Monday, October 28, 2019

Asia Hopper 2019 ✈ Taroko National Park

Our 2019 home trip gave us the opportunity to hop through (and visit) 5 Asian cities within 2 weeks. Our itinerary consists of a mix of countries that I've already visited in the past but it was nice to revisit these places with hubby and MIL, and most importantly spend time with families!

Aug 31: Seoul
Aug 31 - Sept 7: Taipei
Sept 7 - Sept 8: Hong Kong 
Sept 8 - Sept 15: Penang
Sept 16: Tokyo 

When I was planning for our itinerary in Taiwan, I looked for somewhere further for a 'driveable' day trip (because our 'free' hotel in Taipei was for 7 nights). Kaohsiung was too far to drive and I considered Taichung and Sun Moon Lake, but there weren't much to see that sparked my interest. I stumbled upon an instagram post at Taroko Gorge and thought it was pretty so we decided to do a one-day road trip along the beautiful east coast of Taiwan to Taroko National Park. 

Sept 5 (Thurs): Taroko National Park (Qingshui Cliff, Swallow Grotto Trail, Baiyang Trail, Changchun Shrine)

Thanks to jetlag, we were falling asleep and waking up too early for the first few days in Taiwan. So I decided to take advantage of this jetlag-ness and started driving at 5am in the morning. It was also easier to drive around Taipei city before the morning rush hour. 

After a quick breakfast stop at 7-11, we left the city and started our drive along highway no. 5 through Yilan county towards Hualien county. The first half of the drive was pretty easy, mostly highway and drove through a number of tunnels

The second half of the drive took us along the scenic Suhua Highway 9, with winding and narrow cliffside roads overlooking the Pacific Ocean. There were a number of constructions that slowed down traffic but since we were early, it wasn't bad at all. I read that this is a dangerous drive but I didn't feel so. However, we noticed a lot of huge trucks driving this route so it's definitely good to go slower.

A quick photo and washroom stop at Qingshui Cliff viewpoint after driving for 3 hours. This was an easy stop as there was a small parking area right by the viewpoint. 

Finally made it to Taroko National Park at 8.30am. We were welcomed by the majestic lush mountains and blue skies!!

Early bird gets a car-less street. Driving is definitely the best way to explore this National Park. There was no entrance fee and all we did was drive along and stopped as we liked (safety first of course). 

It was hard to capture the scale of the mountains, photos don't do this place justice.

First photo stop was the Swallow Grotto Yanzikou Trail. The tunnels looked super cool. We were able to park in the tunnel and hopped out for a quick photo because we were the only ones there. You can see the river gushing through the narrow gorge from the tunnel.

Selfie does not work here. There's no way to capture the entire scenery.

We were happily enjoying the road to ourselves until we came to this bridge and got 'stuck in traffic' for 30 minutes as they were doing some maintenance work. But looking on the bright side, it gave us plenty of time to take photos of the gorge. I used vertical panorama to capture the left photo. 

Finally, made it to the furthest point we planned to drive in the park...Baiyang Trail at 10.30am. This trail is a popular one because it's easy and flat, and took us approximately 2 hour (4.8km) return, including photo stops. The trail starts with an eerie walk through a dark 100m long tunnel.

Followed by a cliffside walk along a flat path, passing through several tunnels.

Towards the end of the trail, a suspension bridge connects the trail to an observation deck with a view of two waterfalls and overlooking the river basin.

At the side of the observation deck, we walked through another dark tunnel that took us to the most interesting sight of this trail, in my opinion.

The Cave of Water Curtain. You are guaranteed to get soaked walking through this tunnel so we 'geared up' by taking off our shoes (should have brought flip flops and towel) and covering ourselves up in rain jacket. There is a narrow path on one side of the tunnel and you'll see water pouring through the cracks into the tunnel. It was dark in the tunnel and difficult to get photo of us in the cave itself. But I brilliantly had the idea of using my 2nd phone's flashlight to shine on us while taking a photo...haha!! We didn't want to get too soaked so we didn't walk all the way to the other end. 

After a fun water curtain experience, we headed back to the car and drove to our final stop for the day...the Changchun Shrine. At this point, we were done walking/hiking so we decided to skip the walk to the shrine.

