Is Taipei the new Tokyo?
Ever wondered what the secret is to having the most enjoyable trip possible? Welcome to my “Be Invisible” series – your ultimate guide for how to avoid looking like a tourist on your next adventure and guaranteed to boost your entire travel experience.
Bursting with helpful tips and tricks, I’ve asked locals from particular cities around the world to share their insider knowledge on the best ways travellers can become “invisible” when visiting their city and enjoy it like a local. If you’re ready to challenge travel stereotypes, overcome language barriers and embrace what I like to call invisible tourism, you’ve come to the right place!
This Taiwan travel tips guide was written by Nick from Spiritual Travels. I’m yet to visit Taiwan myself so I am very excited to share his top 10 tips for how to NOT look like a tourist in Taiwan. Discover how you can make the most of your travel time and experience Taipei like a local, written by a local!
Here’s 10 Taiwan travel tips to know before you go
To be clear from the get-go, if you aren’t of Taiwanese or Chinese descent, it’s going to be a little tough not to LOOK like an outsider in Taiwan. I’ve been living in Taipei for 10 years, and I still get “welcomed” to Taiwan by friendly locals on nearly a daily basis. My kids were born and raised here (see my article on traveling around Taiwan with kids), but they are still regarded as foreigners.
Having said that, there are still some things you can do to not ACT like a tourist in Taiwan, no matter what you’re cultural background is.
Below I’m going to give you some tips to avoid having awkward encounters, causing offense, or giving the impression that you’ve just stepped foot in Taiwan for the first time in your life.
Eat Like a Local
Taiwan is a nation of foodies, and dining in the amazing restaurants and night markets in Taipei is one of the great joys of traveling here. Generally speaking, the food is clean and safe to eat everywhere in Taiwan.
In local restaurants, it can sometimes be tough to know what to do first. Sometimes you order, sit, eat then pay. Sometimes you order, pay, sit, then eat. Sometimes you leave your dishes on the table when you are done, and sometimes you place them on a rack as you leave.
Since even locals know this can vary, the best thing to do is just watch what other patrons are doing. If you can’t find tissues, there are often tissue dispensers on the restaurant walls instead of on the tables. Finally, if a restaurant worker leaves a bill on your table, that means you need to take it up to the front to pay when you’re finished. Don’t ever call for the waiter/waitress. My friend and I did that on our first day in Taiwan because it was normal to do that in China, where we had been before. We got some pretty serious stares.
When eating street food or strolling through night markets, it is perfectly acceptable to eat and walk. It’s often the only option! You may wonder where everyone puts their garbage (and goes to the bathroom!) Most night markets have a large bin at the entrance, while MRT stations are everyone’s go-to place to get rid of trash or use the loo.
Drink Like a Local
First things first. You’ve got to know how to order iced tea. You can’t visit the homeland of bubble tea without trying it! Iced tea shops are on every corner, and ordering is easy with their handy English menus and pictures that you can point at. But be prepared for two important questions: How much bing kuai (ice) and tang (sugar) do you want?
For ice, ‘normal’ is probably suitable for most Western tastes, while many locals prefer xiao bing (little ice) wei bing (very little ice) or qu bing (no ice). For sugar, be warned that ‘normal’ is crazy sweet. Xiao tang or wei tang is a safer bet, while I always go for wu tang (no sugar). Some shops measure sugar in % and have handy little charts for that as well.
You may notice that beer is sold everywhere in Taiwan, and it’s legal to drink just about anywhere (except the MRT!) Still, few locals would ever walk around with a beer on their hand. They prefer to drink at a restaurant table, or perhaps while sitting in park. Many long-term expats still walk around with ‘road beers’ though, and so long as your behaviour is normal and polite, nobody seems to mind. But again, if you are aiming not to stand out, then you should avoid this.
Walk on the Left, Stand on the Right
There is an unwritten rule on escalators in Taipei. The right side of the escalator is always for standing, while the left side is for people to walk up. Don’t be that person who causes the human traffic jam.
If you do break this rule, most locals will be too polite to say anything, but they will silently fume behind you.
More MRT Etiquette
The Taipei MRT is the pride of Taiwan. This super fast, safe, clean, and efficient metro system is considered one of the best in the world. One thing that makes it great is that (almost) everybody follows the etiquette of the MRT.
The obvious rules are easy because they are announced and posted everywhere: no eating, drinking, smoking or chewing gum or betel nut (OK, tourists probably won’t do the last one).
But here are the less obvious ones: pay attention to the yellow lines where you should queue up for the train, wait for people to get off before boarding, then move swiftly to an area with less people when it’s crowded. Don’t block doorways, and don’t lean against them because they can open on either side.
But the one thing that would instantly give you away as a rude tourist would be to sit in a dark blue chair, designated for the needy, when you don’t need it, and particularly if you did so and failed to give it up when someone who really needed it got on. If you do need to sit because of a physical condition that’s not not obvious or visible, you can get a sticker to put on your shirt from the information counter at any station.
If I could choose just one thing that makes a tourist stand out in Taipei or Taiwan, it’s being too loud in certain places.
To be fair, Taiwan can be pretty loud. In a country this crowded, noise pollution is a very real thing, but mostly it comes from traffic, construction, and local festivals. But still, not knowing when and where to keep your voice down is a Taiwan newbie dead giveaway.
