Sky Lanterns in Taiwan
Lighting Up The Skies For Luck
One of the most memorable scenes from the 2011 award-winning Taiwanese movie You Are The Apple Of My Eye showed the lead characters jointly releasing a tiandeng (sky lantern) with their wishes on it.
The young couple penned their hopes on the bulbous-shaped paper creation and watched it drift off in the clear sky.
This gesture of sending one’s written wishes upwards to be blessed by divine forces may seem old-fashioned in the digital age, but this tradition remains strong in Taiwan.
The sky lanterns are popular with people who want to be blessed for various reasons, including students eyeing good grades, lovers hoping for a happy ending and workers aiming for career success. Even married couples keen to have children want to be blessed because the local pronunciation of sky lantern is tiending, which sounds like “newborn son”.
Sky lanterns are made with rice paper, thin bamboo strips and wire and are powered by kerosene-soaked prayer papers.
When set alight, the hot air propels the paper creation to over 500m, or as high as Taipei 101, Taiwan’s iconic skyscraper.
After five to eight minutes airborne, the sky lantern falls and can be a fire hazard if it is still burning when it lands.
A mountainous region at the Pingxi district in northern Taiwan has been designated the only legal and most suitable area where tiandeng can be released.
The mountain ranges are said to provide the best natural screen to keep the sky lanterns from straying beyond the area.
There is also a lower risk of fire as Pingxi experiences rain about 200 days a year and its relative humidity is over 75 per cent.
Also, with only about 2,400 households and low light pollution in the area, the beauty of the thousands of sky lanterns lighting up the sky at night can be enjoyed to the fullest.
A sky lantern can be released any time of the year but its popularity soars during Chinese New Year.
Many Taiwanese believe in releasing a lantern personalised with their wishes to begin the new year on a high.
The mass release of lit sky lanterns is heartwarming and visually stunning, and I witnessed this during the 14th Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival earlier this month.
Held annually during Chinese New Year, the highlight of the four-day event was the mass celebration on Feb 4 attended by Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou and top government officials.
Joining in the fun were thousands of Taiwanese who did not let the light rain and falling temperatures dampen their celebratory mood.
Making their way into the Pingxi district that Saturday were multi-generational families with children perched on their fathers’ shoulders, giggling groups of teenagers and couples openly displaying their affection.
Their destination was Shifen, a rustic town in the district famed for its natural waterfalls, dense mountain ranges and antiquated architecture.
Every 15 minutes or so, more people arrived on a train moving leisurely along a track flanked by shops and houses along the Shifenliao Old Street.
As the track was not cordoned off, there were ample opportunities to take unobstructed shots of the train pulling into Shifen station and unloading its passengers.
Food outlets selling noodles did brisk business with every seat occupied by patrons enjoying their steaming hot orders.
Snacks like Taiwanese sausages and sticks of corn were snapped up as soon as they came off the grill.
At the stalls selling sky lanterns, the action was non-stop as people prepared their selections for use when night fell and the timing was right.
A ready-to-use sky lantern costs around NT$100. If you prefer to make your own, DIY sets cost under NT$20 each.
Glueing four pieces of coloured sevensided paper may seem like child’s play but if you get the overlapping dimensions wrong, your sky lantern may be lopsided, affecting its flight.
When dusk fell, the sky cleared and the crowds at the Shifen Sky Lantern Square — where most of the action was — swelled until it was standing room only.
Throughout the night, thousands of sky lanterns were set airborne radiating an orange glow over everyone’s faces.
The lanterns lit up the night sky and bobbed quickly across the treetops towards the mountain ranges.
Festival organisers released 1,600 sky lanterns and a specially constructed 6m version to mark the Year of the Dragon, a zodiac sign considered most auspicious by the Chinese.
Thousands of people turned up that night, bringing the number of visitors over 12 days to around 450,000. The festivities added much excitement to the sleepy district of Pingxi, which has a population of less than 6,000.
I left with memories that will linger long after the flame of my sky lantern has burnt out.
From Taipei main station, catch a train to Ruifang and connect to the Pingxi branch line, where an all-day travel pass costs less than NT$100. At Pingxi district, alight at the Shifen train station, where most of the sky lantern action is.
■ Instead of staying in the Pingxi district, make a day trip from Taipei as the city offers more accommodation options. Depending on traffic and weather conditions, the journey up the mountain by road to Pingxi may take a couple of hours.
■ The Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival is a local favourite, so be prepared for crowds, especially during the weekends. As soon as you have explored the area, leave Pingxi or you will be stuck in massive human and traffic jams as everyone moves out at the same time.
■ Wear covered walking shoes to protect your feet in the crowded areas and to navigate the uneven terrain in certain parts of the town.
■ During winter nights and especially if it rains, the outdoor temperature could suddenly drop, so take a waterproof coat, a scarf, gloves and a collapsible umbrella. A torch will be handy as some areas are not lit.
■ Stay clear of food and drinks sold by street vendors if you do not have a strong stomach. Portable toilets are available but during the peak season, there will be long Stalls selling sky lanterns have areas for customers to pen their wishes on paper.
(Source: by Karen Teng sgtravellers.com)
Sky Lantern in Pingxi