Yee Peng and Loy Krathong are religious Buddhist festivals celebrated simultaneously every year in Chiang Mai, Thailand. The festivities take place on the 12th full moon of the year which usually falls in early November when winter begins and the monsoon season ends. This is the fullest and brightest moon of the year which results in the Ping River also being at its fullest at the end of the monsoon season. Thai people honor the new season by lighting and setting Kratongs to float down the river and releasing paper lanterns into the sky to make a wish for good fortune in the new year. I’d been dreaming of witnessing the Yee Peng and Loy Krathong ceremony for ages and organized my entire year of travel around the 2017 celebration. Globally the duo celebration is known as the Chiang Mai Lantern Festival or the Festival of Lights. This is everything you need to know to celebrate Yee Peng and Loy Krathong in Chiang Mai.
The festival of lights is absolutely enchanting to witness. It’s magical to see the sky glow with drifting lanterns floating towards the full moon as the river sparkles with the flames of Loy Krathong slowly floating away. It’s so special to partake in this sacred event, I was so moved by the beauty it brought tears to my eyes more than once. It reminded me a lot of the natural phenomena of swimming with plankton that light up the sea at night in Krabi where I had the sensation that I was floating through the universe as both above and below me I was surrounded by tiny bulbs of light.
WHAT IS A LOY KRATHONG?
Loy Krathong (also written as Loi Krathong), means floating crown and is celebrated all over Thailand, the Land of Smiles. Artisans create floating floral arrangements in the shape of a crown and place a candle within the offering. These masterpieces are traditionally made from all-natural biodegradable materials. Usually, a chunk of a banana trunk is used as the buoyant base of the decorative float. Banana leaves are used to cover the trunk and folded into intricate designs that serve as the sail of the boat. These are adorned elaborately with various flowers, usually marigolds and orchids which grow in abundance in the area. Typically everything is held in place with wooden toothpicks, no glue or tape is required to construct a traditional Loy Krathong. Some Krathongs have a base of bread which is easily upcycled as it will naturally disintegrate in water and serve as fish food. Unfortunately, many of the cheapest Krathongs sold along the Ping River are made with a styrofoam base and have plastic adornments. Styrofoam may never disintegrate, and if it does it will take at least a million years. Be a responsible traveler and don’t purchase artificial Loy Krathong vessel if you wish to participate in the festival.
HOW TO PARTICIPATE IN LOY KRATHONG
Loy Krathong can be purchased during the festival anywhere along the Ping River, which is officially the only place they’re allowed to be released. Small creations of natural materials should only cost between 30-50 THB while more elaboration Krathong can cost upwards of 300 THB. As they’re made of flowers don’t purchase your Krathong in advance, instead just buy one whenever you’re ready to go down to the Ping River to release the Krathong along with thousands of others.
Festival-goers release these beautiful creations into the water after making a wish as they light the three incense sticks and a candle that is placed within the floral ensemble. This practice is thought to have originated as a way to honor the Goddess of Water and apologize for man-made pollution, which is actually quite counterintuitive. Many locals told me that the candle is meant to represent Buddha. Releasing a Krathong symbolizes removing heaviness, hatred, grudges, and sorrow from the last year. Some will include a nail clipping or piece of hair as a physical token of their desire to leave any misfortune in the past as the Ping River carries the Krathong away. It’s believed that if couples release Loy Krathong together their love will last as long as their flame burns. Funnily enough, mine that I released with my ex-boyfriend burned out in seconds, quite foreshadowing of our failed relationship!
Learn about Thai flower arranging at a workshop while you’re in Chiang Mai for the Festival of Lights!
WHAT IS YEE PENG?
Yee Peng (also written as Yi Peng) is the lantern festival which coincides at the same time as Loy Krathong. Yee Peng is a unique Lanna tradition so is only celebrated in northern Thailand. Similar to the releasing the Krathongs, floating paper lanterns (khom loy in Thai) are released into the night sky in hopes of a fruitful new year. Wishes are often written on the khom loy or murmured as you release the lantern. The purpose of this tradition is similar to Loy Krathong as Yee Peng is a time to resist darkness and embrace a bright future.
