Taipei might be Taiwan's political capital and window to the world, but there's a strong case to be made that Tainan is the country's spiritual hub. One of the oldest cities on the island, it often plays yin to Taipei's yang: flaunting tradition over modernity, family homes over apartment buildings, Taiwanese over Mandarin, and even uninterrupted sunshine over Taipei's periodic doldrums of wind and rain.
I've lived in Taipei for the past two years, and during that span I've visited Tainan several times. Each trip has provided a fascinating glimpse of what urban life here might have been like 50 years ago. So when my mother and sister decided to fly from Canada and pay me a visit, there was never any question: Tainan would be our first stop.
We arrive in Tainan, near the southern end of the densely populated west coast, on a high-speed train from Taipei. Since the 300-kilometre journey only takes 45 minutes, our energy levels are still fully charged when we hop a cab from the train station and head toward downtown. As I hoped, the city makes an immediate impression: The dusty, sun-baked streets are full of sacred spaces, from Buddhist and Taoist temples with riotously colourful carvings and sloped roofs, to diminutive folk shrines tucked neatly into spaces between convenience stores. It's unlike anything my family has seen before. Our cab ride serves as a crash course on why Tainan is commonly known as gucheng or "ancient city."
We embark on a self-directed walking tour with maps in hand. Hundreds of temples are scattered throughout Tainan, and most of the major ones are fairly close together. First up is the Confucian Temple, also known as "Taiwan's first school," which dates back to 1665. Confucian temples tend to have a more sober aesthetic than their flashier Taoist and Buddhist counterparts. But what the Confucian Temple lacks in pomp it more than makes up for in quiet charm. Strolling through the grounds, I am struck by the fact that the trees are probably older than the country on my passport. The terracotta-colored walls surrounding the complex remind me of Beijing's Forbidden City.
In all, we tour seven different temples. None of the locals pay us any heed as we wander around, wide-eyed and amazed, pausing occasionally to snap a picture of a guardian statue or incense swirling from a burner. Taiwanese temples don't have a lot of sacred space that is off limits to non-believers. That means you're allowed to walk right in and, if you're lucky, experience the same feeling of awe and reverence that has stirred devotees for centuries.
Lunch is a no-brainer: Taipei has its beef noodles, Kaohsiungites swear by their papaya milk, but Tainan is home to the oyster omelette and Danzai noodles. We opt for the latter, and make our way to Hong Yu-tou, a restaurant we're told is the real deal. Ever skeptical, I administer my own authenticity exam: friendly dog in the dining area – check; restrooms only available in a store a few doors down – check; delicious, soupy egg noodles with ground beef and a tiny shrimp to round off the aesthetics – check. I give it an 80 per cent – a respectable grade, but nothing can truly be the "real deal" in Taiwan without a massive lineup to get in.
We hop a cab to Chihkan Tower, a fortress built by the Dutch in 1653 during their abortive attempt to colonize the island. The three-story climb to the top offers a nice view of the lush trees, corrugated rooftops and – you guessed it – temples. The pond at the base of the tower is also remarkable insofar that it seems to have more carp in it than water.
On our way back to the hotel, we stop at the Anping Treehouse, a former British warehouse that is ever-so-slowly losing a fight against a grove of banyan trees. Some locals consider the place to be haunted, and it's easy to see why: The menacing way the tree roots are swallowing up large parts of the building reminds me of Evil Dead. But metal stairs and viewing walkways take the sinister edge off it for the most part – as do the children running around and cackling with glee. On top of this battleground between man and tree, the site also features the Old Tait & Co. Merchant House, a museum highlighting what life was like during the Dutch colonial era.
After a few leisurely games of Carcassonne in the courtyard of our guesthouse, it is time to introduce my guests to the most important part of life in Taiwan: night markets. Night markets are one part mall and one part restaurant, with a sprinkling of community centre. Tainan is home to the Flower Night Market, the island's second largest after Shihlin in Taipei.
It takes just two minutes for me to lose track of my mother and sister in the sprawling outdoor complex. They take off in a flash, running the gauntlet of clothing, accessory, shoes and jewellery stands.
I eventually catch up with them and try to lend authority to their haggling attempts by translating them into Mandarin, though I know that Taiwanese shopkeepers generally don't haggle or inflate their prices for tourists.
I begin to gently guide us toward the food area. I have a plan. I want to make them eat something memorable, like stinky tofu or pig blood cake. So when my sister mentions she's hungry, I suggest they try something that would make for a good story back home. But they refuse all of my extreme suggestions and we fall back on the conventional crowd-pleasers of savoury beef pancakes, barbequed squid and oyster omelettes. Maybe the haggling was exciting enough.
We cap off our day with Taiwan Beer in the courtyard of our hotel. Vibrant, weathered and beautiful, Tainan has lived up to its billing. I know I'll be back yet again.
After all, I still haven't seen the old man who dresses up in an LED suit and drives his scooter around Tainan all night. But that's another story.