Behind the Scenes : Taiwan

Take Me to....Snake Alley

I held in my hand a card with various tourist attractions on it, each with little tick box next to it.

“Please don’t film snake alley.”

Our guide Lilly made us cross our hearts on our very first shoot day, exhausted by the perpetuating scenario.

A spiral of twisted reportages over decades has caused this slippery night market to continue.

TV producers around the world arranging a segment where the presenters get to taste the reptiles blood for ‘medicinal purposes'.

Cut. The handheld camera crash zooms into the freshly skinned and sliced up animal, a writhing mass on the hook.

Camera swings up to presenter to flash their well practiced ‘disgusted tinged with game-for-anything face’ for the viewers before the expected “Bottoms Up” raise of the shot glass mixed with Kaoliang booze. Quick retch, gain composure, deliver “Well I’m not sure if it’s done anything for my health yet” line, shake hands with the local, exit shot. Cut.

So it happened, travellers talked about it, TV shows showed it, people went there, producers researched it and put it in another programme, people went there, round and round like ourovoros ophis, the serpent that devours its own tail.

“The majority of people in Taiwan want this stopped. It only continues because tourists go there.”

People have been enthralled and disgusted in other places food in equal measure since the first explorers. Dinner parties often have a "When I was in Thailand I ate grasshopper.” moment. Yet it swings both ways, I offered a Subway sandwich to a tuck-tuck driver in Kerala and he looked like a petrified contestant from “I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here.” - what's wrong with heavily processed meats, cheeses and bread I thought to myself. But Snake Alley isn't about food culture. It’s entertainment to tempt machismo, animals dying for a kick in a shot glass. This practice might not of offend decades ago, but for the extremely well educated and forward thinking population of Taipei in 2014 this market continues is a stain on their shining city, a remnant of years when medicine wasn't pill shaped, and they would rather it stopped.

Modern Taiwan is shedding the skin of past and looking fabulous for it, and its making great strides to encourage ethical tourism. It’s an island of health resorts and holistic retreats, with hot springs and spas that are the envy of many destinations. From the tea plantations to the bamboo forests, its a place to relax in and be at one with nature. Not chop it up to do bravado shots with your mates.

“We definitely won’t go to Huaxi Night Market.” We promised Lilly.

We’d already been there for 4 days producing a food show for Travel Channel, and had a delicious time slurping down beef noodles, made our own peanut soup with the Hakka’s, slushed up an ice monster, and mindfully sipped shabu-shabu with the monks of Fo Guang Shan. Even held our noses getting acquainted with stinking tofu, a very strange local delicacy.

Drinking snake blood was not on our to-do list.

Meeting in our hotel reception on the second to last night we all looked at each other. “So where next?”

We were staying in a beautiful hotel 5 star hotel smack in the CBD, meaning that the surrounding area after dark was a bit businessman bland. We wanted to taste the delights of Taipei served up with genuine local flavour, braver than we were the first few days now that our palettes where expecting the sour sweet combo at the base of Asian cuisine.

Confident to point our way around an menu with photos and ask to try from pots of steaming surprises, our culture shock had subsided.

“How do we get to the night market?” we enquired of our excellent english speaking concierge. “Which one would you like?” he replied. “Here we have a card, just tick the one you’d like to see, and give it to the taxi driver.”

The three of us bundled into the next ride to swing round the courtyard’s fountain.

Good chance to trying out my newly learned Taiwanese phrases. Confusion ensued. After three garbled sentences where I probably insulted his mother we quickly resorted to the card we had been handed. “The Night Market please?” not having a pen I had my thumb tapping the box we wanted to go to. Our driver looked from me, to Dan, to Ruben, 3 guys… out at 10pm in Taipei….we must be's a better idea. “Ok. Let’s go” accelerating off like his taxi had to build up enough speed to get us back to the future before the next traffic lights.

After about 10 minutes we could see the lights through the steam and smoke of the night market approaching. He stopped on the corner and on opening the door we were instantly hit by cooking smells clinging in the sticky air. Harshly lit little push carts displaying arranged compartments of mysterious sausages, piles of balls to play fish or meat roulette, buckets of seafood, and trays of freshly cooked frogs. “There” our driver with a handful of change was motioning into the distance, “down there, snake.”

“Erm, Xie.” Our slighty sarcastic thanks told him something had got lost in translation. He left. “Well we’re here now.” I said "let's see what the fuss is all about."

Snake Alley has one long covered corridor with shops either side, not stalls and is there for the tourist trap.

It's garishly bright and noisy and well past it's sell by date. A man with a microphone was shouting over his over speaker, he pointed to his tank with a very still fat and pale boa constrictor inside. “Come in for a drink”, we looked inside his almost empty restaurant. One table was occupied by a group of tourists, all were staring blankly up at the TV avoiding the menus before them.

Shop after shop of caged bunnies, big glass bottles filled with pickled pythons, buckets of turtles and of course tank after tank of sorry looking snakes.

Although some of the shops had posted up “As Seen On TV” signs most had up “No photos” signs, even the owners deciding it’s best that “Whatever happens in snake alley, stays in snake alley”.

We walked to the end not stopping, not going in any shop. We’d seen so many amazing things in Taiwan and this one had left us all feeling a bit drained and sorry, and it’s not as if we hadn’t been warned.

Sorry Lilly, at least we didn't put in any of our tourist dollars into keeping it running.

The moral of the story for you to take forward is if you see these little cards in your hotel make sure you tick the right box, and encourage hotels to take it off the tourist trail altogether. Regardless of what you see on-line, in guide books or on the shows. Don’t waste time on your precious holiday going to this part of town, there’s so many more amazing things to experience and discover, and let Taiwan show you how a holiday there can do wonders for your body, heart and soul.

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