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Tuesday, November 8, 2011


It all started innocently enough, as these things usually do. A few days ago, on a popular forum where people can post Taiwan travel-related questions, and have those questions answered by fellow netizens, someone asked about what they should do given a 26-hour layover in T'aipei 台北. One respondent, whom we shall call “G”, replied that the OP (original poster) should visit the popular sites such as the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial 中正紀念堂, Lungshan Temple 龍山寺, Taipei 101 台北一零一, the Shihlin Night Market 士林夜市 and, wait for it, the National Palace Museum 國立故宮博物院 (more on that later). All perfectly reasonable suggestions, IMHO.

G’s response was soon answered by someone whom we will refer to as “X”, for I don’t want to be accused of taking “cheap shots” again. X replied that:

I would skip the National Palace Museum with just one day - it is worth seeing but not worth wasting your one day in Taipei on...I personally would rather see the actual city than see some artifacts that came from China, which isn't even Taiwan!

All bolded words that you will see here are X’s own. G, in turn, answered by writing:

I think the NPM should be on the list for any one-time visitor to Taiwan. It is one of the best and most famous museums in the world, so it's worth the trip for simply having been there. That said, the experience has been diminished somewhat by the hoards of mainland Chinese tourists that now crowd the place with their loudness, pushing and shoving, and body odor that is uncharacteristic of the local Taiwanese population. (The Taiwanese have an indoor voice and are generally more polite and deferential in their mannerisms.) If limited to one-day in Taipei, I would skip the temporary galleries on the first floor and try to limit the visit to 2 hours, but I wholly disagree that it should be skipped entirely.

X then answered back by saying:

I'm going to still respectfully disagree. The NPM is great, I'm not disputing that, I just personally prefer to spend more time in an actual city if I have limited time rather than going to a museum, especially one full of artifacts that aren't even from the country you are visiting.

It was at this point that yours truly decided to add his NT2 worth by opining:

So if you visit London, you should pass on the British Museum, especially because it's full of artifacts that aren't from the UK?

If the OP has an interest in Chinese art, the NPM is worth even a short visit. Otherwise, the limited time would be better spent taking in the other well-known spots (e.g. CKS Memorial Hall, Longshan Temple, Shilin Night Market etc.).

OK, I admit I’m a smart ass, and it doesn’t take much to get me started. I can understand skipping the National Palace Museum if one’s time was very limited, or they had little interest in the subject of traditional Chinese art, but I found the (il)logic of omitting the NPM from an itinerary because it wasn’t “Taiwanese” too good to pass up. In any event, I thought I had kind of neatly summed up the situation for the person who posted the original query, and figured that was that.

Not quite.

X, it seems, doesn’t appreciate sarcasm:

No...if I visit London once, for one day, I will bypass the British Museum (and the Victoria and Albert). If I had one day, I'd choose to see London itself, not a museum full of stuff.

It so happens that I've been to London three times, and one of those visits was a week long (the other ones were short stays). In that week I did go to three museums, because my time there made it possible.

But no, not with just one day. Cities themselves are much more interesting than museums in my opinion - they're full of life, activity, people, good food, and if you want to see something historic there are always historic sites.

If the OP has 24 hours in Taipei, going to the NPM effectively ensures that he won't see much of Taipei at all.

Fair enough, but I just couldn’t let the chance for another snarky analogy go just yet:

Darn, I guess I'll just have to give the Louvre a miss on that 24-hour layover I'll have in Paris. :-)

See, I even inserted a smiley face, to serve as a reminder that this really isn’t that big of a deal. Looks like I was wrong:

yeah...I would do that, too.

In fact, I had two days in Paris and I did skip the Louvre, and I'd advise anyone else to do the same.

…And the NPM isn't even Taiwanese...

I guess some people just aren't into museums. I don’t know about you, but should I ever find myself with a limited amount of time in Paris, I would do my best to squeeze in a visit to the Louvre, even it is filled with works of art by Italians and Dutchmen (i.e. non-French people). X, on the other hand, is almost proud of the fact they didn’t go to the world’s most famous house of art. Which means, of course, that I couldn’t resist again:

Let's see, more museums to cross off on future travels...the Guggenheim and MOMA in New York City, the Prado in Madrid, the Tokyo National Museum...and, oh yes, the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. - all that stuff happened in Europe. :-)

At this point, I should stop and say that I’m somewhat familiar with X. I’ve been in Taiwan too long, for I can remember when X was a newbie to this island, and was asking for advice in the very same forum. Only X wasn’t too pleased with the suggestions that they were being given (“This isn’t what I want!”), and I was somewhat taken aback at the idea of people who were just off the boat taking a good, hard look at the proverbial gift horse’s set of dentures. Time has taught X some courtesy – they’ve now been in Taiwan long enough, and can speak Mandarin well enough (a fact that X likes to often bring up), that they are now a useful source of wisdom for travelers wondering about what there is to do in Taiwan (X’s suggestions are quite often very good ones).

