#Taiwanderlust: Discovering the Underrated Asian Dragon

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It’s only been half a year since Taiwan has opened up and relaxed its visa rules for its Asia Pacific neighbors, and already we’re seeing a surge in tourists arrivals in Taipei.

In 2016 alone, there was a 25% spike in the number of Filipinos who visited this island-nation barely the size of Luzon. These were 172,475 visitors from the Philippines, according to the Taiwan Tourism Bureau.

It is quite the same number of Filipinos either residing in Taiwan or working in manufacturing factories or industrial offices there, Taiwan Ambassador Gary Song-Huann Lin said in an interview.

Thanks to the Taiwanese government’s New Southbound Policy which has made visa applications electronic, and thus easier. This foreign affairs policy shift “calls for the development of comprehensive relations with ASEAN, South Asia, and Australia and New Zealand, while promoting regional exchanges and collaborations,” according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Taiwan.

Taiwan is surely a destination you should dare not miss, especially with cheap fares available from local airlines and affordable hostel rooms in Taipei. So for the millennials taken over by wanderlust or otherwise, Taiwan must be on your bucket list. Here are five pointers to remember when you travel to this underrated Republic.

1. Geography

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The tall and proud Taipei 101 as seen from the nearby Elephant Mountain, with the mountainous topography of Taiwan on the background.

Taiwan is a mountainous island nation with warm summers and mild winters. Half of its area is covered by forests as you will observe from the usual tourist destinations in and outside of Taipei.

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The northeast of the capital Taipei kissing the Pacific Ocean, taken atop Jiufen, the inspiration behind the beloved fantasy film Spirited Away.

The best time to visit Taiwan is springtime or during the first quarter of the year when temperature can reach around 10°C or cooler.

2. Politics

Politics is a sensitive issue for the Taiwanese. Before the turn of the 20th century, the island, previously under the tutelage of Mainland China, has been ceded to Japan after it won the Sino-Japanese War. But four decades past, the US placed Taiwan once a again under Chinese administrative control after Japan surrendered during the World War 2.

Then in 1949 Nationalist Party leader Chiang Kai-Shek lost in the civil war against the communist forces of Mao Zedong and fled to Taiwan, which Chiang Kai-Shek ruled until his death in 1975.

To commemorate the beloved nationalist leader, a monument in a vast and grand memorial hall was built in the 1980’s.

With the mighty influence of the People’s Republic of China, other nations including the Philippines have to be politically sensitive and creative in dealing with the Two-China conundrum—for decades now Malacañan has maintained the One-China stance. This is the very reason why the People’s Republic of China maintains an embassy in Manila, while the Republic of Taiwan, on other hand, has a Taipei Economic and Cultural Office.

Back in their home, the Taiwanese take pride in their rich heritage and history through the extensive collection of Chinese arts and artifacts totaling to 700,000—taken by Chiang Kai-Shek to Taiwan and now housed in the National Palace Museum.

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Taiwan’s National Palace Museum houses less than a million pieces of ancient Chinese artworks and artifacts.

Until today, Beijing considers Taipei as a rebel government which only adds heat over the question of democracy and independence. In fact it was only in 2014 that China and Taiwan held their first government-to-government talks.

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Official colors of the People’s Republic of China put up side by side Republic of China’s in a protest rally in front of the malls at Ximending, which is Taipei’s shopping district.

3. Religion

The Taiwanese tend to be eclectic when it comes to religion. Taoism and Buddhism are the principal faith in the island, while there are also Christians, Muslims and Protestants. Everywhere in Taiwan there are temples, and visitors should be sensitive enough not to disturb the faithful during prayers.

4. Culture

With the majority of the population being descendants of immigrants from mainland China, the modern Taiwanese society is heavily influenced by Chinese culture and tradition. Many are speakers of Fukien and Mandarin, and, compared with the neighboring cities in the region, many too are fluent in English.

All around Taipei there are English signages which is not the case in other areas outside the city. Nevertheless, it is easier to navigate with the gentle Taiwanese always ready to help.

