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.
As explained before, there are two Festivals of Light and both are celebrated in Chiang Mai too: Yi Peng and Loi Krathong. The former is the free traditional and local celebration performed in Thai language (though they translate a few things to English), while the latter is for tourists and apparently has a fee of $100 for the same thing (though the fee includes lanterns, seating mat, shuttle, krathong, and dinner). This year (2014) the dates were: Yi Peng on October 25th and Loi Krathong on November 6th.
To anyone interested in participating in subsequent years, I recommend checking the Lanna Dhutanka facebook page to know the date of the free event. It is announced only a few weeks before the event, so keep an eye on it around the end of September and October. The date changes each year according to the Buddhist calendar. (The Facebook page is in Thai, but you can simply translate it on Facebook, or search on Facebook for other “Chiang Mai events”)
Should the location not change, the festival is held on the grounds of Mae Jo University, 15 km away from the city. You can reach Mae Jo University with a Songthaew (popular red trucks) from Chiang Mai city center, which will cost you around 100 Bahts each way.
It is advised to arrive at the event a couple hours before it starts due to the high number of people. Equally, after the event, stay at least 30 minutes or more on the grounds to avoid the intense crowd trying to exit the ground through its only exit.
Do not buy paper lanterns from the sellers outside, as you will not be allowed to enter with them. You must buy your lantern inside the grounds, which costs 100 Bahts. (Buy three, one for each release.)
There are hundreds of food stalls there, so there’s no need to worry about food.
Lastly, do book your hotel in advance as these dates are very popular among tourists and locals. I recommend checking TripAdvisor to see the best-reviewed hotels in Chiang Mai and their latest deals so you can get the best accommodation for your money. I’ve personally stayed at the Nap Box Hostel and The An-Teak Hotel and both were excellent.
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