Goodbye Taroko National Park! Stopped at the coolest 7-11 ever and a rest area with angry 'chilies' on our drive back.

Made it back to Taipei around 4.30pm. It was a successful 12-hour day driving to and from Taroko National Park, with beautiful weather throughout our visit. It was raining on our drive back. Made it back to the hotel in time for another day of free dinner at the lounge!

For those who are interested to visit Taroko National Park, I'd definitely recommend renting a car and do a road trip there. If you have time and is flexible with your accommodation, spending a night in Hualien would be a good option. The total cost for our 2-days rental car with IWS was $133 for 3 person ($75 rental car + $33 gas + $5 tolls + $20 International Driver's Permit)...not bad at all!

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Asia Hopper 2019 ✈ Northeast Coast Taiwan

Our 2019 home trip gave us the opportunity to hop through (and visit) 5 Asian cities within 2 weeks. Our itinerary consists of a mix of countries that I've already visited in the past but it was nice to revisit these places with hubby and MIL, and most importantly spend time with families!

Aug 31: Seoul
Aug 31 - Sept 7: Taipei
Sept 7 - Sept 8: Hong Kong 
Sept 8 - Sept 15: Penang
Sept 16: Tokyo 

As compared to my previous visits to Taiwan, this trip was relatively longer and we had more time to venture outside of Taipei city. Therefore, we spent a day traveling to the Northeast Coast of Taiwan and another day driving south to Taroko Gorge National Park. 

I found a pretty good 2-day rental car deal on IWS, a local rental car company with very good reviews, for a total price of TWD2,300 ($75). Since there were 3 of us traveling together, it was much cheaper to drive to places further away from the city, especially Taroko Gorge which was a 3.5-hr drive (170km) from Taipei. I did have to apply for an International Driver's Permit to drive in Taiwan, which was easily done at the local AAA office for $20.

While the rental car was cheap, I made sure to check the on-site parking rate at the hotel as well because on-site parking fee published on the hotel's website was TWD2,400 daily, even more expensive than the total rental car cost. Fortunately, the hotel confirmed that parking is complimentary for hotel guests. =)

Sept 4 (Wed): Taiwan Northeast Coast (Tamsui Fisherman's Wharf, Yangmingshan National Park, Yehliu Geopark, Shihfen Old Town, Jiufen Old Town)

Starting another day with complimentary buffet breakfast at the hotel. P.S. I love guavas!

We took a bus from the hotel and got rained on as we walked to the rental car office. It was forecasted to rain all week during our visit but we were lucky that it only rained on the day we were traveling around in a car. It took about 30 minutes to get all the paperwork sorted out and departed at 10am after a quick inspection of the car (easy because the car was very new). I was happy to get a fuel-efficient Toyota. =)

First stop, drove about an hour north of Taipei to Tamsui Fisherman's Wharf. Took some photos with the famous landmark - Lover's Bridge.

 We spotted few fishing boats coming in with a boat full of catches.

It was cool that we were the only ones there! The boardwalk was where bro and I got eliminated from the Amazing Race China Rush in 2012. =P

After spending about half an hour at the Fisherman's Wharf, we continued our journey eastbound via Yangmingshan National Park. As we were driving to the mountains, the roads were narrow and windy. But overall, it was a fairly uneventful drive apart from spotting a monkey sitting in the middle of the road.

Our original plan was to do some sightseeing at a few visitor spots around Yangmingshan but it was extremely foggy up in the mountains so we decided to skip all the planned stops and continued driving to the next destination. 

After driving for 2 hours through windy foggy mountains, we made it to Yehliu Geopark at 1.30pm, a geological site formed by rocks eroded by the sea. The entrance fee was $2.55 per person but we paid only $0.55 each, thanks to Klook credits.

 I was definitely happy to see blue skies but I knew we had to make this a quick stop as the storm was rolling in! It indeed started pouring as we were leaving...phew!

The famous 'rock' here is the Queen's head (bottom right photo) but we were lazy to stand in line so we took photos with some other rocks, and snapped a quick selfie on the other side of the Queen's head. =P

Next stop, Shihfen Waterfall. From the parking lot, it takes approximately 10 minutes to walk to the waterfalls, passing through 2 suspension bridges.

