Tainan: First Taiwanese Adventure
I have never seen the purpose of planning too far into the future. Fate is a mysterious creature that can change your path in an instant and without warning. Taiwan was only intended to be a stepping-stone on my adventure, a quick detour off the path. Little did I predict that Taiwan would become yet another nation added to the ever-growing list of countries I have called home.
The difficult time that the entire world is currently facing has been especially difficult for travellers. Ironic how the entire world would shut down once I decided to start backpacking again. Regardless, being locked in Taiwan isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It gives me the perfect opportunity to explore this beautiful little island nation more than I had originally intended. With the borders being closed and a national holiday coming up, it was the perfect opportunity to explore another part of the island. Given the circumstances, most accommodations and transport were sold out months in advance. My girlfriend and I researched a list of potential destinations, and one name seemed to tick all the boxes. Thus, my first Taiwanese adventure would take us to Tainan.
We left Taipei early in the morning giving myself my first experience of the high-speed train in Taiwan. Within a few hours, we had reached the southern end of the island and rolled into Tainan. Before arriving, we thought it best to rent some form of transportation, sparing having to walk such great distances in soaring heat and relying on unpredictable public transport. What better way than to rent a scooter?
I’m not particularly sure on the legality of it as I don’t actually have a scooter license. Regardless, they still allowed me to rent one and neither did we have any trouble for the duration of the trip. Perhaps as it was an electric scooter that never went over 40km/h, who knows? Needless to say, I was ecstatic at the prospect of finally being on a scooter again. It would officially be the first time I rode with a passenger.
Sampling Tainanese Cuisine
Our first stop of the day was to sample a Tainan delicacy. A city which is deeply in love with its seafood, practically every local delicacy comes with a bucketful. We visited Jia Ding Nabeyaki Egg Noodles to try some guō shāo yī miàn (鍋燒意麵). The noodles, yī miàn (伊面), may not have originate from Tainan, but they have adopted it as their own. It has the unique characteristic of being golden in colour and being particularly chewy. It appropriately set the tone for what was to come on our trip, 3 full days centred around food.
A Colonial Past
Back on the road and time to head towards our first attraction, which happened to be one of Tainan’s most iconic landmarks. Chihkan Tower is one of many reminders in Tainan and Taiwan in general of their former colonial past. The country has been unlucky enough to have had a number of nations lay claim to their land, ranging from the Portuguese, Chinese and even Japanese up until the end of the Second World War. This miniature fort on the other hand belonged to one of Taiwan’s most notorious colonists, the Dutch.
Built in 1652, the structure also known as Fort Provinitia became the administrative and commercial centre for the Dutch in Tainan. The red brick structure was built to spectacular standards, well enough to survive almost 300 years, though it has gone through many transformations given the rulers at the time. Under the Dutch it was a Western castle, during the Qing Dynasty it was a Chinese-style pagoda, and an army hospital during Japanese rule.
Following a quick detour to the nearby God of War Temple, we headed for the Confucius Temple. Though there are many others throughout the country, this comes with the most significance. The “Premier Academy of Taiwan” is appropriately considered the heart of Tainan’s ancient cultural past. Built in 1666 the country’s first Confucius Temple became the first location of higher learning in Taiwan.
Snacking the Taiwanese Way
The cultural influence of the Confucius Temple seeps into the surrounding streets. No better example of which is the adjoining Kongmiao Shopping District, where I would get my first opportunity to act like a stereotypical tourist. We came across a little stall that sold a traditional Tainanese street snack called Honeycomb Toffee. We were both curious what exactly it was and might taste like.
Luckily for us, next to the stall was a set-up where visitors could prepare some of these treats for themselves for $50. If travelling by myself, I would avoid these kinds of things. Not from a lack of wanting, rather the self-conscious feeling of appearing like a stupid foreigner sucked into a tourist trap. However, this time round being in a pair (and one of us being Taiwanese), it allowed me to indulge myself free of shame.
We were both set-up with a small intense flame and a ladle filled with brown sugar and a dash of water which had to be continuously stirred to avoid sticking. After 5 minutes the magic ingredient of baking soda was added to which point the mixture foamed and expanded outwards across the ladle. And just like that, voila, our very own honeycomb toffee.