X loves living in Taiwan, a result, no doubt, of the fact that they live in Taipei. As I’ve written before, Taiwan’s capital often serves as a protective cocoon for its Western residents, shielding them from the unpleasantness that lies in wait in the rest of the country, hereby referred to as The Real Taiwan®. X exhibits all the classic symptoms of the bubble – what is true in Taipei must be true for all of Taiwan – and draws all the typical conclusions about how wonderful life on Formosa truly is. When pointed out by others that Taipei isn’t Taiwan, X will bring up such “Taiwanese” images as old women in her neighborhood speaking impenetrable dialect and eating the kinds of food that only Andrew Zimmern could get excited about. It’s almost as if someone in an urban American city was trying to prove their street cred by pointing out how close they live to the ‘hood, and does it by describing the denizens there in stereotypical terms gleaned from watching too many rap videos.

But I digress (and I’m good at doing that). I live in The Real Taiwan©, and while I am surrounded by おばさん like the ones X describes, I also live among doctors, convenience store clerks, sales reps, factory workers, farmers, civil servants, homemakers, bank clerks, mail carriers, office workers, teachers and students…the list goes on and on. Many of them do speak in Taiwanese much of the time, but many more use Mandarin as a means of daily communication (and quite a few converse in both). Yes, they do occasionally eat “exotic” foods, but most of their meals are easily digestible rice or noodle dishes, with occasional forays to places like McDonald’s and KFC, or to the local Japanese or Italian restaurant. In short, they are ordinary human beings, living ordinary lives in ordinary ways, and are no different, in fact, from the majority of their countrymen residing in the greater Taipei metropolitan area.

Unlike many Taipei expats, X has traveled extensively throughout Taiwan, which is why their travel suggestions are often very helpful to posters in the forum. Unfortunately for X, they have to rely on public transportation to get around the island, for it appears that X has never ridden a scooter or driven a car in Taiwan, and appears terrified of the idea of doing so. This is a shame, because some of the most interesting places to visit in Taiwan are difficult, if not impossible, to reach without your own set of wheels, but this doesn’t stop X from trying to discourage people from driving. Out here in The Real Taiwan®©, where public transportation systems are not as extensive in comparison to what there is in Taipei, we have little choice but to rely on cars, motorcycles and scooters to get around. Yes, driving conditions can be less-than-optimally-safe here, but I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to those who are confident enough in their driving skills to rent some kind of vehicle while in Taiwan in order to get more out of their visits (e.g. driving from Hualien 花蓮 to Taroko Gorge 太魯閣).

X makes no bones about how much they enjoy it in Taipei Taiwan Taipei, and I have to admit I wish I could muster the same level of enthusiasm (curse you Japan!). However, X can go to extremes at times in order to “prove” that Taiwan/Taipei is somehow the “best” place to be in Asia. Instead of relying on boring trivialities like statistics and other data, X will draw on very broad generalizations regarding other Asian societies from their friends and acquaintances in order to demonstrate that the Taiwanese, and by extension X themselves, have it good here.

But once again I digress. In all fairness to X, they have one of the better Taiwan-related blogs, certainly much better than mine. X is a good writer who has posted many interesting articles (again, superior to the dreck I usually churn out), and if I had the chance, I would love to sit down together in a café (probably in Taipei) and share anecdotes and impressions about Taiwan with them. So, I would just like to humbly pass along to X these two pieces of unsolicited advice:
  1. Lighten up a bit;
  2. Always keep in mind that Taiwan means different things to different people.
For the final word on the topic of the Palace Museum (though I don’t think this will be it), G posted this today:

…you might as well advise the OP to skip Taipei entirely and head south from the airport because a third of the residents of that city are either refugees who arrived from mainland China in the late 1940s or their descendants, so the city is not really "Taiwanese" enough. You should also remind the OP to stay away from the CKS Memorial Hall, because Chiang Kai-shek was not Taiwanese. ;-)

Like the doujiang people have for breakfast, and the dongporou people order for dinner, that the museum is located in Taipei is very much part of the modern history of Taiwan. Whether the stuff inside is "Taiwanese" is not a concern: the displays consist of the cream of the imperial collection - there isn't a better one elsewhere.

I would suggest skipping a NPM if one had only half a day, following only half of the itinerary I posted above. But I would not skip it if I had a full day in Taipei - it is possible to see both the city and the museum in a full day. A stay as short as 2 hours at the NPM (which doesn't cost much to enter) can be worthwhile. Of course, it all depends on personal interests. If you have any interest in China, art, art history, Chinese history, and Chinese art history, I'd say go. As far as Chinese history museums go, you won't find a better one in the world.

