Taiwan views and lures. Photos by INQUIRER.net’s Karen Boncocan
TAIPEI — Philippines’ AirAsia is opening more doors for overseas Filipino workers as well as local and foreign tourists starting this holiday season by offering low cost flights to Singapore and Taiwan from Clark, Pampanga.
Maan Hontiveros, Philippines’ AirAsia CEO, said the move was not only envisioned to provide low fare air travel for OFWs but also to drive tourist traffic to the Philippines from the said destinations.
A 60-40 joint venture between Filipino investors Hontiveros, Antonio Cojuangco, and Michael Romero and Malaysia’s AirAsia International Ltd., Philippines’ AirAsia now provides 4x/week (MWFSun) services for their Clark International Airport-Taipei route, its newest regional destination.
The said flights are scheduled to depart at 12:05 noon and are scheduled to arrive at the Taoyuan International Airport at 2 p.m. Flights back to the Philippines from Taipei are scheduled to depart at 2:25 p.m. and arrive at 4:20 p.m.
Meanwhile, their Clark-Singapore route boasts of daily flights departing at 6:10 a.m. and arriving at Singapore Changi Airport Terminal 1 at 9:40 a.m. Flights back to the country from Singapore depart at 10:10 a.m. and arrive at 1:40 p.m.
Both routes use brand new Airbus A320s which are part of the youngest fleet at 11 months.
Latest data culled from the Philippine Embassy pegged the number of Filipinos working in Singapore at 177,600 while some 100,000 are presently working in Taiwan.
Hontiveros saw the move to provide an affordable link between Taiwan and the Philippines as a promising feat for Philippines’ AirAsia, urging Filipinos and Taiwanese alike to help boost the tourism traffic between the two countries. This was important as the Philippine Embassy recently named Taiwan as the Philippines’ fifth largest source of tourism with roughly 155,000 Taiwanese flocking to the country in October this year alone.
“Taipei is a very important route for us right now. We are the only airline flying this route (Clark-Taipei and vice versa) right now,” said Hontiveros who pointed out that many OFWs in Taiwan came from Northern and Cental Luzon, making Clark as a hub for their flights necessary. She said that they were committed to serving the underserved which was “why we are based in Clark.”
She added that Clark International Airport also ensured that their flights encounter less delays that if they were to depart from the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA). “NAIA has a lot of air traffic and delays whereas Clark offers unparalleled service.”
Ambassador Raymond Wong from the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office (TECO) was positive affordable air fare would no doubt entice more tourists to the Philippines. But more than that and providing OFWs with reasonable air fare to Taipei, he was also hopeful that the new routes would also encourage Filipino tourists to visit Taiwan for leisure.
He said that they have already made visa applications for the ROC easier, no longer requiring visa holders for countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, Europe, Japan and Australia to go through visa application for Taiwan. For those who are not holders of visas from the said countries, Wong assured that applying for a Taiwan visa was fairly easy.
“Just come to our office, fill out the forms and get your visa on the next day,” he said, encouraging Filipinos to not just view Taiwan as a place for work but also as a country worth exploring.
Modern yet traditional
So what can tourists expect from Taiwan? We went on a four-day trip in Taipei to find out what it has to offer and one of the few things easily noted by Taipei’s visitors upon stepping off its busy Taoyuan International Airport is how modern the place is.
The place is filled with buildings, freeways and ongoing construction of bridges and other structures. And oddly enough, for a person used to traffic jams, there was hardly any traffic snarl even coming from the airport. Also, despite being very modern, Taipei is also teeming with greenery with carefully trimmed bushes and ornamental plants gracing every nook and cranny.
Taipei has obviously fiercely held on to its history and identity, judging from the many ROC flags along the city streets as well as the eclectic mixture of skyscrapers, temples and traditional Chinese structures. Nestled amongst all the modern structures are snippets of Taiwan’s colorful past, seen through its many museums, temples, old relics as well as the gates of the once walled city which often stop tourists in their tracks.
This mixture of the old and new is probably what has lured many tourists to Taipei. And the best part is that everything seems within reach via the city’s clean and efficient mass rapid transit (MRT) system as well as its similarly efficient bus lines and taxicabs.
Steeped in history
This bustling city alone has many museums which show just how much steeped in history Taiwan is, and the National Palace Museum would probably be a good stop for those wanting a good briefer on the country’s history and culture.
Located up at Zhishan Road, with a great view overlooking the city, the Museum has a constant stream of visitors queuing to see its collections made up of 690,000 Chinese artifacts and artworks originally from the Forbidden City in Beijing. Some 600,000 of these were shipped from mainland China to Taiwan when tension rose between the Nationalist government and the Communists back in 1949.
Highlights of the tour of the museum are its exhibits on ceramics and jade carvings, particularly the jadeite cabbage from the Qing dynasty which is one of the most popular items on display. For tourists who speak little or no Mandarin, the NPM offers free daily guided tours in English at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.
The museum also offers its visitors a taste of palace food through its Sanxitang Teahouse which sits at the very top of the museum. The teahouse was patterned to Emperor Qianlong’s study in the Forbidden City, making the dining experience even more special.
Palace food not quite your cup of tea? There is also the Silks Palace Restaurant a few steps away from the museum which serves good Chinese food.
At nearby Zhongshan District lies the Taipei Martyrs’ Shrine which also draws crowds for its changing of honor guards. The shrine was built in honor of all those who died in wars for the ROC.
