Looking up from the bridge, it appeared as if the sky was falling. Even in the remotest of deserts, I’d never seen a night sky so bright. These weren’t stars, however, but a special type of floating lantern called khom loi. Each year in November, thousands gather for Chiang Mai’s Yi Peng festival to watch a ceaseless flow of these lanterns get released into the sky.
And Yi Peng just so happens to coincide with another popular festival of lights known as Loi Krathong. Over the course of three days, both the waters and skies of Chiang Mai are illuminated with innumerable lanterns, candles and floats, while parades and ceremonies take place on land. The end result is one of the most magical weekends one can possibly experience in Thailand.
Note: Each year there is a special private event on the outskirts of the city near Mae Jo University, where all the attendees release their lanterns at once. Famous photographs of Yi Peng (such as the cover of the 2017 Lonely Planet Thailand) are often of this ticketed event, which costs over $100 USD to attend. This article, on the other hand, focuses on the free festivities taking place in central Chiang Mai that anybody can just show up and take part in.
The Opening Ceremony
Chiang Mai’s Yi Peng festival goes from Friday to Sunday evening, with its first night being much more low key than the others. The official opening ceremony took place at the Three Kings Monument in the center of Chiang Mai’s Old City. While there would be no sky lanterns this evening, I decided to walk over to the central square to see what it was all about.
I was by no means a stranger to Chiang Mai, having used it as my main base for months during my travels around Thailand and Southeast Asia. And I’d walked through the Old City at night any number of times before. But even prior to my arrival at the ceremony, I could already sense something special in the air.
'Even prior to my arrival at the ceremony, I could already sense something special in the air.'
The entire moat area around the ancient wall was illuminated by lanterns and candles. Even with the throngs of people making their way over to the center of the festivities, the atmosphere was nonetheless quiet and serene. It felt less like being in Thailand’s second largest city, and more like hanging out around a campfire.
The Three Kings Monument commemorates the friendship between the rulers of Sukhothai, Phayao and Lanna’s very first ruler, King Mangrai. It was also Mangrai who founded the kingdom’s capital of Chiang Mai all the way back in 1297. While Loi Krathong is said to have begun in Sukhothai (whose founder Ram Kamhaeng is included in the statue), the sky lantern tradition of Yi Peng is believed to be of Lanna origin.
But many details of its true beginnings remain a mystery. Some believe that it may even be a local adaptation of the Hindu festival of Diwali. In any case, whatever the real meaning behind the symbolism may be, the complete transformation that the city undergoes throughout the weekend is truly a sight to behold.
The ceremony began with some ritual candle lighting and a traditional folk dance performance. Thousands of people were gathered in the square, as speakers welcomed guests in both Thai and English, before going on to introduce more groups of dancers. In total, the whole thing lasted about an hour.
Once the ceremony ended, I hung around the courtyard for awhile to check out the myriad of different lantern displays. And then I went to off the explore the rest of the walled city. To my surprise, even more performances were going on outside some of Chiang Mai’s ancient gates. Girls in traditional Lanna dress danced to a live Lanna folk ensemble in front of the North Gate, as tourists and locals alike gathered to enjoy the show.
I then headed southeast to Tha Phae, one of Chiang Mai’s most famous gathering spots. The generally subdued atmosphere was in stark contrast to the water fights and general mayhem that takes place here for April’s Songkran festival. I admired the large Lanna style lanterns on display before heading home to rest up for a busy next day.
After dark the next evening I headed eastward, beyond the walled city and over to the Ping River. I was about to experience the main event – the sight which hundreds of thousands visit Chiang Mai each year to see. Starting at 7:00 PM, an endless stream of khom loi lanterns would be launched into the sky. But what for?
Some say the tradition started as a way to honor what’s called the Pra Ged Kaew Ju La Manee. The story goes that the Buddha cut off his top knot before going into the forest to become a renunciate. And that top knot is now kept in a special crystal chedi in the heavens. The lanterns, then, are one way to send offerings to that mythical relic in the sky.
Other explanations, though, are a lot more simple. Essentially, the lanterns are believed to symbolize one’s attachments and negative thoughts, and the act of releasing it is a symbol of letting go.
I started off on Nawarat Bridge. To say it was packed would be an understatement. People had to jostle and shove their way just to get onto the bridge itself, though everyone seemed to be in good spirits. (Obviously, the bridge was closed for traffic!) Most of the crowd waited patiently until the official start time of 7:00 PM, though that’s not to say that some didn’t let theirs go prematurely.
