Trip Report: Seven Days in Kaohsiung, Taiwan

I’ve just returned to Japan from a 12-day trip to Taiwan. It was my second time to visit the country, and this time I made my way down to Kaohsiung for 7 days and then back up to Taipei for 5 days. I visited Taipei on my last trip, but this was my first time to see Kaohsiung.

Kaohsiung is located in far southern Taiwan, and it’s the country’s second most populous city. But Taipei, Taiwan’s capital to the north, seems to steal most of the country’s thunder. Everyone has at least heard of Taipei, yet when you mention Kaohsiung, most people have a look of confusion on their face. “Kao-what? Where is that again?”

But does Kaohsiung deserve to remain in relative obscurity for eternity, or is it actually a hidden gem well worthy of more praise? This trip report explores every aspect of Kaohsiung – its dynamics, the food, the ladies, the locals, the environment, the weather, things to do, and much more. Now let’s get started and see what Kaohsiung is all about!

First Impression

Chinese Shrine Reflected in a Mirror

As soon as I stepped out of Taipei Taoyuan International Airport, I made my way over to the high-speed railway station. I immediately hopped aboard a train bound for Kaohsiung, and roughly two hours and 1,200 Taiwanese dollars later, I was there. Right off the bat I could tell Kaohsiung was a step or two down in development compared with its big brother to the north. It feels just a like a third tier southern Chinese city (Changsha, Kunming, Nanning, etc.). But that’s not necessarily a bad thing – after all, I’ve never really been the world’s biggest fan of giant first-tier Asian cities.

Just like going straight from Seoul to Busan in Korea or Bangkok to Chiang Mai in Thailand, it’s obvious that things are quite a bit different down in Kaohsiung than they are up in Taipei. The people seem to have a smaller stature and a slightly darker skin tone. People are dressed a bit more casually, and the vanity and competitiveness of Taipei are mostly lacking in Kaohsiung. Good riddance I say. The average Zhou is also a bit more laid-back and engaging.

Motorcycles Waiting at a Stoplight in Kaohsiung

But Kaohsiung also feels far grittier than Taipei – people’s accents were more hickish, and the average street felt grimier and less developed than up north. Many sidewalks were cluttered with junk. And although noisy motorcycles/mopeds are commonplace up in Taipei, they seem even more abundant down in Kaohsiung. The motorcycle to car ratio felt like about 3 to 1 in Taipei, but perhaps 4 or 5 to 1 in Kaohsiung. That said, kiss your peace and quiet goodbye anywhere in Kaohsiung proper. It’s quite the noisy city. I often had to remind myself that I was in fact in Taiwan, not Vietnam, another country with no shortage of motorcycles.

The Ladies

Young Taiwanese Girl at an Ice Cream Shop

Whereas many of the ladies of Taipei would fit right in up in Northern China, most of the ladies of Kaohsiung would not. Most of them had petite statures and notably light tan skin. They were way less fashionable than their Taipei sisters, but still attractive nonetheless. It also felt like every girl and her mother were wearing colored contact lenses, one of my Asian women pet peeves.

All that said, the ladies of Kaohsiung struck me as very Southeast Asian rather than Northeast Asian. They were a heck of a lot like Malaysian Chinese women. They erred on the side of cute and modest, whereas Taipei is home to more head-turners, but also less modesty. I also noticed that there were way more dolled-up women wandering the city at night, whereas in the day they were few and far between.

I’m happy to report that just like in Busan or Bangkok, the ladies of Kaohsiung are not afraid of a little eye contact. If I glared their way with an approving and confident look, their eyes would lock with mine, which is unlike Japan, where women’s eyes dart to the ground. Now I didn’t get eye-fucked like I sometimes do in China, Mongolia, or the Philippines, but I most certainly felt noticed as a man.

Since I speak conversational Mandarin, I generally used it everywhere I went in Kaohsiung. Sometimes when I spoke Mandarin in the vicinity of local women, like say when I was ordering food at a restaurant, I noticed the women standing nearby would look at me with a bright, approving smile. I could see I was winning big bonus points for speaking their language.

