I haven’t actually written very much about my time living in Thailand and I know that some of you would love to know more about it. In hindsight I should have discovered blogging while I was living there, but I didn’t. So now I get to reminisce, scroll through my thousands of photos and choose the best bits to share with you. One memory that stands out is the Thailand Lantern Festival. We lived in Chiang Mai in Thailand’s North, the best place in the world to enjoy everything that this time of year has to offer, including the Yi Peng festival where the lanterns float in the sky, and the Loi Krathong Festival where the lanterns float in the water. Both of these Lantern Festivals are magical especially when they overlap and you have a wonderful reflection of the lanterns in the sky and on the water at the same time. I wanted to share my experience of the Thailand Lantern Festival and encourage you to add it to your bucket list because it is one of the most breath takingly beautiful sights you will ever experience.
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Yi Peng Festival
Yi (or yee) Peng is a Buddhist festival that occurs on the full moon of the second month in the Lanna lunar calendar with is the 12th month in the Thai Calendar, which is around October or November. It must also occur within 30 days of the end of Awk Phansa (Buddhist Lent). This confusion is why it is so hard to track down specific dates for the event each year and even the locals don’t seem to know what is happening until the week of the event. Luckily we were living there so could make last minute decisions to go.
To add to the confusion there are two versions, the traditional event (which they don’t actually refer to as Yi Peng), which is mostly attended by the locals is not only free but also more authentic and the tourist version.
Obviously we wanted to go to the locals event where there is a lot of focus on the offerings made (robes for the monks, food, drinks and money) and the ceremony surrounding the merit making. The ceremony/festival/event is held behind Mae Jo University at the Lanna Dhutanka grounds. If you do go to this one, be respectful that this is a Buddhist ceremony, wear clothing that covers you, do not drink alcohol and remember to buy your lanterns once inside the grounds for about 100 Baht each (any you bring with you will be confiscated). The lanterns you buy at the event are more expensive (you can get 3 for 100B at roadside stalls) however they are recycled paper and bamboo, adhere to fire regulations, wont short circuit power lines if they land on them and to be honest it looks awesome when they are all the same.
Thousands of people attend this festival so be prepared for the crowds and know that parking is limited, as is transport out to the event (getting back home is even trickier). We rode Thai style (all 3 of us on one motorbike) out to the event and back home to the city (in the rain with a sleeping toddler!) and this worked fine for us. We parked right at the main entrance and paid about 10B for the carpark security. You can hire a songthaew (and squeeze in as many people as you like) for around 1000B which will wait for you and take you home – be sure to arrange prices beforehand and agree on a time and place to meet your driver afterwards.
The day starts around midday with the ceremonies, the monks will be on stage around 5:30 with an hour of meditation and prayers. The remaining monks then have a circumambulation (candle procession) around 7pm where they chant prayers and it is simply amazing to witness. The first launch of the lanterns happens around 7:30pm and the crowds start to move off around 9pm.
Try to get there early to secure a good spot and to avoid the crushing crowds (though this is hard to avoid on the way out). Allow lots of time to get to and from the venue due to the huge crowds and traffic chaos that occurs (It only took us 30 minutes but it can take up to 2 hours!). We arrived at around 3pm which worked out well for us. There are toilets and food and drink stalls at the venue but you are welcome to bring your own.
We watched the crowds gather around us, and they watched us, utterly entertained by our very blonde and cute toddler who practiced her bows, posed for photos and was given plenty of treats by strangers (I know – would never happen here!). We were able to watch the glorious sunset over the temple as a group of gliders circled above us like majestic eagles. As it grew dark, the monks chanting began and a relaxed happiness settled over the crowd.
You will be told when to light your lanterns, do not do it before this, and do not let go of the lantern until instructed to (just follow everyone else) the idea is for everyone to let them go at the same time. Visually and emotionally this is the magic moment.
The floating sky lanterns that you release are called Khom Loi and are made from a very thin rice paper that is stretched over a bamboo frame with a fuel cell attached with thin wires in the centre of it. They are extremelly fragile so be careful you don’t tear them when you get yours. And be careful that you hold the paper out of the way when you light them or the whole thing will go up in flames instantly. When the fuel cell is lit the hot air is trapped inside the rice paper ‘bag’ and once it is full of hot air you can let go and it will float up into the sky taking your sins with it.
When everyone released their lanterns there was a lot of clapping and cheering but at the same time there was an awesome silence. The dark night sky filled with glowing white and orange – 10,000 wishes drifting above our heads. My eyes teared up, probably a combination of the smoke and the sheer awe of the sight. We watched until the lanterns floated so high they were just tiny pin pricks, like a galaxy of stars. I have heard descriptions of the lanterns looking like a swarm of glowing jellyfish and they do. Then the crowd of people around us all helped us to light our second lantern, the excitement and happiness was contagious and we felt a strong sense of community with this group of strangers.
Yes, what goes up must come down and for days following the festival you will see burnt out lanterns scattered across the landscape where they have landed. Be careful where you let them go if you do it yourself as they can easily become caught in overhead wires and trees which is clearly quite dangerous. I wouldn’t recommend doing it wherever you please, stick to the designated areas throughout the city.
