Most people have seen the photos – hundreds of bright paper lanterns floating into the sky at once. But you may not know what it is and where to see it.
Loy Krathong and Yi Peng
Finding information about the festival can be a little confusing because people use the names Loy Krathong and Yi Peng interchangeably. The two festivals take place simultaneously in early November (the last month of the Thai calendar) coinciding with the full moon in Thailand. Though it is celebrated throughout the country, Chiang Mai is known for their celebration.
Loy Krathong literally means “to float a basket.” The krathong are made of various materials including food or banana tree trunks and decorated using leaves, flowers, and candles. During the festival, the lit krathong are floated down the river. They range in size and decoration and are sold by locals all along the Ping River in Chiang Mai.
Yi Peng always coincides with Loy Krathong because it also falls on the night of the full moon of the last month Thai lunar calendar. Yi Peng involves the lighting of paper lanterns, called Khom Loy, which allows them to float up into the air.
The festivals have ancient spiritual beginnings, though the true origin is unknown. Buddhists have previously used the ritual to honor Buddha. And in recent times, the Thai believe that floating these baskets on the river and the lanterns into the sky is a way of letting go of misfortune and bad luck. So whether you’re interested in the festival for the symbolic meaning or because you want to see the pretty lanterns, the festival is worthwhile.
Getting There and Celebrating
The festival is celebrated in full force by Thai people in Chiang Mai, but an independent Buddhist group has designed an experience specifically for tourists held at Mae Jo University 30 minutes outside of Chiang Mai. The Mae Jo Yi Peng celebration costs about $100 and includes travel to and from the event, dinner, and a lantern for you to float up into the air. I don’t know about you, but I hate paying for things that I can otherwise do for free.
If you walk around the Ping River on the nights of the Yi Peng Festival, you’ll be able to buy your own lantern and your own floating basket and set your cares away into the sky and the river along with most other revelers. So why you would pay to do this at a secluded place somewhere? Maybe because you’re guaranteed a more picturesque experience.
This year’s festivities were severely impacted by the death of the King. In the immediate aftermath, it was unclear if the festival would take place at all. In the end, they decided to go with a more somber version of the festivities.
They cancelled all but one parade, which ended up being mostly a memorial to the king, with most of the all white floats honoring him. They also cancelled the official fireworks show and related beauty pageants and concerts. So suffice it to say that my experience was very different to years past and surely years future.
We had read that the lantern release would go on as would the Loy Krathong basket floating. But on the night of the 14th, we walked around and saw absolutely no sky lanterns for sale. Though krathongs were everywhere. So obviously at some point, they decided to ban the lanterns, and Thai people all closely adhered to the ban.
The Chinese, however, were secretly selling the white lanterns in the corners of the night markets and hidden behind signs during the parade. So if you wanted to get your hands on a lantern, you could. No one stopped the sales and no one stopped the people from launching the lanterns up into the air en masse from the bridges on the Ping River.
I’m not sure how much those restrictions had to do with the King’s death and how much they had to do with safety. In recent years, the festival has been criticized for being a hazard to air travel. You can imagine how thousands of floating lights in the sky could impair aircraft visibility.
How to Light a Khom Loy Lantern
On our first night, we sat by the river watching the floating baskets float by when we saw a couple with paper lanterns. They sold us one and told us where they got it. As a result of the confusion and secrecy, the lantern release was not nearly as spectacular the first night as it was on the second when word had gotten around.
So with the help of more knowledgeable people along the Ping, we lit our lantern and sent it floating up into the air. When you get your hands on one, here’s how to do it:
The lanterns come folded down in a circular shape. The frame of the lantern is made of thin wire which crosses in a large X in the middle. At the center of that X is where the propelling force of the lantern goes: a cotton donut soaked in kerosene and covered in wax. This should be attached to the wire but if it’s not, you can always use the wire to tie it on.
Lighting a lantern is usually at least a two person job. Depending on the size of the Khom Loy, it could require several. Some lanterns are several feet high. Someone has to hold up the frame and make sure the lantern is fully open while another person lights the fire. Because of the wax, it can take a long time to light. The best thing to do is break off one corner to expose the cotton.
Once the fire is lit, you have to wait for the hot air to fill the lantern. This could take several minutes if your lantern is big enough. You don’t want to release it prematurely because then it’ll just drop, sometimes on other people on the bridge. A couple of times, the lanterns went up in flames because people weren’t careful. But they burn up quickly and no one got injured. Still, it’s better to be safe than sorry. You certainly don’t want your bad luck to come crashing down in a blaze at your own feet. That’s the opposite of the point.
Some Festival Tips
Yi Peng and Loy Kathrong are massive cultural street festivals. So come for the lantern lighting, but stay for the food and merriment. There’s nothing more calming and spectacular than enjoying a fresh Thai milk tea while the sky is adorned with floating lights.
Most of the lantern launching will go on from one of the bridges on the Ping. This year, it seemed like the Narawat Bridge was the best spot. You can see many of the krathongs floating down the river, and most people lighting Khom Loy were on that bridge.
Though lanterns are being sent into the sky consistently for several hours, the event is most impressive when many of them go up at once. So come together with the people around you and coordinate a simultaneous launch.
The festival can get really crowded, and most people come from the west side where Old Town is. Even more so on the day of the parade which comes down Tha Phae Road toward the river. So if you want to avoid the crowds, make your way to the east side of the river.
Adjacent streets will not be closed and they will be packed. So plan on getting there early. You don’t want to be stuck in traffic on a tuk tuk for 45 minutes.
Pictures may or may not come out well. The lanterns fly up very fast, and it’s hard to capture. Don’t sweat it. This is a great example of an event that photography does not do justice. So sit back and enjoy it. Let all your bad accumulate with the heat in your lantern, say a little prayer, and let it go!