Taiwan Mazu Festival: epic food, music, and tons of fireworks for the Beigang Pilgrimage of Mazu The Beigang Pilgrimage of Mazu is considered one of the most important religious festivals in Taiwan and is a celebration of the goddess of the sea, Mazu’s birthday across the region. Because of the cultural significance that Mazu brings, […]Mazu Festival 2021 Beigang Yunlin Taiwan
The Beigang Pilgrimage of Mazu is considered one of the most important religious festivals in Taiwan and is a celebration of the goddess of the sea, Mazu’s birthday across the region. Because of the cultural significance that Mazu brings, it’s even been recognized by UNESCO World Heritage Event as an Intangible Cultural Heritage.
The annual pilgrimage takes place in the sleepy little town of Beigang, tucked away near the southern section of Yunlin County, where everyday life is more simple and slower-paced than that of big cities. Although this town and its residents may seem unassuming to those unfamiliar with Mazu, it has become the epicenter for Taiwan’s cultural importance.
The residents of Beigang spend most of the year preparing for this massive festival held annually in celebration of Mazu’s birthday at the city’s Chaotian Temple. What usually are empty and quiet streets become jam-packed with Pilgrims who arrive from all over Taiwan and the rest of the world, their local temple’s Mazu in tow.
The quaint town of Beigang is transformed literally overnight into what can only be described as one giant party, the city alive and swarming with temple devotees putting on music and dance, detonating tons of fireworks, and preparing epic feasts.
When you visit Beigang for the Mazu Festival, be prepared for an extraordinary event unlike any other. To truly experience and partake in the celebration, just make sure to keep an open mind in order to fully appreciate the cultural significance of Mazu.
Safety is also of utmost importance with fireworks going off everywhere in crowded streets, seeming at any second and adding to the frenzied atmosphere. Just make sure to stay aware of your surroundings to prevent injuring yourself or others.
‘The Spirit of Mazu – powerful and emotional.’
Your experience at the Beigang Mazu Festival can be as exciting and intense as you’d like to make it. None of the festival events are mandatory to attend as a spectator, although why travel all the way to Beigang if you don’t experience everything that the Mazu Pilgrimage has to offer, right?
One thing is for certain though. No matter where you go, every street will be jam-packed with groups of devotees and spectators alike, and the air of celebration and excitement will be infectious.
There is one activity you won’t be able to avoid even if you wanted to, which is the ear-deafening explosions of firecrackers that happen every time a group of organized bearers carrying the intricately decorated palanquin that contains their Mazu from their hometown, passes along the street up to Chaotian Temple. It’s certainly a very distinguishing characteristic of the Mazu Festival’s procession, as shop owners will light strings of firecrackers under the palanquin to welcome them.
From the sidelines, you’ll witness a giant flume of smoke rise up into the air like a mushroom, just as you’re engulfed by the deafening sounds of the firecracker explosions. Stacks on stacks of firecrackers continue to be prepared to be lighted off since it’s believed that the more firecrackers you blow up, the more prosperous you’ll be. This makes for an extremely loud and chaotic celebration.
The Mazu Festival takes place in the town of Beigang with the main festivities at the Beigang Chaotian Temple.
Taiwan gets extremely hot and humid given its tropical climate and being located near the equator. Beigang in April and May, when the festival takes place, is no exception.
Take clothes that you don’t mind getting damaged or dirty: Plan on wearing comfortable, breathable clothes with long sleeves/pants that you wouldn’t be upset about if they were to get covered in firecracker debris.
Don’t wear anything flammable: Try to avoid wearing polyester or anything flammable… heh heh. Cotton is usually a good material to wear to the festival.
Wear covered shoes: It’s also recommended to wear comfortable, fully covered shoes as you’ll be walking along firecracker covered roads and are on your feet most of the time.
Wear sun protection: Make sure to bring sunglasses and sunscreen, because you’ll be outside for most of the day without much shade around to protect yourself or to cool off.
Take safety goggles: Bringing safety goggles will also help from getting specks of dust and dirt from the firework explosions in your eyes.
Bring a towel: And for all the smoke and falling firecracker embers, I’d bring at least one towel you can hang around your neck as well – this comes especially in handy when firecracker paper is raining down on you.
