An unexpected trip to Taiwan
The Taipei Lantern Festival is something I’ve wanted to see ever since Louise was lucky enough to go 5 years ago. She was studying abroad in Hong Kong, and a group of her classmates all made the short trip over to Taiwan during Chinese New Year. Unfortunately, I was still studying in England at the time and had to make do with watching the videos enviously from my dorm room.
Needless to say, it’d been lurking near the top of my bucketlist from that day forward.
Fast forward 5 years, and Louise and I were just days from setting off on a trip to Bali to teach at the Institute of code, with a short (6 hour) layover in Taiwan. Just out of curiosity, we decided to look up the Pingxi lantern festival dates for this year, and shockingly *glass drops from hand and smashes on the floor* it seemed that we were landing in Taipei just one day beforehand!
There was no way I was passing up a chance to see the lanterns, so we decided to extend our layover for a couple of days and finally check the Pingxi Lantern Festival off my bucketlist.
The Pingxi Lantern Festival
The history of the Pingxi Lantern Festival
As with many Chinese festivals, the Pingxi Lantern festival is steeped with ancient myth and legend.
One legends says that the tradition started around 2000 years ago during the Han dynasty. During that period, certain servants of the emperor were never allowed to leave the royal compound to see their families.
In order to allow the servants to see their families, a minister came up with a brilliant solution to give all the servants one night per year to see their families. He said that the God of heaven was angry and would burn the city down unless lanterns lined the streets on his birthday each year. In order to achieve that, the servants were sent out on one night each year to hang the lanterns and were able to sneak away to see their families in the process!
I’m not sure anybody knows if that’s the real reason or not, but I like this version of the story.
So for the past two thousand years, people have been lighting lanterns for good luck, and now it was our turn to be a part of it!
The Pingxi Festival today
Every year, tens of thousands of visitors descend upon the sleepy mountain towns of Pingxi and Shifen to decorate paper lanterns with their wishes for the following year and release them into the sky as a group. And I don’t mean a small group; I mean hundreds at the same time, like a gigantic slow motion firework.
It’s truly breathtaking, and it’s a tradition that transcends any language or cultural barrier. Whether you’re a local or a tourist, everyone is welcomed and encouraged to participate and send off their own lanterns and wishes for the coming year.
When is the Pingxi Lantern Festival held?
The Pingxi Lantern Festival is held on the 15th day of the first lunar Month each year. The festival is held on the first full moon and marks the culmination of the New Year festivities. In 2020, it will be held on Tuesday Feb 19th (it changes each year), however there are also major lantern releases on the preceding Saturday.
How the day unfolds
Throughout the day, thousands of tourists descend upon Pingxi, with the crowds peaking at sunset in anticipation of the lantern releases.
Starting from around 6pm (sunset), waves of hundreds of lanterns are released every 45 minutes or so. These lanterns are released from the official enclosed ‘event’ area, which is at the Pingxi municipal high school. To be part of one of the major, televised official releases, you need to get a ticket from the event ground in advance.
Here’s all you need to know about getting tickets for the lantern festival:
Getting tickets for the Pingxi Lantern Festival
- It’s not necessary (and probably not possible) to get tickets online or prior to the day of the event. The only way for us plebs to get tickets is to physically go Pingxi in the morning and get one. Ticket booths open from approx 9am and it’s first come, first served. We arrived around 11am and around half of the time slots (the earlier slots) were already filled.
- The event takes place at the school in Pingxi village (may vary from year to year), towards the far end of town (opposite end from where the buses drop you). The ticket marquee was on the street, right by the entrance to the venue. It’s hard to miss.
- Tickets are completely free with no strings attached, and absolutely anyone can get one. Each ticket gives you access to the school grounds (where the release takes place) at your specific time slot, and a lantern. The lantern is waiting for you later once you’ve been funnelled into your position at the school. The ticket tells you how early you need to be in line.
- Different time slots have different coloured lanterns. In Chinese culture, different colours mean different things. For example, red means you’re wishing for good fortune, white for health, orange for money etc.
- Lanterns are released in Shifen and Pingxi, although the official festival is in Pingxi. Some people like Shifen because it’s busier and a bigger town, but the main event is officially in Pingxi. That’s where we went.
- There’s no limit to how many releases you can be a part of (although it would be impossible to do two back to back releases as one group is releasing lanterns as the next group is being briefed – more on that later).
- Each person can have up to 4 tickets per release (only 4 people per lantern), so if your group is bigger, expect to need two lanterns.
- As you can’t really get the tickets in advance, it’s fair to assume that you’ll need to spend the entire day in the area. The alternative is foregoing getting tickets, turning up later and just watching with the crowds in the viewing area. Still an awesome experience with far less planning needed.
- The festival goes ahead regardless of the weather so pack some wet weather gear. We had to stand out in the rain for hours, so come prepared for that
What if I don’t manage to get a ticket for the official lantern release?
Not to worry! Just being in Pingxi is pretty magical, and you can still observe the lantern releases for free, even if you don’t have a ticket.
Lanterns are also released throughout the day in Pingxi, and anyone is able to buy a lantern and set it off by themselves at any time. You can purchase lanterns pretty inexpensively in a variety of different colours from virtually all the gift shops in the town.
Eating in Pingxi
Assuming you arrived in the morning to get your tickets, you’ve now got half a dozen hours to kill before the events start.
