On the last (15th) day of the Chinese New Year celebrations, I went to the Taiwan Lantern Festival in Pingxi. This festival is rated as the #2 festival in the world by the Discovery Channel right alongside better known worldwide festivals like Carnevale in Rio and Oktoberfest in Munich. It’s also been recognized by Fodor’s and CNN Travel as “must do in your lifetime” festivals. After experiencing it now firsthand, I will resolutely say that this festival should be on everyone’s bucket lists if it isn’t already.
The purpose of the lanterns is to attract the good spirits and signal that all the evil spirits have been cleared away as a result of the Lunar New Year. People write their wishes for the upcoming year on the lanterns, and release them to the heavens to get the Gods’ (plural) attention. The lanterns also symbolize carrying away their past selves in order to clear way for their present and future selves.
I am all about that.
The main event was held in Shifen Lantern Square in Pingxi, where they released the “official” lanterns 8 different times over the course of the evening. To participate in the Square, you have to purchase a spot several months in advance. But alternatively, you are able to purchase what I suppose could be referred to as knock off lanterns from stall vendors on the side of the road leading to the square. That’s what my friends and I did, as well as most of the other thousands of people attending the festival that also hadn’t reserved a fancy spot in the square.
The “Lantern Line”
Even though it was nice to be able to participate (having not known about needing to purchase participation in the main lantern release in advance), I have to admit that the main event in Shifen Square was definitely the most magical part of the festival. The roadside vendors lacked the communal essence of the group.
I have to mention that the festival was quite crowded, far beyond what I would’ve anticipated. At one point, I was so squished, both of my feet actually came off the floor.
Luckily, crowds aren’t a cause of anxiety for me (surprisingly!), so I was quite alright in the madness. I also want to make a point to say that even if it was a problem for me, I still wouldn’t have wanted to miss this absolutely amazing festival.
You don’t have to visit Pingxi during the Lantern Festival, either, as they sell lanterns year-round to release to the heavens. The most famous spot in Pingxi to do just that is right on the train tracks that run through Old Town – something that anywhere else might be considered dangerous. But not to worry, all of the vendors know the train schedule well and will ensure you move out of the way when the time comes and a train is approaching.
If you’re there for the Festival, it’s worth taking a stroll down to see the Old Town also. It’s a picturesque misty mountain town, and there’s lots of street vendors selling Taiwanese street food staples like xiao long bao, beef noodles, caramelized strawberries and tomatoes, stinky tofu and bubble tea.
I know these photos aren’t my best. Unfortunately my “good” camera wasn’t cooperating at all, and my phone has never been good at taking scenic photos at night. It was definitely disappointing to have my camera crap out on me while I was at a once in a lifetime festival but I did the best I could, which is all we can do in life, right?!
Pingxi is located in Eastern Taiwan, about an hour from Taipei (time depends on form on transport). For the festival, there was a shuttle bus from the Taipei Zoo going directly to Pingxi. The ride only took 45 minutes and was quite scenic while winding through mist-shrouded hills. It also only cost NT$60 (approx $1.80 USD). I was impressed by how many buses were available, and seemingly everyone had a seat and didn’t have to stand for the journey. Clearly preparations for the festival had been underway far in advance and it showed. Given my convention management background, preparations this well don’t go unnoticed by me :)