There are a number of viewing spots to see the waterfall. Unfortunately, there was too much backlight at 3pm to get a good photo with us in it.

We then walked another 30 minutes to Shihfen Old Town, which is famous for its sky-lanterns and a train track that runs through the town. We were very lucky to get there just in time as a train was passing by.

Drove another 1 hour to our final stop for the day...Jiufen Old Town. After sitting on our butts in the car for an entire day, we weren't quite ready for the amount of stairs we had to climb around this mountain town, filled with maze of narrow lanes and alleyways.

This town is a popular tourist destination because of the resemblance to the town in the anime Spirited Away, especially this Ah Mei Tea House. We noticed that this was a popular stop for many Japanese tourists. 

Tried the A-Jou Peanut Ice Cream Roll and Taiwanese Sausage.

Our original plan was to wait till sunset and for all the lanterns in the town to light up...

...but the amount of people flocking in was a total turn off. Sorry I do not like crowds.

We decided to call it a day and started driving back to Taipei city at 6pm. 

Made it back to the hotel in time for the free dinner at the lounge before passing out.

That's a wrap for our day driving through the Northeast Coast of Taiwan. Coincidentally, our route for the day took us through many places I visited during the Amazing Race China Rush 7 year ago. It was nice to revisit these places with hubby and MIL this time around.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Asia Hopper 2019 ✈ Taipei

Our 2019 home trip gave us the opportunity to hop through (and visit) 5 Asian cities within 2 weeks. Our itinerary consists of a mix of countries that I've already visited in the past but it was nice to revisit these places with hubby and MIL, and most importantly spend time with families!

Aug 31: Seoul
Aug 31 - Sept 7: Taipei
Sept 7 - Sept 8: Hong Kong 
Sept 8 - Sept 15: Penang
Sept 16: Tokyo 

My first visit to Taiwan was in 2006 but it was a brief 3D2N stopover so we didn't see a lot. My second visit to Taiwan was during the 2012 Amazing Race, but we were too busy racing around and got eliminated from the race, so we didn't see much either. So I'm glad to be back in Taiwan again after so many years, this time with hubby and MIL who are both visiting for the first time, and spend more time revisiting places that I've visited briefly in the past, and visiting new places.

Aug 31 (Sat): Incheon - Taipei

After a quick tour around Seoul, I hopped back on the plane to continue the last leg of my flight to Taipei on Asiana Airlines. 

After traveling for 33 hours, I made it to Taipei at 4pm. Lucky to be welcomed by the beautiful weather as it was expected to rain throughout the week (typhoon season). It was hot (35°C) but I'd rather deal with the heat and humidity than the rain. =P

First things first, gotta get all the logistics and transportation sorted out, which was another reason why I choose to arrive earlier than hubby and MIL. =) Collected our EasyCards, 8-days Sim Card, Taoyuan airport metro tickets and biscuit vouchers at the airport. I also withdrew TWD 1,500 ($50) from the ATM using my Schwab debit card (no fee). 

While Asia is moving rapidly to go cashless, there are still a lot of places that accept only cash (e.g. buying and reloading HK's Octopus card, Japan's Pasmo/Suica card and Taipei's EasyCard). I prefer to use credit card instead of cash (to meet minimum spend for credit card sign up bonuses), anKlook solved this problem! I was able to book and pay for these transportation cards and tickets with credit card before the trip, and redeemed them hassle free!

I stumbled upon Klook, a tours and activities booking platform while doing my trip research. Apparently it has been around since 2014, but I guess I haven't traveled around Asia enough to not know about it. After using it in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Malaysia this trip, I'd definitely recommend this to anyone who plans to travel in Asia. It is super convenient and easy to use! Best of all, the prices are at least the same or cheaper. 

Get a US$5 discount when you sign up with this link.

