Taiwan's former capital is making the most of its rich traditions, writes Lincoln Tan

Our Taiwanese tour guide describes her home town as a hidden gem — a place where "old things get a new life".

Tainan, one of Taiwan's oldest cities and its former capital, is about two hours by high speed rail from its new capital, Taipei. But though it has lost its crown to Taipei, the city is capitalising on its rich history and old infrastructure to reclaim its old-world charm and glory.

"Not many people think of Tainan anymore these days," says guide Tina Chang. "But it is where you will experience some of the best of what Taiwan has to offer."

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Derelict buildings, some of which have been abandoned for years, have been given makeovers.

Many have been turned into "new" attractions drawing crowds on a daily basis.

Traditional trades and crafts are also being given a new lease of life, and are flourishing alongside new attractions.

One of our first stops after getting off the two-hour high-speed rail trip from Taipei is the Hayashi Department Store.

Japanese businessman Hayashi Houichi founded the store in December 1932, when the country was under Japanese rule. Hayashi was the second department store to be opened in Taiwan, after Kikumoto in Taipei.

Chang suggests we join a couple of students for a joyride in what is claimed to be the oldest passenger lift in the city. Not too long ago, this lift was believed to be magic — locals believed people would be able to swap bodies just by going in and out of it. Up on the rooftop, stands a Shinto shrine built during the colonial era.

Bullet holes on the rooftop structure also bear testament to what the building has been through. American airplanes bombed it towards the end of World War II, but the building escaped serious structural damage.

After a major facelift, the store reopened in 2014 and today is a popular spot for tourists and locals to buy premium designer clothes, crafts and traditional food.

Tainan is also a religious centre and home to thousands of temples, including the island's first Confucian temple. Built in 1666, it served as Taiwan's first official school and remains today one of the city's leading tourist attractions.

No city this old can be without ghost stories, and Tainan is without exception. Just a short drive from the Confucian Temple is the "haunted" Anping Tree House.

Once the Tait & Company Merchant House, the old abandoned warehouse has been "swallowed" by a single large banyan tree.

Built in 1867, it had been abandoned for over 70 years after the Taiwan Salt Corporation used it as a warehouse for a short time after World War II. The banyan roots have grown all around and into the walls of the building, giving it a spectacular ghostly effect. Footpaths, bridges and staircases have been installed by local authorities to allow visitors to explore and view the structure from all angles.

Huang, a local housewife, tells us the tree house is a popular spot for bridal couples from Taiwan and abroad — but not for Tainan locals, many of whom avoid going there during "auspicious occasions".

"We believe this place is haunted and the tree is home to ghosts," she says.

That's why the tree house is closed to visitors at night.

Anping Old Street is less spooky. The narrow street is lined with small shops selling traditional wares and food. Coffin toast, bread shaped like a mini coffin and filled with creamy seafood, is a popular snack item here.

The little street offers an amazing range of other snack food or "small eats" as the Taiwanese call them, from pineapple tarts, prawn crackers and sugarcane juice to preserved fruits.

Two hours' drive from the city centre lies the Fairy Lake Leisure Farm resort, nestled in Tainan's hilly Dongshan district.

The resort offers breathtaking views, farmstay accommodation, animals and fresh produce that goes into meals prepared at its restaurant.

A welcome drink of ice-cold longan tea is just what we need on a warm, humid, 30C day. Resort owner Strong Wu, 33, says the longans are grown at the resort, which has a farm that has been operating as a longan plantation for decades.

The tea is brewed from dried longan, which has been smoked over wood fire, an art that
has been passed down for generations, Wu says. The plantation also grows tomatoes, lychees, and a whole range of Chinese vegetables.

Inside the AnPing Tree House, a former warehouse overrun by banyan trees. Photo / schen1119
Inside the AnPing Tree House, a former warehouse overrun by banyan trees. Photo / schen1119

"The nearest supermarket is really far away, so what we grow makes up most of what we
eat," he says. "This is actually healthier I think, and it is our secret to living a long and
healthy life."

Lunch is hot pot-style — mainly with vegetables and produce grown on the farm — a truly delicious and nourishing meal.

The resort does have several outdoor pools overlooking the hillside and there are streams, but we couldn't find a lake.

Wu explains that the place got its name from mystical images of a lake created by mist and cloud in the early mornings.

We are at the resort smack in the middle of longan harvest and the start of the lychee season.

Lychee, with its pink-red, roughly textured skin covering sweet aromatic flesh, is one of my favourite fruits.

Until I was planning this trip, I didn't know that Taiwan grew lychees in commercial quantities, and it is a thrill just to be standing among hundreds of fruiting lychee trees.

Wu says lychees do not last very long after picking, and lose their freshness from day two. "You cannot say you have tasted the best lychee unless you have eaten them straight from the tree," he adds.

Taiwan's lychee season goes from June to August, but there is just a small window for Pick-Your-Own lychees.

After a short talk and demonstration we are under way. It's a truly unforgettable experience, and well worth the trip for anyone who wants the experience of eating the fruit straight from the tree.

Night markets are an integral part of Taiwan's cultural fabric, and the night market culture is very much alive in Tainan.

For newcomers to the scene, this is something you either love or hate.

The markets are crowded, noisy, hot and most of the food there is calorie-laden — some would even say unsanitary.

But it is still an experience that's not to be missed in Taiwan. Nowhere else in the world can you experience the same type of vibrancy, wide array of food, shopping and entertainment in a single venue. Many of the street-market foods found around the island have their origins at Tainan's night markets.

One such dish is danzi noodles, which literally translates to mean "shoulder pole noodle", and was introduced here about 130 years ago.

Danzi was created in the late Qing dynasty by a Tainan fisherman, Hong Yutou. Hong first started selling the noodles to earn money during the off-season but eventually made it his primary occupation.

He would carry the noodles on shoulder poles and sold them on the street, which is how the dish got its name.

A bowl of this legendary dish at the night market cost just NT50, which works out to slightly more than $2.

Unlike the night markets in Taipei, those in Tainan are not open every night so it pays to check before heading out.

Exploring the stalls and sampling the wide array of local street food is a great way to end the day, wherever you are in Taiwan.

The must-try snack foods include oyster omelette, Taiwanese sausage, taro balls, deep fried pork ribs, crispy cuttlefish and — if you dare — stinky tofu. We try everything we want and it still cost less than we would have paid for a three-course restaurant dinner in Auckland.

But it's the feel-good factor that makes this meal so memorable.

A family enter a Confucian Temple at night. Photo / Getty Images
A family enter a Confucian Temple at night. Photo / Getty Images

CHECKLIST

Getting there:

flies direct from Auckland to Taipei, with Economy Class return fares from $1199, including taxes.

Further information: See eng.taiwan.net.tw
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