferry ride away is the capital city island of Malé, which is basically made up of a big city, the only really big city in the country (but still only around 150,000 people). There are only a few attractions in Malé: a mosque (the Maldives are a majority Muslim country), some museums, a man-made beach…but these are far overshadowed by the beauty of the other islands, so we didn’t set aside any time for exploring and instead got a taxi directly to the Maafushi ferry terminal.

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Happy Holidays

Happy holidays! See Think Explore is going on a hiatus while vacationing in the Philippines.  Stay tuned for new places and photos in 2017!

Photo: Hamburg, Germany, January 2017.

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Daily Photo: Floating Market

Bangkok, Thailand, December 2016.

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Daily Photo: Hokitika Local

Hokitika, New Zealand, December 2015

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Daily Photo: Floating Market Snack Vendors

Bangkok, Thailand, December 2016.

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Daily Photo: Khlong Boat

Bangkok, Thailand, December 2016.

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Daily Photo: Bangkok Lotus Pool

Bangkok, Thailand, December 2016.

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Daily Photo: Thai Lunch Cooking

Bangkok, Thailand, December 2016.

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Daily Photo: Main Square, Shangri-La

Shangri La, Yunnan, China, August 2015.

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Daily Photo: The Warmth of Sunrise

Siem Reap, Cambodia, March 2016.

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Daily Photo: An Bang Boats

circle boats
Hoi An, Vietnam, March 2013.

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