WHAT AND WHY?
For the past few years, Dustin has inspired a style of travel that is new to me. We pick one major focus around which we build our trip. It started with our first international trip together, which picked the location of based on a cool castle picture that Dustin had seen once on Reddit. After scouring the internet, he was able to find the original image and discovered that it was of Monemvasia, a castle island in Greece. Ever since that epic roadtrip through Greece, we have been planning trips this way. While the stellar flight deals and affordable in country prices largely contributed to our pick of Taiwan, the King Boat Festival quickly became the focus for our trip.
“A massive festival that ends with the burning of a huge boat on the beach!” was how Dustin first pitched it to me. This not only sounded epic, but also fit with my desire to explore the cultural side of travel rather than the historic location-based (primarily castles) travel we had done in the past. The true history of the festival remains a bit of a mystery to me and is likely explained better elsewhere, but for the sake of context I will provide my understanding here:
This is a festival of many names: Yang Weh Boat Festival, Burning Boat Festival, Plague Boat Festival, and countless others I am sure. It began more than 1000 years ago, in a different part of China, as a way to remove evil spirits and disease. This festival was brought to Taiwan by the Chinese settlers, and now the festival in Donggang is one of the largest in the world.
The festival occurs every three years and starts one year prior to the burning when the town begins building an ornate ship. God(s) are carried by the ship from the heavens to the town where they will help to chase out demons and disease. The festival begins with a ceremony inviting the gods to earth. The ship is then carried around the town by volunteers in the week leading up to the burning.
On the second to last day of the burning, a parade of people from the local temples starts around noon and they carry the boat to Donglong temple. A feast for the spirits is then laid out as other offerings are stowed on the boat. Later in the night the boat is then taken from the temple to a beach near Zhenhai Park. Finally, in the very early mornings of the last day of the festival, the ship is set ablaze using firecrackers and prayer paper as the patrons flee to avoid possession by evil spirits.
THE LEAD UP
The heat and humidity slapped us in the face as we hopped off at Antai Hospital stop and headed to FaceSky Houstay. Unlike Taipei, there weren’t any covered sidewalks to take shelter and the heat was only amplified by pavement as we walked along the roadway. We followed the signs to our hotel and found ourselves in the garage of a house. A lady walked out of the house speaking in Chinese and Dustin tentatively said “reservation” as I pointed to my phone. She walked back inside, which was clearly simultaneously a lobby and their family living room and started laughing with her husband. At this point I am convinced that we have either somehow stumbled into someone’s home or they have given our room away. She returns, phone in hand, with a man speaking broken English on the line. We struggled for a while, but eventually settled on the fact that we had a room, but also the festival is tonight?!
Sources online suggested the final day of the festival was November 4th, what we failed to realize was that it was very, very early in the morning of the 4th. Meaning that the main festivities leading up to the burning started at noon on the 3rd. Facepalm. Dustin and I looked at each other in disbelief, then began to laugh. There were plenty of festivities left and we had not missed the main event. However, it was too hot to circle the town in an attempt to find the parade, so we decided to rest before venturing out for the rest of the night.
Around 6 pm we found that darkness had descended, and the air was finally cool enough for a thorough exploration of the town. We took to our weary feet and struck out in search of coffee, snacks, and the boat. As we got closer to the temple, the streets got thicker with humans, motorbikes, and food stalls. It was a terrifyingly beautiful dance as the people and motorcycles weaved around each other in flawless choreography. We cut through a quieter alleyway and descended upon the calmer temple square where the ship and offerings were still being set up. The ship was painted in traditional, ornate Chinese designs that matched the decorations of the nearby golden archway. Donglong temple obscured from view by a massive lights display that proved Taiwanese showmanship is not afraid to embrace the modern era.
The flow of the crowd carried us past many sights, a traditional Chinese dancer, stalls with street games, and finally the temple itself. A secret back staircase led us to the main entry of the temple where we found hundreds of people lighting incents and saying prayers.
The scene was intoxicating and overwhelming. As it got later and more people flooded into the courtyard, we couldn’t handle the crowd any longer. We had no idea how many hours were left before the boat would be moved, but we knew that we had no chance of making it until morning at this rate. It was a risk, but we decided to go back to the hotel for a nap before burning.
