I must start this by saying I booked Taiwan 2 days prior to flying out just because of the PingXi Lantern Festival. But that was totally worth it….
The PingXi lantern festival is a MUST. Although the 2hr train ride (from Taipei) was completely packed (think rush hour in your respective metro… and add another 20% or so people), the whole experience was worth it. Getting there in the afternoon, the 15 or so people that I went with quickly split into a group of 8 and 7. However, even that was too big for me. When the group wanted to go see the “largest waterfall” in Taiwan, I decided that it wasn’t for me. Luckily, so did two others and so we decided to explore the area surrounding the waterfall (Taiwan charged for people to go see the waterfall (which to me meant : how big can it possibly be if you can block the view until you past their toll)) with the plans of meeting up in 90minutes. As there was a train track that was right next to the attraction, we followed the track through a tunnel only to find out that there was nothing to see. So on our way back, we saw a group of tourists lying perpendicular to the tracks and taking photos. I found it funny how as soon as they heard the trains horn, they got up and were running (the train was going no more than 5km/hr). For me, it was the perfect opportunity to check something off my bucket list – stand close enough to a passing train that if you moved your body over an inch, you’d get hit (no I’m not crazy) – with the bonus of being able to do so in a tunnel (built only big enough for the train to pass). Totally got that experience and took a photo of it. Unfortunately it’s impossible to tell what was happening in that picture.
Once the 90minutes were up, we called the other group to meet up but they were having such a good time in there that they weren’t ready to leave. For us, the latern festival was the main attraction and we didn’t want to miss any part of it and so the group of 8 turned to a group of 3. The 3 of us headed back to the square where the event was to happen. We wanted to be part of the group releasing the lantern but unfortunately, in order to do so, you had to book your spot a couple of days in advance, so we decided to just release our own lantern with the private groups around (as most people were doing). The purchase of a lantern was actually quite cheap (100 – 200 taiwan dollars) but the lines to write your wishes were terrible. So being the person that I am (impatient) I decided to go old school and finger painted my lantern with the words “to an awesome year”. My friends were a lot smarter than me and created their own “brush” out of tissue paper. After releasing our lanterns, we made our way to see the main event. Unfortunately, by that time, the whole area was just a sea of people.
While we were trying to make our way to get spots for photos, the first batched of lanterns were released (the plan was to do 10 batches throughout the night) and I must admit, I don’t know how to explain the sensation that went though me at that time, it was somewhat speechless, somewhat amazed and somewhat “damn I missed it”. We tried to get as close to the square as possible but were stuck at the base of the hill to the square. Luckily for me, being in a very Chinese area, I was able to see by most people’s heads and was able to record the screen projecting the event in the square. I also had a good enough camera to capture the release of the second wave of lanterns, but this time it was accompanied by something else that I’ll let you witness yourself here.
After the second round, we decided to start making our way back to the train as the last train back to Taipei was at 10 and it was already 7. With the amount of people at the event, we didn’t want to risk the last 2 trains. However, we haven’t had anything to eat and eventually we hit a street full of stalls and the aroma it was emitting lulled us to try almost everything we went by (literally, at least 1km of stalls and we stopped for half). It was also here we met up with the other 5 people and thus our group became 5 (3 of them needed to run because their flights were really early the next day). Slowly drifting to the station in a 2hr period, we wolfed down everything and definitely contributed some wealth to their society. They say that Taipei has some awesome night markets (which I did go check out), but if we’re talking about night markets for food, PingXi’s Lantern Festival definitely had better food. We were also lucky enough to not only catch a train, but we were also able to secure ourselves some seats.
The rest of Taiwan was also fun. Had some awesome shots (B55 and Around the World), met a lot of awesome people and got to go to….
Hot springs – real or not… don’t know… but I did last the 42.5C after much pain and was able to last 80seconds or so in the 55C sauna. I actually did better than everyone I watched go in (who stayed in for maybe 30seconds max). There was also a really good ramen shop near the hotspring area. It was by far the best ramen that I’ve had.
The multiple night markets were fun to walk and all, but the variety was quite limited. However, the food there – no, the food in Taiwan as a whole – was just, as my friend would say, beautiful. So many great snacks to eat, meals to try and at a fraction of a cost compared to HK! Speaking of food, the dumplings from Din Tai Fung were simply unspeakable. Though they were really expensive… if anyone knows of a place that selling similar quality dumplings at a cheaper rate, please tell me!
Some big ass museum was really cool to walk around… but only if you weren’t stuck inbetween at least 20 different tour groups… there’s a lot to see, no way to preserve those moments, and a lot of standing to get into the next area. I’m pretty sure I’m not the museum type of guy…
Hostel – my hostel (parachute hostel) was really quiet (I was always the last person to call it a day at 3-4am) which made it ideal to get some sleep. It’s definitely a place I can recommend but it is also quite pricy compared to some other hostels around Taipei. The hostel where my friends stayed (chocolate box backpackers) was definitely a lot more communal in which had its own problems (ie, people yelling in the middle of the night)
Packing your stuff into a schoolbag is a lot better than into a suitcase. However, a backpack is not meant to be used as a travel pack. Luckily for me, I learnt that lesson on the last day when one of my straps broke apart. It was a calling for me to get a real travel pack for the rest of my adventures in Asia.
Big groups of people are a pain – too many people want to do too many different things
ideal size – 4 or so people who have very similar objectives with their trip. For me, the must was the lantern festival and the rest were sure whatever. I found a couple of others who were also very laid back and so they were great company. Luckily for us, we d a friend who planned everyday out so we just tagged along for the first couple of days. However, she was having a bunch of friends landing later in the trip and that was when we went our separate ways. However, it worked out for us as those friends wanted to do things that we’ve already done and were too big of a group to move around efficiently.
Book the spots a week or so in advance – to be part of the big crowd that lets off their lanterns all at once, you need to book those in advance. I don’t know the exact detail, but that’s what we were told and that’s what I would like you guys to remember!