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It was a nippy 45 degrees, but that didn’t stop more than 13 million locals and tourists from descending on Western Taiwan’s Yunlin County for the country’s annual lantern festival, which ran from Feb. 11-19 this year.
They, like me, were on a mission: to brave the chill — and the crowds — in exchange for a lightshow of epic proportions.
New Year’s lantern festivals have been deeply rooted in tradition for centuries, dating back as early as the Qin dynasty (221-207 B.C.). On the 15th day of the first lunar month, Taiwanese households gather in the streets for a night of celebration, and families travel to nearby temples to view intricate lantern displays.
These smaller fests still exist throughout Taiwan — I attended one earlier that day in Beigang Township, where locals filled the lantern-filled streets to enjoy parade floats, fireworks and gift-giving.
But, as the sun set, I was prepared for an even flashier display.
The brainchild of the Taiwan Tourism Bureau, the much larger, countrywide festival provides a fresh take on the cultural ritual. Since its start in 1990, the event has been credited with enhancing large-scale tourism in Taiwan by providing a platform for visitors and locals to convene in one place.
And convene they did. Joining the crowd at the festival’s entrance was slightly overwhelming, but after I gathered my bearings (and acquired a map), I could see that the grounds were smartly organized to accommodate the crowds.
So, I wrapped a fleece poncho around my shoulders and set off to explore. In addition to a tunnel of glowing orbs and traditional lanterns were pods of LED flowers and more rooster replicas than I could count (2017 marks the Year of the Rooster in the 12-year zodiac cycle). Taiwanese street-food vendors, musical performers and costumed dancers were dispersed among the crowd.
“It’s almost an overload for the senses,” said festival attendee Mark Grundy, managing director for Avanti Destinations (Avanti debuted its first Taiwan itineraries late last year). “It definitely gives you an authentic sense of the wonderful Taiwanese people.”
The festival’s location changes each year, but organizers do their due diligence in paying homage to the host county. This year featured several hand-made lanterns from the surrounding community and highlighted three themes: “friendliness to the Earth,” “cultural diversity” and “indigenous Yunlin.”
Grundy suggests that advisors plan a client’s trip well in advance — up to six months to one year before the new year — as the event is wildly popular with locals. If clients are already in Taiwan’s capital of Taipei, visiting is quite easy with the island’s high-speed rail line.
Another pro tip? Don’t brave the crowds alone.
“Having a private guide with clients is essential,” Grundy said, noting that all of Avanti’s Asia vacations include the services of a guide.
Although I didn’t travel with Avanti, my group’s guide, Henry, did prove to be an invaluable resource. He directed us to various lanterns to explain their cultural significance. And, more importantly, he led us to our viewing area in time for the opening ceremony, where Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, was an honored guest.
From my vantage point, I couldn’t help but admire the festival’s main lantern — a giant phoenix with outspread wings standing on top of a mountain — which remained dim throughout the president’s remarks. The detail with which it was created shows great respect for an age-old craft, but, as we were told later, its outspread wings symbolize the start of a new era for Taiwan.
As the ceremony closed and the phoenix lit up the sky, a field of glittering cellphone screens appeared from the peanut gallery below. Far from distracting, it added another level of beauty to the starkness of the night sky.
A new era, indeed.