Again, this is going back to the MRT (Are you beginning to see a theme here? Be good on the MRT!) You might notice that the MRT in Taiwan is unusually, almost eerily quiet. What many non-Taiwanese would consider a respectful volume of conversation is still a few decibels too high for the MRT.
The same thing applies on all transportation across Taiwan, including buses, trains, and the high speed rail. Most Taiwanese people catnap on these forms of transportation and do not appreciate loud talkers. The same goes for talking on your phone, watching videos, or listening to music loudly with headphones, even though some locals (especially the elderly) can be bad for these things too.
In fact, keeping it quiet pretty much anywhere public in Taiwan is the norm. Even locals do have their loud moments, but if you truly want to avoid being the obvious tourist, then heed this advice.
Save All your Receipts
Several years back, the local government came up with a way to encourage businesses to record transactions for tax purposes: the bi-monthly receipt lottery. Every receipt has a lottery number. If the last three numbers match the winning one, you get NT$200, while all matching numbers can win you up to NT$10 million.
Saying no to a receipt is like saying, “No, I’m not interested in possibly becoming a (Taiwanese dollar) millionaire.” And if you truly don’t want it, rather than walking away without taking it after a purchase, take it and put it in one of the donation boxes found in many convenience stores. Alternatively, give your receipts to any local person, as most people here hoard their receipts.
Know the Cultural Taboos
A good way to show that you didn’t read the little “cultural taboos” section of your travel guidebook is to break one of the many taboos in Taiwan. The Taiwanese are a superstitious bunch, and while they are quite forgiving with outsiders, knowing the main ones can help you to act more like a local:
- Don’t stick your chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice. It looks like incense.
- Don’t give clocks, watches, scissors, knives, white flowers, or things related to the number four as gifts. Mostly the Mandarin words for these items sounds like words or phrases related to parting or death.
- Don’t open gifts as soon as you receive them.
- Hand and receive business cards or other important papers with two hands.
- Don’t sign your name or other people’s names in red.
Polite Always, but Never Touchy
Politeness is a way of life in Taiwan and is taught in schools. Being polite and keeping your cool, even if angry, will always serve you better in Taiwan. This is a ‘please’ and ‘excuse me’ loving country.
However, most Taiwanese are not comfortable with touching new friends or acquaintances. Small nods or hand waves are preferred for greetings or goodbyes, and even many business people still aren’t quite used to the handshake. And if you really want to creep someone out, going in for a hug or European style kiss should do the trick.
Taiwanese people are very open-minded though, and many have traveled abroad, so you may also encounter exceptions to this.
Also note, Taiwanese don’t tend to chat with strangers as much as many Westerners do. Trying to strike up a conversation with your waitress of a clerk at 7-Eleven will do nothing more than scare the shit out of that person because they will feel their English is being tested (my Dad does it when he visits, much to the embarrassment of myself and my other family members). While people are often physically close together in Taiwan, most people still try to respect one another’s space and privacy.
Leave out the Politics
Unless you are certain someone wants to discuss politics, it’s better to avoid it. Most people (especially the younger generation) simply don’t care to talk about it. The relationship between China and Taiwan is an extremely complex and sensitive issue, and making the wrong assumption about Taiwanese people’s political interests, national identity, or feelings towards China could be an easy way to cause offense. Just don’t go there unless that person asks first.
Dress As You Wish, Within Reason
What to wear in Taiwan
The good news is that Taipei is a liberal city when it comes to fashion, among other things. You probably won’t need to dramatically alter or worry about what to wear in Taiwan.
You can get away with casual clothes in all but the fanciest restaurants, and for women, short shorts, mini-skirts, and tank tops are all perfectly fine and common, even for walking around at night. Sandals are also common for much of the year, as are shorts for men. All of this even applies to visiting temples.
Footwear in Taiwan
Still, Taipei is not the beach. Beach type clothing that you might see backpackers across SE Asia wearing is not common in Taipei, so dressing like this would be a good way to shine a tourist spotlight on yourself. While Taiwanese are accepting of different styles and fashions, the hippie look, lots of piercings or tattoos, and large beards on men are far from common among locals, so they will definitely make you stand out. You will still be treated politely though.
Never go barefoot in Taipei. Locals would find that outright disgusting and disrespectful. Even inside people’s homes, you will always be offered slippers (that are always 1 or 3 sizes too small) to wear inside.
Finally, if you are more used to cold weather than the Taiwanese are, then you might get a lot of surprised reactions from locals if you don’t bundle up in winter. The lowest temperatures in Taipei in winter are around 10 degrees Celsius (although it can feel quite a bit chillier with the humidity). If you are traveling with kids, locals will think you are nuts if you don’t put multiple layers on them in winter, even on warmer winter days.
Ready to be invisible in Taipei?
Now you’ve uncovered the secrets for what to expect in Taiwan, perhaps you’re ready to make the trip! Why not compare hotel prices here?
Do you have any Taiwan travel tips to add to this list? Let me know in the comments below!
I hope you enjoyed this instalment of my Be Invisible series! If you found this helpful, please share it or follow me on Facebook, Pinterest or Instagram for more!
Until next time,
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All photography copyright to Nick Kembel of Spiritual Travels.
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