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These young students gladly obliged to help this author onto his next destination. They even got out of their way to lead me and my cousin to a provincial bus station in Kaoshiung.

The modern Taiwanese culture too offers gastronomical delights some of which would not be found in the conventional Chinese menu.

Whether it’s the usual 2N3D-trip, it’s insane to miss out on the charming old street of Jiufen, reachable either by train or taxi from Taipei.

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Colorful lanterns fronting Ruifang station, a gateway to the mountainous towns of Jiufen and Shifen.
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Entrance to the Jiufen Old Street
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Teashops like this one line up the narrow alleyways of the old Jiufen street.
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Breathtaking view of the Pacific from the northeastern coast of Taiwan

Factories and industrial complex converted to creative parks are in abundance in Taipei, same with heritage villages like this one in Lugang Township—an hour or two bus ride from the port city of Kaoshiung, which lies in Southern Taiwan.

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5. Economy

A Filipino visitor in Taipei would be amazed how less than a two-hour travel from Manila can spell a huge difference in terms of everything—considering the Taiwanese economy being among the Four Asian Tigers, or the highly-developed Asian nations along with Hong Kong, Korea and Singapore; while the Philippines remains a developing nation and still lags as the Fifth Asian Tiger.

The Philippines shares a very similar political-economic post-war history with Taiwan, with both countries delving on the import-substitution economy—tapping local businesses to aid in the war recovery but with the state remaining as the lead economic player. No doubt Taiwan has succeeded in their national industrialization experiment, which the Philippines, unfortunately, failed to do.

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Taipei’s map painted on a wall of hostel called Meander
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A crossing in the Ximending District
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Shoppers, commuters and protesters in downtown Ximending

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Milk tea stores are practically everywhere in Taipei.
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There are five city-train lines in Taipei connecting several districts to each other and to provincial high-speed trains as well.
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Paintings on exhibit in the subway
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This charming train station serves as a park and a major bus stop leading to the Beitou hotspring and the National Palace Museum.
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Trees and plants usually adorn the wide roads in Taipei.
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The Taiwanese surely love breads and pastries too.
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Gardens in front of the National Palace Museum
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The post-modern architecture of the Taipei 101, with its 101 floors and an observatory deck, best symbolizes Taiwan as an Asian Dragon.
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A green park greets visitors and locals alike heading to the Elephant Mountain from Xiangshan train station.
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Posh condos and offices at the foot of the Elephant Mountain
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Green spaces are abundant in Taipei which reflects the Taoist way of living in harmony with nature.

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One of the best views of Taipei atop Elephant Mountain, which, with 900 steps, visitors could hike in less than an hour.

Some two decades ago or in early 2000, most Filipinos knew Taiwan only because of the Asian teenage drama Meteor Gardenwhich incidentally will have a remake come 2018. Back then the island seemed to be a boring Asian destination only for Filipinos seeking greener pastures.

But the time is ripe to explore, understand and to learn from our closest neighbor and possible ally—separated only by the Bashi Channel—to which we share the same ancestry and history.

Starting June 1, Filipino tourists could visit Taiwan visa-free. Meantime, for Filipinos traveling soon, getting a tourist visa can be done in a brisk if you hold a visa issued by Australia, Canada, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, any of the Schengen countries, the United Kingdom, or the United States. You may apply here to get your e-visa.

[Entry 215, The SubSelfie Blog]

About the Author:

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Toni Tiemsin is SubSelfie.com‘s EIC.

After his five-year stint in GMA News producing and writing investigative reports, feature segments, scripts for various newscasts, and hourly and breaking-news programs, he is now with the Public Relations realm of Ogilvy & Mather as Media Relations Manager.

Previously, he was in the development sector working as Media and Communications Officer of children’s rights group Save the Children. Journalism 2009, UP Diliman. Read more of his articles here.

For more photos of his trips in Taiwan and elsewhere, check out his Instagram.

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