Whereas they were noticeably less good-looking overall compared to the ladies of Taipei, the ladies of Kaohsiung struck me more as girlfriend material. My experiences in Asia have taught me again and again that you need to get out of the first tier cities when looking for a serious relationship. Date and have fun in the mega cities, but save your heart for the smaller ones. The odds for success will be more in your favor.

In the grand scale of things, the ladies of Kaohsiung are not really that special, but there’s no reason you should avoid them either. They’re ethnic Chinese after all, and that’s always a plus. They get my stamp of approval. I think if you’re a guy who’s got his life together, makes himself at least semi-presentable, speaks at least broken Mandarin, and is bold enough to approach women when sensing a warm lead, I think you could have a successful romance and dating life in Taiwan’s harbor city.

The Locals

Two Middle-aged Men Chatting at a Night Market

As I went about my business in Kaohsiung, I could sense there was some mild interest in me as a foreigner. On plenty of occasions, I could see people glancing in my direction, particularly older folks. It was no China, where people stare at whities unabashedly, but I could definitely tell that I stood out among the crowd. Reminds me a lot of Busan.

Not too many people engaged with me beyond the basics, but every so often a random old man or homeless person would try to fire up a conversation with me in English. Of course they always wanted to know where I’m from and why I was in Kaohsiung. Very par for the course in most of Asia. A few times young cashiers or waiters would show some mild interest in me, but the majority of the time it was always an older person.

Two Elderly Men Chatting at a Park

Nevertheless, the opportunity to mingle with both regular Zhou schmoes and cute girls presented itself again and again. Though unlike mainland China, the burden was usually on my back to initiate the conversation, but once I did, people always seemed interested and appreciative, especially when I spoke to them in Mandarin. Even when I’d just ask a simple question like “may I take a picture of you,” people always seemed happy that I was engaging with them.

I’m not saying I’d be able to create any lasting friendships with the folks of Kaohsiung, but I got mostly good vibes from them, and I felt respected as a fellow human being. They were also notably more patient, chilled out, and more engaging than most folks up in Taipei. I like that.

I also want to note that I saw very few Westerners in Kaohsiung. Maybe 4 or 5 a day at best. Naturally, I saw the most around tourist sites, but beyond that their numbers were negligible. When I actually did see one, they were usually middle-aged white men or nerdy-looking twenty-somethings.

Food

Typical Taiwanese Restaurant Meal

When it comes to the local food in Kaohsiung, it’s remarkably similar to that of Taipei – very ethnic Chinese without all the excesses of mainland cooking techniques. Dishes were better presented, and they weren’t dripping in cooking oil. “Cleanly cooked” Chinese food if you will. If you’re a fan of Chinese food in general, then I don’t see how you could go wrong anywhere in Taiwan.

Many of my Chinese favorites – such as baozi, roasted sweet potatoes, mapo tofu, stir-fries, and beef noodles – were all abundant in Kaohsiung. I think ethnic Chinese are particularly gifted at making any food made of flour, whereas most other East Asians just can’t seem to get it right. My Chinese wife also noted the abundance of restaurants advertising beef as their specialty. Once she pointed that out, I couldn’t help but notice, too. Beef is one of the lesser common meats in mainland China, but not so in Taiwan. I was reminded of Mongolia, where beef is in any and every dish.

On the other hand, many of my Chinese favorites with an ethnic flair, such as Uyghur lamb kebabs and naan, were almost nonexistent in Kaohsiung and Taipei. This should come as no surprise considering most of the ethnic minorities of mainland China don’t exist in Taiwan. So whereas the food itself tends to be a bit better in Taiwan compared to China, the overall selection is much more limited.

