Taiwan and the ties that bind

More than xiao long bao and bubble tea, Taiwan’s honorable emissary, H.E. Ambassador Michael Peiyung Hsu shares why Taiwan is a must-visit for Filipinos.

As told to Janis Ian C. Gopez.

Additional text courtesy of the Taiwan Tourism Bureau.

Portrait by Jerick Sanchez. Taiwan photos courtesy of the Taiwan Tourism Bureau.

Special thanks to Director Jerry Chuang and Renzo Ramos of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in the Philippines.

Taiwan Ambassador Michael Pei Ying Hsu
Taiwan Ambassador Michael Peiyung Hsu

Taiwan Ambassador Michael Peiyung Hsu tells Travel Now that this is his third assignment in Manila—the first one in July 2004 and a second one in July 2009. 

This one is different though because he specifically requested for it. “They asked me to go to Canada but I said no, I want to [go] to Manila. My boss warned me that the job here is very tough. I said, no problem. When you go tough, the tough go.”

The last statement is definitely an indication of how hard he works—sometimes even seven times a week—and how he is devoted to making his home country and second home work together harmoniously. One of his projects include a button mushroom demonstration house in Baguio City. “Only 5% of button mushrooms consumed [in the Philippines] are grown here. We try to help farmers grow [it locally because] if we work together, [if we] transfer the knowledge, we teach Filipino farmers how to grow it [so they can] work together with entrepreneurs.” 

Aside from Baguio City, the ambassador’s list of places he’s visited in quite impressive. “I’ve traveled to almost 80% of Luzon and [especially] like the Rice Terraces in Banaue.” The list also includes Boracay, Palawan, Bohol, General Santos, Iloilo, Iligan, Bacolod, Cagayan de Oro, Davao, Zamboanga, and even to Marawi City where they are building houses to help rebuild it—another notable project indeed. 

If he does get a chance to take a break, top on his list would be Boracay and Palawan. He’s been thrice to the famous white-sand island already and would like to take his family to El Nido soon. He fondly recalls his first trip to Puerto Princesa with then H.E. Ambassador Wu where the roads were not paved with concrete yet and lunch was enjoyed under a coconut tree. 

Until then, he takes breaks by playing basketball every Saturday and remains fueled by his love for travel. “I like to interact with people. I like traveling.” Although he admits that it can be challenging for his family since they have to move every three years or so, he says at the heart of his work is “broadening horizon. A different country [means experiencing a] different culture. It can broaden your horizon. [You can better] understand the world more and will know how you or we should position ourselves in the world, in [your] community.”

Top 5 places to visit in Taiwan for first timers 

1. Taipei 101

Located in the finest district Taipei has to offer, TAIPEI 101 is the largest engineering project ever in the history of the Taiwan construction business. The design transcends the uni-body concept and is based on the Chinese number 8, a numeral long considered lucky in Chinese culture. Eight-floor structural units are connected one by one on top of each other to form the whole. This kind of rhythmic aesthetic is new to skyscrapers. At 382 meters above the ground, the 89th Observation Floor offers visitors a commanding view of the city and Taipei Basin from all directions. The world’s largest damper, weighing 660 metric tons, is also exhibited at this level. The Observatory is equipped with high-power binoculars, bar, image services, pre-recorded audio tour guides in seven languages, and souvenir shops.

Taipei 101 Observatory’s high-speed elevators also hold a Guinness Book of World Records which it received in 2004. With a speed of 1010 meters per minute, it takes only 37 seconds to reach the 89th floor.

2. Jiufen

Legend has it that back in the day, there were only nine families in Jiufen. Before the roads were built, all materials were transported via ships. Thus, a habit of buying nine pieces of the same object was born out of necessity. This is the reason the village was called Jiufen which translates to nine.

Located within the hills in northeastern Taiwan, Jiufen used to be the center of gold mining and was called the gold city of Asia, Little Shanghai, or Hong Kong. In 1890, someone discovered gold near Jiufen. The poor village with only nine families soon attracted prospective residents of around 4,000 families. However, with the decline of gold mining activities, Jiufen’s popularity faded.  

Jiufen Taiwan

Later, several movies chose to shoot here and the movies won international acknowledgement. These include “A City of Sadness” which won first prize in the Venice Film Festival and awakened people’s memory of Jiufen. Now, there are many unique teahouses in Jiufen which serve as the best stops during visits to this mountain village with a beautiful view of the Keelung outer sea.

