Getting around in Taiwan is surprisingly easy. In fact, it is one of those places that I recommend to my not so travel-savvy friends who are looking for a taste of Asia without all the challenges. However, if you know the following handy insights, your trip is guaranteed to be the easiest it can be.
1 – Cash is King, but e-Cash is Queen!
Don’t expect to use your credit card in Taiwan for anything other than train tickets and hotels. You need to have cash on hand for anything from MRT* tokens to supermarkets and restaurants. It gets even trickier if you want to use busses, as you have to present exact change in most cases.
Enter e-Cash, Taiwan’s compromise between carrying cash and using a credit card. It’s super simple and works like a pre-paid credit card. With e-Cash, you buy simply buy a blank card from any 7/11 or FamilyMart or any other convenience store and charge it with the amount that you want. Re-charge stations are plenty and can be found at any MRT or train station or just any convenience store. The cards are called IC cards (“Integrated circuit). The most popular brands are EasyCard, iCash and HappyCash and you can use them for pretty much anything and anywhere.
Most conveniently, they act as tickets in trains and busses, so you never need to queue at the machines again and you never need to worry about having exact change at hand.
*MRT is the name of the metro system.
2 – Trains go everywhere
Speaking of trains: It is easy to forego a rental car and just take the train in Taiwan. The island is small enough that trains run between major cities several times a day and don’t take very long. Signage in English is everywhere and the tickets are cheap. Public transportation in general is so excellent that you can easily reach anywhere from the train station without having to walk much.
Short anecdote: Once we got into a discussion with a ticket clerk, to make sure that he understood that we wanted two tickets, not just one. It turned out that he had understood us perfectly and that the price for the tickets was just so cheap that we thought he had only charged one.
Getting information about trains online is a whole different beast. While all the information is available online, it is not all in one place. Use the following websites to get a complete picture of your planned journey:
- Use http://twtraffic.tra.gov.tw/twrail/EN_QuickSearch.aspx to look up train times, when they leave, platform, how long they take. What you cannot do on this website is buy or reserve tickets. For that you should use 2)
- Use http://railway.hinet.net/Foreign/US/index.html to look up available trains within a time slot – i.e. if a train is sold out, it won’t show up in the list. Sold out trains are usually the super express trains that only run once a day – but not to worry: regular express trains are only 10-30 minutes slower, depending on your journey. If you enter your passport number, you can even reserve tickets online and pick them up – you guessed it: at a 7/11, FamilyMart, or simply the train station.
Important: You cannot look up connections on any site – not even the rail employees at the train stations can! For some reason it just isn’t supported in the system and connecting trains need to be researched manually. So if you know that you need to take a connecting train, it’s best to look up the connection that you want online, write it down and tell the ticket clerk exactly what you want.
3 – Visitor centers outrank your travel guide
Taiwan is working hard to be a formidable host and it shows in the quality of its visitor centers. Located in or near every major train and bus station, they are easy to spot and will provide you with detailed maps and guides for your location and surrounding points of interest. In larger locations, the staff will speak excellent English, but in smaller towns they might only speak Chinese. That should not put you off though, as they will still do their utmost to help you in any way they can.
Short anecdote: The visitor center in Lukang was staffed by two lovely elderly Taiwanese ladies. Neither of them spoke English, but their enthusiasm for digging out any leaflet in English they could find was endearing. They made us sit down while they searched, folded out maps of the town in front of us and marked all the highlights, and when we asked after a more obscure temple and how to get there, one of them dragged us outside to the bus stop to show us bus number, direction to take and wrote down which stop to get off. I have never seen anyone so happy to show off their town.
Maps and guides are on average available in Chinese, English and Japanese, but larger locations that see more tourists will also provide Korean, German, French or Spanish.
Look for free official guides near popular tourist destinations such as the Fort Provintia in Tainan.
4 – Night market Pro tip: Hidden English menus
The first few days exploring Taiwan’s bustling night markets made me unsure how to deal with the many stalls that only displayed their menus in Chinese. But eventually I learned that a lot of them keep English menus around or at the very least have their smartphones at the ready with Google Translate. And don’t forget that the younger generation speaks excellent English, so you can also always just ask.
5 – Everyone is friendly – and they mean it!
This is my most important tip for Taiwan: Let people talk to you.
I had previously been jarred from the persistence of street vendors, taxi drivers and just people on the street trying to rip you off that you encounter in so many other countries, especially around South America, India and some parts of South East Asia. So the first few days after landing in Taipei I waved off anyone approaching me with a “no thanks”, without hearing what they had to say.
This changed after a taxi driver in Keelung followed us from his taxi to the bus station where we were planning to take a bus to the Yehliu geopark just about an hour north of the town. I readied myself for the old argument of “No, thank you, we don’t need a taxi” when he started explaining the bus map to us, which line to take, how much the ticket was, where to stand at the bus stop – without a single hint to use his taxi services. This was completely baffling.
More encounters like these followed.
In the Longshang temple in Taipei I was standing in the back before the offering table, observing people praying and lighting incense. I turned around to my friend Steffi who was accompanying me and started talking to her. Only she was nowhere to be found and I had started talking to a stranger. I apologized immediately when I realized, but he thought it was hilarious. He took off his headphones, brought out the Jiao that he was holding and just started explaining to me how offerings in the temple work and how we get our fortune.
And there are more.
The entire group of passengers in a city bus, making sure we’d get off at the right stop. Kids wanting to practice their English. Teenagers eagerly wanting to recommend the right bubble tea. A lady showing us the way to the MRT (where she went in and we decided to take a break in front of the entrance) who then showed up again three minutes later, to make sure that we understood that we had to go down into the tunnel since we hadn’t followed her. A night market vendor who saw me wandering around with a bunch of trash in my hand (garbage cans are rare) and waving me over to put it in his trash – without any expectation of a sale. And so many more stories.
It was absolutely amazing. Never have I felt so safe and comfortable being out on the streets, especially at night, as I have in Taiwan.
So trust me: Let people talk to you!