Wonderful! Friendly! Beautiful! Fantastic! Refreshing! Delicious!
These were some adjectives I heard from friends describing their trips to Taiwan. I knew I had to visit this small island some day.
After a month-long trip in Palawan and Borneo, we returned back to Korea for the last two weeks of school. Then, we were off again for spring break and last minutely booked trips to Taiwan. The trip coincided with Chinese New Year (called Lunar New Year in Korea), so I was excited to be in a country that celebrates this major holiday. I imagined lanterns, festivals, dancing dragons, crowded streets, firework festivals, and free hugs in cities draped in red.
But upon researching travel in Taiwan, I was discouraged to repeatedly read that travel during this massive holiday is absolute worst time of year. Traffic jams are inevitable and trains are sold out weeks in advance as citizens flock to their hometowns. The small island is also a popular getaway for people from mainland China. Shops shut down early as people understandably feast with their families. So, I expected that traveling in Taiwan would be frustrating and difficult, but it turned out to be just fine with some planning and flexibility.
If you are planning on traveling in Taiwan during the Chinese New Year, remember these 7 tips:
- Book in advance: During our first day in Taipei, we went to the Taipei Main Station to book our train tickets to our next destination a few days later, Hualien. Luckily, there were some seats available for a certain time (sold out the rest of the day), so we snatched them. You can also book tickets at iBon, the convenient machines in 7-Eleven. We luckily had some new friends decipher everything as there was no English, so try to get a local help you. When purchasing the tickets, the machine will pop out a receipt. Bring the receipt to the cashier and pay for it in exchange for physical tickets. We also booked the one hostel we stayed at in advanced. Note that prices will be higher during that time.
- If you CouchSurf, bring a gift: If you are going to be CouchSurfing during Chinese New Year, consider yourself lucky. Similar to Christmas, this is a time of year to spend time with family. So, bring a gift. It can be something from your home country, fruit in a nice box, lottery tickets, etc. Gift-giving is a natural thing to do when entering somebody’s home in Taiwan, but it is especially important on Chinese New Year.
- Book connecting buses instead of trains: We tried booking trains back to Taipei for the last day of the holiday, which was a total disaster. Many people leave the big city to return to their hometowns, so everyone at once will be traveling back to Taipei as the holiday ends. It is possible to buy an unreserved seat, but be prepared to stand for several hours squished amongst other people and their luggage (we did it once. Never again). Or, you can try to book two buses.
For example, we booked a bus from Chiayi to Taichung, a 1.5 hour drive. All of the buses to Taipei were sold out. From Taichung, there are frequent buses to Taipei, so we transferred there to another bus. We had to wait a bit on standby and we ran into some traffic, but at least we got comfortable seats the whole journey.
- Learn how to say Happy New Year in Chinese: I’m not going to pretend I know how to read/write it, but just know how to say it. Happy New Year is romanized as “Xīn nián kuài lè”, but watch this video on how to pronounce it. Don’t forget! We said this to everyone we met and they were always pleasantly surprised and happy to hear foreigners attempt to speak Chinese.
- Check out some lantern festivals. During the days leading up to the holiday, lanterns embellish town streets. Festivals are held around the country toward the end of February until the middle of March. At the Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival, you can design your own lantern and release it up into the sky with your wishes for the new year. Or gaze at the extravagantly designed lanterns at the Taiwan Lantern Festival, perhaps the most famous one. Note that its location changes each year. This is a good resource for the various festivals around Chinese New Year.
- Bring earplugs. Fireworks are set off sporadically during the day and night. As someone from America, I was startled to hear loud bangs in the middle of the night, but then felt reassured when I reminded myself that I’m in the safe place that is Taiwan. The fireworks are loud and exciting, but not when you’re trying to catch some z’s.
7. Eat: If you’re staying with a family, then you will eat. A lot. I happened to stay with a family of vegetarians, so I enjoyed several courses of meat-free cuisine, but fish, meat, hot pots, and dumplings usually occupy a Taiwanese family’s table during this holiday. However, if you’re staying at hotels or hostels, it might be more difficult to find open restaurants. If they are open, they’ll close early, so don’t wait too long before having dinner. If all else fails, 7-Elevens are always open as are McDonald’s (but please, don’t do that to yourself). We weren’t in Taipei during the holiday, but I heard that shops are notoriously closed for a long time because most Taipei is not the hometown of most people.
We thoroughly enjoyed our trip even though I was a little scared off from the other blog posts. Don’t be discouraged to visit Taiwan if you’re afraid of the crowds during the New Year. Blend into your surroundings by wearing red and enjoy the wonderful country that is Taiwan!