Chiang Mai and the Yi Peng Festival

I first took part in Thailand’s Loy Krathong festival — the Festival of Lights as it is sometimes called — in 2009. I saw it in Bangkok and just happened to have business in Chiang Mai that same weekend and caught a bit of it there. It was magical and I promised I’d come back this year.

I met up with the various characters that are Team Chiang Mai on Facebook, a collection of travelers who are either passing through or settling into this remarkable second city of Thailand.

Kyle and Bessie of On Our Own Path and Jack, Aye and Emma of Got Passport gave Peung and me a number of tips and welcomed us to town. Whereas last year I had just viewed the passing clouds of flame-lit paper lanterns in the sky from random restaurants and viewpoints, this time we headed out to Mae Jo University for the main event. A crowd of a few thousand people gathered 30 km outside of Chiang Mai to release their khom loy, large balloon-like lanterns made of China paper and a bamboo ring and fueled by a ring of paraffin.

We took a song taew (literally “two rows” – a covered pickup with two bench seats in the back, a shared taxi) for the 40-minute drive to the site, for 25 baht each, passing on the option of renting one privately for as much as 850-1000 baht. After a cramped ride with various people hanging out the back on the little metal step, we arrived at the Dhu Dong Kha Satan Lanna temple and made our way to the open field where the lanterns would be released. A surprise rain shower had wet the grounds and everyone had sought plastic to sit on. Rows of unlit candles on waist-high poles were spread evenly throughout the grass and it reminded me of the sound boxes at old drive in movies — each group had one. These were used to help light the paraffin rings when the time came.

As with many religious-related Thai festivals, free food was offered. (Donations fund this and the big money donors got VIP seats on a platform at the front of the field where the Buddhist monks gathered for the event’s prayers and meditations. This VIP practice is common and in my opinion rather contrary to the concept of giving and Buddhism — it is a status symbol obviously.) Be that as it may, thanks to the VIPs for some roast pork and soda!

After a long session of chants and guided meditation in both Thai and English, and a procession of candle-bearing monks around the crowd, the moment had arrived.

We had been watching with some kind of elementary school envy as lanterns rose up from an unseen field beyond the trees and drifted high above us. The other kids got to do it right away!

But then it was time. We lit our candles and unfurled the paper lanterns and ignited the paraffin. “Please don’t release your lantern until it is announced.” The gathering heat in the expanded paper tugged at our burning fingers begging release into the cool night air. The entire field was alight. And then we were told to let them free.

It’s not like I didn’t know what would happen, and yet it seemed a surprise as the the heavens turned to a glowing chorus of flames. I caught my breath and felt a strange sort of vertigo as if the earth were falling away beneath me. Like the moment in a parking lot when your parents’ parked car seemed to roll forward when in fact the next car was backing up. The sky rushed away from us and music blared from the speakers and the crowd cheered. From then on there were smaller waves as people released 2nd and 3rd lanterns into the river of light that drifted first away from us and then back the other direction over our heads as it entered a different air current.

We spent another hour just talking it all in, snapping photos, and sometimes just staring into the transformed sky, hardly aware of the nearly full moon lost in it all. Fireworks, some big, some small, burst amid the lanterns as well.

As an epilogue moment, Peung, Bessie, Kyle and I decided to walk out to the highway in hopes of finding a ride and skipping the post-festival traffic jam. Bessie stuck out a thumb and after just a couple of minutes a pickup truck heading back to Chiang Mai stopped. We hopped in and raced through the night back to town being treated to a few more views of lantern streams across the sky.