Lifestyle / travel

Taiwan: Asia’s small but charming giant


Our bus was running on the freeway, half past six in the evening but the sky was still clear with yellow clouds floating aimlessly just above the forested peaks bordering the highways. I’ve lost count of the numbers of tunnels we’ve passed through. Taiwanese government had obviously invested heavily on road networks and transportation infrastructure even in rural areas.

Albert, our tour guide, suddenly stole my attention away from the verdant view from my window.

“The song you’re hearing was sung by the Ami Tribe. They perform this song during harvesting season,” he said in his unmistakably Chinese accent.

It was fascinating that the song was the same exact chant in Enigma’s “Return to the Innocent.” I didn’t know it was an aboriginal Taiwanese original. A quick search on Google said the tribe actually sued the band for copyright infringement — just one of the things we didn’t know about our little neighbor.

Kaohsiung skyline with 85 Sky Tower, the city’s tallest structure, on the foreground

Back to the view outside the window, the sky gradually hinted nighttime but the green mountains were still visible, and with the song playing in the background you could feel yourself like you’re in an Enya music video. A few minutes more and we’re back in Taipei.

In Taiwan, it’s easy to calculate travel time. When someone said you would get to your destination in five minutes, you’ll get there in five minutes or even less. Thanks to its efficient mass transport system, traffic congestion is hardly visible even on its capital’s busiest artery.

On our first morning in Taipei, Albert told us we needed to meet at the hotel lobby at 7:30. We had to get to Taipei High Speed Rail Station (THSR) before 8:30 because the bullet train would leave at 8:31.

When we got to the train platform, I checked the clock, the train arrived at 8:28 and in less than three minutes we we’re on our way to Kaoshiung, a one-and-a-half-hour bullet train ride that would take more than five hours by car.

A bullet train at Taiwan High Speed Rail Station (THSR) travels at the speed of 300 kph

A local once told me that domestic flights started to become unpopular choice to travel since THSR started operation in 2007. Taiwanese also began traveling more often from one city to another than ever before.

“It’s easy to reserve seats, you can do it at any 24-hour convenient store,” the local said.

But, Taiwan is not just all about speed and massive structures. They also consider their infrastructure’s aesthetic value. Take the Kaohsiung MRT Formosa Boulevard Station for instance. The city’s mass transit is known for its “Dome of Light”, the largest glasswork of its kind. The enormous centerpiece of the three-level subway was designed by Italian artist Narcissus Quagliata and was named one of the most beautiful subway stations in the world. Its entrance alone is already visually striking resembling a pair of hands clasped in prayer.

While the country’s capital is popular for its cosmopolitan atmosphere, bustling night markets, and the impressive Taipei 101, Kaohsiung on the other hand, which is home to 2.7 Taiwanese, is a fascinating mishmash of the old and the new, of Buddhism, magnificent temples, and fascinating street art.

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Ximending Shopping District in Taipei

The port city is famous for its warehouse complex located near the harbor called Pier-2 Art Center where visitors can marvel at street installations and old warehouses converted into museum and art centers.

Oasis of peace

The city is also the headquarters of Fo Guang Shan Buddha Memorial Center, located in Dashu District. The Buddhist monastery is the largest in Taiwan and covers more than 100 hectares.

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“It can take you two days just to see everything here. So, today we’ll just stay here for two hours and visit the museum and the Big Buddha,” our tour guide, hired by Jeron Travel and Tours Corp., said referring to the magnificent 108m-tall Fo Guang Shan Big Buddha, which is equivalent to the height of a 36-storey building.

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Another attraction in the city is the Lotus Pond, a man-made lake which features dozens temples, pavilions and pagodas including the prominent Dragon and Tiger Pagodas, a two seven-story pagodas guarded by crouching tiger and dragon statues. Visitors enter through the dragon’s mouth into a tunnel (inside the dragon’s body) with walls embellished with carvings.

TOURIST ATTRACTION. Tourism is one the highlights of Taiwan Expo 2017, happening at the SMX Convention Center from Sept. 29 to Oct. 1. Here is The Dragon and Tiger Pagodas, a popular landmark among tourists in Zuoying District, Kaohsiung City.

