Cheap thrills in terrific Taiwan

The charm of the boisterous city lies in her numerous alleys, packed with quaint little shops, cafes and restaurants. One landmark is Wu Fen Pu, a wholesale garment district that houses over 1,000 little shops selling trendy clothes, shoes, bags and accessories. Much like the clothing section of Chatuchak Market in Bangkok except it’s not as cramped. To get an idea of its size, just imagine the ground floor area of the Macy’s shopping center in New York City and multiply that by five.

Great finds: This place’s great for the latest trends and it won’t burn a hole in your wallet. I got a pretty skirt with multi-coloured butterfly prints at the hem for only $5 while my friend bought a bohemian-like skirt embroidered with beads for $25.

Best time to go: In the late afternoons when some of the shops open till 11pm. Zip by the end of the season when the shops are eager to clear their stock. For discounted summer clothes, the best time to head here is September. Tip: Try not to visit on Fridays, as it’s usually reserved for retailers so as individuals, you might not be allowed to buy anything.

Getting there: Take a taxi to Wu Fen Pu and ask the driver to drop you at the clothing area or take the subway to Houshanpi Station (Exit 4) and walk about five minutes west along Yongji Street to the corner of Zhongpo North Road.

Snack Haven

There are numerous night markets in the city but none beats the lively atmosphere at Shilin Night Market. The area’s split into two sections - one exclusively for food (go on an empty stomach), and the other for shopping. Browse through this huge pasar malam (there’s more than 1,000 stalls) but keep a close watch on your belongings.

Great finds: You will savour sweet, sour, hot and salty flavours all under one roof. Look out for food stalls bearing the following names: Hao Da Da Ji Pai (crispy chicken chop), Shen Chao Hua Zhi (a sourish and mildly spicy stew containing squid, bamboo shoots, garlic and onion) and Shanghai Shen Jian Bao (steamed buns with crispy bottom and cabbage or meat filling). The queues are murderously long but worth the wait. Can’t get enough? Fill up the oyster omlette, a Taiwanese speciality fried with lettuce and served with a sweet sauce.

Or fried squid, tempura, frog eggs, papaya milkshake…the list goes on. My advise: Eat a bit of everything!

Shilin can be a maze for the uninitiated. But getting lost is half the fun. Retailers tend to advertise themselves by hiring someone to hold up a sign bearing their shop name. Read for signs that read Shao Nian Jie, or Youth Street. There, you can snap up some trendy clothes, hats, scarves, hand phone accessories and CD s. Competition is keen among the stores so exercise your bargaining chops.

Best time to go: Hit the food stalls just directly opposite Jiantan subway station around dinner time, then offload all the calories by shopping on the other side of the road.

Shilin turns into a mad carnival on weekends so if you can’t bear the noise and heat, go on a weekday.

Getting there: Take a taxi to Shilin Night Market or hop on the subway to Jiantan Station.

Queen of Trends

Xi Men Ding is the ultimate hangout place for teenyboppers. Because of the consumer profile, it’s also the favourite location for Taiwanese singers. This is also the best place to get the accurate pulse on the latest fashions that the locals are spotting. Think 77th Street but on a mammoth scale.

Great finds: If you are a fan of Japanese style street wear, there are many shops selling such trendy stuff at affordable prizes. Many designs are copies from Hong Kong and South Korea. There are also a number of stalls selling pretty hair accessories.

After shopping, stop by at Ah Zong Mian Xian, which sells mee sua cooked with fish broth (Japanese fishball noodles soup). This stall’s easy to spot, going by the scores of customers standing outside slurping up the soup.

Best time to go: In the afternoon on a weekend, when there’s usually a performance by pop stars like S.H.E., Tension or Jay Chou.

Getting there: Take a train to Ximen station (Exit 6) or hail a taxi to Xi Men Ding.

Brands Galore

The “East District” off Zhongxiao Dong Lu is dotted with little boutiques, cafes, tea houses and restaurants. Slightly more upscale than Xi Men Ding, there are lots of second-hand designer shops carrying brands like Louis Vuitton and Prada as well as quirky styles by local designers. American labels like Abercrombie & Fitch, Gap and Banana Republic are also found here.

Great finds: A factory outlet Bazaar (Dunhua South Road Section I, Lane 187) sells off-season branded goods by Versace, Mochino, Blumarine and Miss Sixty. Be prepared to dig around for great steals.

Also visit Ritz at Zhongxiao Dong Lu, (Section 4, Lane 181, Alley 7, No.3, B1). Ít houses a number of young entrepreneurs who sell their own designs or bring in special imported goods from France, Italy, Japan and the US.

Two shops which design their own stuff are Mako (Room 3) and Rouge (Room 19). Mako is popular for its offbeat touch of casual wear; one of its creations features a mustard-coloured skirt with Chinese knots as belts loops.

Rouge is stocked predominantly with imported goods from France, but if you want owner Chen’s designs, just ask and he’ll be able to give you a preview. Don’t be surprised to spot outfits like a halter top made of river-bed stones and betel nut leaves! Chen’s outfits are a lot more dramatic given his theatrical background. And what better way to end your shopping spree than to quench your thirst at the popular Rose House for its trademark mixed fruit teas!

Best time to go: The shops are scattered in between private residence and offices along tiny alleys. Best to go in the evenings, when the shop fronts are prettily lit and easier to find.

Getting there: Take a train to Zhongxiao FuXing station (exit 4 -Sogo) and turn left into the nearest alley once you exit the station.

New haunt

For more upmarket finds, head to the latest shopping complex in Taipei, Taipei 101 - a fashion paradise.

Great finds: Every brand on your wish list is here: Lagerfeld, Yohji Yamamoto, Pleats Please, Tara Jarmon, and Kookai. Taiwan designs can be found in Gioia Pan, and Liu Li Gong Fang is famous for its glass works. Lush has a store here too. If the prizes are too scary, take comfort in sweet nosh ladled out by Di Shan Beancurd for its mango snow ice. Or have a GO TAIWAN ICE CREAM, freshly made with mango, red bean, peanut, yam, passion fruit and dried longan. Better yet, pop by Jason’s bakery for the Italian cheese cake, orange/lemon cheese bread and squid-ink bread.

Best time to go: 9.30am to 10pm.

Getting there: Take a taxi to Taipei 101, or take a train to Taipei City Hall station (Exit 2) then transfer to the free shuttle bus to Taipei 101.

Julia Mistra

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