HOW TO PARTICIPATE IN YEE PENG
Those who watch their lantern until it disappears have the best of luck–if the lantern burns out while it’s still in view it’s considered very bad luck! In order to get your lantern to float off far into the distance with the flame still burning it’s crucial to light in properly. The whole ordeal of lighting the khom loy takes at least two people. One person must hold the lantern in the air after opening it up as the other lights the circular formation of wax. Be careful not to rip the paper lantern–it’s quite thin and can catch fire quickly. Once the fire ignites around the entire circle carefully set the lantern on the ground so that it can fill up with hot air. This process takes about five minutes, wait until the lantern starts to rise a bit naturally and then it’s ready to go. If you release the lantern too early it can be hazardous as it won’t have enough air to fly and come crashing down on the crowd or catch a tree on fire. Be mindful of which way the wind is blowing. I’ve seen both happen numerous times! Just like Loy Krathong, you can buy khom loy around the Ping River for about 50 THB each.
Releasing khom loy is only technically allowed from the Nawarat bridge during set hours on the full moon night but this regulation is not strictly enforced as local set them off from all around Chiang Mai. The night sky is brilliantly lit throughout the entire festival. Just like Loy Krathong, khom loy traditionally are made using biodegradable materials of paper and bamboo frame. Today, it is almost impossible to find the bamboo khom loy, instead, they’re made with metal wire. Apparently, the wire breaks down after 9 months or so but it can still be very destructive to the ecosystem where it lands and cause injury to animals.
DO THESE FESTIVALS HARM THE ENVIRONMENT?
While the festival is absolutely stunning it certainly has a negative impact on the environment. As mentioned above be diligent to purchase all-natural Loy Krathong and paper lanterns that are compostable. Limit your participation to just one Loy Krathong and one paper lantern and share with friends. You’re here to honor this tradition but don’t need to be a part of the massive waste that occurs from this event. Part of being a responsible traveler is respecting cultural norms and not speaking out against things you simply disagree with. So yes, this event causes a lot of waste, but no, I don’t think it should be canceled as it is of cultural importance to the people of Thailand. But it can be celebrated in a way that makes less of a negative impact. If you aren’t comfortable with the waste of this event then you simply should not participate.
Although I cannot find any information about whether the clean-up crews are locally organized or a governmental institution there are several people who are constantly collecting fallen lanterns and picking floating Loy Krathongs out of the end of the river. After the first night of the Festival of Lights I expected the city to be a complete mess with Krathongs and lanterns littered throughout but overnight the entire city was swept clean. I don’t know how the materials are disposed of but at the very least they’re being cleaned up each night.
FESTIVAL OF LIGHTS CULTURAL EVENTS SCHEDULE
The schedule of cultural events usually isn’t released until a few weeks before the festival, but the dates of the celebration will be known well in advance so you can certainly plan your travel before learning the exact itinerary of events. Events usually include several parades, ceremonies at Buddhist temples, and specific time and places where foreigners are allowed to light and release Krathongs. They’re typically posted on many of the Chiang Mai Facebook pages and groups such as Out and About in Chiang Mai or Chiang Mai Nomad Girls.
All of the organized public events for the Yee Peng and Loy Krathong Festival of Lights are free to attend. The ceremonies are deeply rooted in Thai Buddhist customs and it’s a true privilege to participate in these rituals. Make time to visit Buddhist temples, attend parades, and cultural performances in order to get the full experience and learn about the importance of these annual events. While the lantern releasing is only technically allowed from the Nawarat Bridge at night and Krathongs are only meant to be released in the Ping River most of the other events take place within the Chiang Mai Old City, particularly around the Thapae Gate and the Three Kings Monument.
The first day of the Festival of Lights is always on the full moon and kicks off with the Yee Peng lantern festival. The opening ceremony will take place at the Three Kings Monument with a blessing from a senior Buddhist monk, speeches by various politicians, and traditional Lanna dances. This is a bit chaotic to attend as the crowds can be massive but it’s absolutely beautiful to see the traditional clothes that the dancers wear.
On the second day, sermons are traditionally held at 8 Buddhist temples around Chiang Mai including Wat Suan Dok, Wat Chiang Yuen, Wat Chai Sri Poom, Wat Bupparam, Wat Chai Mongkol, Wat Rampueng, and Wat Jed Yod. In the evening Loy Krathongs will be released by the thousands along the Ping River.
