Monday, January 21, 2013

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Why Singaporeans love to travel to Taiwan?

1/21/2013 Taiwan Explorer

One of the more interesting phenomena surrounding my blog in the past years has been the fact, that I'm getting a lot of traffic from Singapore for some reason. To be precise, from all the countries in the world, Singapore was actually my number 1 traffic source by country since 2010 and way ahead of Taiwan and USA, which should naturally contend for the top position. So why Singapore? And what are Singaporeans actually looking for in my blog? Well, the simple answer is: Information on Taiwan. At least that's what I see every day, when I check my traffic tracker. But I want to know the complex answers, I want to know how Singaporeans see Taiwan, how do they plan their traveling, what do they expect to experience and much more. In order to get these answers, I have invited an expert to an interview, the Singaporean girl behind the travel blog Travel Bytez known under the nickname iceprinxess. Her blog, which is written in collaboration with a French girl LuttiSparrow, dates back to 2006 and features articles not only related to travel, but also to lifestyle, fashion, food and fun stuff. Let's find out more from her.

MKL: Could you let us know a little bit more about yourself and your blog? I'm very interested in why do you like blogging about travel?

Iceprinxess: Well, I am just a girl with dreams of traveling the world (one day), but in the meanwhile getting to know the world around me better wherever I may be (which happens to be sunny and humid, sometimes very rainy Singapore). While travel has a different meaning to each individual, most people tend to associate the word “travel” with visiting other countries for that sense of adventure and/or to just to relax. For me, the word “travel” is more simplistic. It represents a type of freedom that enables me to do what I enjoy at anytime and anywhere; learning a bit more of myself and the world around me in the process. I may not have traveled to many places yet, but I believe that travel is not limited to experiences overseas. After all in life, each and every one of us travel (e.g. to/from work, school, eat, play and of course that well deserved holiday), and we learn something new everyday no matter where we are.

MKL: Where are you headed with Travel Bytez in the future?

Iceprinxess: Travel Bytez started off as a place where I could commemorate the interesting places and experiences that I have been to and encountered. Most (Asian travel) blogs tend to display content in a linear format: (too much) information and (long) itineraries written all in one page, along with not much categorizing (for some), makes it a little trying (for me at least) to get information quickly sometimes. The experience made me want a blog that not only commemorates interesting places and experiences, but also one that makes it easy for readers to glean the necessary information they need. As a result, Travel Bytez was “born” (though the blog existed some time back, the domain name was bought just a little over a year ago) and I invited LuttiSparrow to contribute from a different perspective whenever she can. So just like its name suggests, Travel Bytez intends to be a platform for sharing useful opinion and information presented in byte (bite) sized portions for readers to take their pick and perhaps inspire any travel aspirations, while at the same time function as an outlet for self-expression (it is a blog after all) as I discover the world around me.

MKL: One thing that interests me a lot is to get a better understanding of the relationship between Singaporeans and Taiwan. I know, that you can't possibly speak on behalf of all Singaporeans, but you can share your opinion on some things and it will be taken as that. My first question related to this might be a little bit tricky: If I'd ask an average Singaporean to tell me a few things that come to mind, when they hear the word "Taiwan", what would that be? Tell me a little bit more about how much does the average Singaporean know about Taiwan in general?

Iceprinxess: Most, if not all Singaporeans love food, you can always find Singaporeans eating at almost all times of the day. So I would have to say that the first thing that comes to mind for the average Singaporean (or maybe just me) when they hear the word “Taiwan” is food! I still remember the commercial featuring Jolin Tsai when she was the ambassador for the Taiwan Tourism Bureau and it was the food and hotsprings that I still remember to this day really. :) What the average Singaporean knows about Taiwan would have to be mostly from the Taiwan variety shows (e.g. Guess Guess Guess 你猜你猜你猜猜猜, Super Sunday, Variety Big Brother 綜藝大哥大, KangXi Lai Le 康熙來了, 100% Entertainment 娛樂百分百 etc…), dramas and travel documentaries which are broadcasted on our local channels and cable. Just as how there is the Korean wave at the moment, there was a Chinese wave of sorts in the early 2000s: during that period Taiwan dramas like Meteor Garden gained popularity, propelling not only F4 (they became ambassadors for the Taiwan Tourism Bureau at one time) into fame but also Taiwan Tourism. That being said, due to exposure to Taiwan variety shows and travel documentaries the average Singaporean would most probably associate Taiwan as a good travel destination - for its food (night markets especially), natural scenery (e.g. flowers, hotsprings etc…), shopping and/or its celebrities.

