In the 13th century, the city of Chiang Mai was founded by the king of Ngoen Yang and became part of the foundation for the Kingdom of Lanna. Much of the Lanna culture still endures – including the festival of Yee Peng. In Chiang Mai, one of the highlights of the festival is the simultaneous release of thousands of paper lanterns into the sky. Powered by hot-air, the lanterns soar high into the air and are said to carry a wish or take away the bad luck of the sender.
From the moment we realised our visit to Chiang Mai would coincide with the annual Yee Peng festival, we were pumped for it.
Back on Koh Phangan three weeks ago, as I sat at a wooden table with my laptop under the cool shade of an enormous teak tree while hoovering the stiff foam of a caramel-drizzled cappuccino, the idyllic beach scenery in front of me was but a backdrop. Instead I was reading blog after blog (hey, you can read those later, me first!) about the magnificent simultaneous lantern release that happens every year near Chiang Mai. The words “magical” and “un-misseable” came up frequently and more than one person threw in a variation of “fluorescent jellyfish.”
As the palm trees around me swayed in the breeze and a sea so pristine it seemed to be the colour of the white sand beneath it rolled gently up the shore, I watched ten thousand paper lanterns float serenely into the sky on my screen and made a million mental notes to figure out how I could be releasing one myself this year.
But then I was distracted by a Full Moon Party during which a few of my brain cells were left on Haad Rin beach in a plastic bucket (more about that in another post) and then the next couple of weeks were spent installing ourselves in Chiang Mai and enjoying finally having a useable kitchen and a place to put our bags down for a while.
Eventually though, those mental notes distinguished themselves by being some of the few that have made their way out of the maze of my sub-conscience and pinged back up into my cerebral cortex demanding attention. Obligingly, I attempted to look up some dates for the Yee Peng activities this year.
As it happens, the Lanna Yee Peng celebration happens to fall at around the same time Loy Krathong, a Thai festival which also involves lanterns albeit of the kind that float on water rather than in the air. Just as the Lanna kingdom is now engulfed in present-day northern Thailand, so the Yee Peng festival is rapidly merging with the Thai festival and often people seem to use the different terms interchangeably.
Anyway, I googled both terms and came across a few confused people asking questions in forums and an official-looking program billing itself as “Special highlights of Chiang Mai Yee Peng Festival 2012” on a local news site, which listed a number of events between the 25th and 29th November. It wasn’t clear from anything I read which day would be the lantern release but I figured we could work it out when the time came.
Can you guess where this is going?
Eventually the 25th of November rolled around and as we happened to be chatting with another couple from our building while drying off after a dip in the pool I thought I would see if they had any useful information. “So, do you guys know when that flying lantern festival thing is?” I asked. “Yes,” they replied. “It was yesterday and it was amazing!”
… And disappointment
They proceeded to show us photos akin to all the other beautiful pictures I’d been seeing online. We couldn’t believe it. How could we be in Chiang Mai and miss what many travellers agree is the event of the Chiang Mai calendar? We must have looked pretty devastated because they proceeded to tell us how they’d gotten drenched in a huge thunderstorm on the way home. They weren’t fooling us. The unsaid sentence – “but it was totally worth it” – hung in the air between us.
While people had been gathering at Mae Jo, eating food and waiting for darkness, Stacker and I were catching a showing of Premium Rush at the mall. I promptly fired myself as the Stacker and Zzella social co-ordinator. Before you ask, no the film was not worth missing Yee Peng for…
It turns out the official government program doesn’t include the lantern release that is organised separately by monks and happens at Mae Jo University, some 10 km outside the centre of Chiang Mai. Had I re-read all those blogs again I may have picked up on the fact that “Mae Jo” is the right keyword to use when trying to figure out information about the lantern release.
Our only hope to see a lantern launch now was to go to a second lantern event, which is targeted at tourists and costs around $80. Considering that here $80 can buy you more than fifty bowls of pad thai noodles, we decided it’d be better just to laugh at our cluelessness and launch ourselves into the Loy Krathong festivities instead.
The “Mad” festival
Over the last few days, paper lanterns had been popping up all over Chiang Mai in all kinds of creative shapes. Fairy lights were draped over Nimmanhamen road and Taepae Gate was beautifully lit up.
On the day of November 28th, fireworks started in earnest at around 2pm, one rogue one even exploding right outside our window. As dusk fell around 6pm, the full moon began to peek in and out from behind a wispy blanket of clouds.