Don’t forget an umbrella: Speaking of rain… I’d also recommend bringing an umbrella, not necessarily because there’s a high chance that it’ll rain water drops, but because at night when the parade floats come by, they’ll be throwing treats and other goodies to the crowds below, and by turning your umbrella upside down, you’ll have the perfect basket to use. Having an umbrella is a handy way to catch some goodies more easily (people get pretty competitive/aggressive here when it comes to catching some of the items from the parade floats!). I’ve learned this from observation and experience during the past few festivals. 🙂
The Mazu Festival is free to attend.
Mazu’s birthday is celebrated on the 23rd day of the lunar month March, which is usually in April or May of the solar calendar. There are a few events and activities that happen each year that are definitely worth attending.
Each day on March 19th and 20th of the lunar calendar, the six Mazu’s that reside in Chaotian Temple are each carried out by a group of bearers, and then a huge amount of firecrackers are lit up underneath them. There’s also a performance and dance that each group does with their palanquin carrying Mazu.
People will gather in front of the temple during this time to observe, and it’s a frenzied and loud celebration, to put it lightly. After the fireworks explode, the group continues down the road and through the countryside, where residents will have special gifts and food set up to give to Mazu in order to receive her blessings and good fortune.
This ceremony happens four times during the 2 days, and the interesting part is that the timing depends upon Mazu’s wishes. The only time that it’s guaranteed to happen is at 9am on the first day of the festival.
Similar to the ceremony welcoming Mazu out of Chaotian Temple, each group of bearers carrying Mazu will make it back to Chaotian Temple during the day after having visited the residents and the countryside with Mazu. There will once again be boxes full of firecrackers being blown up, and each group will do a performance before Mazu is brought back inside.
Be sure to check out the interior of the temple as well, where the loud noise of explosions and overall pandemonium fades away to be replaced with the quiet murmurs of devotees praying, while the thick smoke of incense hangs heavily in the air. There’s also a small shop selling bracelets and necklaces which people like to purchase and place over the incense, hoping to pick up some good luck.
Additionally, during the procession where groups are toting the palanquin with Mazu inside, people will line up after the firecrackers explode and run under the carriage. It’s considered good luck to go through the smoldering ashes and under Mazu, so if you see people lining up by a palanquin in Beigang, be sure to try this for yourself as well! You can run under as many palanquins as you like to obtain more good luck.
Beigang’s Mazu Festival has one of the greatest number of parade floats out of any festival in Taiwan and is definitely a highlight of the procession. The colorful floats come out around 6pm, and are intricately decorated with their own themes, complete with all the bells and whistles of upbeat music and dancing lights. Most of the floats even have children waving graciously from the top, dressed up in heavy makeup and costumes while performing ancient poems, religious stories, and folklore.
The best part about these floats for most people though is that the children on the floats will occasionally throw out candy, stuffed animals and other prizes during the procession. The sidelines get packed with people, so try to come early to nab a good spot as everyone gets super competitive/aggressive when it comes to trying to catch some of the float prizes.
Wake up early: The actual schedule of events that comprise each day changes each year based on the lunar calendar and the wishes of Mazu, so to ensure you don’t miss out on anything, it’s always better to wake up early and stay near ChaoTian Temple to have the best chance of catching anything special going on.
Wear clothes and shoes you don’t mind getting dirty: The Mazu Festival is not the place to show off nice or new attire, because I guarantee it’ll be covered in firecracker smoke and scraps by the end of the day. Since much of the festivities surrounds lighting an enormous amount of firecrackers, and the climate in Beigang is already dry and dusty to begin with, there’s going to be a lot of smog and ash in the air, which will, unfortunately, cling quite heavily to your clothes.
Wear a hat: Similar to why you shouldn’t wear nice clothes to Beigang for the Mazu Festival, it’s also advised to wear a hat that will help protect your head and hair from all the debris and getting pelted by the firecracker paper scraps in the air.
Carry an extra pair of earplugs at all times: If you’ve never heard the roar of hundreds of pounds of fireworks detonating in close vicinity, then you’ll be in for quite a surprise. The first time I witnessed the intense explosion, I actually fell over backwards because the noise was so loud and deafening. You never know when they’ll be lighting up fireworks (it happens more often than not), so to avoid being caught off guard, I’d suggest having a pair of earplugs on you at all times. I used the small, foam kind you can get at any common store or pharmacy, and they worked great for this occasion.
