The glorious sunlight immediately made up for the dangerous two hours of sleep I barely managed to squeeze in the previous evening. Or it could have been the two macchiatos I downed en route to Kaohsiung; we may never know. What I do know is that the transition from the glum-faced, umbrella-toting early birds of Taipei to the sea of sunglasses and parasols in the sunny southern city was a sight for sore eyes. The equally sunny disposition and informative narration of Gordon, our delightful MyTaiwanTour guide, was a fun bonus.
Our first stop following the roughly four-hour bus ride was the Pier-2 Art Center in Yancheng. Past the curious collection of cartoonish statues, which included curvy fisherwomen, boxy-torsoed construction workers, and a fully-transformed Bumblebee were old buildings tricked out with murals, and warehouses converted into museums and seasonal exhibition spaces. Tourists posed with surreal scrap metal sculptures scattered across the old train tracks. Photographers turned into contortionists, angling for that perfect shot.
When the rest of our tour group arrived, we headed over to Platform 8 ⅖ (cute) in the Hamasen Museum of Taiwan Railway. We hopped aboard a pint-sized light rail train, modeled after the trams of the Kaohsiung Mass Rapid Transit, and zipped around the miniature tracks. Yes, it was every bit as awesome as it sounds.
A tour of the railway museum came next. Among its nifty displays was a life-size replica of a train carriage interior and an interactive one-seater rail bike that you could pedal around a short strip of tracks installed in the corner of the room. The centerpiece of the permanent exhibit, a sprawling hall inhabited by an exquisite scale model of the island, did not disappoint.
The craftsmanship and attention to detail were on another level. Illuminated toy trains disappeared into mountain tunnels and glided past colorful buildings, billboards, and public squares as thumb-sized animatronic civilians pumped water and hung up their laundry. There were teenie chickens pecking the grass, for crying out loud.
The tour was paused for a filling lunch at the Jhan-2 Warehouse, which was stocked with a variety of restaurants and kiosks vending everything from artisanal crafts and souvenirs to maxi pads. We then set off for the Fo Guang Shan Buddha Museum, a sacred treasury erected to enshrine a tooth from the Sakyamuni Buddha himself. Leading up to the Fo Guang Big Buddha was a long, white path – a reference to the Great Path to Buddhahood – flanked by the Eight Pagodas and neat columns of flower shrubs and other greenery. The glinting bronze Buddha was even more striking up close.
We were asked to put our cameras away during the tour of the shrines. The relief carvings, engraved into fragrant wood and jade slabs, as well as the statues spotlighted in each shrine were sights to behold – in particular, the thousand-armed Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva and the Reclining Buddha fashioned out of white jade. Smiling staff members seated by the entrance of each shrine handed us flower pots that we then placed on the altars as offerings for the deities. In the Golden Buddha room, which featured a wall housing some 6,000 white Buddhas in separate niches, were Dharma Advice Boxes. Visitors knelt before these boxes, quietly submitted a question, and fished out words of wisdom printed onto paper scrolls, available in both Mandarin and English.
We later reconvened at the Starbucks in the Front Hall, boarded our bus, and proceeded to Shunsian Temple. This was the venue for the main event: the Neimen Song Jiang Battle Array.
MyTaiwanTour hooked us up with great rooms at the Yixian Service & Event Center, according to TaiwanGods, “the most famous five-star pilgrim’s hostel in Taiwan.” Once we were all settled in, we made our way towards the temple square. Performers and guests located their seats in the mass of round tables, ready to dine bando (banquet) style. We feasted upon a blur of seafood platters, an assortment of meats and vegetables cooked in various ways, and broths, capped off with, of course, a plate of fruit.
The banquet was complemented by vibrant song, drum, and dance numbers prepared by the eight competing schools. The school spirit demonstrated by these institutions, among them an elementary school, was infectious. What’s more, the diversity of the performers was a breath of fresh air.
All in all, an appetite-pleasing and emotionally gratifying end to an action-packed day.