Okay, so I’m not Anthony Bourdain… But I did have a long layover in Taipei, and it was actually a lot of fun — and not very expensive!
Let me get real with y’all for a second here… World travel on a budget is not glamorous. One of the obvious downsides is sitting for 10+ hours in economy class. It’s not my idea of a good time, but it’s not completely intolerable. However, one of the other disadvantages is not having the luxury of being picky with your flight times. If you live in a major airline hub city (ye gods, do I miss the cheap, last-minute Delta flights to anywhere from ATL!) then you may have more options. But for the rest of us, choices are limited. In order to get a round-trip from Jacksonville to Bali for less than $1000 per person, we were stuck with a 20-hour layover on the way home. Rather than grump about it, we decided to use it as an opportunity to get out and explore a bit, since neither of us had been to Taiwan before.
If you’d like to read about my trip to Bali, it’s here. Our flight from Denpasar to Taipei was on EVA Airlines, in an amazing HELLO KITTY PLANE.
Yes, there was Hello Kitty toilet paper in the bathroom.
May 23 @ 21:30 (Arrival)
I thought about booking a hotel for the night, but then found out that Taoyuan International Airport has free wifi, bathrooms, and showers! This airport also has sleeping lounges where you can pay by the hour, but while looking for food we lucked upon a group of reclining lounge chairs. The cushion on top of each chair happened to be detachable — so I pulled mine off and laid it down on the floor. It was actually pretty comfortable.
I’d brought a blanket and travel pillow along with my blackout mask and earplugs (I sleep best in total sensory deprivation), so I was good to go. The area also had a charging station, so we plugged in our phones and Kindles, then settled in for the night. The only downside was all the restaurants in the terminal appeared to be closed by the time we arrived. If you’re flying in late, bring food. I had a bag of dried jackfruit chips from Denpasar, so that was my “dinner.” The airport felt kind of cold and clammy with no people in it, and I did wake up once because my blanket had shifted and I was shivering, but overall it was the best airport sleep I’ve experienced. Devon did not have such an easy time with it, but the chaise was unfortunately not designed with a 6’5″ person in mind.
May 24 @ 6:00
I was awoken by Devon, who had gone to find breakfast and returned with a hot tea for me. We packed up our stuff and headed for customs. Taiwan offers (depending on your country of residence) a “visa on arrival” for a stay of 30 days or less. The best time to go through immigration is apparently at 6am. The only people around were us two, a janitor, and one guy at the very end of the room who stamped our passports. After we were out of the terminal, we took some time to freshen up, brush teeth, etc. Next we paid to store our bags for the afternoon (about $15) and bought bus tickets to downtown Taipei (about $6 for the one-way trip). We chose the #1960 route which would drop us off at Taipei City Hall. From there the plan was to walk to Taipei 101 for some sightseeing. We didn’t bother buying new sim cards since it seemed like a lot of places in Taipei had free wifi.
The buses ran every few minutes, so we didn’t have to wait long. We were the only people on the bus along with a Taiwanese woman who spoke English (she and her husband seemed to split their time between Taiwan and the US). She explained to us that China’s president recently put restrictions on travel to Taiwan, because Taiwan’s president would not acknowledge Taiwan as part of China… or something like that. Anyway, that explained why immigration was a ghost town this morning. Usually tons of mainland Chinese tourists flood Taiwan on a daily basis. The bus ride to City Hall was an hour, even taking an express lane the whole way. Taoyuan airport is waaaaay outside Taipei.
We got off at the City Hall bus station and Devon wanted to grab a snack before we started walking around. We grabbed a couple of pastries at Mister Donut, then stopped by 7-11. They had a whole counter full of hot food, similar to 7-11’s in the US, but instead of yucky hot dogs and stale nachos, there was a big pot of eggs (pickled, or maybe century eggs?) and racks with steamed buns… to which I sighed wistfully since I couldn’t read Chinese to determine what any of the fillings were. There was a plethora of drinks and snacks; all manner of jellies, puddings, biscuits, chips, noodles, baked goods, and candies to be had in addition to water, milk, aloe drinks, and coffee.
