Have you been to Asia with kids? I haven’t and can’t wait to do so. Until that happens, the next best thing for me is to read the adventures of my fellow travel bloggers. Today I’m please to offer a guest post from Bill Richards, a wandering dad who with his wife Ashely Steel and their two daughters has roamed the world extensively and written about his family travel wisdom in Family on the Loose: The Art of Traveling With Kids.
Today Bill shares the story of a quick layover in Taipei, Taiwan on a family trip to Thailand. As you’ll see, this traveling family definitely made the most of what time they had – I feel like I have a great guide for spending a few days in Taipei with kids. Thanks so much for sharing your adventure Bill.
Taipei with kids: A family adventure
We boarded a red-eye from Seattle just after one a.m. a couple of days before Christmas and most of us were already asleep by the time the flight took off. The 13-hour trip still left time for several movies and two meals, and I was especially proud of my daughters (Zoey, 14 and Logan, 11) for embracing our first destination by choosing congee over an omelet for the in-flight breakfast.
We arrived just after dawn at the Taipei airport. The airport was not close to downtown, as I had expected, but about 45 minutes outside the city. The temperature was cool and it was raining lightly, conditions that proved to be consistent throughout our stay. We hit some early-morning rush hour traffic on our way to Taipei Main Station, where we switched to a taxi for a short ride to our hotel, The Dealer. Ashley had found it on the internet and had chosen it for its central location and because it had a Hello Kitty-themed room, which was unfortunately already occupied when we arrived. Instead, we got two rooms on the same floor because they did not have one big enough for all four of us. The individual rooms were cheap enough not to be too much of a burden and they were clean and comfortable.
It was too early to get into the rooms, so we left our luggage and set forth into the city in search of a second breakfast. Not far up the street we found a small open-air restaurant for pancake-crepes which were a big hit for everyone. The girls also discovered milk tea – sweet, warm tea served in a sealed cup. They were already falling in love with Taiwan.
Afterward, we continued walking, winding our way through commercial alleys and wide boulevards toward Longshan Temple. It didn’t matter if we knew exactly where we were going. It was fun just to see what was around the next corner. Scooters parked on the sidewalks, uneven pavement, small stores selling everything from cell phone covers to fuzzy socks, an underground pedestrian mall that went on for many city blocks, countless 7-Elevens, and intersections with timed crossings.
We serendipitously found the iconic Modern Toilet Restaurant, where the seats and tables are converted bathroom fixtures and even the serving bowls have a certain toilet humor. Logan especially loved it. I guess they were targeting the middle school sense of humor. We skipped the curry and opted to take only pictures.
The Longshan Temple itself was impressively ornate and filled with people. It is one of Taipei’s main tourist attractions. We had been to quiet Chinese Buddhist temples in Richmond, British Columbia, but Longshan was buzzing with activity; a row of people waiting in chairs for a consultation about such higher matters as what lottery numbers they should play, men and women chanting and burning incense, and tourists like us taking picture. Zoey found this temple to be a perfect location for experimental photography.
Outside of the temple, we found some tasty sandwiches where we first had to figure out the puzzle of the self-service ordering process; a little challenging when we were all hungry and language is a barrier.
With our feet suddenly getting extremely tired, we caught a taxi to our next destination. The ride was so cheap and the driver had an awesome sense of humor – he called Ashley the “funny mom” when we were getting out. Everything about the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial was oversized: the white pagoda with its eponymous statue of a seated up four stories of stairs, the courtyard of dizzying white tiles that links the pagoda to two traditionally golden-roofed performance halls, and the blue-roofed gate, all of it surrounded by a forested park with walking trails through the trees. It was exactly what I was looking for in a Taiwanese historical attraction: Grand and heroic. And downstairs, the girls found exactly what they were looking for: Super cool postcards.
