With a silent wish for peace, I dropped my boat of leaves and flowers into the Ping River. Entranced, I watched it float away with the current, joining dozens of other baskets all lit by pinpricks of candle light. Above me, against the black sky and a full silver moon, paper lanterns filled with orange flames sailed upwards. This was the climax of the Yi Peng and Loy Krathong festival in Chiang Mai, a three-day event filled with light displays, processions, and sadly for us, a little bit of lantern-related terror.
We chose an odd year to attend the Yi Peng lantern festival. After King Bhumibol Adulyadej sadly passed away in October, the whole event was cancelled and then later allowed to proceed with a more sombre tone. That no firework displays, alcohol, pageants or concerts and there was a lot of conflicting information and confusion surrounding the events. So, before I talk about our beautiful yet slightly dangerous experience, I’m going to explain exactly what the two festivals are about.
What’s the difference between Loy Krathong festival and Yi Peng festival?
Loy Krathong (also spelt Loi Krathong) is one of Thailand’s largest festivals and is celebrated throughout the country. To give thanks to the water goddesses for providing rain during the harvest season, people make baskets (Krathongs) from banana tree trunks, flowers and leaves. These are filled with candles and incense before being released into rivers. The festival has been adapted by Buddhists to honour Lord Buddha and releasing a Krathong has come to symbolise letting go of negative thoughts and making wishes for the future. The Loy Krathong date changes every year because it falls on the full moon of the 12th lunar month.
Yi Peng (also spelt Yee Peng) is a separate festival that falls on the same full moon, but is unique to northern Thailand and mainly celebrated in Chiang Mai. Like Loy Krathong, it’s a time for Buddhists to release bad memories, pay respect to Lord Buddha and make wishes for the future, by releasing paper lanterns into the sky. During the festival, the streets are decorated with colourful hanging lantern displays which light up the night. Yi Peng is celebrated on the same night as Loy Krathong and both events are part of a three-day schedule of religious events, music, parades, fireworks, lantern displays and beauty pageants.
So what’s the mass lantern release in Mae Jo all about?
Yi Peng is often confused with a separate mass lantern event held in Mae Jo, a town just outside of Chiang Mai. The release was originally part of an unrelated tradition, the Kathina ceremony, which takes place in Mae Jo every year. During the ceremony, Thai Buddhists gain merit by donating robes and money trees to monks and in the evening, people gather to release lanterns into the sky. This became popular with travellers, who eventually flooded the event, so the organisers set up a separate ticketed lantern release aimed solely at tourists. It costs between $100 and $400 to attend the Mae Jo lantern release and it has become inextricably associated with the free Yi Peng lantern festival in Chiang Mai, although it’s not part of the official festivities.
Loy Krathong and Yi Peng Chiang Mai 2016 – our experience
The first night of the festival was, for us, a beautiful and serene experience. We visited some hanging lantern displays at Wat Lok Molee, where monks were chanting and Buddhists had come to pray and make offerings. There was a subdued opening ceremony near Tha Pae Gate with some traditional dancing, a moment of silence to remember the king and a mass bird release. On the ground, Thai people had spelt out We Heart King in tea lights.
At the Three Kings Monument, a statue of the founding fathers of Chiang Mai, an all-white display of lanterns lit up the darkness. Revolving lanterns painted with pictures of the king formed the centre piece of the display and people quietly lit candles, prayed and took in the scene. Just down the street, the Sunday night market was in full swing and we followed the flow of stalls down to Wat Phan Tao, where we were greeted by the most magical sight of the whole festival.
Across a tiny lake, a golden Buddha statue sat beneath trees hung with dozens of white lanterns. On either side of the water, the sandy banks were lit by the fluttering flames of hundreds of tea lights, which were reflected on the water’s surface. Candle light illuminated the temple grounds and a giant Krathong of leaves had been constructed into a cone-shaped chedi. Monks wandered past and although we were surrounded by people, all was quiet and serene. It was the most beautiful part of the festival for me.
