November 2016: Chiang Mai, Thailand: Lantern Festival

As we pushed our way through a great crush of people, moving an inch at a time, we could only think, “This is the subdued version of this festival?!”

You see, every year Thailand has a big festival called Loi Krathong. And this festival coincides with a Northern Thailand festival called Yi Peng. In Chiang Mai, the two festivals team up to make one super festival.

Ali participates in the lighting of a candle within one of the paper lanterns–not the kind that are floated into the sky.

Ali and Annabelle enjoy some colorful lantern displays.

Loi Krathong/Yi Peng
The Yi Peng festival is probably the one you’ve seen pictures of on the Internet. They’re the ones where people are sending giant paper lanterns into the sky, kind of like that scene in Tangled. If you’re a fan of Disney movies, you know what I’m talking about.

The lanterns are made of rice paper, with a small disc of wax at the bottom. You light the wax and hold up the lantern. Once it fills with hot air from the burning wax, you let go, and it floats away into the night.

Monks perform a religious paper lantern ceremony.

Loi Krathong, meanwhile, involves putting little floating leaf boats (that’s probably sacrilegious or something) into the river, lighting a stick of incense and/or a candle sticking out of the boat, and then sailing it down the river. You’re supposed to make a wish or say a prayer or something as you do. Krathongs are typically made from natural materials (banana leaves and flowers) so they don’t turn into pollution as they float away.

The King’s Death
But this year, when we’d planned to go to Chiang Mai specifically for this reason, there was one big snag in the plan. The king of Thailand died, sending the country into a month of mourning, meaning no parties, no celebrations, and certainly no festivals. It was specifically announced that the lantern festival was cancelled.

The king’s death was a BIG deal. They loved that guy. People wore black, had black ribbons on their sleeves, and there was black and white bunting and shrine things up for him everywhere. So it’s no surprise they canceled everything, but from a tourist’s point of view, who had been really looking forward to visiting at this specific time of year, it was a bit of a bummer.

So although we were disappointed that the festival wouldn’t be happening even though it was at the very end of the month of mourning, we resolved to have fun anyway. We went to Chiang Mai, settled in, and discovered that the powers that be changed their mind partway through the month. Chiang Mai would, in fact, hold Loi Krathong/Yi Peng celebrations. Yay! In honor of the king, however, the festivals would be kept more somber than usual, with no fireworks, loud music, or brightly-colored lanterns. It would be less of a loud party and more of the “traditional” celebration it used to be. We were totally cool with that.

Well, the “mellow” version of this festival was still mayhem, so overall I’m pretty glad we didn’t go during a wilder year. We managed to buy a couple of Krathongs and make our way through masses of people (Joe’s Krathong got pretty banged up in the process) so we could send them down the river.

Joe and Ali pose with their krathongs.

Our krathongs, lit and launched down the river.

Our krathongs float away, mixed with hundreds from everyone launching them in the river.

The whole time we were doing that, we were able to watch hundreds of lanterns fill the sky, but could not find a place to buy them anywhere!

There were massive crowds of people.

Fellow tourists launching their lantern to the sky.

The night sky was filled with paper lanterns.

As the lanterns got far up enough in the night, they looked like stars.

After we sent our boats adrift, we spent some time trying to get away from the giant smash of people and pretty much gave up on sending up a lantern. It was fine, we said. We got to see them all going up and that was awesome, we said. We started heading back to our apartment.

Then we spotted someone selling some on the side of the road and, after a few second’s hesitation, bought one and set that baby on fire. It was SO COOL watching it float up into the sky to join all the others.

Joe and Ali hold their lantern as it fills with warm air.

Ali and Annabelle watch the flame as our lantern starts to tug and pull upward.

Released, our lantern floats up into the night sky to join the others.

Then we got an Uber and went home, totally exhausted. It was a great festival!

Next: We spend a bit more time in Chiang Mai, visiting Doi Suthep, taking a cooking class, and more.

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