Taiwan is a wonderful country and the people are kind and hospitable. My long weekend visiting Tainan and Kaohsiung was a foodie adventure with a little history and plenty of Asian culture, creating a lifetime of fond memories.
History & Markets in Tainan
Tainan is the old capital of Taiwan from during the Qing dynasty and it is famous for its old fortresses, historic buildings and great local fare. The city centre is well mapped with signage pointing to all the famous sites. One my favourites was the Tainan Confucian temple located on Nanmen Road. The temple was built in 1666 by Zheng Jing and it served as Taiwan’s first official school. Confucian temples are centres of learning and culture, and are the heart and soul of the Chinese community. There are 12 structures within this site, all well preserved and painted a distinct reddish orange. The Dacheng Hall at the centre is the most important building and is the main shrine. The grounds here were immaculately maintained and adorned with bonsai trees. I saw many locals strolling the gardens, practising tai chi, as well as sitting and talking.
The Anping district of Tainan is of great historical importance. It was established during the 17th century when the Dutch East India Company setup a fort and trading post in the area. The Anping Old Fort was originally called Orlande by the Dutch but has undergone many name and functional changes throughout history after it fell into the hands of the Chinese and then Japanese, before becoming the tourist attraction it is today. It doesn’t look too much like a fort but more like a garden designed in a pyramid shape with an observation tower at the top. It is a great spot for taking in the views of Anping.
Next to the Anping Castle is the Tianhou Temple, dedicated to the Chinese sea goddess Mazu. The temple is free for visitors. This is a perfect starting point to go out and explore the curved and narrow historic streets of Anping. As you wander around here you will come across many statues and paintings of Sword Lions. These totems were once used by the people of Anping to decorate their houses as protection against evil spirits. Nowadays they have become a symbol of Amping.
Another interesting site in Anping is the old Oyster Shell Cement Kiln. Mixing oyster shell ash with cement, sugar water and glutinous rice to make cement is a practise that is hundreds of years old in Taiwan. Many locals who live in the older houses that were build using such cement also believe it is the reason why they have ants, who are attracted by the sweet taste! The Oyster Shell Cement Kiln is no longer in use and has been converted into a free museum.
The Anping Treehouse is another popular landmark. More than 100 years ago it was a merchant house for Tait & Company, which exported mostly sugar and camphor from Taiwan. Over the years, the place changed hands and uses until eventually becoming deserted and overgrown with tree roots. People started to regard it as a very creepy place until 2004, the government invited designers to make it more visitor-friendly. Handrails and observation decks were installed and now it is an interesting relic that offers a good photo opportunity, although it is overhyped for what it is.
Walking around Anping in the heat of summer is tough, as temperatures soar above 30°C and there is very little shade. The best way to recover from the heat is to have a bowl of famous Anping Bean Jelly although the place does not have any air-conditioning. Anping Bean Jelly is located on 433 Ānběi Road and it has become an institution, always brimming with customers. Western travellers will be less familiar with this special dessert, which consists of smooth, silky tofu served with soy milk, beans, jelly and other interesting Asian ingredients that I am not familiar with. The owners do not speak English here, so I just hoped for the best with my order. At first I wasn’t sure I was going to like it, but with every bite I came to enjoy the silky, wobbly texture and I felt cooler and refreshed. The round jelly balls were chewy and glutinous, adding necessary sweetness to the dish. I definitely recommend it as an experience not to be missed!
The markets I visited in Tainan were world class foodie experiences! During the day, Yongle market is the place to visit to awaken all of your senses. But first, just before the market is the busy and bustling Xinmei Street, where more adventurous travellers can start the day with a traditional Taiwanese breakfast. Most locals will start their day very early at 6am before the daytime heat. There are many breakfast foods to choose from and I chose to start my day with a bowl of squid soup and rice noodles, which is a big favourite in these parts. Whilst seafood in the morning is a bit odd for me, I found my meal to be light and tasty.
The Yongle markets are bustling from 9am until it starts to get dark. It is mostly a foodie market, selling all sorts of ready to eat delicacies such as grilled fish, BBQ meats and various jellies, fish balls and dumplings. There are also a number of stalls selling items for home consumption and cooking such as fruit and vegetables, butchered meats, grains, noodles, herbs and spices. Wandering the markets is a fantastic opportunity to see how the locals live, eat and shop and if you are hungry, it is a cheap way to sample a few different local dishes.