Peace out.


  1. You do realize that the reason I'm terrified of driving in Taiwan is because I have driven a car once in five years? I don't have the opportunity to drive when I visit home (parents need the cars for work). Even before that I think I drove on my own possibly ten times at most.

    Would you want to drive in Taiwan if you had as little experience as I do? Would you risk mountain roads and scooters/taxi drivers disobeying the law?

    I did rent a car a few times with a friend who is a much better driver than I am. She drove, I navigated (that's something I'm good at, and I can read the Chinese - she couldn't). She is a fantastic driver - and *she* was freaked out by the roads up to Hehuan Mountain and along the Qingshui Cliffs. I have very little experience - would *you* trust me behind that wheel? I wouldn't.

    And I stand by my words, by the way. With 24 hours in Taipei, skip the NPM. With more time, go. But it hasn't been the highlight of my time here, by far. I like people more than pottery.

    (And I was kind of half-joking about it "not being Taiwanese", but enough that I think it was ridiculous to single that out as the main reason, when my main reason was that the poster's time was too short).

  2. Also:

    1.) I draw more on my own travel experience in other Asian countries - and don't think Taiwan is the only best place. I also strongly recommend India and (surprisingly) Bangladesh, but on another branch. Not due to experiences from friends and acquaintances, but because I've been there. Every country in Asia that I mention I've been to personally.

    2.) Statistics schmatistics: what matters for travel and loving a place is a gut feeling. That's what I go for. By statistics of things to do, how famous the sites are, cultural knowledge etc., the arrow points to China as the place to pick (and yes, I've lived in China), but I'd recommend Taiwan based on many more intangibles (and some tangibles, such as pollution levels).

  3. When you're forced to drive a car like I am (there is no way I'm going to take my young daughter around on a scooter), it's surprising how quickly you can adapt when you have to. As I said earlier, if someone is confident enough in their driving abilities, I wouldn't discourage them from getting around in a car or on a scooter - even to the places you mentioned. Perceptions are relative - driving conditions here are far more dangerous compared to Japan, but a friend of mine who lives in the Philippines couldn't understand what all the fuss was about traffic-wise when he came to visit me here.

    Re the NPM, it all depends on what the individual is interested in. I would never drag anyone there if they had little interest in art, but conversely I wouldn't discourage anyone from visiting it, either. My best friend from high school is here in Taichung because his interest in Taiwan initially came from studying Chinese Art History in college. Another old friend (who sadly passed away a couple of years ago) came to visit me once, and we made a quick 48-hour visit to Taipei while he was here. Top of his list of places to see was the National Palace Museum, which was the highlight of the trip for him. Who am I to have told him that he was missing out on other things? I had a co-worker whose favorite place in this country was Yingge (she was a ceramics buff - pottery over people). Taiwan means different things to different people, and they get no more or less out of it than anyone else.

    I agree with what matters for travel and loving a place is a gut feeling. And such feelings are derived mainly from personal experiences. My reasons for ending up in Taiwan are uniquely my own, and form the basis for my opinion that Taiwan is vastly underrated as a tourist destination by those on the outside, but by the same token overrated as a place to live by those on the inside.

    BTW, I read your post on "defending" Taipei, and it's a good one. I lived for 10 years in Tokyo, and I often heard that I wasn't living in the "real" Japan. However, I also lived and worked in Yokkaichi, a nondescript industrial city in central Honshu, and from my experiences, there is a much greater degree of separation between Taipei and the rest of Taiwan than that which I found regarding Tokyo vs. the rest of Japan. Of course Taipei is Taiwan, and the people there are Taiwanese. But after marriage, I lived for a couple of years above my brother-in-law's label-making factory in Shengang, which was a small township that is now part of Greater Taichung. Our neighborhood (the whole area, in fact) was made up of small factories and farms. This may sound idyllic, but it wasn't, and the fact our neighbor was a thug, a gangster with a violent temper who was taken away by the police on one occasion, certainly didn't help things. An evening out meant going into Fengyuan to eat at one of the numerous, but indistinguishable, noodle or rice restaurants, with entertainment options limited to a single old movie theater, a small department store and the odd bar or two which never stayed in business for very long. Getting out of town meant visiting the in-laws in Xiluo, in Yunlin County, which was basically Shengang on a slightly larger scale. "My Taiwan" bore little resemblance to the Taiwan (read "Taipei" 90% of the time) that I was reading about online. Again, perceptions are colored by experiences, both within Taiwan and outside of it.

    Thanks for taking the time to comment. Keep up the good work on your blog - it puts mine to shame.