I recently talked with a very nice Aussie traveler who was interested in going to Taiwan over the Christmas holiday. He ran across my YouTube channel and we exchanged a few emails. Since he’s returned, he’s honored me with an update on how it went. So I thought I would share our correspondence.
And in the recent completion of my latest film, Travel Geek: Documentary Taiwan (to be released Feb 28, 2013), this earlier correspondence brings me a renewed appreciation.
I get these kinds of emails frequently. But rarely am I honored with such continuous correspondence. And just so you know, this is why I do what I do — sharing my travel with the world!
Blog posted with permission of sender:
Thank you for your reply [on YouTube]!!
I had a few questions for you
I must thank you in advance for your patience and time for your reply.
Great videos and inspiration!
I’m travelling to Taiwan in a couple of days, and have scoured information about renting a motorbike to ride up the Gorge in Taiwan.
My questions to you are:
1) How did you rent a bike? (ie. do you need international drivers license? I only have my Australian license)
2) Was driving difficult or dangerous?
3) How much was it?
4) Where the heck do you stay there?
Everyone seems to have conflicting views and opinions on it all.
Your assistance would be sooo helpful.
I would also like to ask you, how the heck do you finance your trips? This trip will be my first in a long time, and I would love to do more.
Thank you again,
All the best,
Dear [NAME DELETED],
I spent almost a year in Taiwan putting my latest film together – which, because of lots of gallivanting, hasn’t hit the edit room yet. Ugh! Too little time, I guess. But I am headed back to live in Malaysia just before New Year’s this year, so once I am there, I will have some “sit down” time with it and finally release it.
In any case, I was definitely there long enough to learn quite a bit about it – and from a traveler’s perspective. So hopefully I can help.
You’ll find that in every case of renting a motorbike, the circumstances are completely different. Some require a passport, some an international driver’s license. Some may only ask for a deposit to hold onto until you return. It’s all on the mood of the person renting the bike at the time.
The level of difficulty, too, varies from place to place. I’d wager that if you’re going to have an incident, it will be inside a city. The outer roads are less traveled and driven more slowly by the locals. But in the unlikely and unfortunate event that you get into an accident, don’t plan on anyone (including the person that hit you) stopping.
If you’re renting a car and hit someone else, I recommend that you do not stop either. It is always the foreigner’s fault and you’d simply do better to go to the nearest tourist police station and settle things there – even if there are injuries involved.
Never, under any circumstances sign anything at the scene of an accident – even under the threat of jail. Call your consulate and arrange for translations of ALL materials that they want you to sign. This means that you’ll also probably want to get the embassy’s contact details before you head there and keep them with you at all times.
Cost will be discussed below, but generally US$30-50/day should see you having a good time. And this includes travel, food and lodging. Paid entertainment and in-country airfare are additional. Finding hotels will only be difficult on the islands, should you choose to visit them. This time of year it might be a little challenging, but if you get creative, it generally works out.
If you’re off in a few days [email sent during the December holiday break], I’d recommend some warm clothes and (because of the places that I am going to recommend) some wet weather gear as well. In the south (which is where many of the more exciting parts of Taiwan are located) the weather is naturally worse than in the north. Though, ultimately the weather doesn’t shift wildly throughout the island nation.
I can’t recommend enough that you see Lanyu, Green and Penghu Islands. This time of year won’t give you the most amazing views, but it would still be worth it. Lanyu and Green are on the southeast side (and have the most interesting topography — plenty of English speakers here) while the Penghus lie to the southwest (and will be one of the best motorbike rides you’ll do in your life — little-to-no English spoken here).
The major hubs like Taipei, Kaohsiung, Taichung and Taitung are just cities. They are good to see, but ultimately, like all cities, don’t reflect the nature of the country itself. Having said that, Taipei has made some impressive “green” efforts throughout the city. But their many skyscraping buildings still remind you that it’s a full-on metropolis.
Kaohsiung (pronounced “Gow-Shung”) and Taichung are similar in that they have great festivals, but generally just sit as stoic, concrete jungles in the interim.
Taitung (pronounced “Tai-dung”) is the jumping place for Lanyu and Green Islands and it has a great expat pizza place along the coast that you will have to check out. Great pizza and a very friendly expat owner.
Of course I am going to tell you to do Taroko Gorge. This is not to be missed. It’s incredible and you won’t be sorry that you took the train all the way up the coast to see it. And speaking of trains, the best way to do the entirety of the country is to land in Taipei and take the slow (and cheaper) train west and south – which, then, eventually curves back east and then north. It’ll make more sense once you arrive and pick up a train map.
South from Taipei, there are some really nice beaches and inlets along the west coast near Taichung that you can hop off the train and go out to see. But the real gem of the west coast train stop is Alishan. There is a “sea of clouds” phenomenon that only happens a few places throughout the world that are visible with such ease to human access. And Alishan is one of these places. It’s also attached to a neat little community, complete with old-school short-width train tracks marking the old way that people got around and got goods and supplies up to the mountains. I recommend getting off the train at Chaiyi (pronounced “Chai-yee” — may have spelling variations in maps), renting a bike and heading up into the mountains that way.
