Taiwan, having been ruled by the Japanese for several decades and being home to many mountains, has a prolific hot spring culture, although customs are slightly different. Unlike Japanese onsen, most Taiwanese hot spring places require you to wear swimming gear (and an ugly bathing cap), as bathing areas are not separated by gender.

We had originally planned to visit Beitou, the nearest hot spring resort to Taipei, but couldn't bring ourselves to go in the oppressive heat. A week later, in Tainan, we had somewhat acclimatised to Taiwan's humid, tropical weather. So we decided to visit Guanziling, which is about 40 km from Tainan city and also home to a few other attractions (which you can only reach by bus during the weekend, when a shuttle runs, or on your own transport, so we didn't make it this time).
It's a bit difficult to find information on visiting Guanziling in English, but it's definitely doable. Unlike Beitou, Guanziling is a resort area and we didn't find any public hot spring facilities. Instead, we chose to visit the much recommended King's Garden Villa Spa and Resort (www.myspa.co.tw). Many people point out online how this place is virtually impossible to visit for the non Mandarin speaker, but my girlfriend's attempt to speak to the reception in Mandarin was countered by perfect English - they also have a nifty  English brochure (I some snapshots at the end of this post, as you are not allowed to use your camera inside). Just make sure to write the Chinese name down for the taxi drivers - they all know the place, but not under the English name, as the Chinese one means something completely different.

The experience

I think this might have been my favourite spa/hot spring so far! It was very different from onsen, bathhouses and jimjilbang I have visited in Korea and Japan and also different from Middle Eastern hamams. We paid the NT$ 350 entry fee at the reception (450 on weekends) and were shown to go to the end of the resort complex. There, we left our shoes outside (no lockers) and were handed a big towel and ugly bathing cap each. The caps sadly are compulsory in Taiwan, but I have to say it really kept my hair dry. There are lockers for your bags, but you want to head for the shower area first, as you need to get changed there. Yes you heard right, no changing into your birthday suit in front of a hundred grannies. Perfect for those afraid of other East Asian baths because you're insecure about the hanging out naked bit. King's Garden villa had big, lockable shower cubicles, some of which are inside and combined with toilets, others are even bigger and outside. They are a bit basic but do the job: Hose down, put on your swimwear and shower cap. Then lock your other stuff away (you can take the towel if you like) and head for the outdoor area.

This is where I really warmed up to the place - there are several spa pools in a fake-natural setting, and none of them were over 43 degrees Celsius - unlike Japanese ones which can easily scorch you. The cold pools also had temperate North Sea like temperatures which reminded me of childhood holidays in Northern Germany, but we're still a bit too chilly for my HK-born girlfriend.

Guanziling is famous for its mud hot spring (you can see the river in the area carrying the same grayish water, it's natural, not polluted). So among the herbal spa pool (my favourite), there was also a carbon enriched bath as well as a mud bath and also a small area with free mud which you could rub all over your body, then let dry and rinse off. It definitely makes your skin very smooth and it was hilarious seeing everybody trying to airdry themselves in the outdoor lounge area. The temperature in Guanziling was great, around 23 degrees, so none of the pools gave you a big temperature shock, but it was fine to hang around outside, too.

From the pool area, you could head outside for even more fun - there was a room which provided three DIY face masks, funky excecise machines, massage contraptions and a small library of magazines and manga. We had a lot of fun trying all the machines! Another level up was a UV-foot spa and foot bath. 

The spa also includes two saunas (dry and humid with essential oils) and adjoining indoor cold plunge baths, a swimming pool and naked bathing area for those who like on the upper floors. We are not adverse to naked bathing fun but didn't actually realise this area existed until we checked out. Naked areas are of course separated by gender. The swimming pool was being cleaned during our stay, but the saunas were nice if a little bit too cool at only around 45 degrees (I turned into a hardcore sauna fan in Finland this summer).

Overall, there are 16 pools plus all the extras like sauna, mud masks and excercise stuff. The place was very clean and a total bargain for £7 with unlimited stay. We visited on a Monday and it wasn't too busy. There were a few other foreigners there during our stay and I didn't feel like anybody got odd looks - it all felt very relaxed and fun and I actually wished we had booked a night's stay to use the great facilities again!

Grabbing lunch

After 2.5 hours of getting pruny... I mean beautiful and relaxed, we walked a few minutes down the road in search of food. Guanziling is famous for teapot chicken, chicken that is roasted in giant clay pots. Mountain vegetables and bamboo shoots are also very good here.