Call me crazy because I enjoy trip planning a lil' too much. I created this spreadsheet to strategize our Klook bookings. Well, mainly to optimize the promo codes and credits among the three of us to save $30 (32% discount). =P

Getting from Taoyuan airport to Taipei city is cheap and convenient. The metro ride from Terminal 2 to Taipei Main Station took about 40 minutes, and cost only $4.50 each way. Both Express and Commuter train costs the same, but the Express train is faster with less stops. There's place to store luggage, free wifi in the train, and the train is clean.

The train arrived Taipei Main Station at 6.10pm. I decided to walk from the station to the hotel as it was only 1km (10min) walk. However, I got so lost in the underground train station and it ended up taking me 30 minutes to get to the hotel. Wasn't fun lugging the heavy luggage all around. I was soaked in sweat when I arrived at the hotel.

Finally made it to Sheraton Grand Taipei at 6.40pm, our 'home' for the next 7 nights. I had a 7-night travel certificate and decided to use it at this hotel (instead of Taipei Marriott Hotel) because of its central location and the awesome Executive Lounge. The total cost for these 7-nights would have been TWD 54,968 ($1,750), but paid for all with points. =)

We booked a Deluxe Twin Room but got upgraded to this slightly larger Premier Twin Room. I was hoping for a Suite upgrade but oh well, can't expect so much for a 7-night stay.

After dropping my luggage in the room, I went upstairs to the Club Lounge for the evening reception. The hot dishes served between 5.30pm-7.30pm has so much food that it's good enough for dinner. Alcoholic beverages are also served (free) between 5-8pm. =P

Even though we did not get the concierge level room, I had access to the lounge throughout our stay thanks to my Platinum status. Aside from the good food, the staff's service was also very good! This lounge is easily one of the best Executive Lounges I've been to and definitely one of my favorite parts of this hotel!

Collage of all the breakfasts and dinners I had in the lounge. If I was traveling by myself, I could easily survive 7 days in Taipei without spending a dime on food...haha!

Sept 1 (Sun): Taipei City (Elephant Mountain)

After a night of much-needed rest (passed out at 9pm), I woke up at 5.45am to this view from the room. Just a normal city view but I'm glad for another sunny day!

Was motivated to go to the gym for the first (and last) time during our!!

I usually opt for the points instead of breakfast for the Platinum welcome amenity. However, since we were staying for 7 nights and there were 3 of us traveling together, I opted for the free buffet breakfast for 2 throughout our stay. The international buffet breakfast at Kitchen 12 offers a much wider variety than the lounge, and includes both Western and local cuisines. The breakfast costs TWD 770/pax ($25) per day so the value of this welcome amenity is equivalent to $350.

Since I was alonethe first morning, I decided to try out both breakfasts. Breakfast in the lounge, followed by brunch in restaurant. I was stuffed! 

Exterior and lobby of the hotel 

It was such a clear and beautiful day I decided to go out for a walk close by the hotel.

After getting lost underground in Taipei Main Station the evening before, I was determined to go back and figure out the shortest/fastest route to get from the metro station to the hotel before hubby and MIL arrives the next morning. Spent 2 hours randomly walking around the many underground malls within Taipei Main Station before heading back to the hotel to chill and rest.  

My original plan was to have a chill day at the hotel but I didn't want to 'waste' such a beautiful weather so I decided to go out and explore the city. First stop...walked 10 minutes to Huashan 1914 Creative Park. It was a Sunday and there were some events here so this place was pretty crowded. I'm not a fan of crowded area so I left after making a quick loop around the park.

Picked up a YouBike from Huashan Creative Park and biked 6km (50 min) to Elephant Mountain. Using the YouBike is easy once you've registered your EasyCard and a local phone number. Just scan the EasyCard to retrieve the bike, and scan it again when you return the bike. Best of all, it costs only TWD 5 ($0.16) for 30 minutes of rental!

Clear blue skies and Taipei 101, definitely glad I decided to venture out!

Returned the bike at the Xiangshan Youbike station and started hiking up Xiangshan Trail at 5.10pm, about an hour before sunset.

Well as you can see, it's actually more like climbing up endless stairs rather than a 'hike'. I read online that the 'climb' takes approximately 25 minutes, so I figured it wasn't too difficult but I ended up stopping for about 10 times during the climb to catch my breathe. Whoops, guess it's time to get back in shape!