When you are leaving the festival you will shuffle along a narrow dirt road in the dark with hundreds of people pressing in around you, the humidity is stiffling, the sweat will drip down your back, you may need to duck the firecrackers but there is a general air of calm, happiness and you will be utterly drenched with joy, a deep soul drenching joy. You will crane your head to look to the sky to see the lanterns drifting past and to get a few breaths of fresh air.
As I mentioned, there is also a tourists version, which you must pay to attend, and it is now timed to occur at the same time as Loi Krathong meaning you see lanterns floating in the sky, reflecting down onto the lanterns floating in the waters. This is usually about a week after the official ceremony and despite the overinflated prices (about $100 per person I think), tickets sell out fast.
I have heard rumours that the airline carriers were trying to get the Lantern Festival banned due to the potential dangers, although there have been no reported incidents, however I am fairly confident that the festival will go ahead no matter what. You will not miss out if you don’t get to an actual event, you will still see thousands of lanterns floating across the city sky, the whole city is decorated and in party mode. And you can generally buy and release lanterns throughout the city for about a week either side of the festival. There are giant rice paper lantern displays in the old city, parades to watch and the temples are all decorated for the events too. You may even be lucky enough to watch some of the monks release larger khom loi during daylight hours.
When we were there the festival was in October, I believe that the 2015 festival will be mid November, maybe around the 15th but please do some research into this if you are planning on going.
Loi Krathong Festival
Loi Krathong translates to mean ‘to float a basket’ and this Thai Lantern Festival occurs on the full moon of the 12th month of the Thai Lunar Calendar. As I mentioned above, the calendars and dates get very confusing in Thailand, we found ourselves living in the year 2554 (I believe that the calendar started at Buddha’s passing). Anyway, this roughly translates to the festival being in November.
On the night of the festival the skies were alight with hundreds and hundreds of Khom loi (floating sky lanterns) with a steady stream of new lanterns rising as the burnt ones slid silently from the canvas of the night sky, touching down like ash softly resting in trees and on rooftops. Fairy lights outlined the bridges, buildings and walkways all around the river. Coloured lanterns glowed from doorways and arches. The city looked magical.
Where Yi Peng is all about the floating of the lanterns into the sky, Loi Krathong is about floating them on the water. The floating lanterns are small (although some are rather large!) baskets that are usually made with a slice of a banana tree trunk (they float well and are biodegradable). These baskets are then decorated with flowers, elaborately folded leaves and a candle with the addition of incense and a small coin as an offering to the spirits. We avoided the styrofoam versions since these are obviously very bad for the environment. Baskets are available for purchase all along the river front for around 20 Baht (give or take depending on the elaborateness), simply wander along and purchase one you like.
You climb down the stairs to the river edge where floating bamboo platforms have been built out over the water (you can see a daytime picture of this in the photo above). You light your candle for longevity of happiness, the incense for homage to Buddha and make a wish as you gently launch your lantern. Try to keep an eye on which one is yours in the crowd of floating lanterns because the longer your candle stays a light the more likely your wish is to come true. Like the night air, the river is barely moving and the krathongs seem to linger, a freeze frame of time, letting us savour the sight.
The meaning behind it is to let your negativity go, floating off with your krathong, and for this reason some of the locals will add some old hair or finger nail clippings to their lantern. It is also about paying respect to the river spirits, since this is the water that sustains life.
As with any Thai festival there are lots of fireworks, loud music and parades, plenty of food and general frivolity. There were endless fireworks every night between the Mae Jo Yi Peng Festival and Loi Krathong however there was a definite crescendo on this weekend. This festival centres around Saphan Nawarat Bridge (we lived right next to this bridge!) and there will be alcohol, unruly firecrackers, very close fireworks and more so please be warned and be careful. I had to duck my fair share of fireworks and many of my photos were blurry because I was jumping out of the way. We also released some tiny birds from a small woven bamboo basket, which the Buddhists do to make merit. While it is a bit contradictory to the meaning behind it (since they are caught and sold) it was enjoyable for my toddler.
The crowds grow thicker with every passing minute and while we kept my daughter awake for as long as possible with the electric excitement and fairy floss we ended up taking her home to bed where we could sit on our balcony and soak in the view of the festival unfolding around us. While we could hear the noise rumbling up from below us, it was all very peaceful watching the sky lanterns and the water lanterns reflecting each other like a mirror, until the main fireworks were set off right next to our building and the actual walls started shaking and sparks flew around us. Puts another meaning to front row seats.
The 2015 festival is supposedly on November 25th, meaning that the tourists Yi Peng will probably be on the 26th.
The Floating Lantern Festivals in Thailand are a magical experience that really cannot be described in words, and while I have shared lots of photos, you need to see it for yourself to get the full emotional pull of it all.
Have you ever been to a Thai Lantern Festival?
If you released a lantern, what would you be letting go of and what would you wish for?
When looking at prices 1 Australian dollar is currently worth about 25 Thai Baht, it was closer to 30B when we were there.
While it looks like I have taken a lot of photos (and I did!) you will notice that there are also some gaps with photos of certain events and happenings during the festivals missing. This is for three reasons – because I was caught up in the moment and being completely present; because I felt it disrespectful to be taking photos during ceremonies; and because it is very hard to juggle a big camera, a toddler (and the fairy floss, balloons, drinks etc that come with them), dodge firecrackers and take it all in.
In saying that, please remember that all photos are my own and if you would like to use them please credit me and let me know. Thanks.