Taipei 101 doesn’t open until 11am, so we walked around to kill some time. Across the street from Taipei 101 is ATT 4 Fun shopping mall, where a few stores and restaurants were beginning to open for the day. One of my silly traditions is trying McDonald’s in other countries — don’t you judge me! (The “Egg McMuffin with Vegetables” turned out to be just a standard McDonald’s egg with lettuce and tomato. Nothing spectacular, but that’s Mickey D’s for you.)
We strolled into Taipei 101 and hit the counter to purchase tickets for the observation deck. Since it had just opened, there was no line to get tickets or wait to get in the building. The entrance fee was $15 for adults. Around the ticket counter is a gift shop with tons of souvenirs and merchandise, if you don’t have time to visit the top and want to just buy something to say you were there.
Taipei 101 used to be the tallest building in the world at 1671 feet, but has sadly been demoted to 8th tallest (5th tallest in Asia). However, it does still boast a Guinness record for world’s fastest elevator, at 37.7 miles per hour / 55.22 feet per second. As you wait to board the elevator, someone will take your photo, which is available to purchase. Unfortunately, I didn’t want the souvenir because we both looked in need of a shower and change of clothes. (Hmm, almost like we’d spent the night on the floor. Ha ha!) Sadly, there are no windows in the elevator (likely to keep squeamish guests from vomiting), but during the ride, it goes dark and the ceiling illuminates with multicolored lights that undulate in patterns to mimic a starry sky, while some cheerful music plays. If you’re sensitive to rapid pressure changes, like I am, your ears may pop!
The elevator let us off at floor 88 for the enclosed observation area, where you can buy snacks and souvenirs while enjoying the view. From this vantage point, clouds look like wisps of floating cotton candy surrounding the tower; buildings and cars on the ground look like toys. The sky was kind of gray and appeared to be threatening rain, so the view was sporadically obstructed by opaque curtains of vapor.
The observation area had English translations for most of the informative signs and videos. Every detail of Taipei 101 is intentionally symbolic: the tower is built in the style of a traditional Chinese pagoda and evokes a stalk of bamboo (symbol of growth). The 8 stacked segments of the tower are split into 8 floors (the number 8 symbolizes good fortune). Various other design elements adorn the building’s exterior, including stylized dragons and ruyi (power symbols), Chinese coins (for prosperity), and circles/squares (for a balance of yin/yang).
The tower is designed to withstand winds of up to 134 mph. Suspended from the 92nd to the 87th floor is a giant steel ball which serves as a damper to counterbalance the tower under strong gusts. Apparently the damper was so popular with tourists that the city had Sanrio turn it into a mascot called “Damper Baby,” fashioning the ball into a Hello Kitty-style character. Large “Baby” figures are placed throughout the observation deck for photo ops, and plenty of merchandise is available for purchase.
We were allowed to take the stairs to the exterior observation deck on the 91st floor; however most of the area had been closed off, and we were basically standing inside a cloud, so I couldn’t see much at all.
In Disney fashion, we were forced to exit through another gift shop before we could leave the tower. This was a serious gift shop… We walked past shelves filled with giant, elaborately carved dragons and Buddhas made from coral, jade, or amethyst; rows of glass cases filled with every kind of jewelry you could imagine; globes of varying sizes covered in a mosaic of iridescent shell pieces… really expensive stuff.
Below the Taipei 101 tower is an entire shopping mall, so we decided to explore a while. Sadly, the majority of stores were luxury establishments like Tiffany’s, Louis Vuitton, Chanel, etc. Even if I was in the market for high-end shopping, with the currency exchange I wouldn’t save any significant amount of money compared to buying back home — although if you are a foreign traveler, you can bring your sales receipt to a “tax refund” counter to have the 5% value added tax returned to you. Hey, at least wifi was free.
