Taiwan’s Annual Show of Lights
Every year, beginning the 15th day of the lunar new year, Taiwan, China, as well as other countries with Chinese populations, celebrate Lantern Festival. A more than 2,200-year-old tradition beginning in the Han Dynasty, Lantern Festival is said to be a celebration of the first full moon of the lunar new year. So thousands of lanterns are lit and released into the sky, and thousands more are displayed on the ground in artistic forms to pay homage to the full moon.
In 2017, Lantern Festival begins on Saturday, February 11th, and lanterns will be on display until Sunday, February 19th. You can find smaller Lantern Festival celebrations all over Taiwan, but each year, the main big one is hosted by a different county. In 2017, the main Lantern Festival event will be in Yunlin County, which is a little south of central Taiwan, located between Changhua and Chiayi. Details are at the end of this article.
8 Tips for Having the Best Experience of Lantern Festival
Lantern Festival is a lot of fun and is an amazing experience if you’ve never been to one before (or even if you have). However, it’s an event that people from all over the island also want to enjoy, so it can get extremely crowded and a bit chaotic if you aren’t prepared. So as a Taiwan Lantern Festival veteran, I’ve put together eight tips to help you know what to expect so you can have a smoother and more enjoyable experience.
1. Arrive in the Late Afternoon
Undoubtedly, the best and most popular time to see the Lantern Festival lanterns is at night when they’re all lit up. However, the area is HUGE, and there are thousands of displays to see. Not to mention, night time is when it is the most crowded, making it difficult to navigate your way around the area.
So instead of waiting until it’s dark and fighting the crowds, go in the early afternoon. You’ll be given a map of the area when you arrive, and it will give you time to get the lay of the land in the daylight, at your own leisurely pace. This will also allow you to identify your favorite displays that you want to see at night, because believe me, once it’s dark, you won’t be able to go through the whole place again. Plus, as spectacular as the lanterns are at night, the displays are actually really cool to see during the day too. It’s definitely not something to miss.
2. Be Sure to Stop by the Tourist Welcome and Information Booth
At the entrance to the Lantern Festival, there is always a tourist welcome booth, and most of the time, they have people there who speak English. The great thing about this welcome booth is that they have goody bags for you. Unfortunately, I didn’t take pictures of mine from the past, but I’ve gotten cool little things like paper lanterns, hand fans in the shape of that year’s Chinese Zodiac animal, not to mention the bag itself.
In addition, that’s where you’ll get your map of the area with all the displays. There are always several people working the booth, so you can ask questions and find out where all the important places are, like the toilets, food court area, exits, etc. It’s worth stopping there for that map, and the goodies are a nice bonus.
3. Plan to Eat Dinner at the Lantern Festival Food Court
As with any big event or exhibition, once you’re in, you pretty much can’t get out until it’s time to actually leave for good. So it’s best to just go there with the intention of staying until you’re finished. Thankfully, that’s not a problem, though, because Taiwan’s Lantern Festival events are always well-planned, well-organized, and well-executed.
As I mentioned in #2, as soon as you enter the grounds, get a map. Then take a moment to look at the map, and note where the port-a-potties are, as well as the food court area and the exits (you’ll be glad you identified the exits at the end). You can, of course, bring your own snacks and drinks, but Taiwan is known for its night markets, and there won’t be any shortage of food and drink booths at the Lantern Festival. So just plan on going for the full experience and enjoy some of the tasty local foods that will be on offer.
4. Don’t Miss the Main Show at the Central Lantern Festival Exhibit
You pretty much can’t miss it anyway, the giant Chinese Zodiac animal at the center of the Lantern Festival. During the day, there are many dance performances on the stage area, and at night, usually somewhere around 8:00 pm, there’s a main big show where they light up the giant animal and it rotates around while playing music. (You can confirm the time on the map or at the welcome booth.) It’s really a beautiful and impressive display, and you won’t want to miss it.
However, the crowds are thick around the display, and the closer to the main show time it gets, the harder it’ll be for you to get near it. So while there’s daylight, be sure to scope out your best vantage point in advance. Since it’s in a central location, it won’t be too hard to find a good viewing spot, but also pay attention to the lights set up around it as some lights might interfere with the quality of your photos or video.
5. Start Leaving Before or During the Final Firework Show
It’s not that I want you to miss the grand finale, but I want to help you get ahead of the massive crowds that will be exiting soon after the firework show. Depending on where the Lantern Festival is held, it’s possible to get ahead of the crowds and still enjoy the firework show. However, it might also happen that you have to make a choice – firework show or battling crowds and traffic.
