A Westerner’s Guide to Traveling Around Taiwan

When Anthony and I were deciding where to go after Vietnam we had a little trouble picking a destination.  Ideally we wanted to stay in Southeast Asia, but since we knew we would be going back to Thailand in November to meet his sister and her boyfriend, that didn’t seem like a good choice, and we knew the rainy season would be setting in most places so we didn’t want to chance getting somewhere and not being able to do anything. Enter Taiwan.  We knew it was off the beaten path for most western backpackers, and the idea of going somewhere most people skip was pretty appealing, plus you can stay visa free for 90 days if you’re a United States Citizen.  We used his British Airways Avios to book our flights to Taipei with a 3 day stop in Hong Kong and that was that. 

Now, let me say, so far Taiwan has been the hardest place for us to navigate by far.  It’s much more developed than any of the countries we’ve been to in Southeast Asia, but English is not widely spoken so it can be hard to get around.  Even when motorbiking through tiny towns in Vietnam we had an easier time navigating.  Vietnamese at least uses an alphabet we’re used to so we started to learn what a lot of words meant, but Chinese…forget about it.  Everything is in Chinese characters, and even something as simple as trying to figure out how to book a bus or train ticket from city to city has been quite difficult.  The websites are usually all in Chinese, and we haven’t found a lot of English written blogs that explain how or where to book your tickets. That being said, the people are extremely friendly and always willing to help even if they speak no English at all.  It’s an incredibly warm country. 

Since we’ve had so much trouble finding information in English about getting around Taiwan, we figured it would be nice to write up a post that’s described our journey so far in hopes that other English speakers traveling to this beautiful country will have an easier time.  First, and foremost, Taiwan is a very small country.  The main island is only a little larger than Massachusetts and you can easily get from the top to the bottom in five hours (less if there’s no traffic).  The buses and trains are some of the best we’ve seen on our trip and are very reliable (so far), and it’s very easy to see the whole country in two weeks.  Even if you only have a week you could still easily get in two or three cities.  We began in Taipei, and from there made our way south to Tainan, Kaohsiung, Kenting, and then back to Kaohsiung.  We’ll be heading back to Taipei from Kaohsiung in about a week so as of right now we’re not planning on exploring the east coast of the island unless we have time while completing our upcoming Workaway.

When we were making arrangements to head to Tainan from Taipei we knew we could take either the bus or the train.  The train would be faster and more comfortable, but more expensive so we opted for the bus.  If you do take the train, you can take it from Taipei Main Station and while I’m not sure of the prices or times they are pretty frequent and you have your choice between local and high speed trains.  Make sure to reserve a seat as the trains themselves can get very full and you don’t want to be stuck standing for two hours. 

Once we decided the bus was our best option, we tried Googling how to go about buying bus tickets.  There was a website where we could buy them online, but it was entirely in Chinese so that wasn’t helpful.  We finally asked our hostel and they told us to go to the Taipei bus station (right next to Taipei Main Station as it happens) and we would be able to buy the tickets there.  Make sure to go to Terminal B if you’re headed to Tainan.  You can buy the tickets at the bus station and they had one leaving about every hour and a half or so.  This is also where you could get the bus directly to Kaohsiung as well as several other cities. If you head to Terminal B and don’t see your preferred city listed, just walk next door to Terminal A. 

The tickets were 350 NTD (about $12 U.S.) and the bus took about five hours.  We did hit some traffic so the trip might not always take as long as it took us.  The bus was incredibly comfortable with great air conditioning and even a tv for each seat!  Everything was in Chinese so we didn’t get to enjoy the entertainment, but still it’s a nice touch.  The bus made several stops with Tainan being the last.  All in all it was one of the best bus trips we’ve had on our trip so far, but be warned our bus DID NOT have a bathroom on it or wifi.  I’m not sure if this is always the case, but just know that it’s a possibility.  We both had to use the bathroom pretty badly almost an hour into the trip and were very thankful when the bus stopped for about ten minutes to let people off for this very purpose.  Having wifi on the bus obviously isn’t a necessity, but since we decided not to buy Taiwanese Sim Cards for our phones we weren’t able to keep track of how close we were to our destination.  Since Tainan was the last stop this wasn’t an issue for us, but if you’re traveling to a place that isn’t the final stop just make sure and pay attention to the names when they’re announced.  It will be in both Chinese and English. 

