Visiting the Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival in Taiwan

As soon as Jacob and I fixed the date of our trip to Taiwan, we started researching the Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival. Our time in Taiwan landed just after Chinese New Year, coinciding our trip exactly with the Lantern Festival, which takes place around the 15th day of the month following Chinese New Year.

At the time, we didn’t realize that there was a difference between the Lantern Festival and the Sky Lantern Festival.  Turns out there is a big one. The Lantern Festival takes place all over Taiwan (and mainland China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Indonesia, etc. – but for obvious reasons, I will focus just on Taiwan for the moment).

The lantern festival in Taipei consisted mainly of a festival area with a walking tour of massive ornate silk “lantern" sculptures. I say “lanterns”, because they do not look like what an American would define as a lantern – many of them are over 10 meters high and look more like an illuminated float from a parade. Nevertheless, they are stunning works of art.

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A Sky Lantern Festival it turns out; is closer to what I had visualized when I heard “lantern festival”: thousands of glowing paper lanterns released into the night in one breath-taking moment. Sounds magical, doesn’t it? The Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival is Taiwan’s most famous sky lantern festival, with hundreds-of-thousands of lanterns being released and tens-of-thousands of visitors. If Jacob and I were going to be in Taipei during that festival, there was no way we were going to miss it.

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As with much of our Taiwan research however, we were surprised by how little English information there was to be found. Jacob is a consummate researcher, and hardly ever visits a new place without digging up all the insider tips and local information available on the internet. Most of our favorite restaurants and destinations are a direct result of his research. For the Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival however, we had very few clues.

Taiwan’s tourism website offered general information on the festival itself, but how to get there was another question: Pingxi is outside of central Taipei. Between TripAdvisor comments and the festival website, we managed to piece together the information we needed.

This next part is for those of you who may have stumbled on this blog trying to figure out how to get to the Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival yourself.

Take the Brown metro line to the Taipei Zoo stop. Taipei Zoo is the last stop on the brown line, and is also where you can catch the Maokong Gondola.

Taipei Zoo Stop

As soon as you exit the metro, you should see signs clearly marking the way to the Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival stop. Follow the signs (or the crowd of people), and get in line for the bus.

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There are two lines: one for a seat, and one for standing. The line for standing-only goes much faster. (We chose the standing option – it wasn’t bad at all.) You can either scan your metro card to pay, or give them cash as you get on the bus.

The bus ride to Pingxi takes about 45 minutes. The buses will drop you off in a parking lot at the base of the town.

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Prior to the festival we started to get a bit nervous. Between our friend’s words of caution and the stats we had read online, we were pretty sure this would be the largest crowd we had ever experienced: somewhere around 80,000 visitors were expected. We decided to arrive early to the festival grounds to grab a good viewpoint.

We got to Pingxi about 4 hours before the first scheduled lantern launch. The town is beautiful – built into a hillside above a river, in lush jungle-like countryside.

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A train track runs directly through the main part of town, with surprisingly little space between the track and the shops. The train only comes through the town a few times a day (and slowly at that), at which point everyone clears off the tracks and huddles under the shop awnings. When no trains are passing through, the tracks are packed with throngs of people, many of which are setting off sky lanterns of their own.

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Pingxi has become famous for her sky lanterns. Though the annual festival draws the most people, visitors trek to the town year-round to buy a lantern, paint their wishes and hopes on it, and set it off into the sky. Jacob and I walked around the town for a short while, watching people release their lanterns into the sky, before making our way over to the festival grounds.

I had expected the festival grounds to be a massive open field – something that could accommodate these projected 80,000 people. Signs and security guards pointed the way down a road away from the town.

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We entered through a festival gate and walked 15 minutes down the road, lined with food and lantern vendors, before the path angled up and dropped us in a parking lot. The parking lot held a stage on one end and a large corded off square of empty space in the middle. Hundreds of photographers were already set up around the square, their tripods forming a wall of spindly black legs and camera lenses.

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Honestly, we were surprised. The parking lot could hold maybe 2,000-3,000 people – certainly not 80,000. As it was, there weren’t even that many people there. Three hours before the festival was due to begin, the parking lot was only about 1/3 of the way full. We found a good spot and settled down to wait.

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As it started to get dark people began to crowd in around us, though it never became uncomfortably packed. The ceremonies began, with a woman hosting the festival and entertainers performing on the stage. There was a lot of talking as groups of 100-200 people were ushered into the square in front of the stage, readied with their lanterns, and then all instructed to light and release them at once.

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It was, truly, an awe-inspiring sight.

Was it what I had imagined? No. I had imagined thousands of lanterns going up in the sky in continuous waves, everyone allowed to participate as long as they had a lantern. Perhaps, in some places, that is the reality.

Here, the lanterns were released 100-200 at a time, accompanied by a television host interviewing people and giving little “Sponsored by” commercials. Then someone would sing, dance, or talk on stage for 20 minutes while the next wave of lanterns was being prepared.

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Was it worth it? Yes, because sky lanterns are gorgeous, and every release would take your breath away. Is it the be-all, end-all sky lantern experience? Probably not. (I haven’t been to Thailand yet.)

We stayed through 5 or 6 waves of lantern releases, before deciding that it would be wise to beat the crowds back to Taipei. We grabbed our stuff and pushed our way through the crowd to the edge of the parking lot, where the road sloped down and curved left back towards Pingxi.

At the edge of the parking lot, our jaws literally dropped. There was the other 77,000 people that couldn’t fit into the parking lot. It was a veritable sea of people; unlike anything I had ever seen before. And to get back to the bus, we had to somehow get past all of them.

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The police had roped off a narrow middle corridor through the sea of humanity, and we joined the steady stream of people who were pushing themselves against the tide. It was packed like nothing I had experienced before. We didn’t even need to walk – the sheer force of the people surrounding us pushed us forward, while you felt the pressure of some random person’s body on every side. I had been “packed like a sardine” before, but typically only when everyone was standing still: packed into a concert, or (worse), with your nose in someone’s armpit on the metro. Being packed that degree while moving, however, was another experience entirely.

Thankfully we had the advantage of height. Jacob and I are a head taller than the average Taiwanese, so we could at least see above the crowd. As we shuffled our way along with the tide, I felt a rustling by my waist and saw three tiny old women, hands clasped, heads bowed, muscling their way forward with practiced intensity.

It was a long 10 minutes of wondering how you would avoid getting trampled if someone started a stampede before the crowd broke and we were finally free. The lanterns may have been the breath-taking highlight of the evening, but it was the crowd that ensured we would never forget our time at the Pingxi Sky Lantern festival.

Back to you travelers who are reading this blog for more information on getting to the Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival:

Leaving Pingxi is just as clearly marked and well organized as getting there. You will see the queue for the buses extending far along the road you walked up to get to the festival grounds.

Once again, there are two lines: one for seats, the other for standing. I would recommend buying some street food and then hopping in line – the standing one goes quite fast.

The buses will drop you back off at the Taipei Zoo stop so you can head on home by metro.