Despite having to stop for a few times, I still made it to up the view point within 20 minutes with 45 minutes to spare before sunset. You may not see it in the photo but I was soaking in sweat...the heat and humidity definitely feels like Malaysia!

There are a total of 3 photo spots - First viewing platform, followed by the boulders, and a larger viewing platform shortly after the boulders. It was a Sunday so the viewing platform was packed with locals and tourists but I found a spot to sit and wait for the sunset at the 2nd viewing platform. 

From day to night...took way too many photos within the span of an hour. 

Took so many photos I don't know how to choose one to post so here you go...two photos of beautiful Taipei that looks same same but! 

I started making my way downhill at 6.40pm. I basically ran (and jumped) down the stairs within 10 minutes, picked up a YouBike and cycled 15min to the metro station, ran into the metro station and hopped on the metro for 11min, then ran up a bunch of stairs after getting off the metro... 

...and miraculously made it back to the hotel at 7.20pm...
(photos were taken before and after the 'workout')

...just in time to grab dinner at the Club Lounge before they stopped serving hot dishes at 7.30pm!! Lol I definitely deserve a huge meal after all these workout!! I certainly wasn't expecting to walk 20,000 steps and climb 63 floors on my supposedly chill day!!

Sept 2 (Mon): Taipei City (Liberty Square, Longshan Temple, Raohe Night Market) 

Hubby and MIL's EVA Air flight landed at 5am and they successfully took the 2nd train for the day and made it to Taipei Main Station at 6.50am using the 'instructions' I prepared. =) It was still early (not hot) so we decided to walk to the hotel. We didn't get lost this time. =P

Shower and breakfast before we start our sightseeing for the day.

We picked up our YouBikes from the station located right across our hotel and cycled 10 minutes to Liberty Square. 

Good thing we got here early at 9.30am, there weren't many tourists around.

The main attraction here is the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall but the National TheaterNational Concert Hall, and Liberty Square Arch are equally impressive. 

Guard changing ceremony at 10am.

The guard changing ceremony lasted for 10 minutes and I was glad it wasn't longer because it was HOTTT inside the Memorial Hall!

Spot the 'love' in the air. <3

One last panorama before we head over to the Botanical Garden.

The Botanical Garden was so disappointing we didn't even take any photos there. Seriously, it shouldn't be called a botanical garden. =.=

Cycled to Longshan Temple for a quick visit before taking the metro back to the hotel at 12pm to rest. Hubby and MIL napped for a few hours in the afternoon. 

Woke them up at 5pm and headed to the lounge to grab some food before heading to Raohe Night Market.

When in Taipei, travel as the Taiwanese travel. It's only the first day and we've traveled around the city on the metro, YouBike, and bus. Took a local bus from our hotel to Raohe Night Market. The bus ride took 30 minutes and costs TWD15 ($0.50) per person. We were very impressed by the bus driver's skill, zipping through narrow streets and switching lanes constantly. 

Raohe Night Market at 7pm on a Monday is still pretty busy but we didn't have to wait in line at all for the famous Fuzhou Pepper Pork!

Lots of Taiwanese delicacies here...torched beef cubes, braised pork rice, herbal pork ribs soup, beef noodles, sweet potato balls, Taiwanese sausages, etc.

Sept 3 (Tues): Taipei City (Beitou Hot Springs, Taipei 101, Elephant Mountain)

Sumptuous breakfast to start our day.

Our original plan was to visit the National Palace Museum in the morning. However, we found out the night before that there's actually a free English guided tour that you must register and reserve 2 days prior to your visit. As such, we changed our plan to visit on Friday morning instead. Since we had some extra time, we went to some game shops in the underground mall in Taipei Main Station before taking the metro to Beitou.

Took the metro from Taipei Main Station to Xinbeitou Station. Two things I remember vividly from our first trip to Taipei in 2006 was that you're not allowed to eat or drink in the metro and metro stations (we got a warning for drinking water at the station), and everyone stands on one side of the escalator. 13 years later...everything is still the same, which explains why the trains are so clean. =)

Made a quick visit to Beitou Library, the first green library in Taiwan. We were hoping to enjoy some air-con here but it wasn't cold at all inside (go green I guess). P.S. Library is a good place to sleep. =P

Next stop was the Beitou Hot Spring Museum. Entrance is free. This was the original public hot spring bath in Beitou, built by the Japanese.