Around 4 am our alarms chided us out of bed. We donned our walking shoes, knowing full well that we may not be able to find the boat again. The streets leading to the temple had been cleared and few people were left aside from the clean-up crew. Our hope remained, as it had likely been hours since the boat was in the temple square, so it wasn’t unexpected that most things would have been cleaned up. From the square, we followed the path of least resistance in an attempt to retrace the route of the ship. There was a fork in the road and people were headed in both directions. We veered towards the left as the road was larger and looked like it might head to the ocean, or at least a bridge with a better view.
Along the path, we passed an Australian couple going in the opposite direction and our hearts sank. Why would they leave before the burning? Surely we missed it. We pushed on. At least we would be able to see the smoldering ashes.The streets began to fill again with people eating, drinking bubble tea, and playing street games. A large display showing a video of the ship lit up the area. A live stream or replay?
A ramp lined with food stalls led to the beach where we finally saw it: the ship, intact! We had made it in time, in fact we had time to spare. A loud speaker boomed as the announcer explained the work being done. Men, from different temples across the city, carried decorated palanquins, now empty of the offerings, away from the ship. One man hugged his wife before jumping in to help heft the load up the ramp.
Tension filled the air as the last of the men stepped off the ship. The announcer spoke, and the crowd collectively held its breath. An explosion of light was followed quickly by rapid crackles. The paper under the ship began to catch fire, and the bow caught flame. A wave of people began to leave. Young, old, more than half the crowd heeded the warning to avoid possession. As the people trickled away, a clear ring of camera bearers lined the area immediately around the ship. We inched closer to the fire, who’s heat was dampened by the human shield in front of us. Along the stern, the air pushed and pulled the flame until it had all been engulfed and a steady current flowed in and out of the railing. The gods continued to be carried to the heavens by the sails, which remained relatively untouched.
After watching the final sail fall, we walked back to the hotel. Dawn was breaking, and a fine mist formed in the air. Along the river, we found a path where we walked while watching old men fish and stray dogs nap. It was a pleasant ending to our great adventure in Donggang.
King Boat Festival
Location: Donggang Township, Pingtung County, Taiwan
Timing: Occurs every three years in October or November, most recently in 2018
Getting There: Donggang is, unfortunately, not accessible by train. The bus is by far the best option as it only takes around 45 minutes and is inexpensive. Other options include taxi and uber, which are slightly faster at around 30 minutes, but come at a much higher cost. Google maps is fairly reliable for this journey, except for bus timing and duration of trip. In reality, it took us about 15 minutes on the MSR from the main station and another 30 minutes on the bus. Here is a link to the 9117 bus schedule website. Our route:
Kaohsuing MSR Redline to Siaogang station > Bus 9117 going South > Antai Hospital Stop in Donggang Township
Schedule: The festival begins about one week prior to the boat burning with events filling the week. For the last two days of the festival (this year November 3rd and 4th) events started around noon with a parade of the boat around town. Around 7pm, the boat has a rest stop in front of Donglong Temple where a feast is offered to the spirits and final preparations are made for the boat’s last journey. The streets surrounding the temple are filled with food stalls, games, and shows for the patrons to enjoy. The timeline gets fuzzy for a bit as Dustin and I went back to nap, but other sources report that the boat is moved in another parade to the beach near Zhenhai Park sometime between 11 pm and 3 am. At 5 am the boat is lit using firecrackers and prayer paper, and many of the onlookers quickly depart as is tradition.
- The boat is burnt on the reported last day of the festival in the very early mornings. Thus if you want to make it for the festivities, arrive on the second to last day.
- Hotel prices are very high around the festival (FaceSky Houstay was about 150 USD per night), so keep an eye out well in advance and consider anything around or less than 100 USD, for a double room with private bath, a pretty good deal.
- Easycard works on both the MSR and bus, this is a much easier option than carrying exact change and Easycard is almost universally accepted on transport in Taiwan.
- English is less commonly spoken the further South you go, but the locals are incredibly friendly and frequently had google translate at the ready to aid in communication.
- Donggang is very walkable, as long as you are comfortable with walking on the side of streets near the passing cars and motorbikes.
- Temperatures are still hanging around 85ºF (30ºC) and humid during this time of year with a high UV index, be prepared with hats and sunscreen.