If I have one piece of advice for you when visiting Taiwan it’s this: don’t drink the tap water.

Having spent months in Asia, Tony & I have become accustomed to giving water that doesn’t come out of a bottle wide berth. Yes, we purchased and packed a steripen, but truth be told, we rarely use it; generally the only time we risk water that comes from a faucet is when we brush our teeth.

Now, there are a few Asian countries where tap water is potable (e.g., Japan, Singapore) but we weren’t sure exactly whether Taiwan was ok. Normally we would err on the side of caution and not drink the water until we had a definitive answer either way, but following our red eye flight into the country we were both incredibly parched and it was too late to go out and buy any water. When we noticed that our room had an electric kettle, we assumed that this must mean that the water was relatively safe to drink, so after boiling some water for 10 minutes, we each downed two big glasses.

This was an incredibly bad idea. While it’s true boiled water can be safely consumed in most parts of the country, the reality is that most Taiwanese people won’t drink water from the tap unless it has undergone some filtration process. Because Taiwan experiences a lot of seismic activity, there is a real concern of earthquakes damaging pipes allowing contaminants to enter the water and in other areas, the pipes are old and their is a risk of heavy metals leeching into the water. In fact, in certain parts of the country, trace amounts of arsenic have been found! No amount of boiling or steripen zapping is going to save you from that!

A few days into our time in Taiwan, both of us came down with massive body aches, particularly in our lower limbs, that left us feeling lethargic. We have no way of knowing whether it was the water that did us in—it could have been the dramatically cooler weather, after all—but we both like that think that we were suffering from heavy metal poisoning. I don’t even know if large-scale body aches are a symptom of heavy metal poisoning (I’m not THAT kind of doctor!), but that’s our story and we’re sticking to it!

Regardless, after days of feeling listless and sore, we decided our affliction necessitated a day trip to the nearby district of Beitou. Easily reached using the MRT, Beitou’s position in a geothermic valley has made it a popular spot to enjoy the soothing waters of the area’s natural hotsprings. All of our other daytrip plans out of the city had been quashed by nasty weather, but the slight chill in the air that greeted us on the morning we set out for Beitou only made the lure of its heated pools all the more attractive.

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Yeah they did

Alighting at Xin Beitou station, it was immediately clear we were in the correct place as the station was decorated with various cute (this is Taiwan, after all!) hot spring statues and ephemera. Although we couldn’t find any official tourist offices or maps at the station, there were plenty of signs in English pointing us toward the tourist area of the district, which in and of itself was quite small: all of Beitou’s major attractions lie along a 1 km loop that can easily be traveled by foot, so with joints creaking, off we hobbled.

Our first stop was the Hot Springs Museum, which is housed in a lovely, English-style mansion that has the remains of an old Roman bath inside. The building itself was the real star of the show as the museum exhibits were predominantly in Chinese and thus, largely incomprehensible to us.

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Next we wandered over to the source of Beitou’s fame, the thermal valley where the springs originate. Before we saw the springs, we smelled them as the rancid stench of sulphur smacked us in the face. We pushed forth and watched as the milky turquoise water simmered and bubbled away as huge swaths of steam swirled around in the chilly winter air and the smell of farty eggs hung in heavy curtains around us. Watching the water roil before us, we decided we’d had enough of the foreplay and could no longer wait to dip ourselves in the pungent waters and benefit from their curative properties.

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Visitors to Beitou have two options when it comes to experiencing the hot springs:

1)   For the budget-minded traveler, there is a public bath that allows unlimited dips in the various pools for the general admission price of $40NTD (~$1.50US). This is clearly the cheapest way to experience the hotsprings, but you’ll be doing so with 40-50 of new nearest and dearest Taiwanese bathers.

2)   There are many hotels and spas dotted around the hotspring loop that offer private bathing rooms that you can rent out on an hourly basis. These are clearly a lot more intimate and would be ideal for couples or travelers who just don’t see the appeal of poaching themselves in close quarters with strangers. The downside is that this will be a lot more costly than the public baths: we decided to first check out some of the spas that were purportedly lower-tier but the cheapest price we could find was $33US for 90 minutes in a private room. The room itself felt rather dated and didn’t have much of a view. We felt that for the money we’d want a bit more so ultimately decided to embrace our inner spendthrifts and go the public bath route!