Getting around Tainan is a little harder than Kaohsiung or Taipei.  There is a small metro system, but mostly people take the bus.  Luckily our hostel was able to tell us what bus numbers we needed to get where and from there we paid attention to the stops which are in both Chinese and English just like on the longer bus between Taipei and Tainan.  Kaohsiung and Taipei both have fantastic metro systems which are incredibly easy to navigate and cheap as well.  Getting around both of these cities has been no problem at all. 

Leaving Tainan for Kaohsiung we had a little trouble trying to figure out the bus so since our hostel was right next to the train station we decided to just take the train.  They’re a little less than an hour apart and trains run constantly.  Again, make sure to reserve a seat unless you feel like standing.  We made the mistake of buying our tickets from a self serve kiosk instead of at the attendant window, and ended up in completely different cars.  The kiosk was really easy and everything was in Chinese and English until it came time to choose our seats at which point it was only in Chinese.  We picked two seats we thought were next to each other (it was very misleading) but we were wrong. Not a big deal when the train ride is less than an hour, but if it had been a longer journey we would obviously prefer to be with each other.  Or at least in the same car.  Don’t make the same mistake we did and just go to the window.  The ticket itself was 68 NTD (a little more than $2 U.S.) and the train was very comfortable and updated.  Unlike on the buses the stops were not announced so make sure you ask or pay attention to the screen at the front of the car.  The trains have bathrooms and water fountains, but no wifi (as far as I could tell).

As I mentioned before, getting around Kaohsiung and Taipei is very easy because they both have great metro systems.  At each station every stop on each line is listed on the map in both English and Chinese as well as how much it will cost you to get from your current stop to where you’re going.  Additionally, the streets and attractions are broken down by exit so when you get off the train, find one of the large yellow signs, and just look for the name of the place you’re headed.  Again these will be in both English and Chinese. 

If you’re only in each city for a short time you can just pay as you go (most rides cost between 20 and 30 NTD, so just about $1 U.S.), but if you’re going to be in either Taipei or Kaohsiung for a while you can purchase an Easy Card at 7-11 for a deposit of 100 NTD (a little over $3 U.S.) and you can also add money to it while there as well. You can pretty much take care of ANYTHING at a 7-11 in Asia (mail, paying bills, etc), it’s so convenient!  The beauty of the Easy Card is that it can be used in both Taipei and Kaohsiung, so if you are traveling to both cities, you don’t need two cards, and you can use it to pay for buses, the metro, trains between cities and buses between cities! You also receive a 10% discount using the card, which can add up if staying for a long period of time. When you plan on leaving Taiwan you can return the Easy Card for a full refund of your deposit PLUS whatever value is left on it at any metro stop.  The Easy Card also allows you to dip into your deposit on the card (up to 60 of the 100 NTD) to pay for rides if you run out of paid value. 

We didn’t take public transportation to Kenting because our hostel was nice enough to arrange a van for $350 NTD (about $12 U.S.) that took us directly from our hostel in Kaohsiung to our hostel in Kenting.  Most of the buses seemed to be about 300 NTD so we decided to pay a little extra for the door to door service.  There is no train to that goes all the way to Kenting so you will have to take a bus or hired van.  To get around Kenting we took the local bus which was very easy and reliable (like all of the public transportation in Taiwan), or you can rent a scooter, but you will need an International Motorbike License or most places won’t rent to you.  We’ve read that if you shop around you can find someone who is willing to do it, but we didn’t even bother.  The bus worked fine and saved us money. 

Although it has been more difficult to get around Taiwan than anywhere else we’ve been on this trip, it is still a great country and we have really enjoyed our time here so far.  The country is beautiful, the people are warm, and the food is absolutely amazing.  The language barrier has been tough, but that’s part of the fun of traveling and it certainly keeps us on our toes.  While there is not much in terms of Western tourism here right now, I can certainly see it growing in the next five or ten years.  The country has the infrastructure, culture, and landscape to become a popular backpacker destination, and even now you can see signs of people realizing this and moving towards that goal.  With any luck in a few years it won’t be quite as hard to navigate, but for now, here is a little of the knowledge we’ve gained during our few weeks here.  Anthony and I are very much enjoying this hidden gem…challenges and all!

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