With Chiang Mai Airport being so close to the city, safety becomes a growing concern each year. Supposedly, dozens of flights need to be rescheduled, or sometimes outright cancelled, to avoid flying through the line of fire. Once 19:00 struck and it was time for the lanterns to start flowing, it was easy to see why.
Danger in the sky wasn’t the only thing to worry about. The design of the Narawat Bridge, it turns out, is far from ideal for lantern releasing. There’s a cable at the edge which the lanterns kept crashing into, often sending them back down into the crowd below.
Someone would then have to grab it by the edge before anyone got lit on fire. With the bridge as crowded as it was, there was little room to maneuver to avoid the flight path of these fireballs, so you had to be on constant lookout in all directions. After about the sixth or seventh time of seeing this happen, I decided to go search for somewhere else to enjoy the festivities.
Walking south along the Ping River, I arrived at the Iron Bridge. It was clear from the start that this was the place to be. A large concert was taking place by the river bank, leaving a little more space for people to enjoy the bridge itself. And with less obstacles in the way for the lanterns to crash into, I could finally relax and watch the sky without worrying too much about catching on fire.
'The fact that many people make a wish before each flight attempt greatly adds to the tension.'
Watching the hundreds, if not thousands of khom loi up in the sky at any given moment was a mesmerizing sight. Before I knew it, hours had passed. Considering the lanterns’ success rate is far from 100%, another part of the fun is watching people’s reactions as their khom loi either soars up into the sky or crashes into the nearest tree. The fact that many people make a wish before each flight attempt greatly adds to the tension. In any case, there are always vendors nearby selling lanterns for around 50 baht a pop.
The khom loi lanterns are made of rice paper wrapped over a bamboo or a wire frame. Before release, you light the disc at the bottom which has been soaked in kerosene. You then have to wait awhile for the inside of the lantern to get hot enough. After a couple of minutes, the heat will send it floating up into the air, though the wind can make things a little hard to predict.
A family next to me released a lantern and I followed it with my eyes. A few minutes later, it was eventually gone. Where was it headed? And who would find it? I wondered. Apparently, people used to (or maybe still do) put down their address on a lantern. Should someone find it once it lands, they’d be entitled to visit that person’s house to receive a small gift!
Next, a couple on my other side released theirs. Again, I followed it with my eyes. It wasn’t too long, though, before it came crashing down into the river.
Leaving the bridge, I headed back west toward the Old City. Even along the bustling Tha Phae Road, people were letting go of lanterns left and right. I passed by a temple called Wat Buppharam, where a large crowd had gathered in the courtyard. Intrigued, I stepped inside.
Wat Buppharam dates back to 1510, though much of it was rebuilt or restored throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. The main highlight of the temple is its narrow two-story viharn. Illuminated at night, it provided the perfect backdrop for the steady stream of sky lanterns floating up to the sky. Now I understood why so many people were gathered here.
Considering the potential fire hazard, though, I was also surprised to see the khom loi allowed to fly so close to the wooden structure. But looking over at the monks, they didn’t seem to be too worried.
Having walked past the temple any number of times in the past, it was surreal to see it this night illuminated by the orange glow of the lanterns. It was like something out of a dream.
Exploring the interior of the viharn, I came across a set of Emerald Buddha replicas. Another room contained a larger Buddha in front of a mural depicting scenes from one of the Jataka tales, or stories of the Buddha’s past lives. This one was the story of Prince Vesantara, which just so happens to be closely tied in with Chiang Mai’s festival of lights.
According to legend, the Buddha’s final incarnation before he was to become the Buddha was as a wealthy prince. Overall, the story is a long one, divided into thirteen chapters. It’s prominent moral lesson, though, is that of generosity and non-attachment. In the tale, Prince Vesantara gives away everything from a precious white elephant to his own two children!
Angering a number of people as a result of his actions, the prince gets sent into exile in the forest. Eventually, though, he gets invited back to his kingdom at the end. During Yi Peng, a temporary forest gate is constructed in front of many temples to symbolize the welcoming back of Vesantara to his kingdom.
The viharn of the wat is such that you can climb up to the second floor and look out at the street from the terrace. Taking in the view for awhile, I headed back down to watch people experiment with putting sparklers and even little fireworks in their lanterns. The sparks and smoke would occasionally cover up the full moon for a moment. I’d seen plenty for one evening, I though, and so sometime after midnight, I finally headed home for the night.