Make sure you visit Jiufen Old Street as well for shopping as well as snacks such as the yam dish. Staying overnight is also highly recommended since there are many accommodation types available provided by local residents as well as the chance to see the starlight and fishing lights at night.

3. Sun Moon Lake

The Sun Moon Lake, located in the middle of Taiwan, with an elevation of 748 meters above sea level, is the only natural lake in Taiwan. The southern part of Lalu Island is shaped like a new moon, and the northern part is shaped like a sun; hence the name Sun Moon Lake.

The most famous sights around Sun Moon Lake are the Itashao, Lalu Island, the Xuanzang Temple, the Ci-en Pagoda, and the Wenwu Temple. The natural forests bordering these roads are good places for bird watching. There are a lot of birds that live on the mid-elevation, such as the Grey-cheeked Fulvetta, Grap-throated Minivet, Formosan Yuhina, Gray Tree Pie, Bamboo Partridge, Chinese Bulbul, Muller’s Barbet, and the Black Bulbul.

Colonies of Black-crowned Night herons and Egretta garzettas , and birds such as the common kingfisher and the Green-winged Teal can be seen at the Dazhuhu water reservation, situated around the water gate. Besides these birds, fish, insects and wild vegetables are flourishing in the region as well. These are all natural resources of the Sun Moon Lake region. The Shao Clan is the earliest clan that lived in the Sun Moon Lake region. The Harvest Festival, Sowing Festival and their special handicraft fair every year, as well as their articles have helped to preserve the culture of the Sun Moon Lake region.

4. Alisan

Alishan is very famous for the sunrise view and the cloud ocean. The clouds are so dense and thick that the mountaintops appear like islands on the cloud ocean. The best time to watch the cloud season is autumn and visitors can go to Ziyun Temple, Alishan Hotel, Alishan Rail Station, and Zaoping Park. Alishan Forest Railway is also very famous because it is one of three mountain rails in the world. Make sure to try their famous bamboo rice and wild pig meat as well. 

5. Taroko National Park

Taroko is famous for its spectacular mountains, cliffs, and marble which stretch along Liwu River. Four million years ago, the island of Taiwan was formed by the collision of plates. After millions of years of wind erosion, the marble rocks were exposed and cut by Liwu River, creating impressive grand canyons. From Qingshui to Nanhu Peak, the drop height is 3,742 meters. Such special geography has also bred special flora and fauna in this area.

Taroko National Park is also known for its waterfalls which include Baiyang Waterfall, Yindai Waterfall, Changchun Waterfall, and Lushui Waterfall.

Swallow Grotto (Yanzikou) and Tunnel of Nine Turns (Jiuqudong), on the other hand, are the most impressive natural scenes in Taroko and the canyons here are the narrowest. Tourists can appreciate the natural beauty along the tour track. The Taroko monumental is designed in Chinese style and Changchun Temple is to remember those who sacrificed their lives for building the central highway. “I’ve been to Taroko many times but look forward to trying out the bike route,” says Ambassador Michael Peiyung Hsu.

Top 5 must try activities in Taiwan 

1. Night Markets

In Taiwan, the best nightlife is found at the night markets where there are a lot of Taiwanese snacks as well.

Taiwan’s night markets are different from other markets in the world because each night market has its own traditions and characteristics. Tourists will be able to learn about different specialties, cultures, and people from its different areas. The best part? You can haggle for the best bargains.

2. Bubble milk Tea

The reputation of Taiwanese milk tea was built through the years which is said to have started in the early 80s. Taiwanese tea milk chains are now enjoyed as well in other countries but enjoying the taste of Taiwanese milk tea in its hometown is certainly a more enjoyable experience. 

3. Hot springs

Hot springs, the hot tears of the earth, are one of the most precious gifts that the earth has given to us. Ever since the ancient times, people have recognized the rejuvenating and therapeutic properties of these natural resources. Taiwan is ranked among the world’s top 15 hot spring sites, harboring a great variety of springs, including hot springs, cold springs, mud springs, and seabed hot springs. The island can proudly regard itself as one of the regions with the highest concentration and greatest variety of hot springs in the world.

Hot springs are formed by natural waters that emerge from the bowels of the earth and that possess therapeutic properties said to have a positive effect on disorders of the nervous and digestive systems, the circulation, and the organs. People have used hot springs to maintain good health for ages. In Taiwan, with its peculiar crustal structure and location on the fault line where the Euro-Asian and Philippine continental plates meet in the Circum-Pacific seismic zone, subterranean heat is spread across the island producing hot springs island-wide. With the exception of Changhua, Yunlin, and Penghu counties, almost every city and county in Taiwan can find hot springs, and so it is well to see that by some tourists name Taiwan “the Hot Spring Kingdom.”

