Taiwan is currently in the heart of Ghost Month, a time when locals honour their ancestors. This time around, rather than taking a back seat, I decided to jump right into the festivities. Sure enough, we found a place nearby where we could celebrate the Hungry Ghost Festival first-hand. That place was Keelung, somewhere I was yet to visit. So what better time to explore it than now?
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Celebrating The Hungry Ghost Festival
The entire reason for coming to Keelung in the first place was to see the iconic Hungry Ghost Festival. It was the nearest point to Taipei where we could see a large-scale ceremony. But what is it all about? How is it celebrated? I went into greater detail in my last post, but let’s sum up…
What Is Ghost Month?
On the 7th month of the lunar calendar, Taiwan celebrates Ghost Month; a time when Taoists and Buddhists believe that the gates of hell are opened for “hungry ghosts” to roam the world.
These lost souls are believed to have been sent to the underworld to suffer an eternal state of hunger for their misdeeds or for not having a proper burial. As such, they’re permitted to return to the world for one whole month each year so they can satisfy their hunger.
During these celebrations, spirits are left offerings of meat, dumplings, fruits, vegetables and everything in-between to appease their souls.
Heading to the Altar
Jess and I headed on the short train to Keelung and made our way straight towards the Zhupu Altar for the first event of the evening. We were guided towards the altar with an endless row of lanterns on each side of a mountain road. Though they weren’t there for us. They were there to guide wandering spirits towards the temple where their offerings will be waiting for them.
A Sensory Overload
Immediately we were bombarded by thundering firecrackers popping off and a symphony of whining suona (a traditional Chinese instrument with a very reedy sound) blaring in the night air. The sound was reminiscent of a Muay Thai fight or snake charmers in India. For me, it was a soundtrack of imminent disaster.
Six rows of tables were laid out with all manner of food and goodies for the spirits to feast upon. Whole chickens, candy, bottles of wine and a myriad of Taiwanese classics were laid out next to each other. Though we might not be able to see it, these hungry spirits were supposedly feasting on the offerings as we walked amongst them.
Sadly, for the spirits, they can only feast for so long. Once the ceremony is finished, offerings are taken back home for their families to eat. That was our cue to leave, though we’d be heading back in a few hours for one last ceremony.
There was far less of a crowd by now. The select few that were there had already gathered around a small tent where the closing ceremonies would take place. I wish I understood what was going on, though sadly I couldn’t find much info on it.
From what I can make out, it was a Taoist monk that had dressed up like one of the many deities, who began dancing and chanting. He intended to drive away any lingering ghosts from the altar and let them know it was time to leave.
Yet Another Night Market
As is traditional by now, a new city calls for a new night market, and this was one of the biggest on the Taiwanese must-see list. In a country of countless night markets, the one at Keelung is by far the most photogenic and recognisable of the lot. It drew up a lot of expectations, but provided a lacklustre payoff.
The market was fine, nothing more. Throughout the near hundreds of markets Jess and I had visited by now, we had pretty much seen it all. Very rarely are we surprised or even manage to find anything new. Apart from a man with blood-red, betel nut-soaked teeth selling ostrich meat and a local Keelung burger (which was actually pretty awesome), the rest were just the usual street food suspects.
What’s more, the iconic image of the market turned out to be somewhat of an illusion! The images online suggest an enormous never-ending row of vendors stretching to infinity. Though there was indeed a gorgeous line of lanterns on either side, it was only a single side street. The majority of the market was just like any other, you’ll find in Taiwan. Meh.
Many are too afraid to try some street food in case they get sick!
Well here are a few tips for eating street food!
Starting a Fresh
A new day, and we had no time to lose! We had plenty of Keelung’s biggest highlights to hit. To do that, we’d need some wheels!
Thankfully, during my last trip back to good old Wales, I picked up an international licence. That finally gives me the freedom of getting myself a ride wherever I may be in Taiwan. So, it was time to take advantage. We headed to the closest scooter rental and headed out on our day of fun.
Back To the Island
Our first site of the day was a small peninsula off the northern coast which was once home to the Ketagalan indigenous tribe, though sadly no more. These days, the area is more famous for its unique coastal landscape.
The rough coastal waters of the Pacific have crafted quite a unique landform. In fact, the scene is pretty common across the entire northern half of Taiwan. The relentless water and wind erosion have carved away the softer yellow stone, leaving behind upward stretching outcrops topped with much darker stones. Reminiscent of your grandmother’s wart-ridden back, it certainly was a unique creation of nature.
While researching spots around Keelung, I came across one that was briefly mentioned on an obscure message board. Along the funky coastline, there was a secret little spot I just had to check out.
Of the many colonisers on this island nation, the Dutch were one of the earliest. During their latter period of rule, they were aggressively driven out of the country, leaving behind a select few clinging on to power.