We had lunch at the Bamboo Fragrant Restaurant, which came recommended by several Taiwanese blogs. We went for half a chicken, stir fried bamboo shoots, stir fried fiddleheads (called dragon's moustache in Chinese :)) 
and rice.
The chicken actually came with a lovely chicken soup (European style, no funky Chinese herbal tastes) with more fresh bamboo, and we also got a peanut as well as fried taro side dish and of course tea for free. This set us back NT$ 660, which is a bit pricy for Taiwan, but absolutely worth it. I think this was the best Chinese meal I've ever had in terms of quality, freshness, balance of flavours as well as service. Girlfriend also loved it but is genetically predisposed to consider dim sum the most delicious Chinese food. I can highly recommend trying this place when in Guanziling!

have to admit that none of the restaurants seemed to have an English menu - I was with someone who can read Chinese easily, so ordering was fine. From my experience in Taiwan, people should be happy to help you out though. Staff here was fairly young and should be able to manage some English. If in doubt, ask some of the other guests :) 

After our meal, we had to wait a while for the next bus, but the wait was sweetened by the many friendly puppies in the are - not strays, just very independent dogs that belong to locals and roam freely. 

In short: I haven't been to any other hot spring place in Taiwan, but Guanziling and Kings Garden Villa get a big thumbs up. Do consider spending an extra day in Tainan to visit!

How to get there: 
From Tainan station, take a train to Xinying (also written Sinying, 新營區), which is about 20-30 minutes away, depending on the train you take - most northbound trains from Tainan seem to stop there, so you shouldn't have to wait more than 20 minutes. The ticket price also depends on the train, we paid around 70 NT$ (around 2 USD/£1.50). From here, you have three options: Take the super cheap hourly bus, which requires you to make an easy change. There is a tiny but very helpful tourist information box outside Sinying station that can give you a current schedule. The other option is to negotiate a price with one of the taxi drivers outside who will drive you up to Guanziling (it's about half an hour for the direct trip, the bus takes quite a bit longer) and then hang around so you can call them for pickup once you are all spa'd out. Chinese blogs agree that around NT$ 1200 is a good round trip price (taxis are very sparse once you are up in Guanziling). We decided to take a taxi one way to save time, and then took the bus back. We paid NT$ 550 one way, but did ignore the first driver who was very assertive and asked for more. Overall we took less than an hour to get to the spa from Tainan with train and taxi. The bus option (don't worry about the change, the connecting bus stops right behind where you are dropped of) added an hour to the return trip but obviously was NT$ 450 cheaper than taking another taxi (if you can catch one back at all). Local bus rides in Taiwan just cost a few cents (you can also use the EasyCard).

If you aren't fluent in Mandarin, I guess the way we did it is the easiest. Just make sure - as always in a Chinese speaking area - to have all your destinations written down in Chinese. You are unlikely to be ripped off in Taiwan but I've never come across an English speaking taxi driver there.

not every day is a movie set, but we did come across a lot of them in Taipei!
Today is our last day in Taipei, and it feels like we have barely done any "touristing" in the 12 days we have been here. Essentially, we have been working, studying, eating and walking all over town. It's not that Taipei has nothing to do and see - to the contrary - or that the place rubs us the wrong way. Actually, not at all.

We have both been to Taipei before and I love the city - it offers everything that a large Japanese or Korean city does and more, at prices that are almost South East Asia low (except for accommodation - apparently Taipei has some of the priciest property in the region, right up there with Hong Kong).

I was so keen to soak in the hot springs of Beitou, to hike all over Yangmingshan National Park, which is just an hours' bus ride outside the city. To go for long runs at the river side trail.
At 32 degrees and 80 % humidity, followed by slightly cooler days with heavy rain, it somehow just didn't happen.

stumbling across a historical regeneration project with street art
I've been telling myself off for not doing all the wonderful things (seriously people, go to Taiwan!). That I'm a bad traveller and boring and wasting this precious opportunity. But you know what? I've been doing just what most people do, most days. Wake up, eat, work, eat, browse the internet and sleep. Repeat. Sleep in. Walk around, go to the supermarket. Eat at Japanese restaurant chains I am familiar with. Drink lots of tea (if you thought the British like their tea, the Taiwanese take it to a next level. People buy tea from tea vendors and take it to restaurants!).

Today, I woke up with a stomach ache, cancelled a meet up with an old friend (we met last week and will meet again soon in Europe) and the walking tour we were supposed to go on. Today, I'm reading my uni books, nursing cups of herbal tea and reading all the travel blogs. I've been to Taiwan before and I'll be visiting Taiwan again, but apparently I need a break (or maybe I am just hungover from an amazing 6 weeks in Japan?).

Our next stop is Tainan, the historical capital of the country and my favourite place on my last Taiwan trip. I hope it'll manage to get me out of this "slump". But if not? That's ok, too. 