I believe that the lonely planet Taiwan guidebook gives you a pretty good route. But the best bet is to just ask folks. There’s a pretty good amount of English spoken here.
The trick, though, is renting a bike. There’s only one place that rents them to foreigners. They hold your passport and you pay when you return. Once you get off the train, it’s kind of annoying to find the place. They are under a large yellow sign (which you will probably not understand) and are almost directly across from the station entrance (across a very large field).
I discuss this in my Taiwan film – but, it’s obviously not out yet… so… yea. Sorry about that!
Back on the tracks headed south, you should make sure and put Tainan (Taiwan’s old capital) on the to-see list. This town has one of the most interesting and closely packed consignments of temples, old walls and traditional shops right near the town center. You can stay at a hotel right across from the train station and take a full day to walk the city’s back alleys and cobbled streets. Lonely Planet has a great “temple-walk” section here that will get you a great view of them all together in one shot. Walk, rest, sit and eat along this trek through Taiwan’s oldest city and it will eventually bring you back in time to when these steps were likely taken by the first inhabitants.
After that, you can make your way to Kaohsiung where you can see frequent parades, visit all the temples and pretty lakes. But the best part about Kaohsiung is their cheap, daily flights to the Penghu Islands.
Once in the Penghus, you can go windsurfing (or try and fail like I did), breeze through all the markets or check out the amazing topography – unique, again, to only a few places on earth. But whatever you choose to do, do it on a motorbike. Like Chaiyi, this will be a bit tricky. But put your most innocent face on and do what you can to talk someone into renting you a motorbike. You can camp on uninhabited islands, climb on top of earthen arches and volcanic columns and drive along miles-long bridges overlooking pristine waters and jutting rock formations. It’s the only way to see these amazing islands. Spend a few days here and see it all. But whatever you do, it all starts with the motorbike!
Continuing south from Kaohsiung, I might rent a car at this point if you have the funds. You can find one right at the airport. They are safe, fair and will not rip you off. I’d hit Turtle Island which is accessible just south of Kaohsiung and has daily ferries – it’s more of a “cute” island, though, than a rugged hiker’s jaunt.
Then if you continue further, you’ll eventually come to the most southern point of Taiwan by heading through Kenting – another nice place to spend the night. Around New Year’s there are always tons of people playing the street games along the sidewalks and selling all manner of crazy foods.
After this, you should either drop off the car and hop back on the train or continue on in the car. The southernmost point and Turtle Island are really the only reason for the car. In any case, your next stop should be Taitung where that amazing pizza joint is. Just north of Taitung is a town where you will catch the ferry to Lanyu and Green Islands.
I won’t lie to you, this time of year the boat travel will be treacherous. I’ll just say that they have plenty of “sick bags” for the passengers. I held my own pretty well but my girlfriend at the time nearly passed out. If you can talk the boatmen into it, the best place, ironically, is to stand outside on the back deck of the boat – weather allowing. It’s a much easier ride. The further toward the front of the boat, the more sick bags are needed.
Once on Lanyu, forget about time. Everything here happens much more slowly and there is no rush to anything that happens. And believe me, after traveling planes, trains and automobiles, it will be a welcomed reprieve.
Rent a motorbike and take it slow. Lanyu is constantly frequented by the expats living around Taiwan. So renting a bike is no problem here.
You can drive around the entire island in about two hours. So it pays to take the slow way. It doesn’t matter which way you drive, but be sure to take every off-shooting road available. If they head out to the coast, they likely lead to some amazing little rock structure that’s been chewed at by the elements for thousands of years and takes the shape of some alien creation. If it heads away from the sea, it will likely take you to the top of some mountain (or to a cave) where you will be rewarded by an unbelievable and breathtaking vista over the cool, blue waters – and if you watch the ocean long enough, you’ll probably get to see my favorite animal: the flying fish.
In either case, these roads lead right back down to the main road. So there’s no chance of getting lost. And because this is pretty much the only thing for tourists to do upon arrival at Lanyu, the locals are pretty tolerant of seeing the foreigners buzzing around the traipsing roads of the island. The goats are something to behold as well. But don’t touch!
Green Island is about the same. It’s a good trip.
Once back on the mainland, hop back on the train and head north along the coast to Taroko Gorge. A motorbike is the ONLY way to see this amazing geologically diverse chasm in the earth.
Well, that’s not entirely true. You could box yourself up with a million camera-toting Chinese vacationers if you wanted to get the standard view of the place. But these tickets would have to be booked long in advance for this time of year [basically any Chinese holiday or western New Year] and will likely be triple the rate anyway.
Again, my advice is to rent a motorbike and do it the old fashioned way. You can camp basically anywhere in the park. No one will bother you or your things, and it’s completely safe. So bring a tent and some warm clothes and you should be fine.
The road through the park splits several times, but looking at a map will simplify your decision of which of these roads to take. Like most other parts of Taiwan, all roads lead back to where you’re headed anyway. At the top of the park, as you climb up into the mountains, you will start to see over the clouds and into a new world of vegetation and culture. The road continues to the cross-continental highway. So you don’t want to go too far. Just keep going until you’re not going “up” anymore.
