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  • Writer's pictureRick

Taiwan Tips: Dark Side of Taiwan that Travellers should be Aware of

Personally, I like travelling in Taiwan. I had visited the main island 4 times and is planning another trip to explore all its outlying islands of Kinmen, Matsu, Penghu and Lanyu.

However, after checking up on Taiwan and reading its recent news, I noted that the island is far from peaceful — environmentally, legally and politically. The "atmosphere" in Taiwan have changed since my last visit in 2015. I am sharing my concerns here.

I am not advising travellers to avoid Taiwan, but just to note the problems and take necessary measures when planning a trip there. I am still going ahead with my plan in 2018.

#1. Hazardous Air

Air pollution has been an issue in Taiwan for many years despite being very advanced in technology. Old diesel-fueled vehicles of more than 10 years and large number of motorcycles with two-stroke engines are still on the roads. The heavy industries and power plants also contribute smog to the air which are trapped on Taiwan's main island by its mountain ranges.

Unfortunately, Taiwan has been blaming the poor air quality as "contributed" by China instead of beefing up internal policies to improve the situation.

Since 2017, air pollution in Taiwan has reached hazardous levels (exceeding PM2.5), especially in Taichung and Kaohsiung where smog can be seen covering the cities.

The escalation in pollution level started after Taiwan shut down all 3 of its nuclear power plants (the 4th plant was never completed) — their main source of clean energy. This led Taiwan to rely heavily on the remaining thermal power plants which burn larger amount of coal and natural gas. Hence, increasing air pollution.

Tip: It is no longer just a need to put on face masks when in Taiwan, N95-certified masks are what everyone needs — including travellers.

Alternatively, visit the outlying islands like me. Both Kinmen and Matsu are the next hot travel destinations of Taiwan.

#2. Power Disruptions

With all the nuclear power plants taken offline, the remaining thermal power plants are not able to meet residential and industrial needs. The shortage had led to major power disruptions without backup supply. Taiwanese were even advised to use lesser electricity — when Taiwan was engulfed by a heatwave — to prevent power outage but it did not help.

On 15th August 2017, a massive power blackout hits Taiwan for 5 hours amid sweltering heat. A "structural fault" and "human error" had cause 6 generators in one power plant to shut down but triggered an island-wide outage — it was obvious that there were insufficient supply.

On 22nd December, Taoyuan International Airport suffered a power outage of 91 minutes and relied on backup generators for critical functions. All flights were delayed.

These are major disruptions that were reported on international news. There were several small-scale disruptions that did not make it to the news. Seriously, I would not want to be on a flight that is taking off or touching down at the moment the lights go out on the airport's runway and all communications terminated.

Tip: There is not much travellers can do except to standby a torchlight.

#3. Nuclear Waste

As mentioned, Taiwan has 4 nuclear power plants and 3 had been in operations for years before being shut down. All nuclear plants generate nuclear waste that need to be disposed of carefully to prevent hazardous radiations from affecting people and the environment. Taiwan has no means of disposing their nuclear waste, so the waste are still being kept within Taiwan's boundaries.

The nuclear waste are stored in a nuclear waste storage facility on Lanyu island (兰屿 or Orchid Island) in Taitung. It is an island of the Yami aborigine people and a popular getaway destination for travellers.

Hmm... isn't that one of the island that I am planning to visit?

Tip: So long as there is no radiation leaks, the island is still safe for visiting. Of course, if there is a leak, the whole world will know after it happened.

#4. Demonstrations

The political climate in Taiwan is often being termed as "chaotic". With each changeover of government between the two major parties, laws and regulations flip-flopped.

The ineffectiveness of internal policies have caused much unpleasantness among Taiwanese and they took to the streets to protest against the current government. The number of demonstrations in major cities has escalated in recent months, especially in Taipei.

Tip: Stay clear from any demonstrations, nobody knows whether they will turn violent when patience wears thin on either side.

#5. Scammers

Most people will know that most scammers caught were either Chinese or Taiwanese. Because most scammers cannot speak English very well, their targets are primarily Mandarin-speaking Asians. Naturally, Taiwan is a hotbed for their "home-grown" scammers with many locals being scammed of their hard-earned money.

When arriving at any hotels in Taiwan, you will probably see a notice near the phone in your room to warn you against unsolicited calls. The best will be to ignore any calls or answer in English.

Tip: Ignore any calls. Always suspect a scam when being asked for money.

#6. Drink-Driving

Anyone who watches Taiwanese news every day will probably notice a "consistency" — not a single day goes by without the news reporting on at least an accident involving drink-driving. The punishment for drink-driving is extremely light in Taiwan and ineffective. The problem has became so rampant in Taiwan that drink-drivers are even refusing alcohol testing by traffic police.