Wear a mask: Unless you’re not that sensitive to a sky full of smoke and dust, I’d highly suggest wearing a mask or at least having one with you whenever the fireworks detonate. It can be quite hard to breathe when you want to get close to see each spectacle, but fireworks are also being blown up in your face.
Bring water and food: Due to the lack of convenient stores and even restaurants in Beigang, I’d suggest bringing some of your own snacks to avoid having nothing to eat. As with most festivals, locals will be busy preparing special meals for the touring pilgrims, and many places will be outright closed for the festivities. Also make sure to carry water with you since the events go on all day and through the night, and it’s easy to get dehydrated with the hot, humid weather mixed with firecracker smoke.
Bring cash and spare change: Most of the stores in Beigang don’t accept credit cards and ATM machines are far and few between (I don’t recall seeing any when I was there). I’d recommend carrying small TWD bills with you to purchase anything from the stores, and also to use for burning incense or paper at the temple.
Mazu is said to have lived during the 10th century on Meizhou Island, where she dedicated her life to helping her fellow townspeople through her knowledge of the ocean and weather. On September 9th of the lunar calendar, 987 AC, she died while trying to rescue the survivors of a shipwreck. After her death, the locals built a temple in her honor and began to revere her as a goddess.
Now, the Mazu belief has spread throughout the world, with more than 5,000 temples and 200 million worshippers, and it’s now become an integral part of the lives of many coastal Chinese and Taiwanese people. The commemoration of Mazu and people’s belief in the Goddess of the Sea is considered an important cultural bond that greatly shapes the cultural identity of these communities.
Chaotian Temple also holds a great deal of significance to the history of Mazu, especially for the people of Taiwan. As the original Mazu temple in Taiwan, it was established in 1694 when Shu Bi, a senior monk from Meizhou, Fujian, brought a statue of Mazu to Taiwan. He arrived in Beigang on the 19th day of the third lunar month and built the temple in honor of the goddess.
It’s now been said that the Mazu that resides in Chaotian Temple is the most powerful of them all. That’s why Beigang’s Chaotian Temple is the location for one of the biggest Mazu pilgrimages, with people from all over the world bringing their own town’s Mazu to Chaotian Temple in order to pass the power of Beigang’s Mazu to their own.
Aside from the Mazu Festival, which is the main event and the reason most people pay a visit to Beigang at all, there are a few additional attractions worth seeing if you have the time.
The main road that leads up to Chaotian Temple is full of traditional shops and stalls selling specialty goods known in Beigang, such as sesame oil, goose eggs, and traditional treats. Wander down the small alleyways adjacent to this street as well to gain more appreciation for the history and culture of the town.
Said to resemble a giant dragon with its three arches, this red and gold steel arch bridge is 450 meters long and crosses over the Beigang river. For a little more peace and serenity, take a walk over the bridge during sunset when a warm glow is cast over the water and bridge.
This uniquely designed bridge is said to resemble Noah’s Ark and is a new sightseeing highlight to Beigang. Its modern design stands in contrast with the landscape you’ll see while taking a walk on the bridge. With a view of the entire Beigang River on one side and the old railway on the other, this bridge pays homage to Beigang’s historical past.
Although the water tower itself is pretty nondescript, the first floor has been turned into a tourist information center for Beigang and is a great place to visit when first arriving at Beigang to get more information about the town.
If you’re traveling from Taipei, the easiest way to get to Beigang (besides hiring a private car), is to take the HSR (high-speed rail) from Taipei Main Station to Chiayi. It’s a little under three hours of a ride on the high-speed train to Chiayi Station. From there, it’s an easy 15-minute taxi ride to Beigang.
The trains depart from Taipei about every 40 minutes, and it’s recommended to book your tickets in advance as some scheduled departures fill up faster than others.
There are limited options for places to stay in Beigang, and your best bet for comfort and convenience is staying at Kaoyu Hotel, currently the only hotel I’d recommend staying somewhere in Beigang that’s walking distance to the temple and activities. Make sure to book your room far in advance, as many people coming to Beigang for the festival will also be choosing this accommodation since there are such few choices in the town. Otherwise, you might get stuck without a place to stay when the date comes!
For those visiting Beigang for the festival, all the event activities are close to each other, and the entire town is very walkable. There really is no need to rent a car or hire a driver once you’ve made it to Beigang. The main street leading up to the temple is where most of the vendors are located and is easily accessible to explore by foot.
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