"Let me check that for you. Ah, I see, can you confirm that you tried to withdraw money in...um, ah..."

-'Taipei? Yes, I got to Taiwan this morning and have been unable to withdraw cash.'
"I'm sorry, can you confirm how long you will be in Thailand for?'

Duh. Taiwan is not Thailand, but it's not the first time I've heard it. Neither was I surprised my card got blocked once more, even though I had notified my bank well in advance. Ever since a real case of fraud (for a tiny amount) was committed with my credit card last year, I have been high on my bank's watch list. Which means they block my card once every three months on average, or whenever I visit several countries within a few days, or enter a country considered 'unusual'. What was new to me was that the Indian call centre agent had never heard of Taiwan, either.

I've meant to write a rant about the Asia issue for a while, but didn't want it to be all against white folk ;) As somebody who counts the Middle East and East Asia among as her favourite travel regions, the idea that Asia = South East Asia makes my blood boil. It's akin to the concept of calling the USA 'America' (talk to some Mexicans, Chileans or Argentinians about that, who will all insist that they are American, too), but also comes with a whole lot odd associations.

Issue #1 Backpackers and travellers with limited horizons

'You know how it is in Asia...' goes the discussion in hostels and online. 'Locals want to rip you off...' 'You just have to get to used to the corruption' 'Drinking is cheap' 'Nobody cares what you dress like' 'You don't need to learn the language'

Ok, I get it. Thailand provides high level creature comfort at cheap prices. Cambodia and Laos offer a thrill with the safety net that you can always buy your way out of trouble. Vietnam offers three star hotels at less than European hostel bunk bed prices. Travel and life in SE Asia is cheap and safe (if you aren't a local). These countries are great destinations. However, they are not representative of all of Asia. What if somebody told you that the US is like Bolivia, you know what America is like? Or yeah, those Europeans, they love going to the sauna down there in the Canary Islands? How the culture of Norway is so similar to that of Greece? Asia is a continent, and just because you have travelled to a tiny part of it, it doesn't mean you have a clue about the rest of it. It's like visiting only New York and concluding that all Americans must walk a lot. Like visiting the Octoberfest and believing all Germans eat pretzels all the time (actually, until a few years ago, you couldn't buy them in many parts of the country!). Another stupid thing I've heard is that 'Asian people are not educated about politics' or 'Asian women cannot be independent financially because of the culture.' ... Try telling that someone from Taiwan or Hong Kong!

This over-generalisation works in so many ways - equally for people who claim they don't like Asia based on a trip to some Thai island. Personally, I am not the biggest fan of the region but I love Japan, Korea, Turkey and Lebanon. Guess what? These are all part of Asia! As is India, by the way. The Middle East is another area people have even less of a clue of - if I had a penny for the times that people have told me that they would never travel to a Muslim country because they don't want to wear a headscarf... (newsflash: the only countries that require you to do that are Iran and Saudi Arabia)

Issue #2 Spending time in 'Asia' = Being a bum

Being a competitive bitch, this is the part that annoys me the most. When I tell people that I freelance online and spend a lot of time in Asia, most see me as a starving artist pretending to write a book while sipping cocktails at some thai beach. Asia means SE Asia to most and that equals being poor, lazy or plain unsuccessful. People stop taking you seriously and keep asking when you will get a real job, when in fact you are now making more money than in your reputable office job, while having the time to study and learn a foreign language.

On the other hand, if I tell people I spent a month or two in Japan or Korea, they think I'm boasting, or pity me for staying in a 'developed' country where I obviously couldn't have experienced 'the real Asia'.

Issue #3 A nest of nomads!

I have been what is now becoming known as a digital nomad for almost 5 years. In all that time, it didn't occur to me to search out other people that do the same thing as me, because really, if I had wanted to hang out somewhere where everybody is the same, I could have stayed in my home village as a teenager. Recently I joined some Facebook groups for digital nomads and was surprised as what I found (or was I?). Virtually all posts discuss locations in SE Asia, where to live cheaply there, where to find other digital nomads... Or complain about places that aren't full of them already! Especially places where you might need language skills (i.e. not south east asia) other than English are discredited for that fact.

I thought people chose this lifestyle to break out from the heard mentality, but as these examples show, many people might become free in terms of physical movement, but are not willing to get too far out of their mind's comfort zone. It's like a 2015 version of The Beach waiting to happen in some coworking space in Chiang Mai!

Regardless, I'll spend some time in the north of Vietnam this winter. It's my favourite part of South Asia Asia - cold and close to China, and so different from the rest of the region, as proven by the fact that most people who love SE Asia seem to hate Hanoi :) 

Powered by Blogger.

Blog Archive