On the 14th, the official night of Loy Krathong and Yi Peng, we headed down to the Ping River for the main event. The area was filled with food stalls and tables of elaborately decorated Krathongs, which people were taking down to launching spots on the riverbank. We wandered down to the water to watch the stream of Krathongs sail slowly past as the first of the lanterns began to drift into the black sky. After making sure they were constructed out of biodegradable materials, we released our Krathongs into the water.
Lantern terror on Nawarat bridge
It was when we tried to cross back over Nawarat Bridge that things got scary. The crowds had thickened with people carrying folded paper lantern skeletons, stopping in any available spot to light them. An ambulance came screeching through the crowds and motorbikes continued to beep their way through the throngs of people. We got almost three quarters of the way across before I started to panic.
From the other end of the bridge people were pushing on just far enough to light their lanterns, some of which were getting caught in the trees or hitting power lines, then tumbling back down into the crowds. Here’s the thing, these lanterns aren’t small and the flames get big. Some people didn’t realise they had to hold onto them for a few minutes for the heat to build. Instead, they were letting go too soon and lanterns were stuttering upwards a few inches before plummeting down onto the heads of people below, flames and all.
By this point we were in the thick of the crowd but at a standstill. Every few minutes they’d be a collective shout as a lantern hurtled down on someone. It was dangerous. My mind vividly conjured images of people being set on fire and sparking a mass panic, followed by a stampede and people jumping into the river. I decided we had to get off the bridge and the only way was to turn around and go back the way we’d come. I was shaking by the time we got back to the other side. We opted not to buy a lantern of our own and enjoyed the rest of the festival from a safe distance.
Staying safe at the Yi Peng Lantern Festival
Just like any major festival anywhere in the world, there are accidents, injuries and occasional fatalities at Loy Krathong and Yi Peng. Thai authorities have tried to make things safer by restricting alcohol and firecrackers, which are responsible for some of the worst injuries. This year the governor Pawin Chamniprasart decreed that all lanterns should be white or grey to show respect for the recent passing of the king, be made of natural materials (although most still contain small amounts of wire) and meet strict size restrictions. Lantern releases were only allowed between 7pm and 1am on the 14th and 15th and 15 flights were cancelled and 36 rescheduled for aviation safety.
We saw signs forbidding alcohol and large firecrackers and although crowded, the atmosphere around the river was mostly respectful. We didn’t see any firecrackers at all. However, I personally thought that the Nawarat Bridge was an accident waiting to happen. Nearby areas seemed safer and there was a huge police presence at the iron bridge. It seemed like with a little bit of planning, a one-way system and more police at Nawarat, things would have been safer.
Tips for the floating lantern festival in Chiang Mai
- If you do go to Nawarat Bridge, be alert for crashing lanterns and firecrackers.
- If you’re releasing a lantern, don’t let it go until it’s safely filled with smoke and will rise properly.
- Lanterns aren’t available to buy until Loy Krathong/Yi Peng day itself. You could consider buying a biodegradable, eco-friendly lantern online in advance, as most on sale at the festival contained a small amount of wire. Most lanterns in Chiang Mai seemed to sell for around 80 – 100 THB.
- Same goes for Krathongs, make sure you buy one made entirely from wood, plants, leaves or other biodegradable materials.
- Book your accommodation in advance, as it sells out fast around festival time and prices increase sharply.
- If you want to go to the Mae Jo lantern release, you’ll need to buy tickets online months in advance, check out this website for information. In hindsight, although Mae Jo might not be the most ‘authentic’ event and is attended by tourists, not locals, it is one of the safer ways to celebrate. The release happens in an open field, with eco-friendly lanterns and designated spaces between people to avoid accidents.
A final note about the Thailand lantern festival
I didn’t write this to try and scare you off from celebrating Yi Peng or Loy Krathong. In fact, I think that if you have the means to, you should definitely go and experience the festival for yourself. Overall, it’s a special, profoundly spiritual spectacle. We loved the temple lantern displays and were honoured to take part in the festivities by releasing our own Krathong and watching the night sky fill with paper lantern. I don’t want to sugar-coat things though and I can’t ignore the fact that some parts of the festival were just plain dangerous, mainly the crush on Nawarat Bridge. So go, celebrate, but be safe.
Have you ever celebrated Loy Krathong or Yi Peng? Would you like to? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.