Surfing, rafting and fumbling with chopsticks in Taiwan

Surfing, rafting and fumbling with chopsticks in Taiwan
PHOTO: AsiaOne

"You are going to Taiwan? But you don't look Chinese you know," exclaimed most family members and friends when they heard of my trip there.

What they did not know was that I was actually aware that I am Indian. I had stumbled upon this discovery the first time I looked into a mirror.

I was also aware that the language barrier reduced my otherwise high chances of assimilation into Taiwan.

Thankfully, I was willing to look past these details as the itinerary looked like it was worth a shot.

From bamboo rafting to surfing, and even a hot air balloon ride, the trip seemed both refreshing and fun.

It was a side of Taiwan that was not commonly known. I was eager to journey there. And then I realised, I had to fly there on a Hello Kitty plane.

Colleagues of mine, who are die-hard fans of Hello Kitty, had not taken up the trip due to time constraints or fear of the above mentioned activities.

But I was the complete opposite. I could never have pictured myself flying in a themed plane, let alone one themed after Hello Kitty.

Suddenly the language barrier seemed daunting, and the tasks seemed dangerous. However, I still decided to go through with it.

It was a four hour flight, and I told myself I would sleep through it. Boy, was I wrong, and not just about sleeping on the plane.

Multiple airlines offer flights to Taiwan. But EVA Air proves unique in offering trips in a Hello Kitty themed plane.

We were scheduled to fly on the inaugural flight of EVA Air's Hello Kitty Shining Star Jet. The effort put into designing the plane seems meticulous.

The seat covers, pillows and almost everything on board had images of Hello Kitty, My Melody or Little Twin Stars Kiki and Lala on it.

The children's meals were shaped in the form of the famous character. Even the toilet had toilet paper and soap bottles that were in keeping with the plane's theme.

From pretending to drop their cutlery to get a new set, to trying to stuff the pillow in their hand-carry luggage, some of the passengers could have passed off as international spies.

That is, if they weren't so focused on an imaginary character. But their enthusiasm had a deep-rooted reason. After all, this character is worldwide phenomenon.

They gave out Hello Kitty themed toy models of the plane during the flight. They also gave out stress balls, which were more fitting gifts for someone like me.

My journey was not entirely about the plane ride. With a little help from my travel companions, Taiwan proved to be an unforgettable experience.

Honesty

Before my trip, more than a few friends highlighted the honest and helpful nature of the Taiwanese people.

Frankly, I thought this was an opinion people had derived thanks to a great Fun Taiwan tourism campaign.

But an incident I witnessed during a visit to the Raohe Street Night Market changed my view on this matter.

We were walking past a stall selling hotdogs when a friend tried to purchase some of the aforementioned food item.

However, the stall owner simply waved her away. The people in my tour group were annoyed by this unexplained action.

A Taiwan resident who was accompanying us on our visit to the night market decided to talk to the stall owner to make sense of the incident.

She discovered that the owner had been turning customers away as he had realised that the entire batch of hotdog meat he had purchased had gone bad.

So instead of doing business as usual, the owner spent some time telling customers that the hotdogs were not for sale.

He then went to the adjacent stall to help his friend out. A large pile of hotdog meat was still lying unattended at his stall.

That is an entire night's sales which this man had abandoned, simply because he did not want to sell sub-par food to his customers.

Yet, such incidents are no big deal to Taiwan citizens. Perhaps we should send the shop owners and staff from Sim Lim and People's Park for training there.

 

Bamboo rafting

Most people think of night markets and great food when someone mentions Taiwan. Sure, those are appealing.

But heading off the usual track will bring you to rare gems hidden within the more rural areas of Taiwan.

Nestled cosily in Taitung's Donghe Township is a place where you can try your hand at bamboo rafting.

Rafting might bring up images of a person struggling against the current and extreme fitness requirements.

However, bamboo rafting is done on a slow river, and requires little effort. Trust me, if I can do it, just about anyone else can pull it off as well.

