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Taiwan - Health and safety
With Dr Felicity Nicholson
Taiwan is a healthy place but visitors should take some precautions, including taking out adequate insurance before leaving home.
No vaccinations are required except yellow fever, and then only if you’re coming from an infected area such as sub-Saharan Africa or South America. It is wise to be up to date with standard vaccinations including diphtheria, tetanus and polio given in the UK as one vaccine (Revaxis), and also measles, mumps and rubella. Vaccination against hepatitis A, typhoid and possibly hepatitis B and Japanese encephalitis are advisable depending on your length of stay. Taiwan has a high prevalence of hepatitis B in the population so vaccination would be recommended for those working in medical settings and with children. It is also recommended for those playing contact sports or indulging in risky behaviour. The course comprises three vaccines given over a minimum of 21 days for those aged 16 and over. Younger travellers require a minimum of 8 weeks to be vaccinated effectively. The Japanese encephalitis vaccine (Ixiaro) consists of two doses ideally given one month apart, so ensure that you have enough time if you need this vaccine. It’s recommended for those staying in rural parts of the country. Taiwan has one of the highest incidences of hepatitis A in the world. One dose of hepatitis A vaccine will provide cover for one year and can then be boosted to extend protection to around 25 years.
Travel clinics and health information
A full list of current travel clinic websites worldwide is available on www.istm.org. For other journey preparation information, consult www.travelhealthpro.org.uk (UK) or http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/ (US). Information about various medications may be found on www.netdoctor.co.uk/travel. All advice found online should be used in conjunction with expert advice received prior to or during travel.
Taiwan is one of the world’s safest countries for tourists. Street crime isn’t a big issue, even late at night, and there’s little danger of being harassed by a drunk. That said, homeowners do take precautions against burglary – hence the metal bars over windows and balconies – and pickpockets work festival and night-market crowds.
Traffic is the major threat to your well-being. Be very careful when crossing roads. Don’t just look both ways, look in every direction as two wheelers often use the pavements or pedestrian crossings. There are two reasons why self-driving visitors should think twice before stopping at what appears to be the aftermath of a traffic accident: lawsuits and robberies. If you take an individual to hospital, you may later be held responsible for their death or injuries. Also, criminals have been known to stage fake-crash scenes on quiet country roads and beg passing drivers to stop. Good Samaritans have, for their trouble, been robbed and had their vehicles stolen.
The Foreign Office (www.fco.gov.uk/travel) is overcautious when it advises visitors to steer clear of political demonstrations. Such events are almost always good-natured. The main danger, if you can call it that, is being buttonholed by someone eager to expound on their cause.
Taiwan suffers both earthquakes and typhoons but these shouldn’t stop you visiting. If you cycle or hike in the lowlands or the foothills, keep an eye out for aggressive dogs. If you’re confronted by one, pick up a stone or some gravel. In the countryside you should also be wary of but not paranoid about snakes (six poisonous species are fairly common) and hornets. The latter have been known to kill people.
Taiwan’s police force doesn’t have a stellar reputation for efficiency or enforcement but as a foreign visitor you can expect courtesy and assistance. All police stations are marked in English as well as Chinese. Few officers speak good English but if you go into a larger station you’ve a much better chance of finding someone who can communicate.
Apart from being careful when taking taxis by themselves late at night, female tourists needn’t take any exceptional precautions. Western women rate Taiwan highly in terms of hassle-free travelling.
Attitudes to homosexuality have changed dramatically in the past two decades. Before the late 1990s most Taiwanese regarded it either as a psychiatric problem, something that occurs only in other countries or ‘a phase’ that a few mixed-up individuals go through when they’re young. That said, gay-bashing has never been an issue and homosexuals seldom attracted police attention, even during the repressive martial-law period described by Pai Hsien-yung in his 1983 novel Crystal Boys. Nowadays there are gay venues in the major cities and an annual gay-pride parade in Taipei. However, gay men still face immense pressure from traditional parents to marry and continue the family line; the consequences of this form the basis of Ang Lee’s 1993 film The Wedding Banquet. A bill allowing same-sex marriages has been drafted but not passed; discrimination in education or employment on the grounds of a person’s sexual orientation is now illegal. However, very few prominent individuals have come out.
Travelling with children
Taiwan is a safe and welcoming destination for travellers with children. In restaurants, temples and shops, Taiwanese people show great tolerance towards kids who are noisy or fidgety. Children with Western features attract plenty of positive attention. Parents must, of course, take steps to protect their children against Taiwan’s traffic, strong sunshine and mosquitoes, but in terms of food, cleanliness and general public health, Taiwan isn’t a dangerous place.
If you plan to use a pushchair for any distance, be prepared for obstacle courses. In many places in urban Taiwan the pavement isn’t flat or doesn’t exist at all. Also, it isn’t unusual for shopkeepers to pile so much merchandise on the pavement that pedestrians are forced to detour into the road. Parents with babies will find there are few diaper-changing stations except those at department stores, hypermarkets, mass rapid-transit (MRT) stations and some train stations.
Anyone with a young child knows it’s essential to bring an extra set of clothes, including shoes, when going away from your base for more than a few hours. Taiwan’s countryside has lot of places where kids can play safely – but they’re likely to get dusty, muddy or sweaty. Making sure your children stay hydrated is also important, and this is another area in which Taiwan’s 24/7 shopping culture is a boon for travellers. Even the smallest towns have convenience stores that stock milk and juices as well as mineral water, not to mention snacks that can help fill the stomachs of youngsters unimpressed by local cuisine.
Finding child-friendly accommodation is sometimes an issue. Five-star hotels and top-end resorts are invariably safe and comfortable, but may not match your budget and may not exist near your destination. Hotels in city centres are convenient but rooms are often small and sometimes noisy. Moreover, parents putting teenage children in a separate room may have cause for concern when they turn on the television: one or more channels may be devoted to hardcore pornography. The recent explosion in homestays is a boon for travellers with children. Unfortunately, many of these places are like ordinary Taiwanese homes in that they have tiled floors – hard surfaces for an infant to take a tumble on. Few homestays have elevators, which can be a problem if you’re upstairs and your kids are still in pushchairs. Wherever you’re staying, careful examination of your room as soon as you get inside is advisable. Childproofing your hotel room is much the same as childproofing your home, and some parents may want to take along safety devices such as cupboard latches.
On both high-speed and conventional trains, very young kids can travel for free if they don’t need a seat, and primary-school-age youngsters can get half-price tickets. Few taxis are equipped with child-safety seats, but car-rental companies say they can provide them if given some notice. If you do drive yourself, make use of the rest stations along the freeways. They’re family-friendly places with playgrounds and other distractions.
Travelling with a disability
Taiwan isn’t the world’s most wheelchair-friendly society, but it’s come a long way in recent years. Public buildings and larger hotels almost always have ramp access. However, where pavements do exist, obstacles (parked cars, moving motorcycles, street vendors) often force wheelchair users out into the road. On the plus side, disabled people qualify for discounted train and bus tickets.
Physically challenged travellers are advised to take trains rather than buses wherever possible, as railway workers have been trained to give assistance to the disabled and visually impaired as they get on and off trains. Tipping for this service is not necessary or expected.