This article was published in en Voyage, EVA Air’s inflight magazine in 2015.
In late February and early March, cities and towns across Taiwan will be bathed in light and color as the nation celebrates lantern festival. Two of this year’s brightest and most beautiful celebrations will take place in Taipei and the central city of Taichung.
In Taiwan, lantern festival is one of the most important events of the year. It falls on the fifteenth day of the first month of the Chinese lunar calendar – March 5 this year – and it marks the end of the Chinese New Year holiday period.
Traditionally, lanterns were large, red spheres, and while you still see these old-fashioned designs around – especially in temple courtyards – modern lanterns come in all shapes and sizes. The larger display areas around the country almost always feature a huge lantern in the shape of that year’s Chinese zodiac animal – a goat in 2015 – while other designs portray anything from cartoon characters to fire-breathing dragons. This is an occasion which, although it might be best appreciated by young families, everyone can enjoy.
This being Taiwan, no celebration would be complete without food, and at the country’s lantern festival display areas, you’ll find dozens of vendors selling the island’s tastiest treats. Look out for tang yuan, a traditional lantern festival snack of pink and white rice dumplings served in a sweet soup.
Taipei is one of the best places to enjoy this colorful celebration, as lanterns are placed throughout the city. The largest and brightest display areas are at the Taipei Expo Park near Yuanshan MRT Station and at the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall. Both displays are truly spectacular and every year, organizers try to add some new element to the festivities to keep the public entertained. The result is a pair of massive events with laser shows, music, tunnels of light and thousands of lanterns.
The Expo Park is a huge area, and the displays here are split into distinctive, themed areas showcasing historical, international and artistic lanterns. There are also areas featuring lanterns made by local students and places where you can engage in the traditional practice of writing your hopes and wishes for the future on lanterns.
While the display at the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall may be a little smaller, it’s still incredibly impressive. The imposing, white marble memorial hall provides an amazing backdrop to the twinkling lights of the square’s lanterns.
Every year, one city is selected to host Taiwan’s national lantern festival celebrations, and in 2015, that honor has fallen to the central city of Taichung. The festivities are set to commence on February 27 and continue until March 15. The main display will be conveniently situated by the Taichung High Speed Rail Station. You can get on a high speed train in Taipei and be at the station in less than 50 minutes, and the journey is well worth it. National lantern festival celebrations in Taiwan are bustling, over-the-top celebrations of light, sound and of course, food.
If you’re already in the city center, you could also head down to Taichung Park as it will host a separate display area over the course of the holiday period.
There are a few places in Taiwan where Lantern Festival is celebrated a little differently. Two of the most spectacular events are held in the southeastern city of Taitung and Yenshuei, Tainan County in the southwest, and both sets of festivities involve thousands upon thousands of firecrackers.
Taitung – The Bombing of Master Han Dan
Nothing can prepare you for this event. It can go on for around an hour, and in almost every second of that time, scores of firecrackers explode, filling the evening with light and deafening noise. What’s truly amazing about this spectacle is that each one of those firecrackers is thrown at a man wearing nothing but a pair of red shorts. Get close enough to him as he’s carried on a chariot around Taitung’s main public square, and you’ll actually feel the still-smoking casings of the spent firecrackers falling on your shoulders and head. It’s not an experience for the faint-hearted, but the good news is that you can still get a good view of the action from the edges of what is generally a bustling crowd.
The reason for this apparent madness is that the men are dressed as Han Dan, a Taoist god of wealth who hates the cold. To curry the god’s favor – and keep him warm – businesses and individuals will spend huge sums buying firecrackers for this incredible evening.
Yanshui – Beehive Rocket Festival
This is one for the thrill-seekers because in Yanshui, the firecrackers aren’t lit and then run away from, or even thrown around. Instead, over the course of the lantern festival evening, hundreds of thousands of these little explosives are shot directly into the crowds of festivalgoers.
Depending on your personality, being there is either exhilarating or terrifying, and if you can fight your way to the front of the crowd, the adrenaline rush you’ll get as firecrackers whizz past or smack into your body is amazing. No matter where you stand, you’re never completely safe as volleys of these fireworks sometimes come raining down from above.
This is not an event to take children to, and anyone who does go should stay safe and cover themselves completely with thick clothing, gloves and a motorbike helmet with full-face protection.