Our number one reason for coming to Chiang Mai was to take part in the Yi Peng festival, which takes place once a year. Every year hundreds of backpackers and Thai people gather in Chiang Mai for the festival. It is so popular, that securing train tickets and accommodations in advance is highly recommended.
When we arrived to Chiang Mai, we already saw preparations happening to decorate the city for the festival. In the square near the “Three Kings” monument, there were dozens of white lanterns hung from wooden poles. Entrances to some of the temples were decorated with colourful lanterns.
At night, we saw local people placing candles around the canals, which looked very magical and had us tingling with anticipation. But the coolest thing happened when we were wandering the super-packed Sunday Night Market. We were pushing through the crowds and all of a sudden we came to a temple that was decorated with lanterns and candles.
We decided to investigate and came across the most magical sight. There was a little canal and a patch of green grass right across where a statue of a monk was placed with maybe a hundred candles all around. Lanterns were hung all along the canal and around the temple. So the entire space was twinkling with lights. The lights reflected off of the water, which made for a really pretty sight. It reminded me of a Christmas Market in the Distillery District in Toronto or Christmas Markets in France that I’ve seen. But of course, this was not a market, but rather a space full of twinkling lights.
We had done some research prior to coming to Chiang Mai and figured out that the main tourist attraction occurs at Chiang Mai University, where thousands of lanterns are lit and released into the sky at the same time. This of course provides great picture opportunities. But there are three major drawbacks: (1) the event at the University is primarily for foreigners. None of the local Thai people attend it, (2) you need to buy a ticket which is rumoured to cost around USD $200, and (3) the tickets sell out months in advance, so even if we wanted to pay such a pricey sum, we couldn’t even get the tickets. But we knew that the entire city of Chiang Mai celebrates the festival and it was just a matter of identifying the place where the locals tend to gather.
But we had nothing to worry about. From the owner of our little guesthouse to numerous other Thai people we asked, we quickly figured out that the locals gather anywhere along the river. And there’s a good reason for that. It turns out that the Yi Peng festival coincides with another festival called Loi Kratong, during which Thai people either make or buy a floating flower basket called a Kratong, light it with candles, bless it and make a wish, and then place it into the river. Thai people believe that if the basket does not flip, they will have a happy and long life, and their wish will come true.
We didn’t even know about this tradition until we walked to one of the bridges and saw many Thai people placing their Kratongs in the river. That’s when we came across a booth where a few Thai women were making these Kratongs. One of the ladies asked me if I would be interested in making one, and of course I said yes! It’s interesting that many tourists passed by this booth and didn’t even take the time to understand what the Kratongs are and why they are important. I was one of maybe three foreigners who actually stopped to make one.
Once I finished my Kratong, we lit it and descended down to the river. We placed the Kratong in a plastic basket that was attached to a rod and carefully placed it in the river. The candles of my Kratong went out, but the Kratong itself did not flip for as far as I could see. So here’s hoping that my wish will come true!
After that we set out hunting for the lanterns. They were actually quite difficult to find, but after asking a few people where they got theirs, we came across a shop that sold them. We ended up buying two big ones just in case and went back through the crowd towards the river.
The lanterns are made out of paper with a ring inside that is supposedly cotton soaked in kerosene. We started with our first lantern and set the ring on fire using a lighter. We then took turns holding the lantern and took some pictures, but we didn’t feel like the lantern was ready to take off on its own. A lady who kindly offered to take some pictures of us hinted that we need to tilt the lantern a bit for the fire to spread. So we followed her advice and soon enough the entire ring inside was burning and we could feel our lantern swelling up with hot air. We took turns letting go of the edges and could feel the lantern drifting upwards. It was ready for lift off!
We let go off the lantern and it floated up into the sky. The ascent was quite fast and in less than a minute, we could only see a small dot up in the sky. But the really cool part is that there were lanterns everywhere lighting up the sky. They could be mistaken for stars if it weren’t so many of them and the yellow light they emitted.
We followed the same process to light up our second lantern, and afterwards we walked along the main street and bought some snacks. Thai people and tourists crowded the street, buying food and drinking fruit smoothies. People released lanterns off of the bridges and even right in the middle of the street. The entire sky was twinkling and the river carried hundreds of Kratongs lit up with candles.
We were so glad we attended this festival. It is really unique to see so many lanterns and candles everywhere as people celebrate in the street. There is nowhere else in the world where you could witness that. The Yi Peng festival was a success!