Last stop in Beitou was the Thermal Valley. Just a quick photo stop because hot springs at 1.30pm in the summer is not appealing.

Left Beitou area at 2pm and took the metro to Taipei 101. We decided to have late lunch + early dinner at Din Tai Fung. 3pm turned out to be a good time to come because we didn't have to wait at all to get seated. =)

Hubby has been looking forward to Din Tai Fung's Xiao Long Bao since we booked this trip (and since we last had it in Hong Kong in 2016). He was 'seriously' enjoying them...haha! 

Their food certainly do not disappoint. The prices for DTF in Taiwan is also very reasonable. DTF's Xiao Long Bao is hubby's favorite Asian food....nothing has beaten it!

After a filling our stomachs, it's time to burn off some calories! Hopped on the YouBike and cycled to Elephant Mountain.

Hiked up Elephant Mountain for the 2nd time in 3 days...phewww!! Let's go...burn off those calories from Din Tai Fung...haha!

The trail was less crowded because it was a weekday, which makes the hike a lil' easier.

Photos from the first viewing platform.

Made it to the 2nd viewing platform after 25 minutes...not bad at all!! You may not see it but we were all dripping in sweat.

Another beautiful clear day!

It was still an hour before sunset, so we decided to not wait and head back to the hotel.

The hike is really not difficult...just look at all the random people we spotted. =P

Few more photos with Taipei 101 before we head back.

Another before and after photo for the day. I'm getting all my workout for the year this!

I know we already had our early dinner but I need more food after all the workout!

We spent the next two days traveling outside of Taipei with the rental car so I'll have a separate trip report for it. For now, I will skip to our last day of sightseeing in Taipei.

Sept 6 (Fri): Taipei City (National Palace Museum, Grand Hotel Taipei)

Solo breakfast at the lounge while hubby and MIL had breakfast at the restaurant. As mentioned earlier, we changed our plans and decided to visit the National Palace Museum on the last day. I'm not a fan of museums so we split up this morning for our sightseeing. 

After dropping off hubby and MIL at the National Palace Museum, I drove to IWS's office to drop off our rental car. All good with no issue. =)

I then walked to Yuanshan Metro Station to hop on the Grand Hotel free shuttle bus.

Grand Hotel Taipei, not to be confused with Sheraton Grand Taipei Hotel (the hotel we stayed at) is a landmark in Taipei because it looks erm...Grand. But I agree, the names are confusing.

I had plenty of time here so I was happily taking selfies...under the hot sun.

Told ya...the hotel looks Grand. They even have a golden dragon, with a CCTV over it.

Nice view of the city from the side of the hotel.

This is what happens when I have too much time...I took jumpshots using the timer on my cellphone...with many failed attempts of course. =P

After spending about an hour at the Grand Hotel, I hopped on the YouBike and cycled 25 min to the National Palace Museum to meet up with hubby and MIL.

Getting all my workout for the year done in one!

The National Palace Museum. Hubby and MIL enjoyed the free tour, so if you're planning to visit, definitely sign up for the free guided tour!

If you look on the map, the National Palace Museum is located outside of the metro routes, and the closest metro station, Shilin Station is approximately 2km away. So if you don't plan to take the bus, the YouBike is the next best option. 

Picked up this free Earl Grey tea from the Milk Shop at Shilin station, thanks to Klook credits. Perfect for a hot day.

We decided to go for one last round of Din Tai Fung at the Nanxi branch. We got there around 1.30pm and had to wait for about 20 minutes before getting seated. 

What better way to end our trip in Taipei than a good massage? 

Especially after all the walking over the last few days!!

Sept 7 (Sat): Taipei - Hong Kong

Checked out of the hotel early at 5am and took an Uber to Taipei Main Station to catch the train to the airport.

That's a wrap for Taipei. Thank you for the beautiful weather, yummy xiao long bao, and nice people! Next stop... Hong Kong!