The last event of that night was visiting Hua Yuan Night Market, the biggest in all of Tainan. Along with being the first day of the Dragon Boat Festival, it created the perfect storm. An ocean of people squeezed amongst the narrow lanes that formed between the endless repeating lines of vendors. The main attraction naturally was the incredible number and variety of street food. They included all the Taiwanese classics; taro balls, scallion pancakes, sticky rice sausages, and being market, naturally a fuck tonne of deep-frying. Diabetic and cholesterol heaven.
A Morning of Failures
Up bright and early, we had an important mission to accomplish. I say we; I mean she. Tainan has a few famous treats, one of which is a mung-bean drink from one particular store, a drink I wasn’t a fan of. It was clearly popular as a monstrous queue was already waiting outside before the doors even opened and we were 73rd in line…fantastic. Almost an hour later we got to buy the maximum allowed of 5 drinks, ensuring we wouldn’t have to return.
Back on the road and time to head to another iconic Tainan attraction; the Taijiang National Park. Its enormous expanses include tidal flats, lagoons, mangrove swamps and wetlands home to a number of unique and endangered species. It’s also an area of great historical significance as its where Taiwan’s ancestors first landed. We had our eyes on one particular attraction in the park, the Sicao Tunnel, known locally as “the little amazon”. Though we would be disappointed as their boat tours were all sold-out.
Another Day, Another Temple
Luckily, there was an equally fascinating attraction directly beside it; the Sicao Dazhong Temple. The incredibly grandiose and eye-catching temple commanded the entire area, contradicting the pristine nature that surrounds it. We each paid our respects and partook in a special tradition.
In practically every Taiwanese temple are pairs of wooden blocks shaped like beans, called Poe. While praying, visitors should say their name, date of birth and place of origin to the gods before asking a question. After which the wooden blocks should be dropped on the floor to see which side they end up on. Each block laying on a different side means you’re allowed to select a number from a collection of fortune sticks at random. Both sides flat side down means you cannot ask (but can try again) or both flat sides up means the questions means that the question has no answer or the question should be changed.
After selecting a number at random, the visitor must go through the same routine to ask whether or not this is the number they are destined to have. One on each side means yes, both on the same side means you need to pick another number. The number corresponds to fortunes written on pieces of paper which are kept in nearby drawers. Though they’re usually written in Chinese, in most temples there will be a folder with explanations in English.
The City of Salt and the Dutch
On the way back we took a quick detour to a quirky little attraction which commemorates the magical mineral that brought Tainan to the stature it has today. The city is famous for salt, which became one of its biggest historical industries. Sio House was once the prime location to get your hands on the invaluable product. These days it’s become nothing more than a simple little museum to the special condiment. The main exhibit is a long table displaying a spectrum of 366 coloured piles of salt, all of which have been dyed using different plants. Each one represents a specific day of the year, thus your birthday salt.
Next, we headed to the nearby district of Anping. Our main target was yet another echo of Tainan’s colonial past in the form of Anping Old Fort. The unmistakably European structure formerly known as Fort Zeelandia was built by the Dutch military as a defensive stronghold and to protect their trade routes. Following Koxinga’s retaking of the fort and driving out of the Dutch, the fort was renamed Anping. From then on it became the governmental centre of Taiwan for a period of time.
Visiting “The Little Amazon”
On our final day we headed back to the Sicao Tunnel bright and early in the hopes of getting a ticket. Fortunately, this time we managed to get a pair, though we didn’t anticipate the entirety of Taiwan queuing up for this hugely popular attraction. Being forced to stand in the baking heat for nearly two hours made us question whether or not the boat was really worth it.
Eventually we boarded the rickety boat that mas more of a barge than anything, equipped with haphazardly placed stools. Armed with a lifejacket and traditional straw hats, we slowly began floating down the lazy river. There’s a reason the attraction has become so popular across the country. The river earned the name little amazon due to the thick mangroves that line the riverbanks and the arching branches of the tree that form a narrow tunnel where the light barely breaks through. Needless to say it provided possibly the most picturesque view in all of Tainan.