During the last days of Rome, the Dutch were forced to retreat to the Northern coast and hide their religious practices. As such, they would visit the caves on the cliff edges of Keelung where they set up a secret little shrine. It stands there to this day with Dutch carvings scrapped across its walls.
What an amazingly unique and culturally significant site! I looked forward to seeing this site above all else, so I arrived there with immense anticipation. But of course, predictable as always, it-was-FUCK-ING-CLOSED!!!!!
Each and every single article I write seems to include ONE thing that’s closed or being reconstructed. Whether it’s the shrine at Miyajima or the lighthouse on Jeju Island, there has to be one. This time there was no rhyme or reason as to why, just a closed gate and a big go fuck yourself. I just had to spot it from the cliffs above…thrilling.
A Touch of Colour
Next, we were headed to a nearby harbour that had been given a unique paint job. It was nothing too special, just a few buildings with a fresh coat of paint to create a neat rainbow spectrum. In fact, you can find a similar scene on my home island (shoutout Beaumaris). What really got my attention though was the simple genius of adding a little touch of colour.
It’s amazing the instant improvement that comes with a little dash of colour. With just a simple paint job, you’ve added a brand-new attraction to your city, yet another spot to add to the must-see list. Everything has instantly been brightened up and Instagrammers flock from far and wide to snap a shot of it, bringing your city to a whole new audience. Why wouldn’t everywhere do that?!
The ultimate guide to the cultural and artistic hotspot of southern Taiwan, Kaohsiung!
What to see, how to get there, what to eat!
A Cultural Touch
For our next stop, we would be enjoying a brief cultural experience of an indigenous type. Though the northern coasts of Taiwan are void of any indigenous tribes these days, there are still plenty of tribal ancestors scattered around the island. These select few are more than happy to proudly represent their cultural pasts.
Honestly, I’m not too sure which tribe the ladies belonged to, but they certainly came from the same one. We arrived at thunderous indigenous music and a group of older ladies geared up in the full tribal works dancing in unison. It was adorable watching these ladies dance their well-practised routines and just spending an afternoon revelling in their local culture.
Visiting the Big Boys
Next was a visit to a very familiar site during my time in Taiwan. We would come across a giant figure of Buddha and Guanyin standing just behind him! Any other time, I would have been stunned by the immense size of the deity and its matching pair of guardian lions. However, my years of travelling through Asia have somewhat dulled me to such sites.
I’m almost ashamed to say it, but it’s easy to take these places for granted. Taiwan certainly isn’t short of these kinds of places. That being said, a year from now, when I leave the shores of Taiwan, I’ll miss it dearly.
My Indiana Jones Moment
Despite being somewhat templed out, some go out of their way to grab your attention. For one of the last spots, we were headed to quite a unique temple, one that was placed deep within a cave. The spectacularly detailed Buddhist figures were carved right into the cave wall. The chilling vibe and soundtrack of religious chants certainly added to the occasion.
I also had myself a true Indiana Jones moment. There was an incredibly narrow pathway that squeezed its way deeper into the cliff face. It got so narrow in fact that I was forced to crawl on hands and knees between the crevices to get to the shrine at the end. I had no idea of its significance, but for sure it gave me that thrilling I shouldn’t be doing this fizz at the pit of my stomach.
The ultimate guide on how to find and explore the isolated and untouched cave that played a role in the Pacific War; Todoroki Cave.
Hand of the Buddha
Next to the temple was yet another archaeological wonder worth exploring. We stepped into a series of caves that spiderwebbed their way deeper into the Earth. They were so vast and marvellously crafted out as if they were done on purpose, but who knows for what reason?
Each route seemingly ended in a dead end, though one of these stops had a very unique natural formation. In a true show of faith, the locals believed that they could make out the imprint of Buddha’s hand on the cavern wall above. I made out two fingers and a thumb, it was a pretty far stretch for the rest. Regardless, yet again it was another spine-tingling tomb raider moment.
Last Farewell to the Ghosts
This trip started with ghosts; it would end with them too. We were headed to another iconic spot in the heart of the Keelung, and an eerie one at that. Standing above the city overlooking the nearby night markets and bustling streets were the crumbling relics of a nearby mansion.
What was one of the most lavish spots in Keelung, now stood as a creepy reminder of the paranormal vibe of the city, as this place (of course) was also very much haunted. As a load of shit that may be, there was a pretty strange find that did give me a brief moment of pause.
Placed precariously on a nearby windowsill in plain sight was a brand new student card…who was that boy…why was his card there…why was it placed so neatly…why the fuck am I standing here?! Time to get out of Keelung, fast.
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Thank you so much for reading Keelung: Ghosts and Good Times! Now check out these other helpful articles!