Not even a torrential downpour leaving you looking like a drowned rat in a plastic bag could take away the majesty of watching hundreds of lanterns floating up into the sky, carrying people’s wishes and aspirations with them.
But we’re skipping ahead.
The first thing you need to decide when going to a lantern festival is which one to attend. There are several lantern festivals held every Chinese New Year across Taiwan. Held mainly on the 15th day of the first month of the lunar calendar, each festival has its own beauty and quirks.
The small town of Pingxi, just outside Taipei, has made a name for itself with its annual sky lantern festival. Nestled on either side of a railway track, the quaint village, surrounded by picturesque mountains and waterfalls, becomes the launching pad for thousands of lanterns floating up into the night sky.
It’s said the Pingxi lanterns were supposedly a way for people to notify each other in case of theft or to let others know that the town was safe. These days, they carry the carefully written wishes of their senders up to the heavens.
While you can get a master to show you how to create one of the traditional lanterns – it’s much harder than it looks – there are plenty of places to buy one, with shop owners to help you write out your wish in traditional Chinese.
It takes two people to hold the three foot-high lantern as a third person lights the gas soaked papers at its core, with the flames creating the hot air necessary to lift the lantern into the sky.
Walking through the streets of Pingxi, you constantly see lanterns drifting upwards. Their journeys don’t always go according to plan. Sometimes the lanterns burn up before they get much height or a gust of strong wind will toss them into a nearby tree, but the vast majority seem to successfully make the journey despite the torrential rain.
When you aren’t looking at lanterns, there’s always the market, crammed full of trinkets, mini lantern gifts and a vast variety of food.
As night falls, the main attraction is the the central square, where a thousand lanterns are released every 20 minutes. It’s a sight worth getting soaked for. As this year’s festival happened to fall on Valentine’s Day, there were some heart-shaped lanterns taking flight.
If you prefer your lanterns more stationary, then perhaps the Taiwan Lantern Festival is the place for you.
Attracting more than a million visitors each year, this annual festival (now 25 years old) was held in Zhongxing New Village in Nantou Country this year. The main attraction was a 23 metre high, 45 000kg horse lantern created in honour of the Chinese Year of the Horse. Lit up with over 200 000 LEDs and surrounded by a variety of supporting lanterns and lights, it was a dazzling feast for the eyes.
Expect to see a large variety of lanterns in every shape and size imaginable, from smaller lanterns dangling from trees to Spongebob Squarepants and even a Minion from the Despicable Me franchise making an appearance.
The Taiwanese love their food and, as at Pingxi, you can find a wide assortment of delicacies to tease your taste buds.
The fried octopus on a stick might seem like something out of the Alien movies, but it’s worth the try. If you’re not sure about the fried part, head over to the grilled octopus stand – it’s just as good, but with a little less cholesterol. From dumplings to buns there’s food for all taste buds – even Chip ‘n Dip for those not inclined to be adventurous. For something sweet, look out for the glazed fruit balls on a stick.
If you’re lucky to find a spot to sit down, well done, but if not, eating and walking is the best option as you navigate the crowds.