Taiwan: Temples, Trains and Toilets

Taiwan is an intriguing mix of the old and the very new – Taipei 101, shaped like a piece of bamboo, was the tallest building in the world until 2004 –

– and it’s considered cool to have your picture taken perched precariously on a wet and slippery rock halfway up the mountain behind the tower.

But there are also thousands (more than 12,000 currently) of Buddhist and Taoist temples-

where people  still come to ask for favours, give thanks and burn paper gifts for their ancestors.

These are the traditional papers to burn –

But, as our guide is showing us here, these days you can get all different types of currency to burn, such as US dollars if you think your ancestors would prefer them –

The locals use moonblocks to get advice from the gods on thorny issues, and I was shown how to use them.

You throw the two blocks on the ground and ask your question, which must be very specific, nothing wishy-washy.  If the blocks both land flat side down, the answer is no, and if they both land flat side up, the answer is maybe.  But one up and one down means yes.

Once you’ve got your answer from the moonblocks, it’s time to move on to the finer points of your answer, via the sticks.

You lift the bundle of sticks and drop them back into the holder, and whichever one is sticking up highest is your answer.  My stick was number 75, so I had to go to the correct drawer and find my answer –

Luckily for me, in this temple there was an English translation of each answer –

It would appear that I’m looking for an intelligent zoologist.  I wonder if David Attenborough is too old for a spot of tiger carrying?

There are gods to cover all needs – love, travel, medicine, exam results and so on.

This is the lonely hearts shrine –

with a few success stories on the other side –

And these are all pleas for good exam results –

As a teacher, I would have told these students to spend their time revising, rather than praying for good results.

And they do start them off very young –

I do hope he’s praying for sweets and toys, and not for excellent exam grades.

I took my first ever bullet train to visit the south of Taiwan –

and we sped through the countryside at 299 kmh.  For some reason, the sunset looks really pretty at that speed –

I was very excited to discover that my hotel in Taipei had a heated loo seat.  I’ve since discovered that all hotels in Taiwan have them, but I’d never tried one before, so I kept sitting on it, just to enjoy the experience.

I then noticed that it had other interesting functions –

and decided to try those out too.  I was slightly hesitant, because the diagram looks as though the force of the water lifts you off the seat, but I went for the girlie pink button, rather than the manly blue one.  The jet of warm water – I’m talking hose rather than water cannon – was quite pleasant, and I sat there waiting for it to stop, like a loo flush … only it didn’t.

I looked at the panel again – but there was no obvious stop button.  Then I looked at the more detailed instructions on the lid –

There were a few worrying exclamation marks, but I still had no idea how to turn it off.  I knew that if I stood up, water was going to start squirting all over the floor, so I stayed firmly seated and fell back on my usual strategy of pressing every single button randomly until the flow finally stopped.

I then said a quick thank you to the god of unfortunate events, that I hadn’t had to use the emergency phone to call reception and explain what my problem was.





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Street food in Taiwan

When you tell anyone in SE Asia that you’re going to Taiwan, they roll their eyes ecstatically and say, ‘Ooh – the food!’

So when I arrived in Taipei, getting to grips with the local food was my number one priority.

I really like walking food tours, where the tour guide walks you around an area of the city and talks about the history, the culture and the food – and takes you to some great eateries.  It then gives you enough of an understanding to be able to strike out on your own afterwards.

Taiwan is all about street food, so I booked a night market food tour, where my guide, Joanna –

took me around the stalls and explained what everything was. She then let me try whatever I fancied, with a few recommendations thrown in.

These baked pork dumplings were delicious –

The stallholder makes about a million a day, I should think, and as they only serve one thing, they’re pretty good at making it.

I didn’t try the duck head –

– I didn’t think it would be very substantial.

Then we moved on to the intestines in the picture below, and the ones on the left, wrapped up like a pair of earphones, were quite nice.  These are the small intestines – the large intestines are on the right, stuffed with spring onions which makes them look like wrinkled brown carrots.

This is pigs’ blood on a stick –

I was dubious at first, but actually liked it when I tried it.

And this is a pancake filled with vanilla ice cream, crushed peanuts … and fresh coriander –

No, I wasn’t sure about the coriander, either – but somehow it works!

One useful tip I was given – if you see a long queue at a stall, join it, because whatever they’re selling is going to be good.

