Walking, in general, is a very dangerous activity in the country, especially when most of the time you’re forced to walk in the street alongside crazed scooterists, cars, elderly people on bicycles, food vendor carts, and enraged little blue trucks whose sole purpose in life seems to be to run everyone else off the road. People in general do not look when backing up. You could get run over at any given time. People don’t look when changing lanes. In fact, it’s a rule that most drivers in Taiwan only pay attention to what’s directly in front of their eyes, and *occasionally* what’s coming from the sides if necessary.
The most popular mode of transportation on the island is scooter, most likely due to the fact that the country is densely populated and the roads are already clogged to the brim with cars. On any given morning in locales around Taiwan, hordes of scooterists descend on the cities, weaving in and out of traffic and driving other motorists — especially taxi drivers — to the point of madness. Even in Puli, a small mountain city with a population of a mere 80,000 people, scooters remain the kings of the road.
Nothing, and I mean nothing, is exempt from being carted around on a scooter. During the time I spent in the country some of the strange scooter sights I witnessed included a couple driving with a full-grown pig sitting upright in the middle of the seat, the woman lovingly patting its head; a woman driving with two gigantic sheepdogs stacked on top of each other; numerous babies standing up on mommy or daddy’s lap sans helmet; families of five or more heading out for a joyride on a 100cc; people carrying all means of furniture; barefooted and helmet-less drivers (esp. in the countryside); and people sitting on bamboo chairs on top of their vehicles, just to name a few.
After about 6 months in Taiwan, I finally got up the nerve to get on the scooter I’d bought several months earlier. The scooter I was terrified of driving. Living in Hsinchu at that time, it wasn’t exactly the best place to learn how to drive. I’d practice at night, mostly around 2 in the morning, when I’d be least likely to run over a helpless pedestrian. Or get stopped by a police officer.
My brother came to visit that first spring and we completed a scooter trip around Taroko Gorge. After that adventurous experience, I felt much more confident on the road.
My second year in Taiwan, I bought a new scooter in Hsincu (a city in Northwestern Taiwan) and drove it back to Puli (my new home in Central Taiwan) at 4 in the morning. The journey was supposed to take seven hours but I got home in five and a half. I’ll never forget that trip, my experience with the Hsinchu police department (trying to ask for directions in Chinese while they kept saying “crazy foreigner” because even most locals wouldn’t drive a scooter that far), how it felt to have nothing more to go by than map written in Chinese, the cool damp mountain wind at my back, lashing against my face, as I journeyed along a mysterious winding road into the great unknown. I’ll never forget the scenery, the towns, the people I passed along the way.
Another time I drove to the top of Hehuan mountain near Puli, the highest passable driving point in Taiwan. The journey took about 3.5 hours and though it doesn’t seem like much, the road to the top is precarious, with countless narrow turns. There’s always the risk of furious street dogs running out from nowhere, chasing you down, sending you plummeting to your death.
At the top of Hehuan I was rewarded with one of the most beautiful views I’d ever seen, and a sense of newfound strength.
It wasn’t long before I became one of those people driving about with strange cargo. Or weaving between the cars.
The ironic thing is, that after living in the country for awhile, you begin to see that there’s a flow to the system. The people make it work. As crazy as it seems, I felt safer driving in Taiwan than I have back home in the Chicago suburbs. There’s a synchronized dance at work behind the chaos.
And a wild, fulfilling freedom that belongs only to Taiwan.
I want to drive in Taiwan!
Do you have to have your Taiwanese driver’s license to get a scooter?
No. Anyone can purchase a scooter in Taiwan. However, it’s not legal to drive a scooter without a TW driver’s license. With that being said, most foreigners in Taiwan still drive illegally, without a license. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever met a foreigner who had a license. My previous boss has lived in the country for about 20 years and still didn’t have a license.
While it may seem like foreigners are taking advantage of the system, the truth is, it’s not that easy to obtain a license in Taiwan. My boss said they failed him all three times he took the test.
In fact, many locals do not have their driver’s licenses.
With all that being said, I would suggest still making an attempt to take the test, get insurance, etc.
Isn’t this dangerous, driving without a license in a foreign country?
Yes, but so is walking down the street. As horrible as it sounds, most foreigners know that if they’re ever pulled over by a police officer they’ll get off free. Many Taiwanese police officers either let foreigners go or give up quickly when said foreigner pretends to not understand Chinese. This doesn’t mean such behavior is ethical, but these are the facts.
If you are in a driving accident, it will be your fault no matter what, because you are the foreigner. And be prepared to pay hefty legal and medical fines.
Driving in Taiwan CAN be very dangerous. There are some places that I wouldn’t drive, such as the heart of Taipei. I know many foreigners who would disagree with me but if you want to drive in Taipei be prepared to deal with this:
Driving a scooter in Taipei is not necessary as the city has a fantastic public transportation system put in place. The MRT and a network of city buses can take you anywhere you want to go.
Driving in Taiwan can be a nerve-wracking experience but once you catch onto it, your life there will never be the same again. I think of all the experiences I had driving out in the country, the reflections, seeing Taiwan from an entirely new perspective. I learned a lot during those road trips and those moments connected me that much more with the country and the culture.
Proceed with caution. But do proceed.