I’ve seen the iconic images over and over for the past few years. A sea of lanterns floating in the dark sky creating a dynamic constellation flowing smoothly with the wind. I had to see it and experience it in person.
This year I planned to stay in Chiang Mai until mid-November so I could participate in the Festival of Lights. The festival is celebrated all around Thailand, in which people release lotus-shaped receptacles, known as Krathongs, into the water to bring luck and fulfill their wishes. In Chiang Mai, though, while they still release the Krathongs, they do perform the celebration in a particularly different way – by releasing thousands of rice paper lanterns, known as Khom Loi, into the sky while making a wish. This is a symbolic act of releasing your worries and letting them float away. This festival is known as Yi Peng.
The interesting thing about Yi Peng is that they try to keep it as local as possible, so they don’t release the official date to the public until a few weeks before the event. Even though I’ve been living in Chiang Mai for months now, I only came to know the date a few days before the celebration. It turned out that this year Yi Peng was celebrated on October 25th.
I paired myself with a few friends and new travelers I met on the road, and we all headed to Mae Jo University in the outskirts of the city, where the celebration would take place.
As recommended, we arrived early during the day to take a nice spot and spend a few hours chatting. There were hundreds of food stalls, lantern sellers, and probably the highest concentration of Thais I’ve ever seen in one place. It was a sea of people.
By nightfall, probably around 6:00 pm, the ceremony started with a main chant and procession of monks, which was followed by a religious Lanna ceremony to make merit and pay respect to Buddha.
While the entire country celebrates the Lanna ceremony (or Lanna festival), it is best experienced in Chiang Mai due to the size of the celebration and the symbolism behind it, since Chiang Mai is the former capital of the Lanna Kingdom.
While the ceremony is for locals, there were many tourists (like me!) participating, so the presenters took their time to explain in English how to sit properly when paying our respects to Buddha and how to proceed with the ceremony.
Subsequently, hundreds of lantern sticks protruding from the ground were lit as the monks proceeded to chant and walk around the grounds with their own lanterns and offerings.
We were then informed to lit our lanterns and hold them in position for a synchronized release. What I didn’t know before is that there’s not just one release. There are three releases. The first one is for the Buddha, the second one is for the Dharma, and the third one is for the Sangha. These are the Three Jewels Buddhist take refuge in and look forward for guidance.
And then, the lanterns were released.
I was truly mesmerized by the amount of lanterns floating in the sky. Thousands of them moving almost in unison, creating this sprinklered column of light that disappeared into the deep night as fireworks dotted the sky with balls of multicolored lights.
The joy I felt can’t simply be fully described in words, but it was as impressive as I thought it would be. I’m glad I had the opportunity to experience this cultural, religious, and truly enchanting moment.
Here’s a quick video of my experience on this year’s Yi Peng.