I [personally like] Hotel Royal in Taipei. You can also make a reservation from there to go to Jiaoxi. The one here is good as well because it has a hot spring swimming pool (H.E. Ambassador Michael Peiyung Hsu loves to swim and is one of his forms of exercise – Ed.)

4. Leisure Farms

Taiwan is another corner of Asia where agritourism farmstay and leisure farm resorts are gaining popularity. It is undoubtedly one of Asia’s most dynamic and interesting destinations.

I went to a leisure farm for a day trip more than maybe 20 years ago with my colleagues. Now, it’s even better because you can stay there. You can also plant or pick vegetables or fruits.

Taiwan’s rural landscapes are truly spectacular and the people are friendly and welcoming. It is a place where, despite its rapid development, many interesting local traditions remain strong including, as you may find on a leisure farm stay resort here, agriculture and cooking.

5. Flower season

Taiwan is surrounded by water on all sides. With its friendly climate and landscape, Taiwan has the perfect environment for flowers, making it a botanical treasure to discover. The land is wonderfully covered by different kinds of flowers during each season, including cherry blossoms, maples, Tung flowers, lavender, orchid, plum flowers, callalilies and daylilies.

Top 5 must try Taiwanese

1. Beef Noodles

To make beef soup, stir-fry spicy bean paste first, and then put beef, water and other ingredients in. Add noodles when done. This method for making beef noodles is unique to Taiwan. In Hong Kong, people use beef intestines to make the noodles. Chaozhou’s beef noodles have a lighter color and the soup tastes light, too. Lanzhou noodles have a stronger taste, and the beef and the soup are cooked separately.

2. Braised Pork Rice

A top-ranking traditional Taiwanese dish, braised pork rice was invented soon after nationalists moved to Taiwan after the war. At that time, meat was a luxury on the dining table because resources were scarce. And because the meat of a pig’s neck and ears were cheap, people made braised pork with it, seasoning it with soy sauce, chopped red onions, and “five-seasoning” powder. The simple dish, with steamy hot and aromatic pork and sauce, as well as perfectly cooked white rice is very tasty.

3. Stinky Tofu

Stinky tofu is referred to as “the stronger the smell, the tastier the results.” While many people are put off by the smell, those who take the plunge are usually won over by this distinctively yummy treat. Stinky tofu is made of large squares of fermented tofu steamed or fried in oil and then cut into four smaller pieces and served with a garnish of pickled cabbage. The crispy skin of the tofu and the soft inside are the best parts of this dish’s charm. I prefer the steamed one. I just love it.

4. Oyster Thin Noodles

Oyster thin noodles are representative of Taiwan. The oysters are covered in potato starch and cooked before being served with smooth noodles. A good bowl of oyster thin noodles are filled with juicy oysters and al-dente noodles. Refreshing and aromatic, the oysters and the noodles go so well that this dish is highly popular among tourists. In Manila, you can find this at Ersao.

5. Taiwan Dumpling (Xiao Long Bao)

Xiao long bao generally tops anyone’s must-try in Taiwan food list. What sets these dumplings apart from other dumplings are the fact that their thin, tender skin encases a piping-hot filling containing meat, seafood or vegetables (sometimes all three) floating in tasty broth. Best way to eat it is to pierce the dumpling skin first to release the steam prior to eating. 

I highly recommend that you go to the main store of Din Tai Fung along Xinyi Road in Taipei. There are long lines all the time but make sure you download the app. It will tell you your number so you can go around the area like the nearby bookstore, while waiting for your table. You don’t have to wait.

Special events in Taiwan

1. Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival

Tradition has it that the “sky lantern” was invented during the Three Kingdoms period (AD 220-265) by Zhuge Liang. At first it was used to transmit military information, different from beacon towers yet ingeniously serving the same function, and is now generally recognized as the earliest ancestor to the hot air balloon. In the early 19th century the Lantern Festival was brought to Taiwan, where every year, at the beginning of the spring planting season, people would release “sky lanterns” into the air as a prayer for the coming year. Because in olden times, marriage was for the purpose of “adding a son” and increasing manpower, people went to the temple to pray for blessings and released sky lanterns on which they had written things like “May a son soon be born” or “May the harvests be bountiful.”