While Devon went outside to have a cigarette, I decided to shop a bit by myself. Oh, bad idea. Apparently the aggressive sales technique I experienced in Bali is common all over Asia. As soon as you enter a store, a salesperson (or multiples!) will begin orbiting you and repeatedly asking you if you need help. Although, maybe they just don’t like tattoos, and thought I looked shady and was going to steal something. At this point I really wished I’d bothered to learn some Chinese phrases (“No thanks, just looking!” would’ve been helpful). It seems like stores don’t want you to touch the merchandise; the salespeople will shadow you and immediately snatch anything you pick up so they can hold it “for” you while you shop. I guess it might have been a different experience had I been able to communicate with them. Y’all know I love Asian skincare products, and I was super excited to find a L’Herboflore kiosk!… But the salesgirls were insanely aggressive and a little overwhelming (seriously, half a dozen people working one kiosk), so I didn’t buy anything.
We walked back across the street to ATT 4 Fun. On the ground floor we found a Watson’s drugstore, which was blissfully free of obnoxious salespeople! I was able to shop alone and ended up purchasing some more of my beloved Biore Watery Essence sunscreen, a couple of foot peels (Baby Foot cannot be described, only experienced), and a box of My Beauty Diary sheet masks. On the first 3 floors we meandered through some interesting stores with all manner of amusing trinkets and souvenirs, in addition to clothing and home goods.
The 4th floor seemed to be focused on sweets and desserts, with an over-the-top “Alice in Wonderland” theme, which included acid-trippy holograms, gigantic white rabbits wearing waistcoats, and plenty of playing cards, clocks, and tea cups floating around.
On the 5th floor was the “Food Bazaar” with more restaurants. Devon wanted to stop for another snack, and we briefly considered eating at “Nola Kitchen” because I was both scared and intrigued to find out what a Taiwanese interpretation of beignets and crawfish étouffée would taste like. (They also had chicken & waffles, which isn’t even from New Orleans.)
We ended up being lured away from Nola Kitchen by other enticing edibles (and the fact that I don’t think I could have ordered anything with a straight face; I was unable to stop giggling like a mad hatter at the random things they thought were authentic “Nola”), and found a seat at a Japanese okonomiyaki (translates to “grilled as you like it”) restaurant. We were given an English menu that was just 2 pages, as opposed to the Chinese menu that was about 12 pages. Dang. I’ve really got to learn some Chinese before I come back. The English menu had pictures so we could at least point at what we wanted to order. Devon got some meat and noodles with an egg; I had a small plate of takoyaki (octopus fritters).
There were 5 more floors above the food bazaar, including a night club and a rooftop bar! However, at this point we were getting ready to head back to the airport. This mall is definitely a great place to occupy yourself for a few hours. There is also a “4-D” movie theater next door, which would be a great place to spend an afternoon. It would be easy to occupy yourself for a whole day in this one city block alone.
We grabbed one of the cabs parked outside Taipei 101, which was quicker than trying to figure out a bus. Devon managed to communicate to the driver where we were going, and the fare was about $30.
Back at the airport, we picked up our luggage and checked into our flight to NYC. Before going through security, we stopped at the food court to grab a few more snacks “for the road” (just in case I slept through all the meals again), and I got a gigantic boba tea. I couldn’t read most of the menu, but I saw “black tea with milk” so I ordered that. Taiwan is the birthplace of boba tea, so I really would have liked to explore the city and find some cool places to drink it (now taking suggestions), but that can be another thing I can do the next time I visit.
Getting through security didn’t take too long. I think we probably could have spent another hour messing around town before coming back to Taoyuan, but we didn’t want to end up running late and missing the plane. We had some time to chill out before the flight, so I decided to walk laps around the terminal since I knew I’d soon be sitting for 15 hours. Taoyuan airport is great for last-minute duty-free shopping. I thought maybe here I could be left alone to browse some shops at my own speed, but no such luck. If you aren’t bothered by aggressive salespeople then you’ll probably enjoy it… there’s tons of expensive skincare products and cosmetics, all the fragrances anybody could want, handbags galore, crap loads of whiskey (much love for American bourbons and Scotch single malts on this side of the world), toys and electronics, and some of the cheapest cigarettes I’ve ever seen. (Taoyuan airport also has a smoking lounge.)
I loved my short visit to Taipei and would definitely welcome another long layover there! It would be nice to visit the night markets or see another part of town next time, but even the airport alone is a comfortable enough place to while away a few hours.