Spend a week in Taiwan, and you are likely to have the chance to see a festival of some kind. Some are traditional yet raucous expressions of the folk beliefs that, combining Buddhism and Taoism, give the island a uniquely colorful religious landscape. Others are of much more recent origin, and have been organized to promote a particular place or industry.
Taiwan’s rich and diverse festival culture is one of the country’s unique characteristics, and to help potential visitors plan itineraries around events that interest them, Taiwan’s Tourism Bureau is highlighting 35 world-class activities between late 2014 and the end of this year as part of its “Time for Celebration” promotion.
In Taiwan, as in all ethnic Chinese societies, fireworks have a cultural significance far exceeding that in Western countries. Massive quantities are shot off during temple parades and deities’ birthday celebrations, while families mark weddings and other happy occasions with barrages of rockets and strings of firecrackers. No wonder fireworks displays are much loved by Taiwan’s people.
The Penghu Ocean Fireworks Festival, now in its 12th year, enlivens visits to the Penghu archipelago. This cluster of 90 islands, around 45 kilometers from Taiwan’s southwest coast, offers pristine beaches and ancient, semi-abandoned villages such as Erkan. The first Chinese settlers came here almost a thousand years ago, and many of the very old and intensely photogenic homes they made using local coral stone still stand. The archipelago also boasts excellent seafood and a thoroughly relaxing vibe.
Many tourists find themselves imitating the islanders’ early-to-bed, early-to-rise habits, but each Monday and Thursday evening between April 20 and June 25 there is a good reason to stay out a little later. At 9 p.m. on those days, the skies above Magong’s Guanyin Temple erupt with 15 minutes of fireworks displays sponsored by the Penghu National Scenic Area Administration (www.penghu-nsa.gov.tw).
By May, the weather throughout Taiwan is warm. Not surprisingly, many people head to beaches such as Baishawan and Fulong near Taipei, or Kending on Taiwan’s southernmost tip.
Running from May 2 until the final day of June, the 2015 Fulong International Sand Sculpting Festival will be the eighth edition of an event that draws crowds to Taiwan’s northern coast. Fulong’s three-kilometer-long beach has soft quartz sand that sticks together very well when wet. The conditions are thus perfect for creating works of art, some of which are as big as an SUV. Drawing inspiration from myths and legends as well as movies and cartoons, the sand sculptors – both Taiwanese artists and professionals from overseas – will shape on-the-spot masterpieces, hoping to scoop cash prizes as well as the adulation of visitors.
The annual Taiwan Balloon Festival offers chances to see Taiwan’s stunning East Rift Valley from high above. Running from June 27 through to August 9, the festival features the launching of balloons from Luye High Terrace, a plateau that is also one of Taiwan’s top paragliding spots. A short video on the event’s website (http://balloontaiwan.taitung.gov.tw) shows off the area’s magnificent scenery.
Even those with no interest in balloon rides or paragliding should consider heading east to sample the region’s scenic, ecological, and cultural treasures. Sights on the eastern coast such as Sanxiantai (Terraces of the Three Immortals) have been on the tour-group circuit for many years. Far less well-known, and ideal for nature lovers, is Baibao Creek. In addition to rich flora, the banks of this inland waterway host an exceptional butterfly population. The low wooden weirs here are specially designed to allow freshwater fish species to thrive.
One in six of the 557,000 people residing in the counties of Hualien and Taitung are indigenous. Aboriginal traditions are evident in villages inhabited by the Amis, Paiwan, and Truku minorities, among others.
All forms of exercise have grown in popularity in Taiwan in recent years, but one of the older sports on the island is dragon-boat racing. Traditionally, these races are held at the time of the Dragon Boat (Duanwu) Festival, which is celebrated on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month (June 20 in 2015).
This year the major boat races will take place in the town of Lugang from June 19 to 21, and will feature teams from overseas as well as around Taiwan. Each boat is guided by a drummer whose beats help the 20 paddlers synchronize their strokes. The vessels get their name from dragon-head decorations at the bow and a dragon tail at the stern.
The races, as well as the sticky rice dumplings (zongzi in Mandarin) on which Taiwanese people feast at this time of year, commemorate the death of Qu Yuan. A great poet and patriotic government official, Qu served the State of Chu more than 2,300 years ago during China’s Warring States Period. He was in exile when he learned that the State of Qin had captured the Chu capital. Distraught, he tied rocks to his feet and ended his life by jumping into a river in what is now China’s Hunan province.
The boat races originated from the efforts of people who took to their boats in an unsuccessful bid to save Qu’s life. When news of Qu’s demise spread, friends and supporters rushed to the riverside and began throwing rice balls into the water, so that his body would not be eaten by the fish. That is how the custom got started of eating rice dumplings, which are usually filled with pork, mushrooms, and peanuts, and then wrapped in bamboo leaves for steaming.
Lugang is not the only place where tourists can enjoy dragon-boat races, as similar events are held in Taipei, Tainan, and elsewhere. Even if you cannot attend the town’s dragon-boat events, do make sure Lugang is on your itinerary. Once Taiwan’s second-largest settlement and a major trading port, it remains jam-packed with genuine culture and antiquity.
A different kind of watery fun can be had on June 21 and 22 at the 2015 Xiuguluan River Rafting Activity. The Xiuguluan River in the eastern county of Hualien is Taiwan’s most popular whitewater rafting location. It is calm enough to be safe for first-timers, yet has enough eddies, rapids, and drops to guarantee excitement for all.
To encourage visitors to make the most of summer’s long days and uplifting sunshine, the 2015 edition of “Taiwan Fun on the Tropic of Cancer” will run from June 22 to September 30. As in previous years, the festival offers an enticing combination of refreshing local delicacies best enjoyed in the summer, as well as exciting outdoor activities.
For further details of these and other events, plus general travel information about Taiwan, visit the website of Taiwan’s Tourism Bureau (www.taiwan.net.tw). Alternatively, call the 24-hour tourist information hotline (0800-011-765). It is toll free within Taiwan, and those picking up the phones speak English and Japanese in addition to Chinese.