Sky lanterns were released to follow the wind, rising up to the ancestors to report that all was well and to pray for blessings. Slowly this evolved to become a local event for the Yuanxiao Festival in the Pingxi area. Through many, many years of changes, the one thing that never changed was the documeneted lives and hopes of the people as the sky lanterns slowly ascend.

The Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival was also voted by the Discovery Channel as the second biggest New Year’s Eve celebration in the world, a festival whose sky lanterns carry the prayers and vows of the people and by which they seek the purification of their souls. It is a festival that also best represents the Taiwan spirit to the world.

2. Taiwan Lantern Festival

To promote Taiwan’s tourism in the global community, so as to attract more foreign visitors to the country and increase tourism revenues, Tourism Bureau, MOTC has held the Taiwan Lantern Festival in recent years with the idea of “spreading the roots of folk culture while holding traditional fests at an international level.”

Lantern parades are traditionally held on Lantern Day. By combining traditional culture with top-notch technology, the Taiwan Lantern Festival is a festival comparable to its international counterparts. The main lantern area is so beautiful that it is quite impossible to appreciate everything at once. Local and overseas folk troupes dedicate their remarkable performances to the festival goers. Many other performance groups also bring perform for the audience.

In 2007, a Discovery Channel producer and his team came to Taiwan to join the festival, and concluded that this international event is worth the recognition.

In fact, Taiwan Lantern Festival has since been chosen by the Discovery Channel to be one of the best festivals in the world. Discovery has made an hour-long documentary that has been shown globally to introduce the dazzling, charming Taiwan Lantern Festival.

I would especially like to mention that this year’s festival was held in Pingtung County, Southern Taiwan where they also used more than 80 drones in the sky.

3. Penghu International Fireworks Festival

The first Festival took place in 2003 and invited well-known Taiwan singers and performers to entertain the crowd. The amazing high-altitude fireworks display, romantic music, cascading rockets, and a sea of lanterns all turn Penghu into a breathtaking scene and become even more and more beautiful as night falls. The Penghu International Fireworks Festival has become one of the grand events of the summer season and a beautiful and magnificent night scene for visitors to the Gaillardia pluchella Foug Island.

Aside from the fireworks, Penghu is a beautiful island which also has a white sand beach where the people are very friendly.

4. Taiwan International Balloon Festival

Big, beautiful, colorful hot air balloons dreamily float through the air as tourists catch a glimpse of their splendor or ride them through the skies, taking in the beauty of the valley below. The hot air balloon trend has promoted local tourism, and is an attractive, rising new activity of the 21st century. The 2011 Taiwan International Balloon Festival was a new opportunity for aerial activities, and in 2012 it challenged the world record in terms of length of time and scale of event. The event was a success, proving the charm and economic profitability of the festival while enhancing Taiwan’s diverse tourism environment.

The Taiwan International Balloon Festival includes flying shows, mooring activities, balloon rides, a nightglow music concert, balloon wedding celebrations, and a summer camp.

5. New Year’s Eve Celebration

What makes the Taipei New Year’s Eve Celebration special is that it is different from the fireworks and performances put on by Sydney Australia, the second city to celebrate New Year’ Eve, and also different from the countdown and lowering of the ball in Times Square in New York City?

At Taipei’s 101 building when the countdown enters the final stage, the building itself lights up floor by floor from the bottom up for the New Year’s countdown, making Taipei 101 the biggest New Year’s Eve countdown clock in the world. After the countdown is over, fireworks are immediately set off to reveal a special, exciting, and extraordinary light show on display.

Taipei 101 New Year Fireworks
Taipei 101 New Year Fireworks

Although it takes place in the winter with its low temperatures and frequent bursts of cold air, Taipei New Year’s Eve celebration attracts more people as the evening progresses. Even if a cold snap hits, there is no drop in the enthusiasm of those welcoming in the new year.

Since the staging of Taiwan’s first-ever grand New Year’s event in 1995, it won an enthusiastic response among young people and had the media companies competing with each other to report it. It also inspired similar celebrations all throughout the country.

On the day of the event, the Taipei City government invites popular entertainers and famous pop singers to perform on the square in front of the government offices.

This event certainly puts Taipei on the global stage and has gained international recognition. It has also become one of the most famous Taiwanese and international New Year’s Eve celebrations worldwide.

For more information, please visit the Taiwan Tourism Bureau Website through this link: https://eng.taiwan.net.tw

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