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Festival Fever

I’m one of those people who loves festivals. When I lived in the States, I tried my hand

at the Rock, Paper, Scissors International World Championships; let my husband carry

me upside down through an obstacle course at the Wife Carrying Championships; stood

in a pit of vipers at the Rattlesnake Roundup; got booed off the stage at the Air Guitar

Championships (I was terrible!) and stood in awe as giant gourds were hurled across the sky at the Punkin’ Chunkin’ World Championships. I get a kick out of meeting people who celebrate things that nobody else would even think to… well… to celebrate.

In Asia, I find festivals all the more fun because they are a window into the various cultures and beliefs across the region. Understanding the religious significance of a festival such as Thaipusam here in Singapore is downright fascinating to me.

A few years ago, we spent our Valentine’s weekend in Taiwan at the Pingxi Lantern Festival, listed by Fodor’s as one of the top festivals in the world. To get there, we flew into Taiwan and took a gorgeous, short train ride through the Taiwanese hills to the Pingxi District. By the way, it’s important to know that the main festivities happen in a town called Shifen, not the town of Pingxi. Also, there is another, bigger lantern festival in Taiwan at the same time every year, but the location of that one always moves, so it’s hard to plan. Plus, it’s not quite as quaint and authentic as this one.

Once off the train, we elbowed our way through the thick crowd in Shifen, seeing no other Western faces. The main street was lined with vendors selling unknown street food, roast pigs, trinkets galore, and lots and lots of folded-up lanterns stacked in neat, colorful piles. Each color of the lantern represents something different. For example, red represents good fortune, and orange is for money. The red lantern we chose was then hung on a rack of sorts so we could paint all the sides using giant Chinese calligraphy brushes and black ink. The idea is to paint it with your dreams and hopes for the coming year. My young children loved it, but they ended up more painted than the lantern.

Launching a lantern in Shifen feels a bit daring because you have to stand smack dab

in the middle of the train tracks to do it. Every now and then, an alarm sounded, and

everybody moved back to the edges so the train could whiz by, clearing the sidewalk a mere two feet on either side. When the train was gone, the festival would spill back onto the tracks, nobody the least bit ruffled by the disturbance.

To launch our lantern, the vendor loaded our paper masterpiece with something to burn (perhaps paper?) and lit it while we all held a corner. We made our wishes and then let the lantern go, watching our glowing artwork rise higher and higher into the air, carrying with it our dreams for the coming year. Launching a lantern is a lovely, symbolic gesture, something my kids still say is a highlight of our travel in Asia. Somehow watching a lantern disappear over the horizon feels incredibly spiritual. I still remember the total joy on the faces of a local elderly couple as their lantern took off. Lanterns aren’t necessarily good for the environment, but somehow, they’re good for the soul.

The day ended with a mass launch in the evening. In fact, so many people crowd the streets every year, even in the pouring rain, that they hold several mass launches throughout the night. Sadly, we were soaking wet from the rain, and our kids were tired, so we missed the big finish, something I still regret to this day. Oh well – it’s just another reason to go back to the beautiful country of Taiwan and the magical lantern festival.

Come back next week for a list of not-to-miss festivals!

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