MKL: On the surface one would think that Taiwan and Singapore have quite a bit in common: Both are in the group of the so called Asian Tigers, both are rather small island nations and both share common Chinese roots, that have meanwhile evolved and produced two distinct cultures. Where do you see similarities between these two countries and where do you see big differences?

Iceprinxess: Although both countries are considered small nations, Singapore is really a small island in comparison to Taiwan. In fact, Singapore’s population is about that of Taipei’s. One common factor is that both countries have a Chinese population, hence there are bound to be similarities: festivities such Chinese New Year, Mid-Autumn Festival are celebrated, Chinese customs such as giving out red packets during Chinese New Year, avoidance of the number 4 and burning of paper money during the Ghost month are observed, and other dialects such as Hokkien and Hakka are spoken as well.

As both countries have a Chinese population, the differences can be subtle or obvious depending on the situation. Taiwan’s culture and food has been mostly influenced from East Asia, which is more towards a blend of Confucianism, Japanese, and Taiwanese aborigine customs. Singapore on the other hand, being a busy port in the old days, was (and still is) a meeting place where many cultures in South East Asia and the West collide, co-exist and evolved into a distinct culture of their own. As a result, Singaporean Chinese having been exposed to other cultures (e.g. Malay, Indian, Eurasian etc…) have developed a Chinese culture that is somewhat different from that of Taiwan.

For example, on a micro level, Peranakans who are descendants of Malays and Chinese, have a culture that incorporates customs and recipes from both races (e.g. adapting Malay recipes with Malay spices and even using pork, and celebrating Chinese New Year). On a macro level, besides the Peranakans unique culture, cultures of the other races such as the Indians and Malays have been integrated into daily Singaporean life, creating a uniquely Singaporean identity that is part Westernized yet traditional at the same time (incorporating the values of the West with the East). Of course, for all its uniqueness Singapore is not without its paradoxes, which (as with all things) should be taken with a grain of salt.

One notable difference is the way Mandarin is spoken, just as how the English call biscuits “biscuits” while Americans call the same biscuits “cookies”. For example, Singaporeans call buses 巴士 while Taiwanese call the same buses 公車/公车, and while train is called 地铁 in Singapore, it is called 捷運/捷运 in Taiwan. Another difference would be that (most) Chinese Singaporeans have the tendency to add English or Singlish into their sentences when speaking Mandarin.


MKL: Taiwanese are known for being friendly and polite, but sometimes a little bit reserved and shy. Singapore is a more international country, people are a bit more open and unlike Taiwanese, most Singaporeans are fairly fluent in English. What are for you the main differences between the Taiwanese and Singaporean people, especially in relation to foreign visitors?

Iceprinxess: While it can't be generalized that all Taiwanese are friendly and polite, the majority are generally really friendly and polite: Willing to provide assistance and go the extra mile when asked. As Taiwanese mostly speak Taiwanese and Mandarin, languages like English might be one of the challenges when it comes to communication. Of course if you are able to speak the language, it goes a long way as communication barriers are bridged and such challenges are minimized. Foreigners (especially those of non-Asian lineage) in Taiwan are still somewhat regarded with a sense of curiosity, more so than in Singapore. The same can be said about stereotypes about Singaporeans. It might be good to note that with the recent influx of foreigners coming to stay/work in Singapore, the way in which foreigners are perceived at the moment is slightly complicated; such preconceived notions may spill over in the way how foreign visitors may be regarded by some Singaporeans. But regardless, the majority of Singaporeans are nice and friendly, though it might take some time to warm to “strangers”. In our fast paced international society, Singaporeans tend to appear a little curt and smile less than the Taiwanese, but once you get pass the façade, Singaporeans (well, the majority anyways) are just as friendly and helpful as the Taiwanese. :)

MKL: A commentator once said, that "Singaporeans are very self reliant travelers who enjoy free and easy tours rather than the inflexible guided tours". How do you see the average Singaporean traveler who chooses to visit Taiwan? 

Iceprinxess: While it is true that (most) Singaporeans are self reliant travelers, not all Singaporean travelers should be typecast as preferring free and easy over packaged/guided tours. After all, there is more than one type of Singaporean traveler:

Type 1: Travelers who prefer to do things at their own pace and have no qualms doing things on their own.

Needless to say, Type 1 are advocates of DIY (Do-it-yourself) trips where you can customize your trip the way you want, how you want it. I am a Type 1 traveler as I don’t like the limitations and constraints of (most) packaged tours. I actually enjoy researching and planning process where I learn about which hotels or accommodations (I want to stay at), what to do and how to get there. Having the autonomy to choose what I want and how I want to do it, not only gives a sense of independence but also achievement (especially when the trip is an enjoyable one and it is well within the projected budget).