“Visitors exit via the mouth of the tiger for good luck,” Albert said during the tour.

After going around Taiwan’s maritime capital, our group headed to the country’s oldest city called Tainan, which is some 50 kilometers from the port city of Kaoshiung.

There, we met with a Filipino musician and composer Edgar Macapili who is now an adopted son of the Siraya Tribe after marrying a member of the indigenous tribe 20 years ago.

Siraya is one of the 17 indigenous tribes in Taiwan but it hasn’t been officially recognized. Macapili and his wife are exerting all their efforts to get recognized so they could build centers to revitalize and introduce their culture to many.

“This place is home to cultural activists and they promote their culture and let the society know that Siraya people still exist,” Macapili referring to Siraya Scenic Area where clusters of the Siraya Tribe communities are located.

“Dome of Light”, the largest glasswork of its kind is the enormous centerpiece of a three-level subway was designed by Italian artist Narcissus Quagliata and was named one of the most beautiful subway stations in the world.

Taiwanese culture is a blend of Confucianist Han Chinese and Taiwanese aborigine cultures. And they’re proud of it. Hence, indigenous tribes are being recognized by the government and are given the opportunity to revitalize their language and culture by setting up centers where they can preserve their history for the next generations to come.

Feels like home

From Tainan we headed to Sun Moon Lake in Taichung, which is probably Taiwan’s version of Tagaytay. From its terrain to architecture of edifices surrounding the body of water, the province resembles the chilly destination of Manileños back home. And interestingly, the merchandises sold at its local market are the same items you can buy in Baguio like the “barrel man,” phallic carvings, and the woven fabric we thought only exclusive to Ifugaos.

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Explanation to these similarities can also be found right at Wen Wu temple located on the perimeter of Sun Moon Lake in Yuchi Township. The temple sits on the mountaintop at an altitude of 954 meters, giving visitors the best view of the area. At the entrance of the temple, there’s a concrete map that depicts how Taiwanese ancestors traveled by foot just exactly how aboriginal people reached Philippines using land bridges.

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“These connections between the Philippines and Taiwan are still visible up to these days. We have similar cultures and that makes easy for Taiwanese and Filipinos blend and interact,” Representative Gary Song-Huann Lin of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office told Manila Standard in Manila a few days before our trip.

Stronger ties

More than their weather (Taiwan is as humid as the Philippines and both countries share the same struggle being visited by the same typhoons during the rainy season) and culture, both countries have a significant bilateral relationship. For one, the Philippines is the 10th biggest trade partner and the eighth biggest export market to Taiwan.

In terms of tourism, the number of Taiwanese visiting the Philippines in the first five months of 2017 rose 20 percent from the previous year, making Taiwan the Philippines’ 5th largest source of overseas visitors, according to the latest data from the Department of Tourism. On the other hand, in 2016, 170,000 Filipinos visited Taiwan, up from the 130,000 in 2015 according to Mr. Lin.

A visit to Taiwan would not be complete without a stop at night markets. Taipei in particular, is home to massive food halls and shopping districts popular to locals and tourists alike.

In these respects, and as part of 2016 Southbound policy announced by Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen, which aims to strengthen the Taiwanese economy and its relations with the member-states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), South Asia, Australia, and New Zealand, Taiwan External Trade Development Council (TAITRA) and Taiwan Association Inc., are holding the Taiwan Expo in Manila on Sept. 29 to Oct. 1 at the SMX Convention Center.

According to Taiwan Association Inc. president Allan Lin and its honorary president Seimo Huang, the expo will be a significant platform to promote “mutual beneficial partnership” between the two countries.

Standing tall at more than 1400 feet, Taipei 101 is not just a landmark but also a symbol of modern and progressive Taiwan

Eight themed pavilions will be on display to train the spotlight on industries covering agriculture and fisheries, tourism, technology, education, and green energy.

“We want to encourage more Filipinos to visit Taiwan. We want to underscore our similarities as neighbors and what Filipinos can enjoy in our country apart from finding job opportunities. We may be a small as a nation but you’ll see that Taiwan is big in so many ways,” Lin concluded.

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