Jiufen & Shifen: Taiwan’s Old Streets

Did you know that Taiwan was actually Japan’s first colony? You can still feel it, once you step on the shores of Taiwan–you can feel a little bit of China, and a little bit of Japan… but don’t tell the Taiwanese that.

Japan wanted to show off to the world that they can also do the imperial colonizing thing like the Westerners can, and wanted to set Taiwan as a model example. You can still see the remnants of Japan especially in Taiwan’s old towns, particularly Jiufen and Shifen. If you want to experience more history and culture, these old mining towns give a feel of what Taiwan was like during the late 20th-century Japanese occupation.

In the late 20th century, gold was discovered in the area which ushered the gold rush and brought in a lot of people in that area. Mining was a lucrative industry in the hey-day: naturally rich in sulfur, gold, clay and gold. Nowadays, however, Taiwan now relies on imports to meet their mineral demands.

Jiufen and Shifen are good to visit in a day’s trip, as they are quite nearby and accessible. (Personally, I think it would be better if you allocate one day for each town!)

How to Get There?

Jiufen and Shifen is 40km and 30km away from the capital, respectively.

To get to Jiufen and Shifen, you need to get to Ruifang Train Station. You can also take the bus (approx $15-22 NTD/trip). . The commute is fairly inexpensive and easy to navigate, and takes approximately 40 minutes to 1 hour to get to your destination. The travel offers scenic views of the Taiwanese countryside.

shihfen flying lanterns

I should warn you that the commute back is a lot less pleasant. Queues at the bus station get pretty long after sunset. Day visitors often have to compete for a seat to the bus ride home.

So if you’re not the hustling kind, it would be better if you take the train (buying a roundtrip ticket in advance gets you a guaranteed seat) or simply hire a cab for the day. It will be more comfortable that way.

Jiufen

Jiufen is a charming little mining town in Northern Taiwan where time literally froze. It used to be a bustling gold mining town, until the gold depleted and it became a deserted, forgotten gem. There was a revived interest in the town when it appeared in the acclaimed movie City of Sadness, and it became a famous tourist attraction.

Although there is some dispute regarding this, Jiufen is said to be the real-life inspiration behind Hayao Miyazaki’s film, Spirited Away. If you haven’t seen the animated film, it’s about a little girl whose parents transformed into pigs and enters into a spirit world. Jiufen offers the magical backdrop of the film, from the winding, cobblestone streets  down to the  pork dumplings the Chihiro’s parents devoured greedily in the film.

Jiufen is filled with shops selling unique food and quirky things you will never find elsewhere. Shops sell trinkets, calligraphy art, peanut ice cream, shaved ice desserts… all sorts of things!

One particular shop had a handmade mask exhibit that reminded me again of another scene from the Miyazaki film.

The bathhouse is inspired by the A-mei Teahouse nestled in the highest part of the mountain. The teahouse is said to be a century old, where you could have traditional tea served with a good view of the town

Shifen

Located in Pingxi Disctrict is another charming town famous for another thing: their magnificent flying lanterns. Annually, they hold the Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival every February wherein thousands of sky lanterns are flown. I bet that is a sight to behold.

Once a bustling town with a railway that was a major player in Taiwan’s coal mining industry, the city is now best known for two things: the Shifen Waterfalls, lovingly dubbed as ‘Taiwan’s Niagara Falls’, and the flying lanterns, where visitors could send their wishes to the sky.

Wishes are color-coded and prices could vary from NT100-NT150, depending on the lantern you wish to send to the sky.

Just like most people, we wished for good health, love and more travels. Oriental characters on the flying lanterns seem more awesome than the English alphabet though… Watch our lantern go up in the sky!

It was magical to see your lantern fly up the sky and see your wishes reach the heavens… Unfortunately, I was told that the lanterns fly up for 10 minutes before it comes down to the ground. The lantern shops have workers whose job is to retrieve the fallen lanterns. Boo. Not as magical as I thought.

photobombing pixie sticks shifen taiwan

In the evening, we bought some fairy sticks and acted like kids. Who knew it was so much fun to light these things? Thanks fairy light photobombers for making this photo of me awesome! 🙂

So here you go! Do yourself a little favor and have a side trip to Jiufen and Shifen when you’re in Taiwan.