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Although a little dash of romance would not have been unwelcome, I’m ultimately really glad that we opted to go with the public baths as it wound up being a fascinating window into Taiwanese culture. (Unfortunately no photography was allowed inside the baths—for obvious reasons—so from here on out, I’ll just have to paint you a picture with my words!)

After paying our nominal entrance fee, we stood about gaping for a bit as we tried to get our bearings and figure out proper Taiwanese bath protocol. The entrance to the baths was on the top of a rather tall hill, which had four large pools placed on it. At the base of the hill were the changing rooms and showers and one long splash pool. Although we visited the baths on a weekday, they were still brimming with (mostly older) bathers.

We had experienced communal nude bathing while in Japan, but thankfully we had our bathing suits in tow as that was most assuredly not the way things were done at the public bath here. The pools were all communal, and modesty reigned supreme. I favor a one-piece swimsuit which is generally considered chaste in most parts of the world, but in Beitou, my swimming attire was downright scandalous! Most of the ladies were decked out in nothing so much as olde tyme bathing costumes completely with legs that went down to the knee and little ballerina skirts!

The changing rooms and shower areas weren’t well signed so there was some momentary confusion when Tony tried to enter a stall meant for ladies, but after some panicked yelping, we figured out where we each needed to be and after a rather bracing scrub down in icy cold water, we were ready to soak our pains away.

The pools get progressively warmer as you make your way up the hill, and after our shocking showers, we thought it made sense to start hot and work our way down, but I cannot say whether this is standard bathing protocol. I’m pretty sure we saw most people going in the opposite direction, and that probably makes more sense as it would give you a chance to acclimate to gradually increasing water temperatures. As it was, the pool at the very top of the hill felt heavenly when you were simply splashing the water on your legs, but as soon as I began to lower myself in, I only made it up to my knees before squawking that I was being cooked and scrambling out to cool down. We found that the next pool down the hill (which ranged between 38-43ºC/100-109ºF) to be far more manageable; we hung out in that one for about 20 minutes before moving to an even lower (and slightly cooler) pool.

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Who knew all you have to deal with to soothe sore muscles is the ungodly stench of pure sulfur emanating from a cauldron of literally boiling water…

All told we spent about 45 minutes actually soaking at the public baths, which was about all my body could take. I can’t say that essentially stewing in a massive cauldron of balmy bath water with 30 strangers is my personal definition of relaxing fun, but it was interesting and clearly the locals were having a blast. We spent most of our time keenly observing our fellow bathers, watching the little clusters of middle-aged women (in their shower caps) gossip animatedly, while older gentlemen red the paper or enthusiastically engaged in deep stretching exercises. The public baths are clearly meant to be a social place where the Taiwanese unwind and mingle with their friends and neighbors; at one point, a small troop of school kids came through and began giggling and cavorting in the pools. While we definitely didn’t belong (and were only two of a handful of foreigners there), we weren’t made to feel unwelcome, though people mostly seemed to turn a blind eye to us being there. Sometimes travel means putting yourself in situations that aren’t the most comfortable; often times we’ve found these experiences wind up being the most interesting and the most memorable, and I think our time at the public baths of Beitou were a perfect example of this. At just slightly more than $1 per person, we got to experience a slice of genuine Taiwanese life most visitors don’t even know exist, got a lifetime’s worth of lap dances, AND left with our bodies feeling more limber and supple than they had in days, our aches relegated to the past. All in all, I’d say that our outing to Beitou was a success!

Tips & tricks:

How to get there: From Taipei’s central station, we rode the red line to Beitou station where we transferred trains to reach Xin Beitou station. The entire trip took less than an hour and can be paid for using the Taipei EasyCard, which works on all local public transport.
If you’re planning to visit the public baths, make sure you bring a bathing suit as these are communal, co-ed baths and covering yourself is not optional! For that matter, make sure you bring EVERYTHING you might need with you (including a towel, soap, etc.,) as nothing is provided inside the baths.

