TAIPEI, Taiwan -- Clouds of incense float through the crowded Hsingtien Temple as businessmen in grey suits mix with children in flip-flops and elderly women bowing and mumbling prayers.
The temple is one of Taipei's most popular places to worship and a perfect example of why Taiwan is one of the world's best places to observe Chinese religious traditions.
For centuries, the Taiwanese have practiced a rich blend of Buddhism, Taoism and folk beliefs brought here by ethnic Chinese settlers. Many of the traditions have been interrupted in China during decades of communism, which once tried to stamp out the religions.
Hsingtien Temple is on the corner of a busy intersection in downtown Taipei. Dragon sculptures appear to dance down the eaves of the sloping red-tile roof. A wall with tall red doors seals off the courtyard, which is open to anyone who wants to go in.
Inside the temple, three rectangular tables are loaded with offerings: fancy cans of tea, mangoes, pineapples, bananas and "migau," a sweet pastry made of sticky rice.
Most people pray in the main hall to the temple's god, Kuan Kung, who sits behind a black and gold altar and looks a bit frightening with his scowling red face, five tufts of whiskers and sword.
A series of small lanterns are hung in front of the deity, to be lighted once evening falls.
About 100 candles lit by worshippers adds a mystical atmosphere that surrounds the temple courtyard.
Housewife Chou Ying-hua carried a worn cloth handbag over her shoulder as she prayed for help from the Kuan Kung.
"My husband was let go from his job two months ago, and he is now considering a joint venture with two friends," said Chou, who is in her 30s. "We are here to ask for advice, if it is wise to go ahead with this business venture and if it will be successful."
Glimpse into religion
Visiting temples is easy in Taiwan because most are open to the public and not closed to people of different religious faiths. Often, the two major religions -- Buddhism and Taoism -- can be worshipped in the same temple.
The Hsingtien Temple's caretakers, or shifu, are mostly elderly women and they're easily identified by the bright blue, long- sleeved aprons they wear.
Caretaker Hui Kuo has a graduate degree in social work but spends much of her time at the temple helping people.
"People feel comforted through the act of worship, and are able to experience a sense of peace when they come here," said Hui, in her late 30s. "The strength that they gain from feeling spiritually fulfilled here helps them to overcome the hardship in their lives."