How to Apply for Visa Exemption to Taiwan

When Filipinos think of trips abroad, we usually think of Hong Kong, Singapore or Thailand first. We don’t normally think Taiwan for tourism, but let me tell you: it’s worth skipping the mainstream tourist destinations and try Taipei for a change.

how to apply taiwan visa free

Cebu Pacific is offering more Manila-Taipei flights and a Cebu-Taipei route starting this December 2015! No excuse to skip Taipei now, it’s a totally underrated and beautiful country. A foodie will die happy in Taiwan– the country is best known for its gluttony (I’ll get to this on a future blog post).

To get to Taiwan, Philippine Passport Holders need a Taiwan visa. I was able to bypass application for a Taiwan visa because I was eligible for visa exemption!

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I. What is a Travel Exemption Certificate?

You can get a visa-free entry to Taiwan by availing of the ROC Travel Authorization certificate, which allows you to bypass the need for a Taiwan visa. The visa exemption allows travelers to stay in Taiwan for up to 30 days.

The certificate has to be printed out and presented by the foreign visitor upon immigration inspection, along with other requirements ready for immigration inspection. Failure to present the valid documents will not be admitted into Taiwan.

If you are not eligible for visa exemption, refer to my post on How to Apply for Taiwan Visa for Philippine Passport Holders.

II. Requirements

  • Valid Philippine Passport. Nationals of the Philippines, India, Thailand and Vietnam can apply for the visa exemption if they meet all said requirements
  • Valid visa or a permanent resident certificate to the following countries: US, UK, Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and Schengen countries.
  • Online Application form to be filled out here.

III. Waiting Period

What do you mean, waiting period? You immediately get your travel certificate after filling out the online form, in 5 seconds (or, depends on your internet connection)! It is then ready to print out and use for your travels.

IV. Other Important Reminders

  • Print out your visa exemption certificate, and in color.
  • Expiry of the visa exemption certificate is only valid for one month after application’s approval. Online application and approval is instant, so you can do it a few days before your trip. I applied mine a few months back only to realize during my packing that my exemption certificate has expired. I had to reapply for it a day before my trip–I instantly received it without any problems.
  • Make sure to bring your valid US/UK/Schengen visa to present to immigration. I normally only bring my most recent passport, but since my 10-year US tourist visa is in my old green passport, I brought that along as well.
  • A single entry visa becomes invalid once it’s already been used. However, it may be deemed acceptable to immigration inspection if: 1., visa holder arrives in Taiwan before the expiration date, and 2., if on the same continuing journey, the visa holder uses it on the issuing country before arriving Taiwan.

Siargao Guide for Non-Surfers

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The act of riding waves on wooden boards has been recorded as a human activity for thousands of years. The first surfers were the ancient Pacific Islanders and Polynesians who fish for a living, and discovered that riding the waves was an efficient way to get to shore quickly.

One of the First Known Photographs of a Surfer, 1800s. Photo from: Bishop Museum Archive
One of the First Known Photographs of a Surfer, 1800s. Photo from: Bishop Museum ArchiveSurfing and Siargao

Eventually riding waves transformed from a daily activity to a favorite pastime. There have been written records about people riding waves, from Capt. James Cook to Mark Twain. We can only guess how and when the modern form surfing was established, but one day some madcap decided it was a good idea to stand in his board during a swell and see what happens. The rest was history.

Surfing is now a sport and lifestyle that has taken a life of its own. Surfers travel around the world to catch the ‘perfect wave’. This is how the story of Siargao happened. Twenty years ago, two pro-surfers came to the Philippines to catch the fabled waves on a tear-shaped island called ‘Siargao’. Now known as ‘Cloud 9’, Siargao is acclaimed for her large, smooth and hollow-tubed waves that bring an international crowd of surfers every year. Siargao is now known as the Surfing Capital of the Philippines, and is the 9th Best Surfing Spot in the World (according to CNN).

But Wait! This Post is NOT for Surfers.

However, this post isn’t about surfing; I have no idea why I started my intro like that, but whatever. Of course, without surfing, Siargao wouldn’t be what it currently is now. Many surfers came for the waves, and fall in love with the island. Some never leave. The waves and the wonderful community is irresistible–making Siargao a little piece of paradise on Earth. I personally found the allure Siargao so seductive that I ended up booking another ticket to come back just a few days after I left!

In Siargao, surfing can be done all year round. There are different swells from different parts of the island, depending on the time of the year.

non-surfers

So What if I don’t surf?

