Part II – The Burning of the Boat
Following my previous hitchhiking adventures to Kaohsiung, I spent a day gallivanting around the city before I eventually made it to the site where The King Boat Festival (迎王平安祭) was held.
Once every three years, the little fishing town of Donggang of Pingtung County (東港, 屏東縣) is abuzz with unusual liveliness for about a week. The King Boat Festival is a spectacular event featuring the burning of a large boat on Donggang’s beach at dawn. A long-standing tradition that dates back to the 1700s, the festival honours Wen Fu Wang Ye (溫府王爺) who lived as Wen Hong (溫鴻) and served under Emperor Taizhong of the Tang Dynasty (唐太宗: 626-649 AD). As a loyal subject, he had accumulated much credit for the emperor, and legend has it that he had even saved the emperor’s life. Unfortunately while on a mission, he along with 35 other ambassadors died at sea when a great storm struck. To show his gratitude, Emperor Taizhong honoured him and the other ambassadors as celestial emissaries (Dai Tian Xun Shou 代天巡狩). That is, representing the emperor to patrol the country and report back to the heavens. It is believed that by burning the King Boat and sending Wen Fu Wang Ye back to the heavens will also eliminate disease and pestilence from the earth, as well as protect devout followers from ill luck.
This uncommon festival holds plenty to see and discover. Taiwanese locals and foreigners alike all crowd into this place, wishing to take part in it. With this year’s festival coinciding with my first year of living in Taiwan, it was something I could not miss.
Upon arriving at the town’s outskirts close to midnight, it was rather easy to spot where I needed to be. If it weren’t for the red lanterns lining the streets, then it was certainly the crowds of people making their way to Dong Long Gong (東隆宮), the temple in which the first part of the main event would be held. It was as though I had arrived at the site just as they were getting started, instead of late into the night. Like what you will find at most temple entrances, food vendors, drink stands and small stalls selling all sorts of knick knacks line the streets leading to the temple. There were game stalls as well as a Chinese Opera stage. It was like a giant night market on a weekend, only with much more to take in.
After walking the streets, I thought it was time to see what all the fuss was about. Everyone had a similar rhythm to each other as we headed to the centre of Dong Long Gong. Here, people had the chance to admire the boat up close before it is later set alight. Vibrant, gold and amassed with offerings and incense, I found myself wandering into the temple to observe devout locals pray for their fortune.
Traditional pipes and drums were played alongside chants as smaller offerings were made throughout the night. Finally around 1.30 am, a solemn hustle began as eager spectators, silent by the obvious change of pace, vie each other for the best spot to watch the boat move through the temple’s golden gates on its way to the beach. After the big ceremony at Dong Long Gong, I was one of the thousands who made our way to the beach for the final send-off. We left the temple earlier than I expected. At 2.30 am we reached the dark waters and stood there waiting for dawn to see the fiery finale. The atmosphere was riveting!
Somehow I managed to push my way through the crowds to the front for the best view of the boat. Being well prepared, I have brought with me a picnic mat. After standing for an hour or so, my legs gave way to the weight I was carrying and I was ready to make some little space to sit down. For your future reference, don’t carry a bulky back pack if you could help it! I was being knocked around like a pinata making my way through crowds with my cargo. Thankfully, my picnic mat proved more useful than I had imagined. I shared as much of it with the people around me…and made more new friends.
At long last just before dawn broke, the boat was finally set to burn. The calm that came with the blaze as the sun rose was somewhat humbling, as though a new beginning is in the midst. As you could probably pick up from my voice, I had no energy left to stay longer, but I have been told the boat continued to burn up till midday.
At 6.30am, I slowly made my way back to the temple with my new friends who were happy to give me a lift back to Kaohsiung. Too tired to lift my thumb again for another 8-9 hour hitchhike, I finally slumped on a bus and slept the entire way back to Taipei.
Exhausted as I was, it was truly eye-opening to take part in such a spectacular festival. Thanks to Taiwan’s religious freedom and nurturing of local customs, I was able to learn about this age-old tradition and see how relevant it still remains in their lives today. I had hitchhiked a total of 4 cars, rode 2 buses, stayed awake throughout 14 hours to witness this event. But it was worth every joule of energy.