After spending a few days in Taipai, we started to look at options for other places to visit in Taiwan, and how to get there.
What to do after Taipei?
While we soon found many places we wanted to go, getting between then was proving to be more difficult. There are no trains that cross Taiwan from east to west over the mountains, which was really frustrating as one place we wanted to visit was Sun Moon Lake, which you access via the west coast, and Taroko Gorge, which is on the east coast. We also found out that there is no bus route between these two places, which is crazy as they’re both big tourist attractions.
We figured out that we’d have to get a train from Taipei (in the north) down to Taroko Gorge, then back up to Taipei a few days later in order to get another train down the west coast, then catch a bus to Sun Moon Lake.
We resigned ourselves to this, annd went to book train tickets… the process of which confused us so much that we gave up in frustration. No trains seemed to have seats free, and the website was endlessly confusing. We were stuck. What on earth were we going to do for 6 days before flying to Japan?
Eventually, I searched online for organised tours around the island and found some options. We decided on a 5 day tour circumnavigating Taiwan, taking us to Sun Moon Lake, Kaohsiung, Kenting National Park, The East Coast National Scenic Area, and Taroko Gorge. It looked pertfect… especially when we got to stay in 5 star hotels along the way.
The only problem was the price… with the cost of the tour plus food, we figured we’d be spending almost double our daily £50 budget, something we hadn’t done since New Zealand, and didn’t expect to be doing again.
In the end, we decided to book the tour departing the next day and just go for it. The tour looked like it covered all the best parts of Taiwan, plus a little luxury at night was definitely welcome. The last 6 months in hostels and a camper van had been lots of fun, but we’re luxury travellers at heart, so it was time to treat ourselves!
Sun Moon Lake
The first stop on our bus tour was the beautiful Sun Moon Lake in the heart of Taiwan’s central mountain range. By the time we got there we were already glad we’d booked the tour as the guide had given us loads of information and insight into Taiwan on the journey. So far, so good!
Once we got to the lake, we stopped in Ita Thao Village for lunch and a boat tour before heading to Ci’en Pagoda for incredible views across the lake. The climb up to the pagoda wasn’t much fun in 32 C and 100% humidity but the 1000 steps and the steep hillside climb were worth it for the beautiful view.
After reaching the top of the hill, there was still another six or seven flights of stairs up to the top of the pagoda, but luckily we were there on a fairly clear day and managed to get incredible views of the lake and surrounding mountains.
I couldn’t believe how green Taiwan was. Before we came here, if I thought of Taiwan at all, I’d think of sky scrapers and city lights, industry and manufacturing. In reality, Taiwan is predominantly green.
After working off our lunch with the pagoda climb, we headed to Wenwu Temple, where our guide gave us some insight into Taoist and Buddhist prayers and temple rituals, then spent some time looking round the temple and once again taking in the amazing lake view. In the picture below you can just see Ci’en Pagoda on the left hand side, at the top of the big hill.
That night we stayed in Fleur De Chine Hotel, which is right on the lake. It was voted the best hotel in Taiwan for a number of years. It blew our tiny minds. The bathtub filled up with water from the natural hot springs and had floor to ceiling windows overlooking the lake and mountains. The toilet was one of those cool Japanese ones with a million buttons… one even blow-dried your bum. It was a highlight.
We definitely looked out of place with our backpacks and backpacker clothes, scanning the dinner menu for the cheapest items… luckily the minibar was free so we cleaned it out, as well as munching our way through the welcome snack pack that was on our bed.
Next stop on the tour was the city of Kaohsiung, right down the west coast. We visited the Drangon & Tiger Pagodas on Lotus Lake. Unfortunately it was pissing down with rain most of the day so the views weren’t amazing, but we made the most of it and still plodded up to the top of the Dragon Pagoda for a look out over the lake and the city.
To be honest, I thought the big dragon and tiger looked a bit tacky, more like something you’d find at a theme park than a lake, but the buildings themselves were beautiful.
After that we had a little walk further along the lake to the pavilion we saw from the top of the pagoda for a quick look. By this point, no one from our tour was anywhere to be found – I think the rain had them all retreating to the dry, air conditioned bus. One of the things we liked about the tour was that we weren’t all herded like sheep from one place to the next, following a tour guide’s bobbing umbrella. Instead, the guide told us a time to be back and gave us the freedom to head off on our own, with him sticking around to answer questions and give more info as needed.
