Nick Kembel is a travel writer and photographer formally based in Taipei, best known for his Spiritual Travels blog. He is the author of Taiwan in the Eyes of a Foreigner, as well as a frequent contributer to various Taiwan related websites. We thought we’d get in touch with the man behind Spiritual Travels to find out what he thinks about travel in Taiwan, and get excited for when the borders finally open up again!
Please tell us why you originally came to Taiwan and why you fell in love with traveling here?
Before coming to Taiwan, I had been backpacking on and off for several years. Taiwan had been on my radar as an offbeat destination, but I really didn’t know much about it beyond the fact that it had lots of hot springs and that many things used to be made there.
In 2008, my girlfriend in Canada broke up with me, so I decided to move away indefinitely. I took an English teaching job in China because I had an old friend who was already there doing the same. I moved in with him and got hired at the same school where he worked. A few months later, though, things got a little intense in China with the Beijing Olympics coming. We decided to pick a new country, and my friend wanted to go somewhere where he could continue learning Mandarin. Taiwan beckoned!
My love for Taiwan developed not suddenly but gradually. As a traveler and anthropology major, I could have gone just about anywhere in the world and been intrigued for some time. Taiwan seemed expensive at first, compared to where we had been living in China. It also seemed less “adventurous”; most people spoke English, getting around was super easy, politeness was the norm, and so on. But over time, these were the very things I fell in love with.
Taiwan is a small country that packs in so much for every kind of traveler. Even after exploring it for over a decade, I’m still constantly adding new places and experiences to my Taiwan bucket list (Spiritual Travels). I loved being able to live and work in such an exciting city like Taipei, where there’s always something cool going on, but also having loads of beaches, hiking trails, hot springs, and more, all easily accessible as short jaunts from the city.
Even when my wife and I left Taiwan with our two kids in 2019 to move to my hometown in Canada, we still left our hearts there. We plan to visit frequently and spend a part of each year there once travel opens up again.
What do you miss most about Taiwan, now you are back home in Canada?
If you ask this question to any Taiwanese person, they will automatically answer “the food,” and I would have to say the same. Not just the amazing food itself, but also the experience of walking through night markets, the convenience of being able to enjoy top notch food everywhere you go, not having to cook every meal at home, evenings out with friends that revolve around food and drink, and even stepping into 7-Eleven for a snack or a cold beer. Taiwan is truly a food lovers’ paradise, and I miss that the most.
I see on Spiritual Travels that you’ve been all over Taiwan. What is your favorite spot in Taiwan that is generally unknown or not often visited?
I love the villages of Shizuo (石棹) and Fenqihu (奮起湖) in Chiayi County. Both are in the vicinity of Alishan, the super popular mountain resort, but are much lesser known.
Shizhuo is a farming community where Alishan High Mountain tea, Taiwan’s most famous tea, is grown. There you can find a handful of guesthouses run by tea farming families where you can stay in a room overlooking gorgeous tea plantations, drink tea with farmers, or explore a network of hiking trails among the terraced tea fields.
Nearby Fenqihu is better known as one of the stops on the Alishan Forest Railway from Chiayi to Alishan. For years it was the final stop, as the railway line further uphill was damaged in a typhoon. Most locals know about Fenqihu, but visitors usually bypass it on their way up to Alishan. The cute one-street village is known for its delicious lunchbox meals, and if you spend the night there you can spot fireflies right in town. From Fenqihu, you can also reach the Ruili Historic Trail. This is an incredible day hike through stunning bamboo forests, one of my favorite walks in all of Taiwan.
How do you think traveling in Taiwan compares to other countries in terms of price and convenience?
I usually say that Taiwan sits somewhere between Japan and Southeast Asia in terms of costs. Certain things are pricier than you might expect in Taiwan; for example hotels and car rentals. On the other hand, eating and getting around on public transportation can be surprisingly cheap.
In terms of convenience, Taiwan prides itself on that. The country surely has convenient transportation covered, and you can get an excellent meal or cold beer at any time of day or night, no matter where you are. But there is still room for improvement. Government and tourism websites are notoriously difficult to use or outdated, TRA train seats always sell out and are difficult to book online, and trash bins can be impossible to find.
That’s where we hope Taiwanna Travel will help, to be a travel site that is easy to use, modern and up to date! What is the first thing you’ll eat, drink and visit when you are next back to Taiwan?
My wife (who is Taiwanese) and I constantly discuss what we’ll eat as soon as we’re back. For her, it’s hot pot, beef noodles, and braised pork rice (滷肉飯). For me, it’s shao bing (燒餅, a breakfast pastry) with egg, tuna and melted cheese, green onion cakes, and every seafood dish at a quick fry restaurant (快炒).
The first drink I’ll have will be a cold beer from 7-Eleven or FamilyMart, simply because I’ll be able to. The first place I’ll visit (after stopping in at my wife’s family’s house, of course) will probably be Jiaoxi or Wulai Hot Springs, as we are planning to visit next winter.
Many thanks to Nick of Spiritual Travels for doing this interview with us. We really appreciate your contribution and hope you are doing well in Canada.