Quesadilla Plate at a Mexican Restaurant

I didn’t eat a whole lot of foreign food in Kaohsiung, but the little I did eat was exceptionally good by Asian standards. I stumbled across two Mexican restaurants, Don Burrito and Mi Casita, side by side on the southern side of the city. They were by far the best two Mexican restaurants I’ve ever eaten at in the Sinosphere, and the value and portions were excellent. Don Burrito was more authentic-style, whereas Mi Casita was more Tex-Mex style. If you like Mexican food, then they’re not to be missed.

To sum it all up, I ate well in Kaohsiung without spending a fortune. I left most meals very satisfied. The foreign food scene wasn’t that big, but the little that was there was quite good. I can’t complain.

The Weather

A Busy Street in Central Kaohsiung

Considering I was in Kaohsiung in late December, I was expecting relatively cool weather most of time, but in fact the opposite was true – warm most of the time with a few cool spells at night. I brought a light jacket and jeans with me to Kaohsiung, but it turns out I should’ve brought more shorts and T-shirts. And besides a couple of exceptions, rain was minimal during my week stay in the city.

If you’ve ever been to northern Southeast Asia in the winter – northern Thailand and Vietnam, Laos, Hong Kong, etc. – then you should have an idea of what winter in Kaohsiung is like. Very pleasant I say.

But what wasn’t pleasant was the air quality of the city. It wasn’t Beijing bad, but every day there was visible smog, which reduced the visibility of the city. I remember Taipei was the exact same way back in March 2015. Is all of urban Taiwan like this I wonder? I’m waiting to be shown otherwise. That’s a big strike against Taiwan.

But overall the weather in Kaohsiung was mostly great. I had to keep reminding myself it was the Christmas season, as the warm weather made that easy to forget. And as a person who bitterly hates harsh winters, that’s a strong plus.

Things to Do

Looking back retrospectively, I really didn’t do anything that notable in Kaohsiung. But regardless, I always felt entertained throughout my stay. The streets have a lot of local authenticity, so I spent countless hours just walking around, soaking in the vibes, and doing street photography. I could’ve shot photos for days and not have gotten bored. It’s always great traveling somewhere photogenic.

I noticed that the Taiwanese are very laid back about foreigners taking pictures in their country, which is the polar opposite of mainlanders, who often act suspicious or lash out at you when they see you pointing your camera in their direction. Whether I was on the street, in a restaurant, at a mall, or at a park, no one seemed the least bit bothered by my camera throughout my entire 12-day stay in Taiwan. If I asked for a picture, they always said “yes.” In China I get a hard “no” 90% of the time.

Men Fishing on the Coast in Kaohsiung

Of all the things I did in Kaohsiung, I suppose my visit to 西子湾 (literally “Western Bay”), a port area located on the bay, was the most memorable. The coast stretches for several kilometers, and you can see lots of giant cargo ships coming and going, men fishing in the sea, and locals just chilling out and soaking in the atmosphere. It reminded me a lot of Binhai Road in Dalian (Northeast China) and Dongbaek in Busan (South Korea).

The Ai He River at Night

It seems like every night I also found myself wandering around Ai He (the Love River) and the nearby area. At night lots of little makeshift bars and restaurants pop up along the river. After the sun goes down, lots of people drink, eat, walk up and down the river, and go for a jog. If you’re a single dude, it would be a great place to take a date. The whole scene reminded me a lot of that of the Xiang River in Changsha (Hunan, China). It’s a cool area to just sit around and relax at night.

Kaohsiung's Dream Mall

I’m not a big shopping guy, but I found myself checking out some of Kaohsiung’s malls and shopping centers as well. The giant Dream Mall in the southern part of the city was worth a look, and I actually watched an English movie there one day. Apparently the mall is one of the largest in Asia.

Woman Vendor at Kaohsiung's Liu He Night Market

And finally, in typical Taiwanese fashion, there are countless night markets with good and cheap eats scattered all around Kaohsiung. The most notable and famous is surely 六合夜市 (Liu He Night Market), which is one of the only places I ever saw any Westerners in the city (the other place being 西子湾). The Taiwanese love their night markets, so you’ve got to check at least one out if you ever find yourself in Taiwan. They’re great places to eat and shoot photos.

