One of the best-lit alleys in Taipei’s Hwahsi Street night market // © Skye Mayring 2010
Our curiosity got the best of us. My travel companions and I heard rumors about the Hwahsi Street night market in Taipei, Taiwan, and its most unsavory section, Snake Alley, where cameras are shunned in haste. Naturally, we had to make some free time in our schedules to find out what all the chatter was about.
A myriad of smells — from omelets frying to peanuts roasting — wafted by as soon as we emerged from the cab. Vendors lined the streets with kiosks and folding tables heaping with clothes, purses, small bags of Betel nuts (palm tree seeds, used as a recreational stimulant), trinkets and household items as random as glue guns. Carnival-like games beeped and flashed at us as we wandered toward a shooting booth outfitted with targets and pellet guns. It was all intriguing, don’t get me wrong, but I couldn’t be certain that we had been dropped off at the right place. Where were the snakes?
A few minutes later, we stumbled upon an alleyway of restaurants and shops. A rabbit, a chicken and an aquarium chock-full of mice caught my eye and drew us near a rather conspicuous establishment — but this was no pet shop. It was one of Snake Alley’s infamous restaurants, serving up snake soup and even wine mixed with serpent blood. Some other unusual drinks were on display (one I guessed was likely a shot of snake venom), but the restaurant owner quickly snatched them out of sight when he noticed the cameras slung around our necks. As if the fare and libations weren’t startling enough, we were in awe of the three albino boa constrictors fronting the restaurant. Two of them must have been at least 12-feet long, each with bellies swelling up to 10-inches in diameter.
We had heard that, at certain times, visitors can witness snakes getting skinned and chopped up for salty soups or to become part of other regional dishes, but we didn’t see that actually taking place. It was a cold weeknight and, evidently, the “shows” occur on warm weekends, when the crowds are out in full capacity.
I asked a local why people would be interested in eating snake soup or drinking the reptile’s blood — to me, it sounded like a dare fit for “Fear Factor.”
She replied, “In Taiwan, everything we eat is for a purpose. Turtles are good to eat in the winter, to keep you warm, and snakes are good to eat throughout the year, to help clear your mind.”
Sometimes the most eye-opening encounters happen off your preset travel itinerary, at least that’s what we agreed upon after our spontaneous night out in Taipei.