In the past, I’ve had both experiences. Whenever possible, I try to get as far away from the central display area as soon as the main show finishes and start heading to the exits. Sometimes I’ve been lucky enough to still find a good vantage point from the exit area to enjoy the firework show, but other times it was too far away or the view was obstructed. Check your map when you arrive and decide your exit strategy at the beginning.
6. Book Your Return Transportation or Hotel Ahead of Time
Again, depending on where the Lantern Festival is held each year, your options will change. However, you will always be faced with the same dilemma of whether to stay in that city overnight or take a train, bus or the high-speed rail (HSR) back to another city. Whatever the case, plan ahead for this and try to book your return tickets or hotel as early as you can. (A week ahead should be plenty, but definitely do it within a couple days of the event.)
Lately, maybe by coincidence, the Lantern Festival events have been held next to or near HSR stations, which makes it way more convenient. If that’s the case, then I suggest just taking the HSR to whatever major city you’re staying in (Taipei, Hsinchu, Taichung, Tainan, Kaohsiung, etc.) to get away from all the traffic congestion of the Lantern Festival host city/area.
With the HSR, you can get away with not booking ahead of time, but then you’ll likely have a non-reserved ticket (no seat) and will have to stand in the aisle or the vestibule between train cars. Just note the time of the last HSR train from that city as the entire line stops running at midnight, so times are adjusted based on the midnight arrival time at a northern-most or southern-most terminal station.
Buses and trains typically run from the city center, which will be quite far from most HSR stations. So unless there’s a bus or train station near the Lantern Festival venue, these might not be good options to consider. The nice people at the welcome booth can answer these questions for you too if you forget to check ahead of time.
7. Use the Free Shuttle Buses if Available
Sometimes the Lantern Festival is held in an area where there is no HSR or train station nearby. In these cases, the host county government provides free shuttle bus services to the nearest transportation hubs and parking areas. Although this might seem like a nightmare, especially when you see the seemingly-endless line ahead of you, it is really the best option.
To my surprise, the shuttle bus service is incredibly efficient, and they have tons of buses. I have to commend Taiwan on that; they sure know how to move massive amounts of people in a short time. I’ve experienced these “sea of people” lines many times in Taiwan, and each time I was sure I would be standing there for 2-3 hours, but I always got out of there within 30 minutes to an hour. Incredible.
8. Bring a Backpack with All the Stuff You’ll Need for the Day
While this is not really a logistical tip, it’s a practical one. Sometimes when we’re planning for an outing, it’s easy to forget to bring certain essential items that won’t be so easy to get once you’re at the Lantern Festival. So I made a list of items I recommend taking with you in a backpack so it won’t be cumbersome.
I suggest bringing an extra camera battery, phone power bank, a camera SD card with sufficient space for lots of photos and video, a bottle of water (you can buy water there, but it will be more expensive), tissues (you may need them for the toilets), a small packet of wet wipes (great for “washing” your hands before/after eating or after using the toilet), hand sanitizer (optional for that extra peace of mind), and possibly sunscreen if you burn easily. It’s also a good idea to bring a hat, sunglasses and a jacket. It might be hot and sunny during the day, but remember, it’s still winter in Taiwan, so it can get pretty cool at night, especially in northern Taiwan.
2017 Year of the Rooster Lantern Festival Information
This year, Lantern Festival will be held in Yunlin, situated between Changhua and Chiayi, and from what I’ve read, I think it’s going to be spectacular! This year’s themes are Environmental Friendliness, the Origins of the Lanterns, and my favorite, Welcoming Other Cultures and Immigrants to Taiwan. There will be 21 various exhibitions spread over two locations in Yunlin (Huwei Lantern District near the Agricultural Expo Ecological Park, and Beigang Lantern District near Beigang Tourist Bridge). As part of the multi-cultural theme, they will be showcasing different cultural scenes from Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia and the Philippines.
I’ve never been to Yunlin, so I’m not familiar with this area, but it looks like the main arrival point is via the Yunlin HSR station, and then the main exhibition area will be right next to the HSR station. As reported in Focus Taiwan, the area will cover about 50 hectares and have over 3,000 lanterns. They expect over 10 million visitors this year.
For other related Lantern Festival events, check out my post on the Yanshui Beehive Firework Festival, which is always held at the beginning of Lantern Festival. In 2017, it will be held on February 10-11, always in Yanshui.
Please let me know if you have any questions or other suggestions in the comments. This post will be updated as pertinent, so your input is always appreciated.
Just for Fun – Some of My Favorite Day vs. Night Lantern Displays
And last, but not least, for good luck, the traditional Chinese man. Happy Chinese New Year, and have an awesome time at Lantern Festival!