There are a few different night markets in Tainan but the most popular is the Huayuan Night Market, also known as the Flower Market, which is open on Thursday, Saturday and Sunday evenings on Haian Road. My experience visiting the Huayuan Night Market was unforgettable. There were so many stalls selling different and interesting foods such as octopus balls, fried pork chops, noodles, BBQ seafood, as well as delicious juices, teas and milky drinks. All the different cooking smells and bright colours combined to create an exciting and mouth watering atmosphere.
It was difficult to choose what to eat from all of the different options. Surprisingly, or perhaps not so surprisingly, oysters are in abundance in Taiwan and they are very cheap. I enjoyed grilled oysters served with lemon as well as an oyster omelette, cooked on a big black grill with lots of beansprouts. To drink I had some fresh aloe vera juice.
But night markets are not just for eating in Taiwan, and there is also plenty of entertainment to be had. Beyond the grills and juicing machines, there are stalls selling knick knacks and clothing, live auctions, gambling, video games and more. There were mostly young adults enjoying all the vibrancy and entertainments of the market, as well as a few families and tourists.
Kaohsiung Culture, Sights, Qijin and the Food
After a very enjoyable two days in Tainan, I took the local train from the main station to Kaohsiung, which is roughly one hour commuting. Kaohsiung is the second biggest city of Taiwan and the government has invested a lot of money recently into improving infrastructure and developing its cultural and arts scene to help boost tourism. There are plenty of things to see and do in Kaohsiung and you are never too far away from great food too!
CULTURE & THE ARTS
The Pier 2 Art Centre has recently been developed as the cultural centre of Kaohsiung. Whilst Asia still has a long way to go in terms of improving their art scene, it is an interesting visit here all the same. Most notable are the tacky and kitschy sculptures that are dotted around the place and where tourists pose for selfies. There is also a really cool bookshop as well as a gallery showcasing items remade from recycled products.
The Pier 2 Art Centre used to be the second connecting pier of Kaohsiung Harbour, but was derelict until it was converted into the current open art space. A vintage train remade in a ratio of 1:8.4 runs on the five inch wide track of Hamasen Pier 2 Line Railway and leads to the Takao Railway Museum. It looks both ridiculous and hilarious to see grown adults riding this miniature train however the real life railway relics of the museum, as well as old preserved station, platform and semaphore are worth checking out.
There is very little shade at Pier 2 and by the time you have finished walking around you will be very hot, tired and thirsty. The perfect place to find inner calm and a drink is at Cafe Hifumi, which is just around the corner. This establishment used to be a famous Japanese restaurant during the Japanese colonial period, built in 1920 before falling into disuse. Only recently it has been revitalised to its old day glory and it serves different varieties of tea, coffee and cool beverage as well as cakes and snacks. It is a peaceful place to relax amongst the old furniture and bookshelves.
Kaohsiung Central Park is another cultural centre and a popular place for students and foreigners to hang out or go for exercising. It is right in the centre of Kaohsiung and is most famously known for its Urban Spotlight, a brightly coloured LED platform where singers and entertainment acts perform for free most evenings.
You can stop for a coffee or cocktail at the J Cafe in Central Park, which is owned by Jay Chou who is a Taiwanese singer, songwriter, record producer, film producer, actor and director. Aside from the fantastic location, the coffee is actually really good and they have free wifi. I was also impressed with their menu of alcoholic beverages, although prices are not cheap.
There are many things to see and do in Kaohsiung, but the most photographed attraction is the Dome of Light at Formosa Boulevard Station. This unique glass masterpiece was rated one of the most beautiful subway stations in the world and is also the world’s largest glass artwork. It is even more spectacular in real life to approach the vivid, penetrating colours as you emerge from the dark underground station.
The Lotus Lake to the north of Kaohsiung is another popular sight that may also bring you good luck. The Lotus Lake has more than 20 stunning Chinese temples and the lake is full of flourishing lotus flowers. You must visit the Dragon and Tiger Pagodas in the south of the Lotus Lake. Entering the dragon’s throat and coming out of a tiger’s mouth symbolises turning bad luck into good fortune and if you pay a generous donation, the little old lady that looks after the pagoda will give you a complimentary bottle of water and postcard. You can also visit the old Zuoying City Wall and participate in various water sports in the north of the park.
