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According to legend, traditional sky lanterns have their roots in China, where the chancellor and regent of Shu Han state used them to relay important military information during the country’s Three Kingdoms period (220 to 265 A.D.).
If that is true, the floating lanterns we know today have certainly strayed far from their original purpose.
Now, these enchanting light bearers have more cultural, traditional and spiritual associations. In Taiwan, for example, they represent blessings for the coming year. In Indonesia, they are used to commemorate Buddha’s enlightenment. And in Japan, they guide ancestral spirits back to the spirit world.
But whatever their purpose, these lanterns provide a breathtaking viewing experience for visitors, which is why these festivals in Asia are increasingly attracting travelers from all continents.
Here are five of the most spectacular festivals to visit throughout the rest of 2017 and in 2018.
Diwali, India: Oct. 19, 2017When it comes to festivals, India gives the rest of the world a run for its money.
The Hindu Festival of Lights — also known as Diwali — is proof.
Observed primarily by Hindu people in India, this autumn event is all about celebrating the triumph of light over darkness and good over evil, which is why millions gather each year to light up the whole country.
This epic, light-dappled, five-day fest may use everything from clay lamps and candles to hanging lanterns and fireworks, but the celebrations also include the release of sky lanterns to light up the night sky.
Yi Peng Festival, Thailand: Nov. 2-4, 2017Travelers from all over the world flock in the thousands to Chiang Mai, Thailand, to participate in, witness and document the revelries of the Yi Peng Festival.
Yi Peng is a celebration of the full moon in the second month of the ancient Lanna lunar calendar and coincides with the country’s famous Loi Krathong festival (where attendees make a wish and send a floating flower basket down a river, canal or pond).
It is performed for several reasons: to show reverence to Buddha, to acquire Buddhist merit and to symbolize one’s troubles floating away. During the event, participants not only release floating lanterns from the Lanna Kingdom period (1292-1775 AD); denizens also adorn their temples and houses with them, too.
Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival, Taiwan: March 2, 2018Each year, Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival rings in the start of spring in Taiwan’s pastoral district of Pingxi. The event, executed in conjunction with Yanshui’s fireworks display — an annual tradition for good health in the new year — was originally established to signal the townsfolk’s safe passage into a blessed new year.
This beautiful belief is still very much a part of the light-filled practice, which has since blossomed into a proper annual festival hosted by the Taiwan Tourism Bureau. Though the release of 1,200 lanterns is the center of the festivities, other vibrant goings-on are also on the itinerary, including folk performances and carnivals.
Vesak Day, Indonesia: May 29, 2018Buddha’s birth is one of the most important events of the Buddhist calendar, and in Indonesia, Buddhist communities commemorate the birthday with Vesak Day in May.
To celebrate, hundreds upon hundreds make the pilgrimage to Borobudur — a Mahayana Buddhist temple (the world’s largest) located in Java — bringing with them celebratory offerings.
Others come to witness the release of approximately 1,000 sky lanterns by the monks at the height of the event.
Kaga Yuzen Toro Nagashi, Japan: First weekend of June, 2018Japan has its share of floating lantern festivals. But if travelers want to mix things up, they can choose to celebrate Kaga Yuzen Toro Nagashi, which incorporates “flowing lanterns.”
The festival is a little different from most sky-lantern festivals. Instead of lanterns suspended in air, these lit, square paper lanterns float on the Asano River in the city of Kanazawa, located on Japan’s north-central coast. They’re meant to light up the spirits’ path as they make the journey to the afterlife.
The sacred fest is held on the first Saturday in June.
Here’s your guide to experiencing another one of Taiwan’s annual lantern festivals.