Siargao is paradise for surfers— and non-surfers, too. If you don’t surf, there’s more to Siargao then just surfing. Of course, I would highly recommend that you make ‘learn to surf’ a top priority on your itinerary, but if it’s really not your thing, here are some activities you can do beyond surfing.

1. Magpupungko Tidal Pool

Magpupungko is named such from a unique rock formation in the area. The large boulder looks like it’s sitting on top of another flat rock. The beautiful pool only unveils itself during low tide.

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Be careful when you jump! The rocks are razor sharp!

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There’s also a beach right next to the pool with massive waves that will wipeout any entity who dared swim in it!

Photo by Chester Baldicantos. Yes, this really happened to John.
Photo by Chester Baldicantos. Yes, this really happened to John.

From General Luna, it’s a 40 minute car ride to Magpupungko. Entrance is 50 per person.

2. Island Hopping

Go island hopping and check out Siargao’s three nearby islands: Naked Island, Daku Island and Guyam Island. Depending on your negotiation skills, you can rent a boat to visit the three islands from P1,000 to P1,500.

Naked Island is just what you would expect–naked. On this island you would not find any trees or vegetation, just a stretch of fine white sand. Daku Island is, ‘dako’ or big, in terms of the other islands we visited. Daku even has its own barangay. (The ancestors were very literal and not very creative with naming their locale) We had our lunch in Daku Island before we went to our last stop, Guyam Island.

If you have the time, you can also check Sohoton Lagoon. Sohoton is famous for its jellyfish sanctuary and enchanting caves. Sohoton is three hours away from Siargao though and is closer to Surigao del Norte, so we decided to reserve Sohoton for another future trip.

3. Food Trip!

Food is affordable and good in Siargao. General Luna has quite a few restaurants and cafes that are good, interesting and not cheesy. Locals like barbecue, and they have barbecue stalls even in their disco bars! You can get great comfort food at Pleasure Point Cafe, three-layered pizza at Aventino’s, sushi at Lux Siargao Sushi Bar, great coffee and view at Cafe Loka, barbecue at Mama’s, and more.

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Food at Pleasure Point Cafe

Locals like barbecue, and they have barbecue stalls even at their disco bars! Siargao is not as touristy as Boracay, so you can’t find any big restaurant establishments here like fast food joints and international food chains. Heck, you can’t even find an ATM machine around GL!

Fresh seafood here abounds (it’s an island, duh). You can go spearfishing if that’s your thing and roast your catch, or if you’re more mainstream  just go to the local market and purchase their freshest catch and pay someone to cook it for you.

You can check out my blog post on some of Siargao’s Best Eats here.

4. Party

So you don’t surf–but you can at least hang out and party with fellow surfers and look the part! Surfers are among the most unpretentious bunch I know and will befriend just about anyone. Siargao parties here embody the vibe of the island–laid back and friendly. You can’t expect any EDM or hardcore parties here. They have great parties in Pagoda Beach Bar especially on Mondays (named appropriately ‘Monday Fundays’) so be sure not to miss that. Other local disco bars are Jungle Bar every Fridays and Stowaway Bar every Saturdays.

pagoda

Other bars around the island include Reggae Bar, Nine Bar, La Luna Surf Buddha Resort (they also have acoustic nights on Thursdays). There are quite a few places to chill and drink around Gen. Luna especially around Cloud 9.

5. Explore the Island!

Aside from surfing, there are plenty of water activities you can do in Siargao. You can go diving, snorkeling and paddle boarding.

SUP!

A fish out of water can find abundant activities on land, too. Hire a motorbike or bicycle and explore the island itself. I read that tarsiers are also present here, and unlike Bohol, these small primates still roam free in Siargao forests. Saltwater crocodiles exist in parts of Siargao — Del Carmen, Siargao is home to the largest mangrove forest reserves in Mindanao.

There’s so much more to discover–General Luna is just one municipality! Fellow traveler and colleague Radel strongly insist I come back to Siargao and explore Siargao’s west and north side.

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Motorbike rentals are typically Php 500/day.

6. Caving

 

7. Relax

Relax! Don’t try to push in too many activities in one day. Tomorrow is another day in paradise. So yes, you deserve an afternoon’s rest in a hammock by the beach.

Relax! Tomorrow is another day in paradise.
Relax! Tomorrow is another day in paradise.
Kona is chillng like a German Shepherd boss.
Kona is chillng like a German Shepherd boss.