The most rewarding sight, if you go there on foot, is to the Shoushan LOVE viewing deck. It look me over 30 minutes to walk steadily uphill to visit this romantic hot spot. Whilst everyone queues to have their picture taken with the big LOVE sign, it is a great place to appreciate panoramic views of Shoushan, Xizi Bay and the Kaohsiung Harbour. I visited here during the day but I would have also loved to go here at night and see all the city buildings lit up.
Taiwanese seem to be in love with the word love as there is also the Love River, which runs through the middle of Kaohsiung. It is pleasant to stroll along the river and enjoy the cool breeze during hot summer days. You will also come across a number of sites, including churches, if you follow it.
AN AFTERNOON IN QIJIN
Qijin is a small island considered part of Kaohsiung and only a 15 minute ferry ride from Gushan pier. The Gushan pier in itself is a hive of activity and the place to go for a bowl of shaved ice or bean jelly. There is a school close by here as it is at the foot of a big residential district, and when I visited I saw many young children drawing pictures in chalk on the hot tarmac.
Qijin is famous for its seafood eateries along the main Miaoqian Road. As you walk along you will see restaurant after restaurant showing off its range of fresh seafood in water tanks and tubs by the road side. If you choose to dine here, you will be asked to select which seafood you want to eat and you can decide how you want it cooked. They don’t speak English here so I went for the safe option and ordered oysters that came served natural with wasabi and soy sauce, as well as giant whitebait that were deep-fried with salt and pepper.
In addition to the seafood restaurants there are plenty of other food stalls serving fresh juices, ice creams and snacks to help keep you cool. You must try the famous Taiwan peanut ice cream roll here! A giant slab of peanut brittle is shaved over scoops of peanut and chocolate ice-cream, and served rolled in a thin pancake-like paper with coriander.
Although Qijin is an island, the beach is not suitable for swimming. The sand is dark and muddy, and currently there is a lot of construction happening as they are building hotels, cocktail bars and other tourist infrastructure on the beach front. People like to go bike riding at Qijin to take in the sites from all around the island, such as the Rainbow Arch, Qijin Lighthouse and Shell Museum.
There are many Chinese temples on Qijin. The most famous is the Tianhou Temple near Qijin pier, dedicated to the sea goddess Mazu. However every few blocks there seems to be another temple and they offer shade and shelter from the hot sun. Along the beach strip there are also shops selling cheap souvenirs and dried fish.
FOOD AND TRANSPORT IN KAOHSIUNG
Due to its proximity to the sea and the fishing trade, fish and seafood is cheap and readily available in Kaohsiung. Very popular is milkfish, a variety of fish that is served in porridge, with rice or in soup and which I ate on numerous occasions.
King of Stinky Tofu is a wildly loved restaurant chain in Taiwan that started in Kaohsiung. Here you can get your stinky tofu fix prepared in many different ways. From sweet and sour style with pickled cabbage to hot and spicy with duck blood, there are lots of menu options! I gave it a go however I realise I do not like stinky tofu. It is different from regular tofu in that it has a more crispy and dry texture, and in my opinion, it tastes like old garbage.
For breakfast, you absolutely must go to the most popular breakfast place in town but be prepared to queue!! At Xinglongju, on 184 Liuhe 2nd Road, their specialty is shoabing (Chinese fried flatbread) stuffed with fried donut, omelette and tomato, as well as their tangbao, which are pork soup buns. Locals will usually order their breakfast with soy milk, to help soak up the fat or you can even dip your fried bread into the milk before eating it. This traditional Chinese breakfast joint has been around for more than 60 years and whilst it is carb heavy, it is worth the wait.
Public transport is easy to navigate, cheap and clean in Kaohsiung. I relied on the trains throughout my stay as the city is well connected by the train network. At the Kaohsiung airport terminal, buy a reusable card that you can top up during your stay or you can buy a day pass. Stations have signs in both Chinese and English. What I found particularly cute were the anime posters at all stations, encouraging commuters to follow the rules and show good behaviour!
Taiwan is a wonderful country to visit and it is very easy to do so for a long weekend from Singapore. You can also read my blog about Liuqiu island, which is an easy day trip from Kaohsiung.