Type 2: Travelers who want to do many things and visit many places in the shortest time possible and/or for the cheapest price possible.

Type 2 are usually people who simply want to enjoy themselves without having to go through the hassle of arranging transportation and accommodation themselves - to have everything planned out for them, be chauffeured from place to place without much transportation and logistic woes, and have their meals provided for without fuss. I have to admit as much as I dislike packaged tours, they do have their advantages: most of the time your food is already decided, transportation is provided and you get to see more places in a short time - though most of that time is spent on the road getting from destination to destination and not much time is spent at a given destination, it does give a pretty good and quick overview. For disadvantages, there is the issue of cost, inflexibility (e.g. not being able to change the schedule) and service (which may or may not be good). While the cost for the packaged tour may be cheaper than some DIY trips, sometimes with all the hidden charges and tips, you might end up having to pay more instead.

Type 3: Travelers who are traveling in large groups and/or family.

Finally, Type 3 travelers are a mixture of Type 1 and 2: those traveling with a large group/family may actually consider visiting Taiwan with a packaged tour as it saves a lot of hassle logistically (e.g. for group/family members who are elderly and/or have difficulties in walking) and may be more economical. However, this group may also consider planning the trip themselves, if it is logistically possible as it allows more flexibility in changing the schedule when the need arises.


MKL: What are the must things to do, when they travel here?

Iceprinxess: The must do’s when Singaporeans are in Taiwan would be:

Eating: Singaporeans (well, most of us anyways) love to eat. So eating is one of the highly recommended activities. Night markets are a good place to start, with each night market not only having its signature dish, but the food affordable and yummy! Of course, eateries and restaurants are the next places to go to after the night markets. My Kafkaesque Life has a very good compilation of night markets and foods that can be found at the night markets, as well as the other types of eateries/restaurants and foods in Taiwan. :)

Sightseeing History/Culture: Those interested in the cultural and history of Taiwan should definitely visit the museums (e.g. National Palace Museum, National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall etc…). And of course towns like Jiufen for its history and food.

Nature: Bestowed with natural resources (e.g. Yangmingshan, Beitou & Wulai – Hotsprings, Sun Moon Lake, Alishan, Taroko Gorge etc…) Taiwan is a great place for Singaporeans to experience the 4 seasons and enjoy the changing flora and fauna with each passing season. The hotsprings, as well as the flora and fauna are one of my favorites. After all, there aren't any mountains (there are hills though) with inspiring views and hotsprings, nor pretty flowers (e.g. cherry blossoms) in bloom naturally (almost everything is essentially man-made/planted) in Singapore.

Attractions: Attractions such as the iconic Taipei 101 should be visited at least once if you have not been there before (not necessary to go up unless you really want to). It may not be the tallest skyscraper in the world, but it is iconic to Taiwan and makes a pretty photo from the outside, especially at night with the lighting. :) What attractions to visit are all up to the preference of the individual traveler; there really is plenty to see!

Events/Activities: For the musically inclined, there are concerts and shows to attend, as well as karaokes to belt out all those favorite Chinese hits. There are also lots to do for those who are active. For example, there’s cycling in Hualien and Taitung country, where the bicycle paths are very scenic and accessible, and there’s hiking in places like Taroko Gorge and Yangmingshan.

Shopping: Yes, shopping may be a common activity than can be also done in Singapore, but what makes it more appealing is that some products (e.g. facial products) are not available in Singapore. In addition, the exchange rate makes it all the more affordable. The next thing that (most) Singaporeans do when they are not eating, is shopping, and with the exchange rate being so affordable, there is a tendency to end up spending more than intended sometimes. ^^


MKL: How do you see the public transportation in Taiwan? Do you think Singaporeans encounter difficulties to get around?

