June 14, 2017

Despite my love for Taiwanese variety shows and pop music, visiting Taiwan was never at the top of my list. In fact, I visited the island only because I had bought a return ticket on a whim during a ‘crazy’ weekend sale by one of the airlines. I was due to depart exactly 72 hours later.

Obviously, there wasn’t enough time to plan a detailed itinerary, but I jumped into the deep end anyway. After all, I could speak Mandarin, English and a smattering of Taiwanese. What could go wrong? My uncle, a frequent traveller to Taiwan, raved highly about Kaohsiung—the second-largest city in Taiwan.

“It’s like Taipei, but better,” he declared.

Home to the largest port on the island, Kaohsiung is a nice balance of modern and traditional. Upon alighting from the High-Speed Rail (known as gao tie to locals), I was blown away by the glittering urban landscape juxtaposed against religious monuments erected amongst sprawling lush greenery.

Obviously, I did not learn my lesson from my Myanmar trip. I arrived in Taiwan smack in the middle of the long weekend commemorating the 228 Memorial Day. The station was full of Taiwanese from all over the island making their way to Kenting, a three-hour drive from Kaohsiung. Apparently, Kenting was a beach haven perfect for water sports. Resisting the temptation to spend my entire trip there, I decided to explore the city instead to expand my horizon.

Check out the architecture

Mid-rise buildings that litter the streets of Kaohsiung.

Taiwan’s colonial past means that most of the buildings are largely influenced by the Japanese. Mid-rise apartments were lined up along the road, with pushcart stalls weaving in and out, enticing passers-by with their steaming hot pork buns. I couldn’t help but stop for one. The warmth emanating from the pork bun was a lovely contrast to the cool March breeze, and fuelled me for a day of walking.

While the grid-like avenues and boulevards made it easy for me to navigate on foot, it resulted in heavy congestion along the high-traffic areas. This elicited an angry honk from an impatient driver, while hordes of scooters expertly squeezed past cars—wavering in and out of sight. Fascinated by the planning and structure of the city, I headed to 85 Sky Tower in the Lingya District to get a bird’s eye view. Although not quite as tall and magnificent as Taipei 101, the 85 Sky Tower was quiet. This allowed me to sit by the window and gain perspective. I took some notes on the places I wanted to visit, like the Love River bookended by blooming flowers and the Pier-2 Arts Centre.

Old Takao Railway Tracks

A little girl and her mother blowing bubbles at the Old Takao Railway Tracks.

After checking the Pier-2 Arts Centre off my to-do list, I wandered around the area a little more, and chanced upon the Takao Railway Museum. After spending the day exploring the various art exhibitions available, I was ready to rest my weary feet.

The long weekend had transformed the Old Takao Railway Tracks into a lively bazaar bustling with locals and booths selling little trinkets to handmade book covers made of scrap fabric with motifs of dogs and cats emblazoned on the covers. Many locals were lazing on picnic mats having a midday snack, while keeping a watchful eye on their children running around with kites inspired by cartoon characters trailing after them. Some of them were clutching a pail filled with soapy liquid and a bubble wand, spinning in circles to release streams of bubbles all around the tracks. The bubbles transformed the park into a magical setting, leaving me pleasantly surprised by this chance encounter.

Before long, my stomach grumbled. In Kaohsiung, food is readily available everywhere—with a buttery aroma lingering in the air. I bought three Taiwanese sausages from one of the food vendors and greedily wolfed them down before making my way back to my accommodation.

Visit Cijin Island

The ferry station at Kaohsiung Harbour to Cijin Island.

I set out early the next morning to catch the ferry to Cijin Island. Although I had planned to eat on the island itself, the oyster vermicelli stall stationed at the entrance of the ferry station proved to be irresistible.

It was a starchy mixture of fresh oysters and pig intestines spooned together. The stall even offered a pot of chilli—a rarity in Taiwan—and vinegar on the side. As I ate, the auntie asked if I could speak Taiwanese before proceeding to bark out a list of attractions I had to visit.

“Of course, you must visit the Tunnel of Stars, the Lighthouse, the Fort, and finally, the beach. The sand is black!” She ladled another spoonful of vermicelli into my bowl, and I slurped it up heartily before making my way to the departing ferry.

The ferry was a short 15-minute ride. Right outside the exit of the station was a smorgasbord of bicycles and tandem bikes complete with umbrellas for visitors to travel around the island. I opted to walk instead, my eyes set on the black beach the Auntie raved about.

It was stunning to say the least. The sight of black sand and clear blue waters dotted with kayaks greeted me. Peals of laughter could be heard as surfers sprinted and rode on each rolling wave, before landing suavely on the coastline and drawing claps from onlookers. Off to the right, there was a rocky cliff that caught my attention. Upon closer inspection, I realised that someone had took pains to lay sea glass in an intricate pattern along the shore. The path of sea glass led to an abandoned lookout facing the sea—complete with barbed wires to keep trespassers away. I concluded that it was part of the defence systems in place, along with the Cihou Fort and Lighthouse.

Left: The abandoned lookout on the rocky cliff; Right: View from the inside of the Cihou Fort.

Visit the Liuhe Night Market

After a short nap, I ambled to the Liuhe Night Market to see what the fuss was all about. My uncle’s description of the night markets in Kaohsiung did not prepare me for the magnificence that is the Liuhe Night Market. Cordoned off from the main street with looming barricades, the night market was alive with neon signs and hordes of people. It was like a Singapore pasar malam, except ten times bigger.

I stopped by the first stall selling muah chee owned by an old couple from Southern China. They had migrated to Taiwan in the 50s during the social revolution. Even though they were already in their 70s, their hands were nimble and quick, stretching the dough expertly and filling it with sesame before coating it with peanut crumbs. Their daughter, Ting Ting, advised me to suss out for the best deals before buying food to eat.

“You won’t be able to try everything alone!” she said.

And she was right; there was a delectable variety, from grilled seafood delicacies and chicken cutlets to extra-large bubble teas and even fried milk. The rest of the night was spent stuffing my face with food till the wee hours of morning. I heaved a sigh of relief when I finally reached home and could loosen my belt. My persistent bargaining worked, and a single NT$1000 bill does go a long way at the Liuhe Night Market.

Catch the prettiest sunsets from National Sun Yat-sen University

“I’m having a barbecue with friends at the beach this evening, come join us!” urged my new friend, Ting Ting. This beach lies along the coast of the National Sun Yat-sen University, a well-kept secret by local students, and home to the best views of the setting sun.

Ting Ting picked me up from the train station on the back of her bright pink scooter decorated with stickers. She tossed me a helmet and warned me to hold on tight. Her scooter was small, but it was a mean machine. The strong winds covered my face as she gained speed, and a small yelp of fear escaped my lips. I soon discovered that my worries were unfounded as Ting Ting started riding a scooter (the most common mode of transport) since she was 13.

We reached just in time to watch the sunset. The warm glow from the sun diffused across the sky, casting a reflection on the clear waters. As the waves crashed against the rocky shore, I reflected silently on the trip. Although it was a short four days in Kaohsiung, my random burst of wanderlust turned into a rich experience, with everlasting memories and newly found friends.