What’s In A (Filipino) Name?

One of the questions I shudder about getting asked is, ‘What’s the story behind your baby’s name?

Naming is probably one of the most challenging tasks set forth by man–whether it’s naming a person, a pet, a business, a blog handle or a newly discovered animal species. It should probably be taken more seriously, but it really just took me thirty minutes, tops. What kind of mother.

Back in the olden times, infant mortality rate was very high and thus it was customary for babies to have no name for the first few years of their life. Why name a babe if they’re least likely to reach childhood, lest adulthood? Thanks to developments in science and modern medicine in the past century, infant and toddler health has vastly improved (This has not always been the case for most of the history of humankind). Parents nowadays choose their baby’s name way before their babies are out of the womb.

A name is permanent, and once it’s been named, it’s stuck forever. I don’t blame my childhood friend whose dad and four other brothers were all named ‘Mark’. Better safe than sorry, right? Although calling him on their landline was awkward and confusing back then. (Still is).

So my criteria for naming my baby was pretty basic: that it’s easy to remember, it’s easy to spell, and a nice sound to the name.

‘Easy to Remember’

I have friends with lovable and unique names: Poopie, Chatline, Jim Beam, Pepper, Gaga, (a man), just to name a few.Even I am not spared. My senior high classmates still call me ‘Snoopy’ ten years later for some inside story I can no longer remember. I hated that nickname.

Where else in the world could we find a cardinal named ‘Sin’, a politician named ‘Joker’, and a matinee idol named ‘Dingdong’? It’s more fun in the Philippines!

filipino-names

Names can range from mildly funny to wildly unflattering. We once had an employee named ‘Windshield’. I met a girl in an outreach named ‘Virgin’. And then there was the infamous man who passed the 2014 bar exam named ‘Habeas Corpuz’. An ex-seminarian I know was quirkily named ‘Van Go’, but upon further prodding I was disappointed to know that he doesn’t paint.

I want my son to stand out, but not too much to become the target to future school bullies.

‘Easy to Spell’

I have a fairly common name, ‘Rachel’, which I use in my email and social media accounts. Still, my name still gets butchered on a daily basis. I now know that my name can be spelled in at least seven different ways: Rachell, Rachelle, Reychel, Raychelle, Richelle, Ritcil, Rashel, among other variations.

Filipinos like names that are Western-sounding but also hate giving their kids a ‘common’ name. To remedy this, some parents choose to make ‘alternative spellings and names morph like mutant X-men: ‘Jessica’ would become ‘Jyssikah’, ‘Caitlyn’ becomes ‘Kaetlynn’, or ‘Adrian’ becomes ‘Aedryanne’.

While I laud the creativity, I feel bad for the kid for problems they’ll encounter in the future on the butchered name department. It will be annoying filling up those government forms, or ordering a venti cup from Starbucks. Teaching them their Alpha-Bravo-Charlies early will definitely come in handy.

saruh

‘The Art of the Name…’

How do parents come up with their baby’s name–particularly, Filipino parents? Filipinos are known to have really quirky naming skills. No one seems to flinch about peculiar names in this country because we grew up to all the weirdness all our lives. You only realize how weird the names are when taken from a foreigner’s perspective (such as by Matthew Sutherland).

During the Spanish times, it was customary to name children based on the feasts of saints celebrated during that day. That is why it’s not uncommon for our grandparents to have names such as Natividad, Asuncion, Concepcion, Lourdes, and even Circumcision (there is a thing known as The Feast of the Circumcision of our Lord back in the day!)

My son Caleb was born on Christmas day, to which people in the Philippines would often respond ‘You should have named him ‘Emmanuel’. Ironically, both my brother and father are named ‘Noel’, but neither were even born during Christmas season.

Other odd naming practices in the country: If you come from a Filipino family, we all have an uncle or male relative named ‘Boy’–and a tita named ‘Girlie‘, ‘Baby‘ or ‘Babes‘. The Filipino-Chinese have the preference of putting the suffix ‘-son’ in their names. Names such as ‘Benson’, ‘Harrison’ or ‘Johnson’ are popular among the Filipino-Chinese community. My personal favorite is the ‘themed families’; who name their children after fruits, seasons, virtues, superheroes, desserts or Beatles band members. So if you know a guy named ‘Newton’, he probably also has a sister named ‘Marie Curie’. I am saying this with a straight face.