Written by: Stephenie Harrison


In another life, I moved from Toronto, Canada to Nashville, TN to pursue my doctoral degree in Psychology. That chapter of my life is now finished, but I did earn the right to demand you call me Dr. Steph (though I respond just as well to plain old Steph). I am an avid reader whose book collection is rivaled only by my many pairs of cute shoes. I also like to knit, hold impromptu karaoke parties, and try new and unusual foods. Generally not all at the same time. I also really love to learn languages, which may explain why I took 3 years of Latin in highschool. I'm turning over a new leaf, so instead of looking forward, I'm going to work on enjoying the present, so the country I'm most looking forward to is whichever one we're in right now!

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Read comments (19)

  1. July 11, 2013 at 9:22 am
    Jul. 11, '13

    Taiwanese public baths are very different from the one we experienced in South Korea, in fact men and women had separate baths and we weren’t allowed to wear any swimming suite but our own skin only.
    Shame we didn’t get to experience the Taiwanese public baths to be able to compare them with the Korean ones, but your description will give us a good idea or what we missed.
    Franca recently posted..Ungno Lee Museum of Art, Daejeon

    • July 14, 2013 at 11:15 am
      Jul. 14, '13

      Yes, these are very different from the ones we experienced in Japan (which sound much more like the Korean ones) where bathing suits are not worn. I think you would have really had some fun at the Taiwanese baths as they are their own thing, but you’ve already got some idea of what the experience would be like I’m sure!

  2. July 11, 2013 at 2:23 pm
    Jul. 11, '13

    Very nice photos of the hot springs! I would have loved to see those baths when we were there!

    That’s great advice for the water. I don’t even drink tap in the states. It tastes like chlorine. I guess I’m a water snob…
    nicole recently posted..Wednesday’s Wonder: The Most Pleasant Poop Ever

    • July 14, 2013 at 11:21 am
      Jul. 14, '13

      It’s been so long since I’ve had tap water I really miss it! But truth be told, back in the States, we always drank from our Brita filter rather than directly from the tap…

  3. July 11, 2013 at 3:51 pm
    Jul. 11, '13

    Steph, Tony: You kinda had a water blog today, one to drink and one to swim in. It’s water under the bridge now (ark ark) but you shoulda bought a water filter before you left on your trip. I can speak with expertise on this subject as I worked my entire life in the general engineering construction industry on one type of water facility or another. One of the last projects I was involved in before I was laid off because of the recession and no government money for infrastructure work (sorry but I digress), was a $40 million dollar water treatment plant. I’ve also estimated and managed small water treatment facilities for neighborhoods. So, I take exception to those who think they have to buy water in bottles because USA tap water is no good! Now, tap water in third-world countries, that’s another story. Systems can become contaminated in many ways.

    I personally experienced no bad water problems during my 2 year RTW trip. I had a small water filter made for backpacking that filtered out all particles down to the 2 micron size. This unit even removed viruses. We never bought water, anywhere. I even filtered water into my water bottle while on a trek in Thailand from a stream that I later found out had a family of pigs taking a bath not 100 feet up stream. No problem!

    I also seriously doubt that the tap water in Taiwan had a dangerous level of heavy metals. If so, there would be a lot of sick (even dead) people. The steripen is OK for water that has already been filtered because if there are any particles, it won’t work. UV works on line of sight. Little particles may have little nooks and crannies that provide homes for both viruses and bacteria. If the light doesn’t come into direct contact with them, they won’t be killed. The small filters are a little expensive, around a hundred bucks, but I bet you’ve already spent that much on bottled water between the two of you. Find a filter, buy it, end your worries and save money. Any questions?

    • July 14, 2013 at 11:26 am
      Jul. 14, '13

      We didn’t drink bottled water back in the States and I have no problem drinking tap water in countries where it is safe to do so, but Taiwan is not one of those countries. A few of our CouchSurfing hosts had filters attached to their faucets so we could drink the water safely there, but as I said, in certain parts of the country (especially in the south), there have been contaminants in the water and many people will not even drink tap water that has been boiled.

      Not sure if we’ve spent $100 on bottled water thus far–we can get 4.5L of water for $1 here in Thailand which is about on par with most of South East Asia and that definitely lasts us quite a while. I don’t doubt that the filter is a good investment, but we already carry more stuff with us than I’d like and I admit, one of the advantages to bottled water is that you can get it icy cold from the convenience store whereas tap water is never so cold!

