Coronavirus may have scuppered your travel plans, but Asia’s queer hotspot Taiwan is yours to explore once lockdown lifts

Taiwan: Exploring Asia's top new LGBT travel destination

Coronavirus may have scuppered your 2020 travel plans, but the world’s best destinations will still be waiting for you once lockdown lifts.

Your best bet for a corona-free trip could be Taiwan, which recently reached a record 200 days without any domestically transmitted cases. Throughout the pandemic the island nation has been hailed for its success in keeping the virus in check – and it has the added bonus of being famously queer friendly, too.

Last year Taiwan became the first country in Asia to legalise same-sex marriage, a trailblazing move that sent a firm message to its neighbouring countries about its position on equal rights.

Although it is independently governed, Taiwan is officially part of the Republic of China – a touchy subject for many Taiwanese, who consider their society to be much more liberal and progressive than that of mainland China.

But it’s great news for LGBT+ travellers, who can safely experience Taiwan’s unique twist on Chinese culture from the comfort of Taipei, the island’s capital city.

It’s a vivid and fascinating metropolis lined with lanterns and neon lights, where towering skyscrapers rub shoulders with traditional Daoist temples. And it’s served by an excellent metro system, the MRT (Mass Rapid Transport), which is numbered and colour-coded, making the city easily accessible for even the most inexperienced traveller.

Most importantly, LGBT+ couples can safely walk the streets holding hands free from hassle or stares.

So if like us you’re in need of a pick-me-up right now, why not while away the winter lockdown by brainstorming your next trip? Here’s a little help from PinkNews with our top five Taipei highlights.

Sunset in Taipei, with the horizon dominated by Taipei 101, one of the world’s tallest skyscrapers. (Daniel Shih/AFP/Getty)

Ximen, Red House.

Although there are several gay clubs dotted around the city, this is the centre of Taipei’s LGBT+ scene and also, conveniently, its shopping district. The busy pedestrianised area hosts a string of stores selling Japanese clothing, collectibles, books and more, earning it the nickname ‘the Harajuku of Taipei’.

Taipei fully deserves its reputation as the top spot for gay nightlife in Asia. There’s a bar for almost everyone in Ximen, whether you’re into twinks, bears, leather, S&M or just some good old fashioned karaoke. Many, like Wanhua’s Café Dalida, have a relaxed outdoor seating area where you can sit and watch the world go by.

The district is thronging with young people no matter what time of the day or night you visit, but it’s best seen after the sun goes down, when it’s lit up by huge Times Square-esque billboards and flashing neon lights.

Taiwanese drag queen walking through Ximen (Carl Court/Getty)

Raohe night market.

A trip to Taiwan would be incomplete without a visit to a night market, and Raohe is Taipei’s oldest and (arguably) best. Much of Taiwanese culture revolves around food, and over time the night markets with their traditional food vendors became a social hub where locals get together for a bite after work.

The Raohe night market stretches a mere 600 metres but it packs a lot into one small street. This chaotic clutter of stalls sells everything from cow stomachs, duck tongues and oyster omelettes to grilled squid, steamed buns and stinky tofu (and plenty more dishes that were a bit harder to identify).

Aromas blend together, hawkers shout to the crowds and pop music blares from overhead speakers, all combining to create a vibrant, eclectic Asian scene.

Nestled amongst the food vendors you can find small shops selling trinkets and cheap tech gadgets, plus games halls filled with wall-to-wall claw machines, which the Taiwanese are apparently obsessed with.

Raohe night market in Songshan district

Xingyuan Tea Farm.

If you’re in need of a change of pace, head outside the city to Xingyuan Tea Farm in Dong Shan district, about an hour’s drive from central Taipei.

Xingyuan is a small organic tea plantation run by husband and wife team Stella and Eric, who breathed life into the family business by running educational tea-making tours.

Together they’ll explain the whole process from leaf to cup, and guests are fully encouraged to don traditional Taiwanese tea-picking clothes and get stuck in. They’ll show you how to select the best tea shoots, before toasting, rolling and baking the leaves so you can take home a packet of your very own homemade green tea.

And if that’s not enough for you, they also offer tea tasting with delicious tea-flavoured ice cream and biscuits straight from the farm. Well worth the visit.

Taiwan: Exploring Asia's top new LGBT travel destination

The author hard at work

Dihua Street.

If tradition’s what you’re after then look no further than Dihua Street, the oldest street in Taipei. This street is part of the city’s historic district and much of it has remained virtually unchanged since the 19th century, giving you a glimpse of Taipei’s ‘Golden Age’.

Dihua’s a gold mine for tea houses, medicinal herbs, fabric stores, coffee shops, art galleries, and some gorgeous ceramics boutiques for that traditional Chinese tea set you didn’t even know you wanted but now can’t live without.

Set aside a few hours to leisurely stroll through all the fascinating incense-scented shops, but be warned, it’s a major destination during Chinese New Year celebrations, with as many as 750,000 people visiting the street in the two weeks leading up to the holiday.

Taiwan: Exploring Asia's top new LGBT travel destination

A resident of Dihua street

Beitou hot springs.

Taiwan is blessed with hundreds of naturally occurring volcanic hot springs, which are so plentiful that in some locations you can create your own by simply digging into the earth.

The country’s famed ‘hot spring culture’ was actually popularised by the Japanese, who ruled Taiwan between 1895 and 1945. Before this time the Taiwanese stayed well away from the smoking sulphurous volcanic hills as they were believed to be cursed.

This explains why the hot spring hub of Beitou in northern Taipei was formerly known as ‘The Witch’s Valley’, but instead of witches you’re now more likely to find gay men letting off some steam… literally. Much like gay saunas in the UK, Taiwan’s public baths are central to LGBT+ culture, offering a place to relax (and hook up) in peace.

And the mineral-rich water is thought to have lots of health benefits, too!

Taiwan: Exploring Asia's top new LGBT travel destination

One of the many great hot spring bathhouses in Beitou Thermal Valley