'It provided the perfect backdrop for the steady stream of sky lanterns floating up to the sky.'
The next evening, on my way back over to the river, I had trouble getting through the Old City. Entire streets, in fact, had been cordoned off. I stopped behind a large group of people, trying to get a glimpse of what was going on, when illuminated floats passed by full of people in traditional costume.
With so much going on over the weekend, I didn’t even realize there’d be a parade that night. I later learned that it was an annual tradition for the third night of the festival. Though I didn’t stick around for very long, what I saw was impressive. One float basically consisted of giant Lanna-style lanterns, with even a dancer inside of one!
Having spent the last couple of evenings focused mainly on photography, it was time to take a more active role in the festivities. After making my way through the parade, I met up with some friends at a cafe where we put together special floats for the other part of the weekend festival, Loi Krathong.
As mentioned above, Loi Krathong can trace its roots back to the original Siamese kingdom of Sukhothai. According to legend, a beautiful girl who was also the daughter of a Brahmin priest once tried to get the attention of the reigning king. She did so by sending elaborate floats of flowers down the river, and her efforts would eventually pay off. Though I didn’t see it, a beauty contest also takes place each year in honor of the priest’s daughter, with the winner taking part in the parade.
While Sukhothai was a Theravada Buddhist kingdom like modern-day Thailand, the Hindu influence left by the Khmer Empire remained strong. Brahmin priests even continued to hold a lot of influence in society back then, though they’re nonexistent in Thailand today. Loi Krathong, in fact, is said to be Hindu, and not Buddhist, in origin.
Hundreds of years ago, the worship of the Hindu trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva was a major part of the festival. At the insistence of 19th century ruler King Mongkut (Rama IV), however, the Hindu elements were toned down in favor of a traditional Buddhist flavor. One deity still revered at the festival, though, is Mae Kong Kha, the local version of the water goddess Ganga.
The floats, known themselves as krathong, consist of materials like folded banana leaves and bamboo, with offerings of flowers and incense placed inside together with a small candle. Not having anticipated the parade, most of the preparations were already done by the time I arrived. Shortly afterward, we all headed out to the river.
The basic premise of the krathong floats are the same as the sky lanterns. They are supposed to symbolize the letting go of anger, hatred and other negative attachments. Placing mine in the water, I successfully got it to float, but it hardly moved an inch. Peering through the darkness, I could see that the river was almost completely clogged up by dozens floats left there over the course of the weekend. It was no use.
We then had a go at releasing some khom loi up into the sky. My lantern seemed to get off to a good start until it crashed into a telephone pole. I tried not to think about the omens this spelled out for my future, and went to buy another lantern. Waiting patiently for it to heat up, the time was finally right, I felt. I let it go . . . only for it to crash into a tree! But luckily, the wind was on my side this time. After the initial struggle, the lantern was finally able to free itself from the branches, and it triumphantly soared up high into the sky. I stood there for awhile watching it until it finally disappeared from sight.
As the festival (along with Loi Krathong in the rest of the country) is based around the lunar calendar, the date fluctuates every year, although it always coincides with the full moon. It usually happens sometime in November, and the Yi Peng festival of 2018 is scheduled to start on November 23rd.
Chiang Mai is the transport hub of the north and can be reached in a number of ways. The easiest would be to simply fly. Thailand has plenty of budget airlines, and it’s easy to find a one-way ticket from Bangkok (usually DMK airport) for just around 1,000 baht (roughly $30).
You can also easily reach Chiang Mai by bus from virtually any city in Thailand. Chiang Mai is also connected to the rail system, meaning you can get there directly by train from Bangkok, Ayutthaya, Phitsanulok and other cities.
If you’re just in Chiang Mai for a short time, staying in the Old City is probably the best idea. If you look at a map of the city, you will easily spot a square surrounded by water. Staying anywhere within, or just outside, of the square would be fine, as you can easily get around the Old City on foot. Most of Chiang Mai’s prominent temples and other historical sites are located here.
If you want to spend a month or more in Chiang Mai, “service apartments” are incredibly easy to rent. Just show up, ask if they have any rooms available and work out a deal for rent and utilities. Once you make an agreement and sign a contract, you can usually move into the furnished apartment from the next day. Most of these service apartments are in the western Nimman area, which refers to Nimmanhaemin Road and its adjacent side streets. This would also be a good area to book a hotel, even if you’re in Chiang Mai short term.