As Pingxi is normally a sleepy mountain town, there isn’t a great deal to do there aside from eat and walk around the various souvenir shops. Fortunately, Pingxi is a foodie’s paradise and you can spend the next few hours gorging yourself on various local delicacies.
Here are some of our favourites:
Our advice is to get something small from a dozen different stalls to fully appreciate all they have to offer. Here are a few things we recommend:
- Taiwanese Beef Stew
- Squid on a stick
- Taiwanese fried chicken (try it with all the toppings)
- Taiwanese style hot dog (with a bun made of rice) – there was a line down the street for a couple of these restaurants.
- Ice cream crepes with shaved peanuts and cilantro (sounds like a weird combo but it’s actually incredible)
There are dozens of other things to try, but those were our favourites. Have a light breakfast and bring lots of cash to make the most of it!
Killing time before the festival
It’s fair to say that you’ll probably run out of things to eat well before the festival begins, so getting the train to Shifen is a good option for killing time. Alternatively, if you’re feeling exhausted like we were (we’d arrived on the red eye the night before), you could head back to your hotel for a bit of a rest.
We had so much time to kill that that’s exactly what we decided to do in the end.
How the lantern festival works
We arrived back in Pingxi after our nap, just as the first batch of lanterns was heading off into the sky. We could barely contain our excitement and took off at a trot towards the event ground as soon as we saw them.
Having already eaten plenty already and being close to our allotted line-up time, we headed straight to the outdoor waiting area at the school.
Once we were inside, we were herded into our group’s line, and waited patiently in the rain. Slowly the line shuffles towards the school building, where you’ll see the group in front of you arranging themselves into lines and being briefed.
There are lots of people standing in different areas, and you kind of have to have your wits about you to figure out where you need to be at any given time.
When it was finally our group’s turn to be briefed, one of the guards lifted the barrier and we all stampeded into the building. The first line puts you right at the front of the lantern release party, right next to the tv crews and an enormous paper lantern being decorated by celebrities. The last line (furthest from the door puts you right at the back of the field). How early you’re in the queue is probably going to determine how far down the field you end up being (if that matters to you).
Once we were in line, we were briefed briefly in Mandarin. It’s pretty obvious what’s being said and what you have to do once you’re out in the arena.
Releasing the lanterns
Before we knew it, we were being marched out onto the sports field and were assigned a lantern and an assistant.
Our assistant quickly thrust a pen into each of our hands so that we could both write our wishes for the coming year. It was a pretty big lantern, so part of me wishes I’d come prepared with a list!
Next we had to pin the lantern down with our feet as our assistant lit it. We waited for a couple of minutes while the presenter finished her spiel, not really understanding a word, then all of a sudden, the music was cranked, the lights dimmed and we were given the nod to let go of our lantern!
Suddenly the sky was filled with a hundred beautiful paper lanterns, all floating off in unison. Even in the pouring rain, it was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever experienced and I can confidently say that it was well worth the effort to get there!
Getting to the Pingxi Lantern Festival
Ok now for the potentially complicated bit: getting to Pingxi! Here’s where you’re headed on Google Maps
As we mentioned, Pingxi is a sleepy little mountain town, and is quite a long way from the metropolis of Taipei. It takes a little figuring out and advanced planning. Here’s how you can get there:
On the day of the event, the main road into Pingxi is closed to traffic, and you can only drive as far as Shifen. We’d rented a car and were staying in Keelung (the biggest city nearby), but decided that driving the car was going to be much too much hassle. In hindsight, driving to Shifen and then taking the train to Pingxi would probably have been quite straightforward.
Is driving easy in Taiwan?
On a side note, driving in Taiwan was exceptionally easy and straightforward. Traffic isn’t bad and the roads are in great condition. The only thing that is complicated is reading signs and map reading. Google maps does a great job, but sometimes following instructions in real life can be tough. We consider ourselves competent, confident drivers and it was a breeze. They drive on the right hand side and you can’t turn right on a red light.
The next solution is to drive to Ruifang and take the train to Pingxi or Shifen. The train leaves every hour and takes you directly into Pingxi station, right in the heart of Pingxi. This is probably the most straightforward option, but we weren’t sure how late the trains would run in the evening so decided to opt for the third option; taking the bus.
Trains also go from Taipei if you’re coming from further afield, and you might have to change in Ruifang.
Shuttle Bus from Ruifang
This was the option we decided to take, and it was pretty straightforward once we’d figured out how to park in Ruifang (which was a nightmare). There’s a cheap shuttle bus that takes you for $30NT (about $1USD) that includes a free return ride back to Ruifang later. Cash only, no change.
It drops you right on the outskirts of Pingxi, and you have to walk 5 minutes down the road until you reach it. It’s very easy and straightforward. Follow the floating lanterns and you can’t go wrong.
As we mentioned, parking in Ruifang is a complete shit show. There’s almost no parking so if you can figure it out with public transport then we highly recommend it. We managed to find a public car park near the fire station and then left our car there the entire day.
The car park machine only took coins, which meant I had to run to 7/11 at midnight, in the rain, to break a bank note and free our car.
Where to stay
There aren’t too many options near Pingxi, so we recommend staying in either Keelung or Juifen. Juifen is a small mountain town with a few guest houses, Keelung is a small city with several decent hotel options.
We stayed in Keelung in the Evergreen Laurel Hotel. It feels a little dated but was pretty comfortable and seemed to be the only major hotel chain in the area. The breakfast was very good and had plenty of continental and Asian breakfast options (even siu mai!.