The Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival is one of the most popular things to do in Taiwan. Each day, hundreds of visitors visit northern Taiwan’s Pingxi township to take part in the creation, decoration and launching of DIY Sky Lanterns. Once part of a broader celebration held specifically as part of the greater Lunar New Year festival, in recent years the festival has morphed into more of a destination based activity rather than an annual festival available only at certain times during the year. Launching a sky lantern with a few thoughts and prayers has become (like a night market stroll, dumplings at Din Tai Fung or visit to the National Palace Museum) a Taiwan bucket list experience.
Burning lanterns rising skyward have brought countless photo opportunities for visitors and financial fortune to the town itself. But the lanterns have brought something else to Taiwan’s tourism scene: Controversy. And though not nearly on the same level as, say, elephant riding in Thailand on the stuff tourists shouldn’t do abroad category, in recent years there’s been increasing clamor that the activity ought to be limited or curtailed completely.
There’s an elemental reason for this, namely what goes up must come down, and in the case of sky lanterns, what comes down are half-burned skeletons of wood and wire, detritus that winds up cluttering up hills, mountains and trees for miles around the town long after the folks who sent their hopes and wishes skyward have moved on.
While there have been efforts to clean things up in recent years, some feel that more needs to be done.
Richard Foster spends a fair bit of time in the area scouting out potential sites for his bird watching tours.
“The environment around here is quite good – lots of well vegetated, largely undisturbed hillsides,” Foster says. “Along main roads there are real efforts to remove the sky lanterns, but elsewhere many, many more plastic and aluminum wire lanterns remain. Due to the severe terrain most of this is either very difficult or impossible to retrieve.
As soon as you get away from the main arteries that they can clean easily, it’s obvious those hills are a dump for plastic and wire.”
“I like the idea of sky lanterns – but only if they are 100% biodegradable,” adds Foster.
Richard Saunders is the founder of Taipei Hikers, and leads regular hikes in the area to clean up lantern debris. Saunders believes there’s no way that the Lantern Festival can continue in a fully environmentally friendly manner.
“There’s no chance of recycling all of the lanterns,” Saunders says, reflecting on a recent cleanup trip. “We found lanterns on the paths and hanging from trees along trails in the Pingxi area. We were able to get dozens, but the real problem was how few we got. This is landscape with cliffs, pinnacles of rock, really inaccessible. It’s impossible to get them all.”
Saunders adds that he believes that Pingxi’s tourist based economy would survive without the sky lanterns. This may be the case. After all, the mountain town of Pingxi is pretty, has decent street food, an arts and crafts scene, and is surrounded by some of Northern Taiwan’s best hiking spots. Still, it wouldn’t be difficult for someone looking to make the case that the Sky Lanterns are Pingxi’s main draw to do so. Nearly every visitor who comes to Pingxi winds up taking part in the activity at one of the few dozen shops on either side of the railroad track bisecting the town offering classes in DIY lantern creation.
Making the lanterns isn’t terribly time consuming. It’s mostly a matter of pasting together four sheets of colored paper (each color representing a different element of life about which members of the group will beseech the heavens) then wrapping the result around a frame made of bamboo and wire. The four sides are covered in written wishes, a small bit of oil-soaked rag is stuffed in a hole, and the thing gets launched. Though just a travel right of passage to some, to others the experience can be quite meaningful.
MyTaiwanTour guide Lee Ting Yao describes one such experience.
“I was leading a group which included two older couples. After they’d released the lantern, one of the men began weeping. I looked up and saw that he’d written on his side of the lantern
Dear Jen and Pete, love Dad
The other couple explained that it was a message to his deceased children. I’d struggled with leading this particular tour before because of the environmental issues. But I also see that the sky lantern can be a profoundly healing experience as well.”
So perhaps the issue isn’t as black and white as some might make it out to be, but like the lanterns themselves, multifaceted. And while few people are suggesting that the festival be stopped outright, many are the voices calling for it to be modified into a more environmentally friendly model. Proposals range from limiting the number of lanterns allowed on any given day to reverting to more traditional (but more expensive) methods of lantern construction using only bamboo, cotton and paper, which would largely eliminate the wire skeletons hanging in trees that are one of the more odious by-products of the festival.
Interested in taking part in direct boots-on-the ground action? MyTaiwanTour will be leading a lantern cleanup hike on Friday, March 16th. It’s free of charge, but van space is limited. Leave a comment below to sign up!