  4. July 12, 2013 at 7:03 am
    Jul. 12, '13

    With every single Taiwan post you write there is another reason I want to go there, always things that I’ve never even heard of!
    Maddie recently posted..Vietnam round-up

    • July 14, 2013 at 11:27 am
      Jul. 14, '13

      That’s the goal! I hope that by the end of this series we’ll have pushed you over the edge! 😀

  5. July 12, 2013 at 8:48 am
    Jul. 12, '13

    I love hot springs, and I try and drag Kim to them whenever we end up near one. If we ever make it to Taiwan, I will make sire we take a dip here – farty eggs and all!
    Brian recently posted..Forking Over the Discoveries

    • July 14, 2013 at 11:30 am
      Jul. 14, '13

      The farty egg smell just adds to the atmosphere! Often times in Asia I’ve found that it’s too darn hot to enjoy a hot spring fully, but the weather was just right in Taipei to take advantage of them. I really hope you get to experience them when you’re back in Asia (definitely make Taiwan a priority!).

  6. July 13, 2013 at 8:01 am
    Jul. 13, '13

    Enjoyed the post. Good pics, Steph!
    “Don’t drink the tap water” is my Travel Rule #1 since my visit to India 🙂 a long and very bad story… Now, when I travel, I take water purifying pills with me. I have not used them yet, but, it’s good to have them in a backpack in case there is no bottled drinks available.
    memographer recently posted..Photo Trilogy: Rapa Nui – The People

    • July 14, 2013 at 11:33 am
      Jul. 14, '13

      Oh god, we are going to avoid ALL water in India. OK, I know that’s not actually possible but drinks in India terrify me. We’re pretty lax about ice here in SEA as pretty much everywhere uses special ice that comes from factories, but I know that we’ll have to be so careful in India and get everything without ice.

  7. July 13, 2013 at 10:44 am
    Jul. 13, '13

    HI Steph, I think you made the right choice of going to the public bath. It’s definitely a great local and cultural experience, not to mention a cheaper and fun way to ease your aches and pain. Love the photos, especially the steamy water.
    Marisol@TravelingSolemates recently posted..Dominica: The Hike to the Boiling Lake

    • July 14, 2013 at 11:33 am
      Jul. 14, '13

      Yup, we had gone in intending to do a private bath but I’m really glad it didn’t work out that way. This way was definitely more interesting and a lot more fun!

  8. July 14, 2013 at 8:55 pm
    Jul. 14, '13

    Isn’t it interesting how different protocols are in different countries. I would have never thought that in Japan people are go into the pools naked. I thought that was only a German thing, since we are well known for our nudist beaches and spas. 😉
    TammyOnTheMove recently posted..Flashback Friday: The day I met my husband’s doppelganger

    • July 16, 2013 at 10:09 pm
      Jul. 16, '13

      It definitely surprised me that nude bathing is such a Thing in Japan; given how modest and shy Japanese people are in all other respects, it was definitely shocking to discover their love of communal bathing! Thanks for reminding me to skip the beaches in Germany! 😉

  9. July 14, 2013 at 10:00 pm
    Jul. 14, '13

    I’ve visited hot springs in Japan and Budapest and the experiences couldn’t have been more different. In Japan we had to get totally naked and wash in a communal shower beforehand. We were the ONLY foreigners there and were stared at pretty much the whole time. Talk about losing your inhibitions! Budapest, on the other hand, was more like a fancy swimming pool where everyone wore bathing suits. Either way, that steaming hot water is so relaxing!
    Heather recently posted..A Glimpse of the Future: Shanghai Urban Planning Museum

    • July 16, 2013 at 10:11 pm
      Jul. 16, '13

      I was lucky enough that during my Japanese bathing experience, I was the only one in the baths, but I am sure I would have been gawked at otherwise (even though I’m sure protocol is that you don’t stare at other bathers!). In Taiwan, we definitely got some looks, but for the most part we were simply ignored… If we make it to Budapest, I’m sure we’ll try the hot springs there too!

  10. July 22, 2013 at 12:38 am
    Jul. 22, '13

    I have a steripen too and I use it frequently. I drank the tap water where I’m at, but when it rains I buy bottled water because the flooding some how contaminates the water source.
    Mig recently posted..7 Tips to Reduce Spending on the Road

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