Michelle Barrera visited Ping Tung in Taiwan to see its most colourful festival.
The Taiwan Lantern Festival is the second most important festival in the country after Chinese Lunar New Year. For a week and a half, on the 15th day of the Lunar New Year, lanterns of all sizes and shapes are lit around the island to celebrate traditional folklore and the end of Chinese New Year; and 23 million Taiwanese gather to light hopes, wishes, and prayers.
Arriving in Taipei one cool February morning, we immediately headed to the the south of Taiwan. Here we checked into the beautiful East Cube B&B. It’s a boutique hotel with the kind of extensive pinewood finishing that makes you feel cozy and comfortable. Its unique industrial design exudes a modern flare yet it complements the host’s warm welcome and the down-to-earth hospitality of this farming county.
But we were in this part of the country for a specific reason other than to critique hotels, as we’d flown all the way over to see the lantern festival of Ping Tung. This is a major event here with massive crowds always expected. To get a better view of the lanterns, we headed to the festival grounds as soon as we’d settled down, as it was the eve of its official opening, so we could inspect the lanterns in peace.
FESTIVALS IN PING TUNG
The county holds nine festivals every year, each designed to reflect cultural and natural diversity, and Ping Tung is home to old and new immigrants, as well as to the Austronesian tribes and Aboriginal tribes. The origins of the Aborigine in Taiwan have been traced back as far as Madagascar; and many of these can be found around the southern region and Ping Tung.
Meanwhile, the lanterns illuminate the festival and also educate visitors on the history and culture of Ping Tung, a city known for tuna and diverse agricultural produce.
This time, instead of the traditional practice of creating a main lantern to represent the Chinese zodiac symbol for the year, Ping Tung decided to honor the tuna, their most prized commodity. However, the pig zodiac, which is a symbol for peace and good harvest, was a common theme throughout the festival’s displays.
To minimize waste after the festival, the main lantern was turned into a permanent display symbolizing the wealth of the region. Other lanterns were claimed for theme parks, while a few were allotted for international exchanges with foreign cities. The small lanterns, typically discarded after the festival, were turned into piggy banks for the locals.
LIGHTING THE WAY
The designs enthralled us immediately, especially as most of the lantern designers had incorporated their philosophies into their works. To raise awareness for marine environment, for example, one lantern featured elements from the sea. This changed color when touched. Another lantern featured a collection of 300,000 oyster shells to remind visitors about the need to recycle and to use non-toxic materials in daily life.
All the materials used were recyclable; and, unlike in previous years, these lanterns were made from sugarcane fiber. Solar power also illuminated the lanterns from within. To minimize the environmental impacts, the organizers also did away with the usual fireworks; instead an impressive drone light show captivated visitors, its beautiful illuminations reflecting Taiwan’s history and culture.
Of course, food is a big part of any festival, and especially a Taiwanese one. For the duration of the lantern festival, 19 restaurants and outlets created unique menus to promote Ping Tung delicacies and popular dishes like stinky tofu and oyster omelette.
SWEET SURPRISE AT FUWAN CHOCOLATE
Like children being torn away from Disneyland, we left Ping Tung giddy from exploring a wonderland of lanterns for two days. Our next stop was the FuWan Chocolate, a highly-acclaimed chocolate factory that has won awards in the United Kingdom for making the best chocolate in the world. The close proximity of the cacao plantation to the factory ensures minimal interference in processing the richly-flavored chocolate.
While touring the factory, I had to use all my will power to prevent myself from diving into the vats of warm churning chocolate. Fortunately my sensibility prevailed, enabling me to make it to the next and most interesting stage of the chocolate factory tour.
We tried fresh cacao and literally tasted its transformation into delightful bars of goodness through each stage of processing; how the cacao transforms from a fresh and fruity flavor into its fermented form, and then finally into its delightfully addictive chocolate flavor, is magic in itself. The best part was saved for last. We left the factory with our own little box of chocolates that we’d created ourselves at the beginning of the tour.
HAPPILY EVER AFTER
There was no better place to end the day than at the fairytale property of the Flower Home in Zhuolan. This floral paradise called to my feminine side with its spa and collection of homemade oils and products. It was an aromatic and colorful feast for the senses.
We strolled through lavender fields before a flower-full breakfast the next morning. This was as amazing as any breakfast with flowers can be. I was very impressed. The icing on the cake was the rose tea made in front of us by the Flower Home owner himself.
\All too soon, we were back in the bus for the long drive to Taipei for a bit of city living at the end of our trip. Taipei is noisy and busy but also full of excitement. We could not wait to hit the streets.
TRENDY HOTEL IN TAIPEI
Our home in Taiwan was the hip and modern Amba Taipei Ximending. It was sleek and sophisticated but also full of fun details like funky free slippers and colourful elevators. Travelers with a sense of design and playfulness will love this hotel .
Settling in as quickly as we could, we then set off on an evening stroll through Taipei’s lantern festival installations. We followed a route along old shophouses that eventually led us to Mala Hot Pot for a final feast of Taiwanese comfort food.
After dinner, we had to finding our way back home. Already we imagined a herculean task before us. Fortunately, going back to the hotel was easier than expected because of its central location.
And with this trip, I ticked of another WanderList Adventure from my bucketlist. I can’t wait to see how the Taiwan Lantern Festival evolves further. Maybe I will have to revisit it again in a few years.