And the scenic view more than makes up for the physical activity. It does take a few tries at paddling before you get the hang of it.

Sadly my practice involved splashing water on my boat partners. And judging by the loud "ouch!" I heard, I may also have hit one of them on the head with the oar.

Thankfully, the people travelling with me were very forgiving, and they were distracted by the peaceful nature of the activity itself.

The Donghe Marongarong Tribe that hosts the activity has many other interesting aspects as well. The kind people who run the place also cook meals for the guests there.

The tribal-style meals have a unique appeal to them. The lodging also has rustic quality to it.

Two separate inns can be found behind the main hall where briefings and meals are held. The huge spacious interiors come equipped with TVs and air-conditioning units.

Just don't expect any WiFi connection. Also, they have an awesome doormat that says "You again?". Nothing says hospitality like some good-natured humour.

It is also a stone's throw away from the same beach where actor Jackie Chan filmed Zodiac, and the photo opportunities are endless.

With the sea on one front, and the mountain as a backdrop on the other, you are likely to run out of space on your memory card thanks to all the pictures you take.

Seriously, this actually happened to one person who was travelling with us. And it was only the third day.

Surfing

You would think of Hawaii or other exotic locations for surfing. No one really thinks of glistening beaches or crashing waves when Taiwan is mentioned.

But that is where you are wrong. In a quiet, hidden corner of the Chenggong Township lies Jinzun Beach.

While Jinzun is a public beach, the stretch where you try your hand at surfing is not open to the public.

All you need to do to counter this is to fix a session with one of the surf shops nearby and the instructors will bring you there for a unique surfing experience.

Though it is physically taxing, surfing is a memorable experience which just about anyone can try.

I don't know how to swim, and the lesson was still safe for me, thanks to the shallow waters near the beach.

And the lesson was entirely in Chinese. I was mostly following hand-directions and natural instinct to not get killed.

When you run head-first into salt water, you immediately face a few problems. Namely, teary eyes and an extremely runny nose.

You will also spend most of your time paddling and fighting against the waves to get into position, rather than actually surfing.

Despite these factors, the end experience is remarkable. From feeling the awesome power of nature, to actually catching a surf, these are things you won't forget. Though I did not actually manage to stand on the surfboard.

In fact, in my last few tries during this session, I did manage to catch a wave… while lying on the board.

While I was actually hanging on as if my life depended on it, the people back on shore said it looked like I was casually surfing back to shore.

It's a good look, especially if you capture it on a photo. The activity also shows you first hand the difficulty involved in mastering this activity.

That is why, after our session, when we saw the instructors demonstrating what a successful surf looks like, we gave them a standing ovation.

It is also not as risky as most people make it out to be. No one actually got injured during surfing, even though we were all untrained.

One of the girls in my tour group did injure herself multiple times. Though this was while carrying her surfboard back to the van, and not while actually surfing.

So her injuries can be solely attributed to her own clumsiness, and Mother Nature had no part in it. I do hope she does not read this article.

Food

Taiwan is synonymous with good meals. From the exuberant night markets to unusual restaurants, it offers a wide variety food.

While smelly tofu might be the most talked about dish, it is not the only one you should try. Taipei's streets and restaurants offer unusual food like braised octopus and squid skewers.

Their dishes generally contain more garlic seasoning than what you would expect in Singapore, so do be prepared for that.

The city also has a wide variety of pork-based dishes, ranging from noodles, rice, soup and even stews.

For those who do not eat beef, finding alternatives is not a problem as well.

However, Taitung's rural areas have even more unusual dishes to offer to the unsuspecting tourist.

Many places in Taitung offer a green vegetable dish that utilises a plant that is affectionately called the dragon's whiskers, which is common in farms there.

The villages there also have many roselle plantations, meaning that you would have tea and dishes made from the plant.

For those who wish to satisfy their alcohol craving, fret not. The residents of Taitung use the unique rice grains that grow there to make a wine that is nothing short of addictive.

One truly unique restaurant was literally a store that had neither a signboard, or a menu. You read that right, a restaurant that has no menu.

