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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!