Rail+Bus: A Winning Combination for Exploring Taiwan

Taiwan is a densely populated island. Think of a place only slightly bigger than Maryland, but much more mountainous, and with almost four times as many people. Gridlock would result if everyone drove a car, so Taiwan’s government prioritizes public transportation – and not just for commuters.

In recent years, a great effort has been made to ensure that Taiwan’s buses and trains are convenient for foreign visitors to use. Both online and inside stations, English-language information is easy to find. All medium-and long-distance bus services in Taiwan have been assigned three- or four-digit numbers to make them more easily identifiable. For example, tourists heading for the beautifully scenic aboriginal enclave of Wulai, just 27 kilometers south of Taipei Main Station, know that after taking the metro to Xindian, all they need to do is board bus 849 and swipe their Easy Cards.

A product that truly lives up to its name, the Easy Card is a stored-value card that can be bought from and topped up at metro stations and convenience stores. It makes many journeys easier and a bit cheaper. The card can also be used to pay for bus rides in Taichung, Tainan, and other cities, as well as most journeys on Taiwan Railway Administration (TRA) trains.

Other travel products offer exceptional value for tourists who are in a hurry. Anyone making a short visit, but keen to enjoy both the glitz of Taipei and the South’s traditional charm should look into getting a Taiwan High-Speed Railway (HSR) pass. The basic 3-Day Pass costs NT$2,400 for unlimited travel on the island’s bullet trains. This price is very attractive when you consider that a one-way economy-class HSR ticket from Nangang to Kaohsiung is usually NT$1,530.

Another option is the 5-Day Express Joint Pass (NT$2,800). This allows HSR travel on any two days, and unlimited travel throughout the entire period on TRA services up to and including the Chu-Kuang express trains. A whirlwind circumnavigation of the country thus becomes very affordable.

Travelers who plan to take things more slowly can simply buy tickets as they need them. Taipei to Hsinchu by TRA, for instance, never costs more than NT$177. Once in Hsinchu, consider buying a one-day pass for the Neiwan Branch Line (NT$95 for adults), a picturesque railroad that heads up a scenic river valley into the hilly interior.

There are, of course, a few disadvantages to exploring Taiwan this way. First, unless you have the good fortune to meet a loquacious English-speaker, no one will explain what you are looking at or answer questions like “What are they growing in that field?” Second, if you are the kind of person who, in an unfamiliar town, struggles to find his way back to the railway or bus station, there is always the fear of getting lost.

Fortunately, a solution is available. Eager to make visiting Taiwan as pleasurable and convenient as possible, Taiwan’s Tourism Bureau has created the Taiwan Tour Bus system, a network of bus services that enhances the tourist experience by providing not only transportation to scenic and cultural spots, but also foreign-language guides. These excursions are operated by reputable travel agents, and the price includes comprehensive insurance.

For most Taiwan Tour Bus experiences, the sole means of transportation is a comfortable, air-conditioned tour bus. One exception is the Jiji Railway and Sky Bridge one-day tour, priced at NT$1,850 per person. Tourists are collected from various points in Taichung City by bus and driven to Jiji, a picturesque inland town. After some gentle cycling (bicycle hire is included in the price), they board the Jiji Branch Line, a railroad that links a succession of characterful settlements. The terminal station is Checheng, a former logging outpost where the tour group has lunch (also included in the price).

In the afternoon, there is an educational stop at Shuili Snake Kiln, a relic of the region’s pottery industry, before proceeding to the Sky Bridge. Like similar structures elsewhere, it was designed to give tourists the kind of breathtaking views usually enjoyed only by eagles.

The tour then spends half an hour at the Nantou City operations of Sunny Hills, one of Taiwan’s best-known makers of that quintessentially Taiwanese treat, the pineapple cake. (If you cannot make it to central Taiwan, Sunny Hills also has outlets in Taipei, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Japan, and Singapore.) Visitors are under no pressure to make purchases; the company is generous with free samples, knowing very well that, after one taste, many people are keen to buy a few boxes.

Even if this particular tour does not sound like your cup of tea – or your slice of cake – do spend some time sifting through the one-day and half-day tour options on the Taiwan Tour Bus website. The site carries contact details for the various operators, and visitors who have questions (or hope to organize a tailor-made outing) are welcome to contact them directly.

In almost every town and city, the main bus station and important bus stops are clustered around the TRA station. For instance, if you arrive in Keelung or Ruifang by train, you can be at the stop for buses going to Jiufen and Jinguashi within minutes.

Pingtung City offers just as many intriguing possibilities. Turn left as soon as you leave the station, and you will see first the Kuo-Kuang bus station (regular departures to the historic town of Hengchun near Kenting National Park) and then the Pingtung Bus Company station. From the latter, there are buses stopping in the multi-ethnic town of Shuimen en route to the hillside community of Sandimen, which is famous for artists and artisans whose works reflect their aboriginal heritage.

For all kinds of Taiwan travel information, visit the Tourism Bureau’s website. For train schedules and ticket details, go to the TRA’s bilingual website or the multilingual website of Taiwan High-Speed Railway Corp. For buses, a quick and effective way of gathering information is to call the Chinese-English-Japanese 24-hour tourist hotline 0800-011-765 (toll free within Taiwan). Busier train stations have visitor information centers where the staff can provide maps and leaflets as well as answer travel-related questions.