The Cost of Traveling

Taiwanese Currency

If there’s one thing that disappointed me about Kaohsiung, it’s that it didn’t really feel any cheaper than Taipei. Generally when going from a large city to a smaller one, you expect prices to decrease, but I didn’t feel that was the case with Kaohsiung. Nevertheless, prices there and in all of Taiwan are very reasonable, especially when considering the country’s dynamics and level of development.

I stayed in both a centrally-located 2.5 star hotel and then a private, all-to-myself Airbnb apartment, and the prices for both were roughly 1,000 NTD a night. Not a bad deal at all. They were both near the 市議會 (City Council) metro station.

85 Sky Tower in Kaohsiung

High-speed rail tickets were about on par with Korea, as I paid 1,200 NTD each way from Taipei to Kaohsiung. Transportation was also cheap – subway tickets to just about anywhere in the city were usually about 20-30 NTD, and buses were even cheaper.

Man at a Restaurant in Kaohsiung

Food was probably the best value of all, with most local meals (usually stir-fry and a soft drink) costing only 50 – 100 NTD. If you want the best value, go for open-air 自助餐 (self-serve) restaurants. Western cuisine was generally about 200 – 300 NTD per person per meal, and as mentioned above, was of good quality and very filling. And to have both my hands full of snacks from little shops and convenience stores, I only needed to pay around 100 NTD or so.

None of the places I went required an entrance fee or ticket, so sightseeing costs were nil.

I got an unlimited 4G data SIM card from Chunghwa Telecom for only 500 NTD. A downright awesome deal! It was good for 10 days, and I believe it was intended for tourists only. I was downloading large files, making video calls, and watching YouTube anywhere I wanted. I wish countries like China and Japan would take note, as their mobile data services are un-user-friendly and lightyears behind.

So after airfare and accommodation were paid for, I spent roughly 800 – 1,000 NTD a day average for everything. I was well-fed, got around conveniently, entertained, and I enjoyed myself. That’s about on par with what I’d pay in large Southeast Asian cities, so I certainly can’t complain. “Bang for your buck” is one of the best things about Taiwan. It’s about on par with urban mainland China cost-wise, but it offers far more modern conveniences and niceties than the mainland.

Conclusion

Apartment Building Entrance in Kaohsiung

Kaohsiung is an under-appreciated city with more of an authentic Taiwanese feel than Taipei. The people, although less fashionable and sophisticated than those up in Taipei, are mostly cool and easy to chat with. The women are easy on the eyes, fairly petite, and strike me as good girlfriend material. Competition from fellow Western men for the local ladies is nothing to be concerned about. The local food is cleanly cooked, tasty, and a good value. Foreign cuisine options are noticeably small, but the Mexican I had was mouth-watering and filling. The weather was mild, which was great considering I was there in the heart of winter. And last but not least, Kaohsiung is very affordable, especially for those bringing a foreign income with them.

But like it or not, Kaohsiung is still a relatively gritty city. It’s loud and energetic, which is exciting for a while, but eventually starts to grate on one’s nerves. The people still have some hickish tendencies that you wouldn’t see much of up in Taipei. The women are certainly nice, but they’re really nothing that special when considering all of Asia. There are noticeably less options for local food when compared to the juggernaut that is China. The air quality is fairly bad, matching that of many of China’s second and third tier cities. And while Kaohsiung offers good value to travelers and expats from more expensive modernized Western countries, it didn’t really strike me as being any cheaper than Taipei, which I find odd.

So is it worth going all the way down to Kaohsiung to take a gander? If you’re going to Taiwan and you’ve got the time, then I’d certainly say it is. I thoroughly enjoyed my time in the southern city, and I’d be more than happy to go back in the future. But I should also say that I’m in no hurry to return, as the city doesn’t really have anything that particularly unique or exciting about it. Overall I’d say Kaohsiung is not bad. I’ll be back sooner or later.

Kaohsiung Street Slow Shutter Shot

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