By the time we arrived at Kaohsiung’s Liuhe Night Market that evening, the rain had finally stopped. After our first experience of a night market in Taipei, we weren’t very enthusiastic to try more street food, but Eric the tour guide came through again and recommended what to try and what to avoid.
Good old Eric, what a star! This time we enjoyed the night market much more, trying some amazing BBQ chicken which we both thought was the best chicken we’ve ever tasted. We then got some pepper cakes, which are gorgeous doughy balls filled with peppery pork or cheese. OMG, best thing ever.
Blakey also got a Taiwanese hot dog, which is a sausage in a bun made of rice. The rice has a skin around it like a sausage, keeping it in a hot dog shape. The pork sausage goes inside the rice bun, along with pickles and lots of hot sauce. He said it was delicious.
So, finally, we had some success with our night markets! It definitely encouraged us to try more throughout our travels, and also to research food suggestions beforehand so we go prepared.
The next day brought a visit to Fo Guang Shan Buddhist Monastery just outside the city, which is one of the most famous places of worship in Taiwan. The sheer scale of the place blew us away – the years of work that must have gone in to building it! It was built to hold a sacred relic of the Buddha, and was a mine of information on Buddhism and the life of the Buddha. It’s a very peaceful, quiet place that left me feeling thoughtful – the efforts people go to for religion isn’t something I can relate to, but I came away with a better understanding of Buddhism and it’s peaceful precepts of good words, good thoughts, good deeds.
We both felt very happy to have booked the tour by this point – the monastery isn’t somewhere we would have gone to by ourselves, but was definitely one of the best places we’d visited in Taiwan.
East Coast Scenic Area
Day four of the tour was a bit of a nothing kind of day – getting from the south of the island up to Taroko Gorge was quite a trek. The day mostly involved sitting on the bus looking at the (admittedly spectacular) views of the winding coastal road out our windows.
They let us out a few times for a photo stop and a walk to stretch our legs, but it was really a travel day. The best stop was at Sanxiantai Island, going over the dragon bridge to explore the boardwalks through the dense bushland, where I managed to get sunburn. Fail.
We were rewarded at the end of the long day’s travelling with the first sight of Taroko Gorge, a 19km long canyon on the east coast of Taiwan. If you’re in Taipei for a long weekend, I would definitely suggest doing a day trip to Taroko, it is nature at it’s most dramatic. Sheer cliffs, cloud topped mountains and swirling water over solid marble. It’s very nice.
We’d made it to the gorge in time to fit in a walk along the canyon – the Swallow Grotto Trail. So called because of the holes in the canyon wall where the swallows make their nests.
We had to wear hard hats for walking along the canyon just in case a stray rock fell down and cracked us on the head. There were two girls walking in front of us not wearing hats as they didn’t want their selfies to be ruined. Anything for the ‘gram.
We reached our hotel for the night – the Silk Place. We were once again in total luxury, ruining hostels for us forever. The Silk Place is the only hotel right in the heart of the national park, and they definitely make the most of their location by having a swimming pool and hot tubs on the roof so you can relax in the tub, surrounded by mountains.
In the morning we continued to explore the national park, walking a trail which had been closed for years for repairs, only re-opening a month ago. We also stopped at a scary suspension bridge spanning the canyon, and the beautiful Enternal Springs Shine, built in 1958 to commemorate the 212 workers who died building the Cross-Island Highway which snakes it’s way through Taroko Gorge.
Touring through Taiwan – is it worth it?
If you go to Taiwan and only see Taipei, you’ve missed out. Taipei gives you one side of Taiwan, but there’s so much more to see. It’s really a country of huge contrasts – the hectic city with it’s ancient temples like calm pools is a small part. On a bigger scale you have the busy, tech-heavy land known for it’s manufacturing, but when you explore further you find vast green mountains and dramatic coastlines.
Sun Moon Lake and Taroko Gorge are easy day trips from Taipei, but if you want to see more then be prepared – Taiwan is not easy for backpackers to get around, especially if you have a time limit.