We hurried out to meet our friends Jazzianne and Tree Patrol – a nickname that will become clear soon – at an overflowing restaurant by the banks of the River Ping. The whole area was buzzing with a festival atmosphere. Vendors lined the banks of the river selling sparklers, lanterns and food in every which way – on sticks, on strings, in banana leaves, wrapped in rice paper or – for full disclosure – unceremoniously plonked into a polystyrene box. People flowed between the stalls and over the nearby bridge waving sparklers, launching small fireworks and shooting off Roman Candles – mostly over the river but occasionally into the crowd.
As we sipped drinks at the restaurant, working up the courage to step into the madness, it sounded almost as if we were at the centre of a conflict. The left and right banks of the river traded firework shots and I attempted not to flinch every time one exploded loudly nearby.
The name Loy Krathong translates as something similar to “floating crown” and both Jazzianne and Tree Patrol had brought handmade krathongs – small floating platforms made from banana leaves and holding flowers, a candle and incense sticks – to float on the river. Finishing off our drinks, we made our way down to the river, buying some extra krathongs for Stacker and I on the way.
Depending on who you ask, the krathongs serve as a way to release your sins and bad energy, as a way to express thanks for the life-giving presence of water or as an offering – to Buddha, to the Hindu river goddess or to honor lost relatives and ancestors. The festival means different things to different people but the common themes of thankfulness and renewal run through them.
Standing on the muddy river bank, Tree Patrol – a Loy Krathong veteran – told us to think about what we’d done this year that we weren’t proud of and to put our sins into the krathong, light the candle and incense and send our sins away into the river.
I liked the idea of ridding myself of my bad karma and since this was my first krathong I figured I would have to put my lifetime of sins in there. I piled on as many skeletons as I could dig out of my mental closet while lighting the pungent incense sticks and dolloped on some character flaws for good measure. I lowered the krathong gently into the water, trying not to get the brown murky water on my fingers, and it seemed to to be adequately weighed down with all my baggage. I felt a little lighter.
The only problem was it seemed that the river goddess was rejecting to take my offering. The krathong bobbed in the stagnant water at the edge of the river and refused to budge. At least mine wasn’t the only one, the other three were equally stubborn. At that moment a boat glided past and its wake pushed them all into back against the riverbank. Clearly we weren’t in favour with the river goddess today. Tree Patrol grabbed a discarded, burnt up Roman Candle and began nudging them out into the current. Slowly, grudgingly, the water bore our offerings away.
Looking up, we took in the amazing site of hundreds of other krathongs, lit with flickering candles and trailing thin wisps of incense smoke, all floating lazily but steadily by. The procession of candle light could be seen snaking far beyond where the riverbanks were no longer visible and disappeared into the distance. The sky, it seemed, was reflecting the beautiful scene – a river of lights was also floating gracefully towards the heavens. All around the city, a steady stream of khom loi lanterns -like the ones from the Yee Peng festival we missed – were being released and were slowly winding their way towards the full moon, forming a man-made Milky Way across the sky.
On the far side of the river, a surreal parade of elaborate floats was making it’s way through the crowds. I thought I could vaguely make out what looked like an illuminated pink and gold elephant but then a loud bang brought me back to reality.
Fireworks of all kinds were going off constantly all around us and, in many cases, much too close for comfort. We started to retreat further down the river to find a more chilled-out spot, picking up some spring rolls on the way. All along the riverbanks people were sending up fireworks or spinning sparkling projectiles that I called Angry Mice, for lack of a better – or any – term (anyone.. any ideas what they’re called?). Almost certainly homemade, they were like little tightly bound-up cigarillo-shaped cloth packages with a wick, attached to a 30cm-long flexible reed. Holding the reed and lighting the wick, the person launching it would spin it a few times until it started to sparkle angrily and then release it so it would zoom out over the river, spluttering sparks, before dying out in one last crazy zig-zag.
As we walked on the path behind all these pyromaniacs, we occasionally had to dodge Angry Mice that were accidentally released in the wrong direction. At one point an Angry Mouse gone awry flew straight at my legs and I did a fairly good impression of one of those housewives in old films that, upon seeing a mouse, stamps her feet quickly, screams and jumps onto the nearest object (in my case a mound of earth).
I remember seeing an intrigued-looking Western woman being shown how to launch an Angry Mouse by a Thai man and thinking “Great, just what we need: more amateur pyros…” But later in the evening, after being handed a dozen Angry Mice by one of Tree Patrol’s friends, I gleefully launched them in every hypocritical direction.
