I like to travel. I do. But between my nine to five, my five to seven, and the leaves I’ve already used up, I don’t have time for long-distance, long-haul flights. What I do have time for are fast trips two to three hours away from Manila—planned efficiently and carefully, a few days in advance. An itinerary that includes one temple, not five, one marketplace, not ten, a museum, and a couple of landmarks. I need to please a selectively adventurous husband and a seven-year-old very quick to boredom, but also to delight, in a quick sojourn's many strange forms.
I don’t have time for much, but there’s always time for 72 hours away from Manila. Three days out of every week I’m tied to my cubicle like a balloon to a child’s finger (loosely but enough to hurt), and I’m itching to be somewhere else. So where, I asked myself last week, would I go, caution to the wind, practicality be just damned enough not to land me in bankruptcy? I brought the question to my husband and we decided on Taipei. Close enough to Manila so that flying wouldn’t take too big a bite out of our weekend, relatively inexpensive, famous for its street food and hot springs, and most importantly, visa-free for Philippine passport-holders. I came up with a fixed itinerary, allotting two major things to do each day, trusting that my husband would throw in a wild card (something not on the list, but possibly better than anything on it, and thrown in at the least expected moment).
Begin with Noodles.
We had an early morning flight and were hungry by the time we landed a little before lunch. We settled for a dive near the first landmark on our itinerary—a beef noodle place called Mercuries. Taipei is known for its flour rice noodles, which are both thick and stringy. A small order can fortify a hardy adult, and send him off sated and satisfied, before he goes off to see the sights.
The Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall
The best time to visit the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall is during the changing of the guard—and given our schedule, we could make it there for the 3 p.m. shuffle. The changing of the guard happens every hour on the hour, and there’s really no better time to visit. It’s especially stirring to see the brisk choreography of soldiers paying homage to a great political leader, as they do multiple times a day by a giant effigy of Chiang Kai-Shek.
The hall empties out into a square housing two traditional edifices—the National Concert Hall and the National Opera House, on the steps of which massive crowds had gathered to watch a marching band play. We stayed a couple of hours in the complex—which was barely enough time given all the fanfare.
Anyone looking to have an overview of Taipei should visit this modern tower on their first day. Known as the tallest tower in the world until 2004 when the Burj Khalifa stole the title, the Taipei 101 has a LEED certification, and a super fast elevator that can take you to the 89th floor in less than forty seconds. From there, it’s a two-floor climb to the observatory where you can see the Taipei skyline. We got there at dusk on a hazy day, and the skyline resembled a CPU, dotted like braille.
After breakfast, we hit the Lungshan Temple of Manka (also known as the Longshan Temple). Known as a traditional Chinese folk temple, it is acknowledged as one of the most important places of worship in Taipei; for the profane, it is eminently Instagrammable given its ornate pagodas, red candles and beautiful golden incense burners.
A melting pot of Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist beliefs, the temple is an inclusive enclave where feasting tables are laid out, and incense is burned, to serve the deities.
Ya Ge at the Mandarin
We promised ourselves one meal outside the street scene and we found it at Ya Ge at the Mandarin Oriental. Just this year, Ya-Ge was given a Michelin star, and is known as the first restaurant in Taipei to have achieved this status.
It was after lunch when my husband threw in the wild card and suggested that we take a three-hour train ride to Pingxi, a small mountainside town, from Taipei Main Station (or a forty-minute Uber ride, take your pick). We chose this over the Bei Tou hot springs because we have hot springs enough back home. Pingxi is lantern town, where you scrawl your hopes and desires on massive paper lanterns before you send them off into the heavens. Each desire corresponds to a color—red for health, white for dreams, and green for money, to name a few choice hues. Who knows where these wishes go, but it’s heartwarming to see these burning lanterns launched just after dusk, the higher the flight, the closer, it seems, to God’s ear.
Shilin Night Market
No trip to Taipei is ever complete without a visit to a night market, which resembles the crazy outdoor arcades of our youth back home—think balloons on rotation waiting for its dart or plastic pellet. Of the many markets Taipei has to offer, we picked the Shilin Night Market—there’s stall after stall of souvenir merchandise, Taiwanese delicacies, and famous street food—anything from giant cheesecake, to stinky tofu, to smoked mushrooms, to itinerant carts filled with rice flour noodles, or iced fruit. We made a shortlist from existing ones we found online and tried the torched wagyu cubes, the smoked mushrooms (with seaweed flakes), candied strawberries (one strawberry is enough given all the sugar and dye in one glazed shell). But the food that won the day—at least for us—were the toasted pepper buns.
Shilin Night Market
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We had a quick breakfast but kept the day easy. Day 3 was pasalubong day, and we went around to shop for knickknacks. As we know, Taiwan is also known for its skincare—exotic potions boxed in tourist-friendly pastel colors, masks dripping with the latest elixirs of youth, whatever their clammy or skin-tickling provenance. We brought home skincare systems (toner with almond essence, moisturizers with triceramides, and face masks dipped in fermented soybeans, among other things). Still full from Last Night’s street food run (or promenade), we kept it simple with a late lunch at Mo’s burger before we left for the airport.
It was back to the office and back to school the very next day, no work to make up for, as one has to do after longer trips away. Not much had changed within the flowing edges of my cubicle. I hadn’t missed much, and not much had missed me, but my chair felt a little notch higher than when I left it.