Then turn around and see it all again on your way down. It’s just as amazing, but you get another angle.
Back on the train again, there are a lot of little towns and villages along the northeast coast that celebrate the plum blossom season with a strange fervor. But if you’re not going to be there for this season, there’s not much else to see. The next stop in this case is back to Taipei. And upon arrival you will have circumnavigated the entire country, seen all the islands and explored all of Taiwan’s amazing places.
Highlights to look for throughout Taiwan:
The Lantern Festival is always held in a new town every year. So is the Fireworks Festival. Find them and don’t miss them if at all possible. They should be around this time of year [December].
Lakes, temples and even abandoned factories are the random attractions throughout the country, too – none of which seem to have any signs for keeping people out. So explore away!
Also, stay away from the southern cross-continental highway. It is not a complete road because a landslide took out the middle section many years back and they just never fixed it. It’s the most dangerous road in Taiwan as well!
As for money, you’ll find out that the price of things does nothing to reflect any sort of residual pattern or fairness. It’s based on the owner’s whim and that continues throughout the country.
If you’ve been to Thailand, it’s about the same exchange rate and relatively the same cost of travel, though Taiwan is going to charge more for lodging and food.
Best wishes on the trip and be sure to let me know how it goes!
Firstly I want to thank you for your detailed reply. Not many people these days would take the time out to reply like you did, and I am most grateful.
I am also jealous. 1 year in Taiwan!!! Man, that would be great!
The reason for the delay in the reply was that I wanted to find time to sit down and digest your email slowly, and after doing so I feel I made an error in my planning. Meaning I have only allocated 5 days in Taiwan.
A part of me feels foolish, and I am determined to revisit now with your itinerary at hand. Taiwan has always fascinated me.
Instead of rushing to all the spots you suggested, I am going to just accept I won’t be able to see it all and have settled for two days in Taroko Gorge, two days in Taipei, and the other day free to maybe catch a train to somewhere random before the flight.
This trip came about through avoiding a Christmas locally, and I only booked it within the last two weeks. A stupid move too, as I am paying almost triple of what it would have cost if I booked earlier.
After Taiwan, I’m heading to HK and Macau for another 6 days. I also checked out your video on them, and it looks awesome. Can’t believe you did that bungy jump man. Looked Hectic!!
Also that place you stayed in.. the mum and pop hostel looked freakin’ awesome.. I have ended up paying top dollar for an apartment due to time constraints.
Anyway, thank you again for your time and help.
All the best,
Ps. I subb’ed on youtube
Pps. I was wondering how you finance all your travels? Do you teach English? I heard in Taiwan they can clear nearly $1000 USD a week.
Dear [NAME DELETED],
It was my pleasure to give you my advice. It brought back memories of the region and I hope it serves you well. And thanks for subscribing to my channel on YouTube!
No matter what you see in Taiwan, it will be a good experience. I thought, by your intentions, that you had a longer trip planned. Taiwan does not cater to tourism like the rest of Asia. So that’s why it’s good to get an insider’s perspective.
I haven’t heard of a job in Taiwan where you can earn US$1000/week. But perhaps in Taipei there is something teaching business English to elite clients or something. Mostly, it’s a regular teaching gig: US$2000/month (with a teaching certification in international schools). The rest are your basic recruitment jobs and hourly wages. You’d call them “casual” positions.
I generally finance my travel through teaching on the college level. But while in Taiwan, I was living off savings, worked as a long-term substitute at a really nice school and pulled in some money through online channels as a photographer/writer.
I am sure you’ll get a chance to go back. When you do, plan out a few weeks and see the country for what it’s worth. They don’t advertise and they don’t need foreign money. So because of that gulf in tourist appeasement, you’ll get to see more than most who go there.
Best wishes on your travels and thank you for supporting my films. Be sure to pass the word around and maybe I will run across someone who will be able to send me in the right direction in a new place sometime.
I just returned from Taiwan recently and I wanted to tell you about the trip. It was terrific, but 5 days was not enough. If I were to do it again, I would spend 4 days in Taipei, then 3 or 4 weeks traveling around the island. I saw the gorge and rode a motor bike which was amazing. I found some hot springs at the gorge which was great too. I discovered a scam they do which they tried on me. That is they tell you that you damaged the bike when you didn’t and ask you for more money. I had an argument with the boss and he eventually agreed that I did not cause the scratch. I spent 600 on the bike for 24 hours. Met another traveler who only paid 400.
Such is life.
In some ways I feel regret on my lack of foresight, but it was a good experience all the same.
Dear [NAME DELETED],
I am happy to hear that you used some of my advice on the gorge. The hot springs are nice there.
As for the scam: Well, you win some and you lose some, I guess. While it’s an unfortunate part of travel, it was still very shortsighted on the part of the bike shop owner. They just don’t seem to realize that travelers talk to other travelers (as we’re clearly doing here), blog about traveling and go on forums and tourism websites which are always very forthcoming about just who ripped them off.
But if that was your only hiccup, I think the good outshines the bad in this case.
Anyway, I am glad you had a good trip and all the best on future travels.