Iceprinxess: Most Singaporeans who visit Taiwan can read and speak the language fairly well. Even though Singaporeans learn simplified Chinese characters instead of the traditional ones used by Taiwan, Singaporeans (for the most part) seem to have been able to adapt quite well to the differences. I guess the subtitles displayed during Taiwan shows help in that transition in a way, and the wonders of technology (e.g online dictionaries etc..) of course. For those with a language barrier, transportation in Taiwan, especially Taipei, is relatively easy to navigate. For example the MRT in Taipei has signage in English translations as well, so it is relatively easy to navigate (even for those who have little or none Chinese capabilities). It also helps that most of the main attractions are within walking distance of the MRT stops. Taking the bus might be a little challenging for those who can’t read Chinese characters (e.g. payment is made when either getting on board/alight, the websites for the buses service not being in English etc…), but as long as you know which bus you are to take and where you want to go, it is not much of an issue. Taxis, on the other hand, though easy to flag down, require some Chinese speaking skills as most drivers cannot speak or read English. However, if the address of your destination is written down in Chinese, it should be alright. On the whole, Singaporeans relatively have no major issues getting around with the transportation in Taiwan. Of course, with proper research and preparation (e.g. asking around for directions before setting off, preparing the address of the places you want to visit in Chinese, the journey would be more enjoyable and smooth regardless of language capabilities or the lack of.

MKL: As we already got to know, Singaporeans love night markets and 小吃 (little snacks). Which night market is most often recommended to Singaporeans and which snacks and dishes are a must-try? Is there any Taiwanese food, that Singaporeans would not like? If yes, can you explain why?

Iceprinxess: As mentioned earlier, if there is one thing that Singaporeans love, it is food! So night markets and their 小吃 (little snacks) are delights to Singaporeans who love their food. Singaporeans who are foodies would make a trip down to the nights markets. The three most visited night markets in Taipei are Shilin Night Market, Raohe Street Night Market and Shida Night Market.

Shilin Night Market is probably the most well-known night market in Taipei. Given its popularity, there might be some who do not like it as it is usually packed with tourists, but this is a good place to start for those who are visiting the city for the first time: you get to try local Taiwanese delights like fried oyster omelette, braised pork rice and pan-fried pork bun, oyster vermicelli, fried chicken and stinky tofu, among the endless food options. Next would be Raohe Street Night Market, a stone’s throw away from the wholesale market Wufenpu – the perfect place to refuel after a day’s of shopping! Although there might be several stalls selling the same foods, the nicer ones are usually located at the night market’s entrance and easy to spot with the long queues. One of the must-try here would be the pepper pork buns. Shida Night Market, located near the National Taiwan University and National Taiwan Normal University, has a younger vibe as compared with the other night markets. With mostly students in the vicinity, there are adorable cafes and affordable 小吃 (little snacks) catering to a students’ budget. Some prominent foods to try here is the tempura soaked in sweet gravy (tian bu la) and sizzling giant steaks with noodles and eggs sunny side-up, all for an affordable price too! Some other night markets would be Danshui Night Market, Keelung Night Market, Liaoning Night Market, Fengjia Night Market, Huaxi Street Night Market, and Ningxia Night Market.

One dish that might not agree with Singaporeans would be stinky toufu, as it is after all an acquired taste. Other than that, (most) Singaporeans are pretty adventurous when it comes to good food; the rest is just a matter of preference and taste. For a list of foods that Singaporeans sink their teeth into when they are in Taiwan, this list is a pretty good indicator.


MKL: What's your favorite Taiwanese dish?

Iceprinxess: Do I have to choose? I have so many foods that I find yummy. Foods like 刨冰山 (Shaved Iced) - The ice is very fine, nice, soft and fluffy! Of course, the toppings make it all the more sweeter. 生煎包 (Pan-fried buns) - This is one of my favorites! Does bubble tea count? Because it really is nicer in Taiwan. Oh no, I better stop myself. I am getting hungry already.

MKL: When it comes to Taiwan's art and culture, which aspects would be interesting to Singaporean visitors? Are there any particular art centers or museums on the must-see list?

Iceprinxess: For those who are interested in Taiwan’s art and culture, that of the indigenous people would be interesting . In fact, a cultural tour of Taiwan would not be complete without learning about the customs and culture of the native people. So a visit to a museum, theme park or village that feature indigenous culture would be a must; which one to visit would really depend on the visitor’s preference.

MKL: I'm constantly trying to improve my travel resource and keep adding more information. What would be your suggestions for making my blog more useful to Singaporeans? Are there any topics I should cover more and any information I should add to my posts?

Iceprinxess: My Kafkaesque Life's travel resource is already very comprehensive and useful. The indexing and categorization makes it even more easy to find information and get a good feel of what to expect about a place. In fact, it has really been helpful in planning itineraries with the author insights, photos and destination addresses. Currently, I really cannot think of how else to improve something so well done, except to please continue doing a great job adding more information! :)

MKL: Thank you for your answers, iceprinxess.

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Iceprinxess is a Singaporean blogger and the person behind Travel Bytez, a blog in English about lifestyle, travel, food and fun stuff. You can also like her page on Facebook or follow her on Twitter.