“I can’t believe I almost missed this,” I said aloud to my new friends as we walked down the sidewalk toward the Ping River. Above us, thousands of golden, twinkling lanterns were floating up and taking to the winds across the night sky, morphing and expanding along the thermals like a galaxy of stars. Just a few days earlier, I had made the decision to skip out on what would have been a much-too-short motorbike trip around the Mae Hong Son loop.
Instead, I met a Thai local named Samart who graciously hosted me for the week. I had the awesome opportunity to meet many of his friends, employees, and volunteers—a mixture of Thai locals and other travelers—who work with him at his bungalows outside Chiang Mai. Several of them had come into the city just for the Yi Peng and Loy Krathong festivals.
Yi Peng is the city’s famous lantern festival. It’s a Buddhist tradition dating back to the days when Chiang Mai was the central capital of the Lanna Kingdom. I had been viewing photos of this festival on blogs online and in travel books for years. When I realized my trip to Thailand would overlap with the festival, I made the decision to go to Chiang Mai to participate.
Coinciding with Yi Peng on the November full moon is the Loy Krathong festival involving small, hand-crafted floats with candles sent down the river. The release of lanterns and the floating of the krathong symbolize the bringing of good luck and letting go of past negativity.
I had my lantern tucked under my arm and a krathong float balancing on my hand as we walked along the city streets. Earlier in the day, Meg, a friend of Samart’s from Oklahoma, and I had bought the lanterns for 30 baht each and then randomly joined a gathering of people learning how to make traditional floats. Floats are available for purchase at the festival, usually using Styrofoam as a base. But the traditional way is with a slice of banana tree trunk decorated with intricately folded banana leaves, flowers, incense, and candles. Thai locals thought we had purchased ours like many other tourists since we did such a good job making them!
The lanterns are much more difficult to make on your own—most locals buy theirs, too. Lanterns are delicate rice paper stretched between wires. A fuel cell is then attached to the wire underneath and lit. Hot air fills the lantern and takes it up and away like a tiny hot air balloon. Some of these are timed to set off a chemical reaction in which the fuel cell sparks, leaving a trail of dripping light referred to as a "waterfall."
Locals often write messages on their lanterns before setting them free. A co-worker of Samart’s helped me with mine. He wrote “Have good luck” in Thai.
Fireworks were blasting off in the distance and music got louder as we walked toward the Ping River. I could smell the burning fuel cells as we turned onto the open field where locals and tourists alike were gathered. Small groups of people and couples crowded around their lanterns, readying them for take-off.
We worked together to set each of ours free and then tried to help people around us who were struggling. I felt bad for some people next to us who got a tear in their lantern. We attempted to repair it—but once there’s a hole, the lantern is a no-go.
There are so many lanterns in the air at once, the city of Chiang Mai actually closes the airways!
One of the unfortunate sides of the festival is the littering of the lanterns all over the city. For days afterward, I saw lantern “carcasses” all over the city and even out in the natural surrounding areas.
The lanterns rise up as far as you can see and then burn out, falling back to the ground. You could be on one side of the city seeing a beautiful scene of lanterns dancing about the winds high above, and then travel to the opposite side of the city only to see their downfall. The ghosts of lanterns past would flutter down, no longer lit, and catch on electrical wiring, get stuck in trees, or otherwise land burnt up and alone. I wonder where mine made its grave…
After helping others set their lanterns free, we walked our krathong floats down to the river. There, we lit our incense and candles and pushed them out onto the water. Most of the floats caught the current, but some of them got pushed back to the shore. Hilariously, people would start splashing at their float, making tiny waves to help them move further out into the river. All a part of the fun!
Keeping with tradition, I put a strand of my hair and a fingernail into the float. This symbolizes the release of any negative thoughts or past grudges. I decided I was going to be letting go of the stress and bad taste I had in my mouth from 6 years of grueling PhD work. With the release of the lantern symbolizing a future of good luck and the send-off of my negative thoughts on a float down the river, I was feeling as uplifted and carefree as ever! Fireworks blasted off, lanterns soared up above, and the river was alive with speckles of candlelight. I felt lucky already.
The scene was so active with lights, colors, and sounds—you really must be there to see and hear it for yourself. But this short video I took can give you an idea:
There were festivities going on all week leading up to and the few days after the festivals climax on the night of the full moon. Near the Thapae Gate there were performances and pageants put on by the city with dancers, music, TV cameras, and crowds of onlookers.
Along the waterway surrounding the old city, tons of people lit candles and big businesses showcased enormous krathong floats.
The temples hung traditional lanterns and held small activities for locals. For instance, there was a fun maze I came across on my way back from talking to a monk. Bamboo poles propped up swaths of colored fabric and lanterns creating a small labyrinth leading to a Buddhist shrine at the center and wax figures of famous monks throughout. Thai people were walking through to music, making offerings to Buddha, and generally having a grand old time laughing with each other. Supposedly, this was another Yi Peng tradition; a small ceremony in which people receive good luck for making their way through.
The Three Kings Monument was decorated for weeks surrounding the festivals. On display was an artistic array of colored lanterns. We stopped by there on the way to a bar and had fun taking photos and dancing around in between the lights.
There were also several parades around the old city with lavish floats, dancing and beats, and people dressed up in costume and makeup. Every person in the parades had obviously taken loads of time and care dressing and preparing. I haven’t seen a parade so spectacular in years.
Reminders of this beautiful Buddhist tradition were ever present during the remainder of my time in Thailand. No matter where I was I could always look up into the night sky and catch a glimpse of at least one or two lanterns. I'd be overjoyed to go back to Thailand at the same time of year to catch these events again.
Oh, and PS...
Happy (almost) New Year!!
Here are some more fireworks from the festival in Chiang Mai!