• Taiwan: A small island with a big appeal

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    Second of two parts

    Traditional Chinese architecture is another Taiwanese attraction, as reflected in the country’s temples and historical residences and in the many old structures restored as cafes, stores and other public spaces. In fact, many facets of traditional Chinese arts, crafts and customs are better preserved in Taiwan than anywhere else in the world.

    At the same time, large cities like Taipei are thriving metropolises that offer “round the clock” entertainment options. The country has a vibrant music scene, which is hardly surprising as it is the world capital of Mandarin-language pop music.

    There are also internationally-acclaimed modern dance troupes that regularly perform in theaters in different cities throughout the island. Thanks to some pre-reserved tickets, we were able to watch a sold-out performance of “Oculus” by the country’s premier contemporary dance company, the Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan.

    “Oculus” is one of the most critically acclaimed dance productions, receiving rave reviews in Germany, Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong.

    Now I’ve very little knowledge or experience with modern dance. But I must say the dance was brilliantly performed and got a long and loud standing ovation.

    Although the dance featured some nudity in the opening—with women wearing panties and were topless, and the men in briefs—this played only a very small part of the performance. Even then, I wondered whether such kind of production can be staged in Manila without being met with protests by religious groups and moral crusaders.

    After a whirlwind of activities in the capital, our group headed to Tainan City via Taiwan’s High Speed Rail (HSR) line, which runs approximately 345 km (214 mi) along the island’s west coast, from Taipei to the southern city of Kaohsiung.

    Based primarily on Japan’s shinkansen (bullet train) techonology, the high speed rail has made touring Taiwan a quick and easy affair. The HSR trains are a very clean, comfortable and affordable. So if you want to experience a bullet train ride, going to Japan and Europe is not your only option.

    Meanwhile, traveling at up to 300 km/h (186 mph), we made the 300-kilometer trip from Taipei to Tainan (about the same distance from Manila to Daet, Camarines Norte) in about an hour and fifty minutes.

    Tainan is the country’s oldest city and reputed to be the birthplace of Taiwan. The city was first established in 1624 by the Dutch East India Company as a trading base. After the Dutch colonists were defeated, Tainan became the capital of Taiwan.

    As the city with the longest history and earliest cultural roots, Tainan is one of Taiwan’s cultural capitals. It is home to the first Confucian school-temple built in 1665, which continues to operate to this day. It also boasts of almost 2,000 Buddhist and Taoist temples that carry on a large variety of cultural festivities, rites, and traditional ceremonies that can’t be found anywhere else.

    Form Tainan, we took a tour bus to nearby Kaohsiung City to visit the Fo Guan Shang Monastery—the largest Buddhist monastery in Taiwan. Covering an area of 30 hectares (as large as two Rockwell Centers), the monastery grounds is so vast that it took our group some 20 minutes to walk from the welcoming hall—on a pathway (as wide as EDSA, no kidding!) lined with eight 10-storey Chinese style pagodas on either side—to the main temple, on top of which sits a giant 36-meter (118 feet) golden Buddha.

    Inside, we saw the famous Jade Buddha shrine supposedly containing the last remaining tooth relic of Buddha from the Namgyal Monstery in Tibet. The relic is said to have been authenticated by venerated Tibetan lamas. We’re told the relic was donated to the monastery’s founder so that he could build a worthy shrine where the public could make offerings to Buddha.

    Feeling reinvigorated after a private audience with the head abbot—and a vegetarian meal within the monastery grounds—we returned to Taipei via the HSR train from the Kaohsiung station.

    Back in the capital, a few of us braved the largest and most famous night market in the city—the Shilin Night Market. Very popular with ordinary Taiwanese for its bargain goods, clothes and fashion accessories, the market is clean and well-organized.

    Those looking for cheap but yummy street food won’t be disappointed. There are food hawkers scattered throughout the market, many serving items I haven’t seen or tasted before. Not being too adventurous, our group ended up having a super-sized steak dinner costing just 255 pesos! Talk about cheap.

    With its unique fusion of cultures, exciting city life, diverse entertainment choices and well-developed hospitality industry, it’s not surprising renowned travel guide publisher Lonely Planet chose Taiwan as one of the world’s top countries for travel. And it’s no more than a 2-hour plane ride away from Manila.

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