Without warning, an explosion three meters from my face ignites a mountain of ghost money! I was kneeling in the sand with my phone aimed at a Taiwanese man wearing a golden yellow robe. He was chanting to the Wang Ye gods. After patiently waiting on the beach for six hours it was finally happening. I was delirious and instantly jumped back at the abrupt burst of firecrackers. Daylight had dawned and the boat was set ablaze!
When our friends asked us several weeks prior if we had any interest in seeing a big wooden boat engulfed in flames, my boyfriend and I were intrigued. I like campfires, so I was sure this would be cool! Maybe we should bring some marshmallows? I had no idea of the deep rooted history and traditions that accompany this sacred boat burning. This eight day experience to rid the land of evil, plague, and misfortune is currently the largest festival in Taiwan.
A Brief History
Wang Ye worship, a folk religion practice of Taoism, is especially admired in the Southwest parts of Taiwan where the festival takes place. The Wang Ye, meaning "royal lord”, are religious deities believed to go on hunting tours on behalf of heaven. Their job is to collect sickness, bad-luck, and evil to be carried away. This custom dates back over 1000 years to the Song dynasty when plagues often killed large groups of people in Southern China according to the China Post.
Boat Burning rituals continue in Taiwan today, the largest one being the festival in Donggang, Taiwan. The local DongLong Temple established in 1706 sponsors the event and builds the solid wooden boat with the help of volunteers in the community. Construction of the elegantly hand painted boat takes over two years to complete. The finished boat is truly stunning!
Prior to the actual burning, there are eight days of ritual that include choosing five Wang Ye and dragging the boat through town. This boat tour allows the Wang Ye gods to gather the evil and plague that will soon be cast away. Today the Burning Boat Festival has evolved to include prayers for peace and attracts foreigners and Taiwanese from many religions.
Upon arriving in Donggang around midnight on Saturday, we made our way through the vibrant streets full of market food and art, traditional dancers, fireworks, and families all trekking towards the beach for the burning finale.
The enormous golden DongLong Temple stopped me in my tracks and I dashed away from my group to capture a picture. The glowing temple is where the Wang Ye Worship Ceremonies take place before the boat is dragged several kilometers to the beach. Taiwanese people are welcoming to foreigners and not the least bit wary of sharing their traditions.
The street festivities are a mix of lively celebration and sacred worship. An elaborate footwork routine is performed by carriers of mini shrines decorated with LED lights. My Taiwanese friend explained these LED lights are the new age way of worshipping that only recently was approved by elders in order to appeal the younger generation. The shrine moves up and down like a bobble-head-doll as the young men rhythmically step together. Watch the video I captured of their entrancing performance.
A highlight of the festival for me was a young boy whose skilled craftsmanship I fell in love with. After picking out handmade wooden bracelets, we waited as our Taiwanese friends bargained on the price. I become hypnotized by the focus and precision of the young boy who sanded elegant wooden beads. Finally it was time to go and I waved goodbye to the boy.
The boy must have felt my enthusiasm because he signaled for me to come back over. He reached his hand through the dangling bracelets and dropped something into my hand. It was the wooden piece I’d watched him make the prior minutes before! My eyes got big with excitement. I didn’t want to accept such a special gift, but he shot me a smile that told me to take it. I walked away with the biggest grin on my face.
We weaved through the crowds beneath endless fireworks and lanterns set sailing off into space. Thousands of people gathered on the open beach to witness the arrival of the carefully crafted boat. Our group of friends found the perfect spot to post up. But the rituals had only just begun. We had no idea we would have to wait patiently six more hours to see this boat burn!
The hours of rituals included piling thousands of tons of ghost money around the boat. Also, at least a dozen men had to help hoist the mast, sails, anchors, and lanterns into place. Upon completion of each ritual were cheers from the exuberant crowd. Finally the five Wang Yeh were invited onto the boat. Many formal pictures were taken before the boat's demise. Several camera drones flew over the crowds to capture the scene from all angles.
We had front row seats of the boat and I jumped back frightened when the firecrackers abruptly ignited. The fire started small, but it wasn't long before the entire boat became engulfed by the flames. Our group had to move further and further back as the fire grew. Heat radiated from the boat and ash rained from the sky. One large burning piece of something landed on my foot. Ouch! I shook it off. I was partially delirious from no sleep and at the same time so mesmerized by the sight.
This may sound corny, but after the boat burning I felt reborn. Walking away that day I felt a deeper connection to our group of friends and the strangers around us. It was as if we survived a great battle together. After the long weekend and immediate drive back to Kaohsiung on zero sleep, we were true survivors. This experience was incomparable to any other and so worth the sleep deprivation! I hope to experience this sacred burning again one day.
View more pictures from our Burning Boat Weekend extravaganza below or check out the entire gallery.
Add this to your bucket list!
Remember this boat burning happens in autumn only every three years. So mark your calendar to be in Taiwan in 2018. Bring beach towels and extra batteries for this up-all-night extravaganza. Don't make the amateur mistake I did and let your "real camera" inconveniently die right before the illumination! You can sit safely with a good view of the boat anywhere on the vast beach, but consider getting close enough to absorb some heat. This will also allow you to get cool pictures of the giant bonfire as you soak up blessings of health, good fortune, and peace for the three years ahead.