Unexpected Delights: Taiwan by train and railway bentos

This is the train route we took around the entire island of Taiwan!

This is the second post in my Unexpected Delights series, highlighting how delightful it is to travel around Taiwan by train and enjoy delicious railway bentos along the way. I include resources at the end for planning Taiwan train and bento adventures. 

In the summer of 2023 my family and I circumnavigated the entire island of Taiwan by train. On my previous trips I mostly stuck to the northeast part of the island where my family lives. This time, I was determined to get out and explore more of the country. We loved riding both regular trains and high speed trains because the Taiwan rail network is extensive, safe, clean, comfortable, affordable, reliable and efficient. Even the bathrooms are clean. Workers sporting uniforms that proclaim “Sparkle the World” come through the aisles regularly to pick up trash. Train stations are easy to get to by bus or taxi, well-staffed, and have lots of seats, good food and fun shops. 

Hualien train station: spacious, chill, fun cute bird sculptures and beautiful lush and misty mountains.
Workers wearing a uniform that proclaims "Sparkle the World"
This worker is Sparkling the World!

The railways were built with Taiwanese labor during the Japanese colonial era starting in the 1890s to transport plundered resources and commercial crops such as lumber, coal, gold, camphor, tea, rice and sugar for export and profit in Japan. Railway is still a very common way for people to travel in Taiwan, with more than half a million people still riding the system every day. 

Bentos (便當, biàndang, literally meaning “convenient”) are boxed meals that typically include an array of proteins, vegetables and side dishes served over steamed rice. Bentos started out in Japan in the 1880s as simple rice balls filled with pickled radish sold at train stations, and came to Taiwan in the 1890s along with colonial railway projects. They stuck around after Japanese colonial rule ended in 1945. Taiwan Railways began making and selling their own bentos in the 1960s. Taiwanese bentos are different from their Japanese counterparts; they tend to be packed with generous amounts of food layered into a container and include distinctly Taiwanese ingredients, such as tea eggs, fatty sausages, mustard greens and braised tofu. You can get bentos in street stalls and restaurants all around Taiwan at very affordable prices (around US $3). Bentos are one of my favorite ways to get a complete meal as a solo traveler. 

The Taiwan Railway bentos were an amazing value at 80 Taiwan dollars (US $2.50) and among the most delicious bentos I’ve had anywhere. Even better was the fact that I could pre-order a vegetarian or pork bento with my train tickets on my phone using the Taiwan Railways app. I then got a QR code on my phone which I scanned to get on the train. The bento was delivered fresh and hot directly to my seat by friendly train staff.  

The vegetarian bento delivered to my seat on the train from Tainan to Taipei.

You can also purchase bentos at the train station, where they often have additional options, such as chicken, fish and squid (!) along with limited edition special bentos, such as supercute train-shaped bento boxes. Nowadays the bentos are served in paper boxes, which are great for composting. Previously bentos were sold in wooden and tin boxes of various shapes, as shown in the display below at the Xinbeitou Historic Station

Each vegetarian bento I got was different, depending on the station I departed from. My favorite was the bento from Taitung, in the South East of the island. It had five different veggie dishes with greens, mushrooms, cabbage, carrots, turnips and beans, along with two different types of deliciously braised tofu, all layered over a perfectly cooked bed of medium-grain rice and (surprise!) a very interesting and tasty hibiscus flower in the center. I especially love these bentos because they have such unexpected delights. Yummy!

Resources for Taiwan train travel and bentos:

  • Detailed instructions on how to buy Taiwan Railway tickets (regular train, not high speed train) from Nick Kembel. 
  • Pre-purchase regular train tickets 28-30 days in advance (recommended, especially if you want to get a seat during busy travel times) on the Taiwan Railways website in English or using the Taiwan Railways app: for iOS or Android. The app is a bit difficult to use and mostly in Chinese; you can change the language to English in the settings menu. 
  • To order a bento with your Taiwan Railway tickets online or in the app, under “Order lunchbox”, click on the pork ribs or vegetarian option under your ticket order before payment. Not all trains offer bentos. Trains that travel during lunch or dinner hours are more likely to have bento options. 
  • Pre-purchase high speed rail tickets 29 days in advance online on the Taiwan High Speed Rail website or using the T Express app for iOS or Android
  • Bentos are sold at the high speed rail stations and onboard.

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