Massages, markets, and the Maokong gondola
Our feet were still achy, so the next taxi ride took us back to the neighborhood where the kids had seen a shop window advertising foot massages. It took us a little more walking to find it again, and by that time all of us were ready. I’ve only had a few professional massages in my life, and this was my kids’ first try at it. We each had our own attendant to wash our feet simultaneously, and then massage our feet and lower legs in a room upstairs with four foam massage mats on the floor. The kids kept giggling as their feet felt tickly, but I was trying not to exclaim “ow” as my masseuse was much more aggressive. All of us were soon putty in their hands, however, and not so eager to walk back to our hotel.
Our newly happy feet led us to our fourth taxi ride of the day – to our hotel, where we could finally check-in. After some down time lying on our beds in the tiny rooms, showering, and cruising the TV channels (where we found porn right next to the kids’ channel), we headed out into the darkness to find the neighborhood night market for dinner. Most of the food stalls were stocked with “challenge items” for our American palate, including parts of various animals that we don’t typically eat. The girls found the connection between animals and food a bit off-putting. The general smell of the market also posed an obstacle to their appetites. At the edge of the market we found a store-front restaurant with some “safe” onion pancakes and other accessible munchies to sate us for the evening.
Happily, the complimentary breakfast buffet the next morning proved much easier on all of us – gyoza and French toast were kid favorites. Afterward, we headed to the subway, or MRT, to find our way to the Maokong gondola, which climbs four kilometers through bamboo forest to a hilltop oasis in the clouds. We had four EZ-cards from the Taiwan tourist board: These provided easy access to both the subway and gondola, and we could reload them at machines at all the stops. The subway itself is modern and extensive (and has very clean family-friendly bathrooms), and outside of short taxi trips, is the best way to get around town.
The gondola has two stops on the way to the top, including at the zoo. We opted to head straight to the top and go for a short hike to a small temple and tea growers’ association museum, both of which were moderately interesting. But it was the stalls at the lunch market near the gondola station and the teahouse with the great view of the valley that were far more thrilling. And the view continued on the ride – at the girls’ insistence, we waited for a glass-bottomed gondola on the way down.
More views of Taipei
We had to switch MRT lines to get to Taipei 101, once the tallest building in the world (now the 5th). The lower floors are a posh shopping mall with very high-end stores. Most of the rest of the floors are company offices. I didn’t really have the intention of going up to the observation floors on the 88th and 89th floors, but what else are you going to do with kids in a very tall building, even on an overcast day?
The audio tour at the top talked about how the building is an engineering marvel and what you see in all directions out the windows. I was most interested in the damper, a giant golden weight that mitigates the sway of the building during storms and earthquakes. The girls were captivated by an amazing video showing how much it moved during a typhoon a couple of years ago.
When we returned to ground level, we opted to take the MRT three stops to the original Din Tai Fung, a famous chain of Chinese dumpling restaurants. The friendly wait staff were literally wired with ear-pieces and microphones to perform an elaborate dance of service for their ever-changing hungry clients. The girls received a quick lesson on how to order and another on how to eat the signature and delicious dumplings. My teacup was never less than half full.
The last stop on our whirlwind tour of Taipei was to the Shilin Night Market, another subway ride away. Shilin is a hundred times larger and more diverse than the food-centric night market of the previous evening. It has a festive atmosphere and we joined the crowds strolling around neighborhood alleys looking at hair ties (Logan), iPod speakers with bubbles that dance to the beat (Zoey), snack desserts (me), and pajamas (Ashley). It was a great finale to our Taipei with kids visit.
We saw a lot of Taipei in two days, but there is so much more that we missed. The Taiwanese people were wonderfully friendly and welcoming. Someone would inevitably stop to help us whenever we paused to look at a map and so many people spoke English. The kids didn’t slow us down, but rather helped us to mitigate our own tiredness and jetlag by keeping us on the go. I’d never have gotten the foot massage without them, or had my picture taken like a visiting rock star. When we have a chance to get back for a longer visit we’ll definitely have raised expectations.
Bill Richards is author of Family on the Loose: The Art of Traveling with Kids, which is available in both print and ebook editions. He also curates www.familyontheloose.com with his wife, Ashley Steel. Follow them on Twitter @familyonloose and on Facebook and read my interview with Bill, which is full of tips about family travel.