There was a huge queue at this stall for their fried taro balls, which were hot and crispy on the outside and fluffy in the middle.

I’m now a confirmed taro fan.

These strange-looking things are fresh water-chestnuts  –

– that the stallholder is painstakingly peeling one by one.  I’d never seen a fresh one before, only the tinned ones that were the height of adventurous eating in England in the 1970s.

Then I tried a steamed bun stuffed with pork and pickled vegetables, which was divine.

I realised that I’d gone from a pork-free country to a pork-obsessed one, and Joanna told me that Taiwanese pork is highly prized because they castrate the male pigs, which makes them taste better.  So I shall be passing this advice on to any pig farmers I meet in the future.

Last stop was shaved ice with different toppings –

but it wasn’t nearly as good as Malaysian cendol.

Emboldened by my experience, I signed up for another food tour – this time at a very local night market – where I got to try the most famous Taiwanese dish … stinky tofu.  They’re very proud of it, in much the same way as Malaysians are proud of their stinky speciality, durian.

I learnt that there are three levels of stinkiness, according to the way it’s cooked:

Level 1, or entry level, is fried

Level 2, or GCSE level, is barbecued

Level 3, definitely PhD level, is boiled.

I tried Level 1 – served with kimchi –

and then skipped straight to Level 3 – served in a bowl of broth with a large portion of duck blood, which is the liver-like lump just being put into the bowl in this picture –

Unlike pigs’ blood, which is chewy and savoury, duck blood is gelatinous and slimy, and was the one thing I didn’t enjoy eating on the food tours.

Stinky tofu is pungent and lingering, and is often compared to blue cheese.  So, if you like a bit of Stilton, you won’t be fazed by even Level 3 stinky tofu.

Now that I was becoming a pro, I branched out and tried pigs’ blood with a peanut coating –

– and then rolled intestines again – but this time served on the side with a bowl of oyster and noodle soup –

Do you know what they use to clean intestines ready to eat?

Coca-Cola is the answer.

This made me wonder two things:

  1.  What does it do to our intestines when we drink it?
  2. What did they use before Coke was invented?

Here are some octopus balls –

crunchy and chewy and served with mayonnaise and some flaky stuff that looked like onion skin, but tasted of nothing.

And a chicken foot – no bones, just the cartilage –

a bit gristly for me, but a very popular snack for the locals.

And finally, just to reinforce a point I made earlier, here’s one of the two most popular exhibits in the National Palace Museum –

It’s a piece of banded jasper, lovingly crafted to look just like a piece of pork.

I think the British Museum should take note, and commission a stone shaped like a Yorkshire pudding, a Cornish pasty or – for a touch of colour – a slice of Battenberg cake.

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Two weddings and a funeral – and a blow to my ego


I feel that I’ve hurtled at breakneck speed towards the end of my final term at school here in KL.  The tempo increased when, sadly, I had to make a second flying visit back to England, just three weeks after Sam’s wedding, for my dad’s funeral.

Once back in KL, it was a sprint to the finish line, where I slammed on the brakes and then celebrated the first day of the holidays by going to my first Hindu wedding.

It was a huge, colourful spectacle, which took place on a stage in the temple.  There were henna’d hands for the bridesmaids –

and henna’d arms for the bride –

and lots of naked flames –

I was surprised that there were no words spoken during the ceremony, the couple on stage went through a variety of rituals – washing their hands, abasing themselves in front of their parents and having stuff chucked at them – I couldn’t really see what it was from where I was sitting.  But the spectators sat and chatted; there was no sense of hushed reverence as there would be in an English church.

The groom leads the bride three times around the stage –

and then they’re married, and all the guests queue up to have their photo taken with the happy couple.

And then another surprise – once you’ve had your picture taken, you go down to the dining room and you eat … without waiting for the bride and groom.

The bride and groom  didn’t appear until long after we’d finished eating, looking rather dazed, but definitely up for one more selfie –

So, a jolly good time was had by everyone, except possibly one of the bridesmaids –

– who definitely looks as though she’d rather be down the pub.

And now … my four-month holiday begins, which is  very exciting  – I haven’t had such a long holiday since I was a student.

However, my euphoria has been slightly dented by an end of term gift from one of my students.  It was a bottle of grapefruit essential oil, with an accompanying card –

What are you trying to say, Nicholas?



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