After arriving at a relatively quiet spot by the river, Stacker and I decided we should send up a khom loi lantern ourselves, considering we’d missed Yee Peng. We gathered our wits up and did the Angry Mouse Gauntlet in reverse to find a vendor with lanterns then returned to our quiet spot, attempting not to puncture the delicate paper en route. We were super excited to finally get our chance to launch a lantern. Tree Patrol talked us through the process and, once hot air had filled the lantern and it was ready to fly, offered to video the release.
Wishing a generic wish for good health and good luck on our travels we released the lantern and watched as it flew up, up and….. got stuck in a tree.
You’ve got to be kidding me!
Watch the happy moment as we release our lantern and then the realisation that it’s stuck:
We waited a while to see if it would work it’s way free but, nope, it was happily nestled in the swooping fronds of the offending tree. A concerned passerby shook the trunk a little to no avail. “Dammit, there is no way our good luck is getting stuck in a tree!” I thought and went to help him but the slender trunk was more rigid than it appeared.
Tree Patrol sprang into action. Kicking off his flip-flops he jumped onto the tree, monkeyed his way towards the top and, using his weight to bend the trunk back and forth, managed to free our lantern to the cheers of everyone around and our palpable relief.
We weren’t the only ones that night to have our wishes go astray. We watched a mother and father light the base of an Angry Birds themed krathong, only to have the whole thing be instantly consumed by flames to the wide-eyed dismay of their young child.
We watched another couple also send their lantern into a tree although theirs was firmly lodged in the large overlapping canopy of a cluster of trees. Stacker and Tree Patrol came to their rescue, shaking the individual trunks of each slender tree in turn until the lantern finally escaped from under the canopy.
At that moment two men, grinning like kids on Christmas day, deposited a dodgy-looking box on the river bank and lit it. The box teetered and fell onto its side before exploding and sending bursts of sparks in every direction, one narrowly missing a young girl. Jazzianne and I agreed it was time to head to safety so, ears still ringing from the explosion, we started to migrate towards a bar. Signs on the riverbank denoted it as an alcohol-free zone – I can only imagine what the festival would be like amplified by a few cans of 7-11’s finest – but the riverside bars were still providing cold beers along with welcome shelter from the pyrotechnics.
We whiled away an hour or two in relative serenity, sipping a beer while watching lights dance down the river and fireworks being launched at someone else instead. Gradually, the stream of lanterns flowing into the sky reduced to a trickle, the time between explosions grew longer and the bar ran out of beer.
We made our way home through the retreating crowds, dodging the weaving mopeds and scoring some fried quail eggs on the way. As we eventually left the crowds behind, we witnessed one of the fundamental laws of physics: what goes up – and doesn’t reach escape velocity – must come down. Deflated, blackened husks of lanterns were littered across the streets. Had I known then that some people tape money to their lanterns as a bonus to whoever finds it, I might have paid them more attention but that was just another Loy Krathong fact we were still clueless about.
Despite all our rookie mishaps – missing the legendary Yee Peng lantern release, having to beg the river to take our krathongs, almost sacrificing our khom lois to a tree fire and, worst of all, not being present for Thailand’s first live performance of Gangnam Style that was happening simultaneously in Bangkok – we still felt privileged to have been a small part of this magical festival… and more than a little grateful not to be suffering from 3rd-degree burns as a result!
Don’t miss the Yee Peng Lantern Release!
- Look for dates of the “Mae Jo lantern release” rather than googling for general information on Yee Peng or Loy Krathong.
- Dates usually come out quite close to the time so as to avoid the free public event at Mae Jo being too touristed.
- The paid version (Yee Peng International) is usually held within a few days of the official Loy Krathong program so as to maximise tourist attendance.
- Here’s a useful trip advisor post on the topic
Some other people did see this year’s release, check it out:
Experience Loy Krathong
- For the full-on madness by the banks of the River Ping, walk to the area between the Iron Bridge and Narawat bridge. To get there, walk towards the river (east) from Taepae Gate or catch a tuktuk or songteow to “Rim Ping condo” (easy to say and easy to spot as it’s the tallest building in the area)
- Make your own krathong before you go (check the official program for demonstrations) or peruse the many market stalls by the river to find your favourite one.
- Read this post, which is based on this year’s events but has useful tips on what to expect and alternative places to go if you don’t fancy the river bank.