The Elusive Matsu Pilgrimage of Penghu
By Lisa Niver Rajna
Many of my trips involve searching, sometimes for an interesting place or festival but sometimes the journey leads inward. During our eleven-month sojourn in South-East Asia we find in Laos a brochure of Taiwan and its images capture my attention. While reading more about the island nation, I discover a festival in honor of Matsu, the goddess of Taiwanese fisherman. That seals a decision — the next journey George and I take will be to Taiwan.
However, information about the festival is difficult to gather and since the occasion is celebrated as a lunar holiday, we are challenged to figure out dates. Oh, well. As they say in Taiwanese, “Woman Soh-pah!” or Let’s go!
Lonely Planet Taiwan calls the Penghu Islands the “Hawaii of Taiwan.” Might Penghu be like an old-time Hawaii? And as a place known for its fishing industry, Penghu seems like a destination far from the tourist trail, a place with a major Matsu festival and therefore a tantalizing prospect for exploration.
Leaving the reliable high-speed Taiwanese rail system in Chiayi, we travel by bus for several hours to the port city of Putai, where we meet our new friend Keke and several other friendly locals. We enjoy a surprisingly fun evening in Putai including a visit to the local fish market, with incredibly ornate local temples on nearly every street corner, as well as the inevitable 7-11 stores with their ubiquitous ATM machines.
On April 25, Matsu’s birthday, we travel by boat to Makong and are surprised to discover that this is not a walkable island with few cars and one small road around town. The thriving city has day-tripping tourists, multiple convenience stores and even a McDonalds. Indeed, Lonely Planet says that there are four thousand 7-11s in Taiwan, the highest number per capita in the world. I wonder if I am really engaged in a 7-11 pilgrimage.
After a ninety-minute boat ride, and a short walk in the quaint town during which we follow a tourist map and arrive at our hotel and mime our way into a room. I pick out a restaurant that has all the food on display, thinking we can eat by pointing. This plan backfires and results in the most inedible meal we eat on the island.
In search of the festival and the Matsu temples, we set off to a temple and to the Fenggui Blowholes by bus. Several soldiers from Taipei and other cities are onboard but looking for “hot girls in bikinis” at the Shanshui beach. After saying dooh shiah or thank you, and Wan ahhn or good evening, we have to rely on their English; our few measly words in Taiwanese hardly suffice for a conversation.
We plan to get dropped off on Shuli Beach and walk to the next patch of sand at Shanshui, but greatly underestimate the gigantic size of the island. Thank goodness we are traveling by bus and not bicycle! Further adjusting our itinerary, we decide to walk around the grand Matsu temple. The soldiers are no longer nearby but I know they will find us on Facebook.
In the old town, we wander cobblestone streets and find the “first-class historic site” of the Empress of Heaven Temple, the oldest Matsu Temple in all of Taiwan. At this site many people are burning paper money for luck. Searching for the formal pilgrimage, we explore Aimen and Lintong Beaches, both of which are lovely and clean. Everywhere in Taiwan, the locations are spotless and the people friendly and quick to offer assistance if we seem lost; one man even turns his motorbike around in traffic to stop and chat and help us find our way, clearly inconveniencing himself to make sure we are assisted. The people are interested in us as tourists and as English-speaking Americans. They are just plain friendly; this place almost rivals the Bulas of Fijians!
Despite our hospitable welcome, on many occasions finding food is a chore. One night we stumble on Havana Café & Pizza – near ZhongZhen on MingZhu Road, a bar with great Italian food where we dine before the grand opening of the Fireworks festival. Our first thought is that these fireworks are the festival celebrations we are in search of, but locals tell us the fireworks are “from money from a plane crash.” I know this sounds strange but that is the story we are told! (No, I won’t buy the next bridge someone offers me!) Whatever the reason for the party, George thinks the residents are facilitating an impressive quantity of tourism; it seems the island’s entire population of ninety thousand people have assembled for the fireworks at Rainbow Bridge, and preparations have been going on for days.
Finding a place along the water, we witness one of the best and longest pyrotechnic displays we’ve ever encountered. The crowd snaps photos and videos with cell phones and a wide variety of cameras, oohing and aahing constantly.
As soon as the last crackle and sputter of gunpowder has faded, the crowd amicably disperses and we take photos of the bridge, vowing to return in the future. Penghu Island is a place to enjoy again and again with its beachy charm, friendly atmosphere, and old city walls. There’s something for everyone here. I am not sure I would compare the place to Hawaii but the area is full of charm. I would love to come back and see the famous double heart-shaped weirs created by the fisherman. Next time; perhaps, I will even find the Matsu festival.
About the Author
Lisa Niver Rajna is an accomplished travel agent, blogger, speaker, science teacher and member of the Traveler’s Century Club. Lisa and George Rajna spent eleven months wandering Southeast Asia from Indonesia to Mongolia where they fell in love, got engaged, and now as a married couple are writing a book about their journey.