I had a fabulous summer holiday this year. I spent three weeks in August with my young sons visiting two wonderful islands – Taiwan and Bali, Indonesia. I’ve travelled quite a bit in Asia, but this was my first visit to both countries, and I wouldn’t hesitate a moment to pack my bags and return to each again.
They were extremely easy countries to navigate, even alone with two kids, and the people are so warm and welcoming to visitors. And, of course, there’s plenty to see and to learn in these fascinating countries.
I’ll be sure to provide more details in coming months for those of you planning (or dreaming of) trips to this part of the world. But for now, I’ll provide an overview of the highlights.
Republic of China (Taiwan)
In Taiwan, I visited a family member working in Taipei, and used this as a base for my travels. Taipei is such a vibrant, interesting city, yet one that’s remarkably well organized with plenty of cultural and culinary interests on offer.
The public transport is great (A plea to urban planners in Rome: please, pretty please – learn from Taipei and copy their system!) and, as my son joked, whenever we’d get lost and ask someone directions, there’d be a second person lined up to help if the response wasn’t satisfactory.
Yes, they really are that helpful. A tourist’s dream come true…
Taipei offers plenty of great markets, temples, museums, shopping, and other interesting tourist sites. It also has the world’s third tallest skyscraper: Taipei 101. The skyscraper, built to resemble a giant stalk of bamboo, incorporates many elements of fengshui. It also boasts the fastest elevators in the world and a device architects and engineers will find fascinating – a damper ball – that sways during typhoons (common to Taiwan) and ensures the skyscraper’s stability.
And Taipei boasts the world’s best collection of imperial Chinese art. Taipei’s National Palace Museum, housing a collection of over 600,000 objects, constantly on rotation.
This important collection is well worth seeing on your visit, especially since it is so rare that the collection travels abroad. I saw one of the rare exhibitions, in 1996, at Washington D.C.’s National Gallery of Art and I’ve been dying to see the museum ever since.
My kids loved seeing the changing of the guard ceremonies at the Chiang Kai-Shek memorial. For those of you who saw the film The Last Emperor, it was filmed here, to look like Beijing’s Forbidden City.
But Taiwan isn’t just cities. Taiwan is also blessed with beautiful nature. We did some great hiking on Taiwan’s eastern coast in the Taroko Gorge National Park.
I’ll write more about this region in a future post, but this is a must on any Taiwan trip. The park has beautiful hikes, stunning gorges, picturesque temples, and high mountains. My kids were also thrilled to watch the families of monkeys that call Taroko Park home.
Taiwan has excellent public transportation, so Taroko is well-connected to the capital, by a two hour train ride, and regular bus service from the station that brings you through the dramatic gorges.
The travel gods were smiling on us on this trip. During the eleven days we were in Bali, there were horrible tropical storms in Taiwan. As soon as we returned to Taipei, the weather was perfect and sunny once again. And-need I say it?-Bali’s weather was spectacular: sunny and warm, with gentle breezes.
My sons and I divided our time between Ubud, in central Bali, and the long, white sand beaches of Nusa Dua on the southern coast of the island.
Ubud was our first stop. This charming ‘artist’s colony’ town is growing rapidly and I was glad to have booked a hotel a fifteen minute drive outside of town, in the tranquil rice paddies surrounding Ubud.
Regular shuttle buses took us to town, but we loved retreating to the silence in the late afternoon for a swim in the pool and walks in the rice paddies.
In Ubud, my kids’ favorite visit was definitely the Monkey Jungle, where you can observe all the macao monkeys running through the temples, climbing on the monkey statues, and being naughty with visitors, checking in their packs and pockets for food. My son discovered that his cargo shorts’ pockets were attractive to the monkeys, hoping to find food.
Unlike the rest of Indonesia, which is predominantly Muslim, Bali has a Hindu majority, and there are wonderful Hindu temples and statues to the gods, where beautiful fruit and flower offerings are left daily.
In Ubud, we also loved the Puri Lukisan Balinese art museum and its beautiful grounds, eating at the Lotus Cafe, with its views over the Pura Taman Saraswati temple, and going to a Balinese dance performance – the classic battle story between good and evil, with the Barong dragon fighting the demon queen Rangda.
My soccer-dependent kids joined a local game on the town’s soccer field, and had to get the hang of barefoot soccer.
We were also lucky enough to see an elaborate cremation ceremony through the central streets of Ubud, which was quite an experience.
One day, we went to the northern part of the island, visiting the beautiful temple at Megwi, the Pura Taman Ayun , Lake Bratan and Bedugul and, the highlight for my kids, the wonderful Bali TreeTop Adventure park, where we climbed and zipped high up through the trees. Needless to say, my kids had zero desire to leave at the end of our day.
On the way to the coast, we stopped off at the wonderful Bali Bird Park, where the staff did a great job explaining how birds were hatched and cared for to the children.
There were great sections on the birds indigenous to the various Indonesian islands and – eek!- I usually don’t mind bats, but the being up-close to the enormous Indonesian ‘vampire bats’, the size of dogs, did freak me out a bit. There’s also a Komodo dragon, indigenous to the Indonesian island of Komodo, and even more terrifying in the flesh than in the photos and documentaries I’ve seen.
The coast was as beautiful, and lazy, and we spent plenty of time swimming, reading and lazing in the sun. I did take my kids fishing one day, trawling and reef fishing and they were very excited to catch a tuna and grouper that our hotel cooked up for us. We ate it on the beach that evening accompanied by Balinese sauces and Balinese wine (the latter was a discovery for me, too).
I’ll be sure to write future posts with more details and background for those of you travelling in the area.
But I highly recommend a visit to this amazing corner of eastern Asia, especially these two very different islands well worth a visit.