Instead, for a fixed price, you eat whatever dishes the staff can make using the ingredients that are available to them on the day.

Even if you go to the same restaurant the very next day, you will not be able to get the same dishes.

Not knowing how to use chopsticks proved to be a disadvantage for me. While some places had forks, others did not.

I tried asking a friend to help me ask for a fork, but she simply showed the waiter three fingers, which only scared him away.

So keep a set of your own cutlery if you don't know how to use chopsticks, or travel with someone who not just looks Chinese, but can actually speak the language.

To Muslim travellers, going to Taiwan does not mean you have to starve yourself for the duration of your stay.

Look out for the certifications offered by the China Muslim Association and the Taiwan Halal Integrity Development Association (THID).

These associations are the official bodies that certify restaurants in Taiwan. Most certifications come in two common categories:

"Halal Restaurants" for food outlets owned by Muslims, and "Muslim friendly restaurants" owned by non-Muslim owners.

According to the China Muslim Association website, both certifications mean that the restaurants or food outlets are fully Halal certified and safe for Muslims to eat in.

The certificates also extend to supermarket meals, so anyone who plans to cook their own meals can look out for them.

Travellers can also view the official list of certified restaurants and products at the China Muslim Association's official website.

Hot-air balloon ride

Set against the rural backdrop of Luye Township, a hot-air balloon ride offers a spectacular view of the farms, mountains and the sea.

Contrary to popular belief, a hot-air balloon does not land where it takes-off. Where it lands depends on the hot-air balloon pilot's expertise - preferably not in the sea.

This is because the pilot can only control whether the balloon goes up or down. The direction the balloon goes literally depends on the wind.

Which is why when you attend the morning briefing at the flight centre, the staff have already done calculations and measurements of all the things that may affect the ride.

The weather cannot be too hot or too cold as it would affect the ride. Wind speeds should also be acceptable.

You may have booked a ride, but if you reach the place and the weather conditions are not safe, the flight centre will still call the entire trip off.

The pilot also explained that there are no flights in winter, or when the northeast wind is blowing.

The entire hot-air balloon is about eight-storeys high, or roughly 24m tall. The basket can support up to four people in total, including the pilot.

It houses multiple gas tanks and pipes that fuel the flames that power the hot-air balloon. Once it takes-off, the view is simply phenomenal.

The land in that area has yet to be hit by urbanisation, so you get to appreciate the natural beauty of the countryside.

Also, what makes the ride extra fun is the fact that you don't know where you are going to land.

You might land on the road, or on someone's farm. A quick check with the pilot revealed that most residents were friendly and did not mind the balloons landing on their plot of land.

However, the pilot did highlight rare instances when the plot's owners took issue with the hot-air balloon landing on their crops, which means the flight centre would have to compensate them.

Thankfully, we did not face any angry armed residents when we landed on a road right next to field.

Also, you will get a glass of champagne and a certificate of completion after the hot-air balloon ride.

Because clearly, the act of standing around and taking pictures while others are slogging to keep you safe is a commendable feat.

Tips for travellers

From affordable yet comfortable resorts to hotels that are extremely luxurious, Taiwan offers a multitude of options when it comes to places you can stay at during your trip.

Do take note that while a fair number of people can converse in English in Taiwan's bustling cities, most other areas are fairly rural.

Whether it is in Taipei or anywhere else in Taiwan, having your address and address of the place you are going to written down in Chinese will be a good habit.

Most hotel staff would help to write these down for you, so that travelling in cabs, trains or buses will not be a hassle - unless they don't understand English.

I tried asking a hotel staff for a bottle of water, but he ended up giving me a pair of bathroom slippers. Close enough I guess.

Whether you are a food connoisseur, thrill seeker, nature lover or someone who just wants to relax, Taiwan is a travel destination that is bound to live up to your expectations.

ksukumar@sph.com.sg

The writer's trip was sponsored by EVA Air and Taiwan Tourism Bureau.

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