IT is 10.10pm on Chihkan Street in downtown Tainan, in south-west Taiwan, and an inquiry about the whereabouts of the Grand Matsu Temple has produced assistance way above and beyond general helpfulness from a woman and her son.

The woman has stepped in after a shop owner was understandably left a bit non-plussed by the map for guests provided by the luxurious Silks Place hotel, with the street names marked in English.

Her son is drinking bubble tea, that Taiwanese phenomenon sweeping the UK, from a straw. The woman, in dialogue with her son, translates the name of the temple into Mandarin characters on her smartphone.

Having established I want to “view” the temple, rather than “pray”, she indicates there will be no people there at this time of night, with a sweep of her hand, but signals she and her son will take me there.

She offers only a handful of words and phrases of English during our conversation, although this is a good few more than could be offered in return in her language. Interestingly, and underlining the global clout of brands these days, the conversation does involve her asking if I have an iPhone and whether I have left it in the hotel.

It is a fair enough question. The answer is I have been relying on Taiwan’s fairly ubiquitous wifi – an approach that is not much use on Chihkan Street.

There is no opportunity or need to get into this detail as she and her son guide me across the busy road and she even offers me her umbrella, with an expression of friendly concern and urgency, as it has started raining heavily again. I decline the kind offer, holding up the umbrella provided by the hotel when I left, racing against the clock at the end of a long but fascinating day to find a temple that might still be open on my last full night in Taiwan.

They lead me to a narrow lane and point to the temple, then we exchange goodbyes and a bow or two.

The experience sums up Taiwan, in terms of the friendliness of its people and their willingness to take the time to help in spite of any language barriers.

The temple, featuring elaborate wooden carvings including dragons on its ornate roof and with eye-catching decorations spiralling up its external pillars, is well worth the 20-minute walk in the rain, even if it is closed. It is easy to see why the temple, dedicated to goddess of the sea Matsu, has been designated as a historic sight of the highest category in Taiwan. Matsu is worshipped in coastal areas in this part of the world.

The information board notes that of about 400 Matsu temples in Taiwan, this was the first to be approved by the Qing dynasty after it came to power on the island in the 17th century.

The temple, renovated several times, has retained the same architectural features since a third restoration effort in the early 19th century.

After several days of mixed-up but mostly manageable sleep patterns since landing in Taiwan, the jet lag has begun to wear off.

And the walk back to the hotel in the rain captures all the vibrancy of Tainan. There are myriad illuminated and incomprehensible shop and restaurant signs on streets which, every time the traffic lights from a particular direction go green, feature a noisy surge of poncho-wearing moped drivers that reminds you of the start of the Wacky Races. The rain is pleasant, given the Celsius temperature is sitting up well into the 20s, and it brings out the scents of plants and flowers even in this urban environment.

And the many narrow streets and alleys give the downtown area a characterful feel.

Tainan has a real buzz about it. The journey to and from the temple provides one of those moments of near-euphoria that sometimes sneak up on you when travelling, amid a sensory bombardment of inspiring sights, sounds and smells.

There are many joys of travelling in Taiwan. The important part played by the friendliness, patience and openness of its population should not be underestimated. These qualities enhance an already enchanting experience for visitors to Taiwan, known understandably in the old days by the Portuguese as Formosa, which means “beautiful island”.

Taiwan may be best known these days for its high-energy capital, Taipei. At New Year, the city’s glittering Taipei 101 tower is televised around the world as spectacular fireworks emerge from its many floors.

A trip up the tower in daytime provides a clear view of the natural beauty of Taiwan, out to the mountains.

One of the best places to see some of Taiwan’s natural beauty is Taijiang National Park, close to Tainan.

Even in heavy rain, a boat trip out on Cigu Lagoon to Taiwan’s westernmost point is another one of those great travel experiences.

A lady at the front of the boat cooks dozens of fresh oysters in their shells on a barbecue. The empty shells are thrown back into the grey-white of the flat-calm lagoon.

On the lagoon, the oyster growers pull up ropes with the full-grown shellfish, walking on the wooden poles that form the floating fish-farming infrastructure. Their weather-beaten faces offer sincere smiles to the roughly 25-strong boat party who have come to Taiwan from around the world.

Just as uplifting, after landing at the pier on the other side and walking along a very soggy path through verdant forest, is arriving at the beach, with the unexpected white-tops of the waves contrasting with the smooth water of Cigu Lagoon.

Here at the national park, you can catch a glimpse of the endangered black-faced spoonbill, of which there are fewer than 4000 in the world. Large numbers of these birds fly south from North Korea and Japan to spend the winter in Taiwan.

The lagoon and wider national park seem a million miles away from the bright lights and sweeping cityscape of Taipei.

This city skyline is a dazzling sight at night from the balcony of the Grand Hotel in Taipei, which is built in the style of a temple and is breathtaking enough itself. The Taiwanese capital is spread out wide just across the river. The blinking lights of Taipei 101 are probably the main, but far from the only, attention-grabber in this vista.

Awe-inspiring too is the view up to the main buildings of the Grand Hotel from the large outdoor swimming pool far below, whether in the morning or at night when the giant and ornate structure is illuminated.

Taiwan, which has a population of 23 million people and is known officially in its home territory as the Republic of China, is a land of fast things. The lift up to the top of Taipei 101 held the record for being the fastest in the world until recently.

And, while Japan might be famous for its Shinkansen, Taiwan too has a high-speed rail network. This cuts dramatically travelling times on the west coast, from Taipei in the north to Tainan and Kaohsiung in the south.

The cities up and down the west coast served by the high-speed rail system have plenty to offer tourists. The weather becomes notably warmer, and the vegetation more tropical, as you head south.

Between Tainan and Taipei, in Central Taiwan, Taichung City is big on technology and has a creative vibe about it. This area is also famous for its orchids, and will host the 2018 Taichung World Flora Exposition.

Major Taiwanese electronics manufacturers TSMC and AU Optronics have big operations in Taichung. The city is also home to a real architectural wonder on a global stage, the National Taichung Theater. This building, designed by Japanese architect Toyo Ito, is full of curves that create the effect of caves and carry through to a roof area that looks as if it is covered with miniature white volcanoes.

Taipei itself provides plenty of food for thought for visitors, from the Chinese treasures at the National Palace Museum to a vibrant night market, bustling temples and a Japanese-era hot springs resort at Beitou. There is also the memorial to long-time leader of the Republic of China, Chiang Kai-shek, who retreated with his government to Taiwan after losing the civil war with the Communists on mainland China in 1949.

Taiwan also offers a raft of culinary delights.

Among the many highlights are the Din Tai Fung dumpling house at the bottom of the Taipei 101 building, which even features a friendly robot who will interact with waiting guests.

Taiwan’s history means it retains significant Japanese influences. Japan controlled Taiwan for 50 years from 1895. Sashimi is among a vast array of offerings at Kitchen 12 at the Sheraton Grand Taipei Hotel, as well as, of all things, deep-fried sushi.

Leaving from Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport, the friendly attitude of this east Asian wonder once again manifests itself, albeit electronically.

If you respond with the delighted-face option on the screen, when asked to rate the restrooms, a cartoon version of the Formosan black bear appears and waves wildly with a smile. It seems like a fitting enough ending to the trip.

Return flights between Glasgow and Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport can start from less than £500.

Hotels in Taiwan can be booked through various travel websites, including Expedia,, TripAdvisor and Skyscanner.