‘…And Nicknames’

Nicknames are an integral part of the Filipino culture. Have you ever had a friend who everyone refers to by their nickname that no one really knows what their real name really was? I have a good friend named ‘Poopie‘ whom I met back in college– but seriously didn’t know her real name for years until she added me on Facebook. (I remember proclaiming ‘Who the hell is Michelle?’ when I got her friend request.

Filipinos like to make nicknames out of everything. Repeating syllables is a form of endearment, so common Filipino nicknames include ‘Len-len’, ‘Bam-bam’, ‘Dan-dan’, ‘Mik-mik’, the list goes on. Our current president is better known to the public as ‘Noynoy’. And even if you have a short name like ‘Seth’, your friends will call you by a longer nickname, ‘Set-Set’.

And then we also see the trend of ‘combining’ names to make up new names. Jomari is the offspring of Jose and Maria, and Gracniel’s parents were probably named ‘Grace’ and ‘Daniel’. My former school principal was called Luzviminda after Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao. How else did current Vice President Jejomar Binay get his name but by combining Jesus, Joseph and Mary together?

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President Noynoy and VP Jejomar

A two-syllable name that’s short, concise and unnickname-able–that’s what I wanted for my baby. Unfortunately some of his cheeky ninongs have started calling him ‘Leb-leb’ and even ‘Taleb‘.

He’ll probably acquire a few more nicknames from family and friends as he grows older.


(P.S., I don’t hate unique names. I love them! Like what Sutherland said, imagine if we live in a world full of John Smiths, life would be so boring, won’t it?) 😄

Sample of the Insect Palate in Cambodia

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Today, you can see peddlers selling fried tarantulas, crickets, beetles, silkworms and crickets in Cambodia’s public market. It is a favorite snack among the locals— and a more exotic delicacy worthy of bragging rights for daring tourists like me (hehe).

Insects and spiders became a huge part of the Khmer diet during the terror years of the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot’s reign.
The Pol Pot regime saw one of the worst human genocide in the history of mankind. An estimated 2 to 3 million civilians died due to mass killings committed by the Khmer Rouge. The others who did escape executions, died because of starvation and disease. What is most odd to me about this civil war is that it’s not done by an external force–say, Nazis against the Jews like the Holocaust, or white people against black slaves, or aliens against humans. This civil war was Cambodians killing fellow Cambodians!

During the civil war, the insects provide the necessary protein and energy otherwise absent in their forced ration of 6 teaspoons of rice porridge a day. Imagine— to survive a day of imposed force labor under the sweltering heat with 6 teaspoons!

To quote one survivor, ‘Food was more important than God’ during those hard times. They would eat anything they could get their hands on; like insects and even human flesh from the deceased!

When Pol Pot’s regime came to an end, they were happy to stop surviving on human flesh; but discovered they developed a taste for insects and tarantulas.

Pirates: Old School Gangsters

It is amazing how the Spanish walls, made from stone or quicklime with egg whites as mortar still survive centuries after, despite constant visiting typhoons and earthquakes. Our Cebu International Convention Center (CICC) wasn’t as lucky.

Old Spanish forts like Fort San Pedro and this one in Kota Park, Madridejos, Bantayan (pictured) might look like ruins to most people, but they served an important purpose centuries ago.

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The old Spanish forts and churches were built so sturdily to protect the natives from kidnapping. Muslim raiders / pirates used to come at night and steal girls and boys to be sold off to slavery. Slavery was the biggest and most profitable industry during its hay days. If it weren’t for these forts our folks might have ended up in Slaver’s Bay and be one of Khaleesi’s Unsullied.
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Speaking of pirates, the more famous pirates are those in the Caribbean Sea, such as the Blackbeard, Capt. Henry Morgan and Jack Sparrow, and that drink that destroyed my friends last Valentines.

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My knowledge of pirates is still a bit limited, but I have read somewhere that pirates then rarely get gold and other valuable treasures in their expeditions. Pirate booty mostly comprised of items from trade ships: barrels of cotton, sugar, animal hides, rice and spices. Imagine that, Blackbeard the King of Sugar Smuggling. Not so gangsta after all.

Although pirates are now romanticized by movies and media, pirates are still just low life robbers stealing off from honest traders and merchants at sea.

(This is a reblog from my old blog in Tumblr blog back in 2012)