Tourists also flock to the memorial hall built for Chiang Kai-Shek for similar changing of honor guards rituals. With an octagonal roof of blue glazed tiles, the white memorial hall houses a museum which tells the life story of the country’s ‘generalissimo’.
The memorial hall is surrounded by a park filled with flowerbeds echoing the colors of the ROC flag and is flanked by the National Theater and the National Concert Hall.
Tourists can also get as much of the old world Taipei in one place when they visit Dalongdong area which has been selected by Taiwan’s tourism bureau as one of its “charming attractions”. It is filled with temples, museums and even has its own night market.
A nice place to start in Dalongdong would be the Baoan Temple which was built by immigrants from mainland China. The temple, decorated with intricate murals and ornate dragon carvings, is consecrated to the deity Baosheng Dadi but also caters to Confucian, Buddhist and Taoist beliefs.
Literally just a few steps away across the street from the Baoan Temple is the Taipei Confucius Temple which was built to resemble the original Confucius Temple in mainland China. It boasts of simple white granite pillars, espousing the belief that it is disrespectful to use inferior words to decorate the Sage’s temple.
Tired after touring temples? It might also be worth to note that the tourism bureau has also featured a nondescript tea house behind Baoan Temple called Black Tea House. They said that this quaint little tea place is a big hit for its daily brews sourced from local tea farmers.
Aside from history and religion, the citizens of Taipei also love their art. It is literally everywhere–although of course, they do have the Taipei Fine Arts Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art Taipei–art pieces can be found right along their streets, in parks and even featured on various local products being peddled at the malls and night markets.
And they are proud of anything made in Taiwan as we were constantly reminded by shop attendants at malls and night markets that what they were selling were “made in Taiwan!” From uniquely designed t-shirts, jackets, bags, cellphone cases and other adorable knickknacks, locally made crafts were all around us even at Eslite, the bookstore/shopping haven that is open round the clock.
Brave enough for the crowded night markets? No Taipei tour is complete without shopping and food trips at the city’s many night markets. Famous for being a haven for bargain shopping, Taipei’s night markets also boast of really good street food. Be sure to drop by Shilin Night Market on an empty stomach for some challenging dining experience.
At the basement is its food court which is constantly crowded and busy with activities when night falls. The flurry of excited cooks frying oyster omelet, crabs and shrimps, dipping solidified milk on sticks in batter, swirling beef noodles into bowls and preparing the infamous stinky tofu constitute an assault to the senses once you enter the area.
Not adventurous enough for stinky tofu? No worries, choose from a myriad of street food items. We tried Hot Star’s gigantic chicken cutlets which are so tasty people line up even during cold nights for a bite.
There is also the usual beef noodles which we had for dinner and those curious fried milk on sticks for dessert. At first we were skeptical on the solidified milk thing but they taste heavenly–just like mini cream puffs after they were covered in batter and deep fried to perfection.
Back upstairs are stalls after stalls selling what have got to be the most succulent fruits we have ever tasted, something which Taiwan is also known for producing. There are also a lot of kiosks selling souvenirs, boxes of the popular pasalubong pineapple cakes, and affordable clothing and shoes.
And they mean business when they say that bargains can be found at night markets. Go ahead and haggle because here a pair of flats can go for as low as NT$190 or roughly just around P300. They also have a lot of nifty-looking shirts, trousers, and winter clothing being sold for unbelievable rock-bottom prices.
Tall buildings, good food
Now Taipei 101, one of the world’s tallest buildings, is probably one of the touristy stops everyone will no doubt make time for. So grab tickets to the country’s highest structure and ride the world’s fastest elevator which ascends at a speed of 1010 m/min. You get the whole ear-popping feeling from airplane rides but it is well worth it once you get to see the spectacular view of Taipei at the top.
But the fun does not stop there. Sitting at Taipei 101’s basement, another treat awaits those who are patient enough. Din Tai Fung. Uttering this name should be enough for the Chinese food connoisseurs but for those who are puzzled, Din Tai Fung is the place to go for the best xiaolongbao or steamed dumplings.
Hailing from Taiwan, Din Tai Fung has been included in The New York Times’ Top 10 restaurants and has also won the prestigious Michelin award. Testament to just how good the food served at Din Tai Fung are the daily long queues seen outside–what people would go through just to get a table.
It all starts with appetizers, ours were pickled cucumbers which had a little bit of spiciness to them, followed by sautéed greens and more spicy dishes. Then, the waiter swiftly walks in carrying bamboo containers filled with steaming, delicious xiaolongbao.
The waiter even taught us how to eat the dumplings, instructing us to lift them by the tips from the bamboo containers–so as not to rip the delicate dough. All this fuss in handling the dumplings is worth it once you take a bite and the hot soup coats your mouth, releasing exquisite flavors.
Now even the dessert came in the form of steamed dumplings filled with red bean paste–and they were simply exquisite. I will never look at Chinese food the same way again and just hope someone brings the phenomenal Din Tai Fung to the Philippines already. That or I might have to book the next flight to Taipei, pronto.
I am sure there is more to Taipei than what we covered in our four-day trip, judging from all the unfamiliar places featured in some twenty or more travel brochures and I will definitely be back.
I will be back not only for a round two at Din Tai Fung, possibly a relaxing dip at Beitou Hot Spring, a trip to less commercial night markets, but maybe, if I muster enough courage, I may even check out that weird restaurant over at Xining S. Road which serves food using toilets and other bathroom equipment.
For me, Taipei is just the beginning and the rest of Taiwan still remains to be explored.