A tour bus caught fire in Taiwan in 2016 and killed a whole Chinese tour group of 26 tourists onboard was believed to be set on fire by its drunk bus driver. Some cab drivers were even caught drunk at the wheels in broad daylight. There were others who drove in drunken stupor after some drinking the previous day and resulted in accidents.

Tip: If you are hiring private drivers, taking cabs or tour buses, pay attention to the drivers to make sure they have not been drinking. Sound it out if things do not seem right. Also, do cross the road with care and with eyes open — even Taiwanese are afraid of their own roads.

#7. Drug Abuses

With The Philippines cracking down hard on drug trafficking and abuses, drug traffickers had turned their attentions to Taiwan — being just next door. Drug abuse cases have risen in Taiwan, especially among the young people. And "drug parties" that Taiwanese police busted were usually held in KTV rooms, hotel rooms, nightclubs, etc.

Tip: It might be tempting to be invited to a party after getting to know some locals but do be on the alert if you do not know them very well. Avoid mysterious parties as travellers.

#8. Food Safety

When the news broke on the use of gutter oil (cooking oil collected from waste oil) in China in 2000, many travellers shunned China. When everybody believed that this would happen only in China, some companies in Taiwan continued the practice until it was blown wide open in 2014 — 14 years later. Such practice had been ongoing for 20 years, involved some 240 tons of gutter oil and affected more than a thousand businesses.

It was not the end to food safety scares in Taiwan though, unscrupulous businesses continued to use wastes and expired food stuff in their products until they were found out. Food safety issues are never ending in Taiwan until this very day — the latest reported scare was a brand of Taiwanese candy that used expired ingredients (January 2018).

Tip: For travellers, it will not be possible to identify food safety issues — even top restaurants in Taiwan fall victims. The brighter side of such things is that travellers are not subjected to such hazards as frequently as the locals. The best you can do is to reduce your exposure by eating different food at different outlets when travelling in Taiwan, don't keep eating the same thing even if you love it.

#9. Fallout with China

The present government of Taiwan is pro-independence and has disregarded the "1992 consensus" with China. The action destroyed all cross-strait rapport with China that were established by the previous government. This led to political tensions with China and eventually economic sanctions.

Taiwan's tourism sector is badly hurt by the lack of Chinese visitors. Tour agencies, hotels and transportation businesses closed down one after another. To travellers, the risks of making advance reservations with tour agencies and hotels and to encounter them shutting doors at last-minute notices are very high. Apart from disruptions to travel plans, there is also the additional hassles of seeking compensations from travel insurance companies (if covered).

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There are also rumours that China may want to "recapture" wayward Taiwan by 2019 — using military intervention if necessary. The possibility is getting higher with the United States approving its navy to make port-of-calls at Taiwan and the Taiwanese government making provoking remarks about how "superior" their military is. In late 2017, China publicly demonstrated its military strength.

One incident is all it will need to kindle a spark.

Tip: Situations in Taiwan have changed since 2015. Do keep tabs on Chinese-Taiwan developments and avoid travelling to Taiwan when travel warnings are issued. Until then, the risk of military actions by China is considered low at this stage.

#10. Earthquake-Unsafe Buildings

On 6 February 2016, a 6.4-magnitude earthquake rocked southern Taiwan, causing numerous buildings to collapse, especially in Tainan with a total of 23 buildings. On 6 February 2018, another earthquake of magnitude 6.4 hit Hualien on the eastern coast. Another 4 buildings, including hotels, tilted.

Apart from historical buildings that were not earthquake-proof, most of the other collapsed buildings were results of "structural issues". In Tainan, large rectangular cooking-oil cans were used to fill up walls of collapsed apartments and polystyrene materials were seen in supporting beams. In Hualien, supporting pillars were deliberately, and illegally, cut away to make rooms and restaurants looked more spacious.

It was reported in Taiwanese media that about 40% of the buildings in Taipei were built long ago using poor building code and have not been reinforced. Governance in this aspect is rather sloppy. The public's awareness on building safety is also surprisingly lacking (as observed in the case of Hualien).

Tip: It will not be easy to know if a building or hotel has structural problems and when or where the next earthquake may strike. When planning to travel in earthquake-prone areas, such as Taiwan, do get travel insurance that cover natural disasters. It would probably be safer to stay in accommodations that are not more than 3 levels high, but keep your fingers crossed.

On the bright side, Taiwan is a good travel destination. We just need to be on the alert and take precautions against "the dark side" when travelling there. As for the political situation and tensions with China, do check the news before commencing on any trip to Taiwan.

(All photos from Pixabay.)

Check out a nice spot in Hualien:

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