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 a yellow-fever endemic area such as sub-Saharan Africa or South America, as there is no risk of disease in Taiwan. 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, and possibly hepatitis B, rabies and Japanese encephalitis are advisable depending on your length of stay. Taiwan has a high prevalence of hepatitis B so vaccination would be recommended for those working in medical settings and with children, as well as for those playing contact sports. The course comprises three vaccines given over a minimum of 21 days for those aged 16 and over; younger travellers require a minimum of eight weeks to be vaccinated effectively. The Japanese encephalitis vaccine (Ixiaro) is recommended for those staying in rural parts of the country, and consists of two doses ideally given one month apart, so ensure that you have enough time if you need it. Taiwan also has one of the highest incidences of hepatitis A in the world; one dose of the vaccine will provide cover for one year and can then be boosted to extend protection to around 25 years.
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.
Up-to-date advice from the Foreign Office can be found at www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/taiwan.
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. There are now gay venues in the major cities and an annual gaypride parade in Taipei. However, many 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. Some gay women come up against the traditional notion that an unmarried adult woman is somehow incomplete. However, the number of women (straight or gay) remaining unmarried well into their thirties has soared in recent years.
There’s a chance Taiwan will become the first country in Asia to allow same-sex marriage. In May 2017, the highest court ruled that same-sex couples have a right to marry under the constitution and that the parliament has two years to amend the marriage laws to align with this. If this is not done, same-sex couples will be able to have their unions registered as marriages and be treated as such by law. Marriage equality remains an uphill battle, however. At the time of writing, a bill to legalise same-sex marriage has been drafted but not passed, and groups opposed to marriage equality won two non-binding referendums in November 2018.
One of the few prominent individuals to have come out is Lin Hwai-min, founder of Cloud Gate Dance Theatre. In 2016, the new administration appointed Audrey Tang (b1981), a transgender woman who describes herself as an anarchist, to a minister-without-portfolio position with responsibility for digital communications and the sharing economy.
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 an obstacle course. 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 nappy-changing stations except those at department stores, large supermarkets, metro 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 lifts, 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 children 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-hire companies say they can provide them if given some notice. If you do drive yourself, make use of the service stations along the highways as they are normally very family-friendly
places with playgrounds and other distractions.
Travellers 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. Note, though, that the substantial discounts train and bus operators extend to disabled citizens aren’t always offered to foreign visitors.
The UK’s gov.uk website provides general advice and practical information for travellers with disabilities preparing for overseas travel. Accessible Journeys is a comprehensive US site written by wheelchair users who have been researching wheelchair-accessible travel full-time since 1985. There are many tips and useful contacts (including lists of travel agents on request) for slow walkers, wheelchair travellers and their families, plus informative articles, including pieces on disabled travelling worldwide. The company also organises group tours. Global Access News provides general travel information, reviews and tips for travelling with a disability. The Society for Accessible Travel and Hospitality also provides some general information.