The last day of the festivities is one of the most colorful with the vibrant Grand Krathong procession. The parade begins at the Tha Phae Gate and ends at the Chiang Mai Municipality Office with a firework display. Each temple will create an extravagant float for the parade as will various businesses and institutions, including the American Consulate General. The parade retells the story of Lord Buddha through the creative floats, art, and music.
Throughout all three days of the festival, various ceremonies will take place at Buddhist temples such as candle lighting to worship Lord Buddha and writing wishes on colorful lanterns that have been blessed by Buddhist Monks. It’s a lovely time to walk around the old town and pop into temples as they’ll all be decorated with colorful lanterns blowing delicately in the wind. The lanterns also will be strung around the moat that surrounds the Old City. You can learn how to make these colorful lanterns yourself on this immersive Lanna Lantern Workshop that benefits poverty alleviation in Chiang Mai.
THE MASS SIMULTANEOUS LANTERN RELEASE IS A TOURIST TRAP
The photos you’ve likely seen on Instagram of millions of paper lanterns perfectly floating in the night sky at the exact same moment isn’t actually a cultural event. Every year the Mae Jo University organizes lantern launches and charges foreigners upwards of US$100 per ticket. Although you’ll likely get better photos here the event is a complete tourist trap and doesn’t honor the tradition of Yee Ping in any way. Those that attend aren’t really interested in the cultural significance of the event but are more concerned with capturing the perfect image.
WHERE TO STAY IN CHIANG MAI DURING THE FESTIVAL OF LIGHTS
To get the most from your Chiang Mai festival of lights experience book your stay at a beautiful river-front resort so that you can gaze at the floating lanterns in the river and sky from the comfort of your accommodation. I was graciously welcomed at the fabulous riverside Maraya Resort for their Loy Krathong and Yee Peng experience complete with live music and a beautiful Thai fusion 5-course meal served under the full moon.
We released lanterns in the air and watched them reflect on the Ping River and float past the intricate tower of Wat Chedi Liem across the water. Later on, we made our final wish and set a Krathong off to float down the river. The special evening was aptly dubbed Moon River Night, and most of the songs were related to the moon. If you’ve been following along to Miss Filatelista for some time you likely know how enamored I am with the moon so the entire evening was a dream.
By day I swan in the stunning saltwater infinity pool at Maraya that overlooks the river. I couldn’t get enough of the views of Wat Chedi Liem, isn’t it lovely?
Maraya has created such a serene oasis not far from the chaos of Chiang Mais Old City. A part of the design theory is to emulate the cultural heritage of Lanna arts which have influenced the spacious guest rooms, architecture, and decor of Maraya.
BEFORE YOU PLAN YOUR 2018 TRIP TO THE FESTIVAL OF LIGHTS
Keep in mind that the date changes every year in accordance with the twelfth lunar month. In 2018 the dates of the Loy Krathong and Yee Ping festival of lights are November 21, 22, and 23. I’ve been told that the airport in Chiang Mai is usually closed during the event due to the hazard of so many literal fireballs flying through the air. If you plan to attend be sure to book flights to arrive by November 19th so you can spend two days exploring Chiang Mai before the festivity begins. If you’re already in Thailand you can book bus and train tickets with foreign credit cards without hassle on Baolau or 12Go. If you’re keen to get a Sak Yant tattoo blessing from a monk you’ll need to go before the full moon. Stay nourished during your trip to Chiang Mai for the Festival of Lights with unlimited vegan food options.
The Festival of lights and Loy Krathong and Yee Ping rituals is easily the most popular event in Thailand so it’s incredibly important to book your accommodation a few months in advance. Check out available at Chiang Mai hotels, homestays, eco resorts, and more on Booking.com or hostels on Hostelz.com. For a very unique experience book a few nights at a homestay in a 150-year-old traditional wooden family home. There are some obvious hazard risks when playing with fire so be sure to secure a travel insurance plan with World Nomads before the festival of lights in Chiang Mai, Thailand!
The festival of light is a not-to-be-missed experience and remains one of my most cherished travel memories. As you take in the stunning spectacle remember that each floating Krathong and paper lantern is an individual wish. You’re surrounded by millions of tiny hopes for a better future. It’s incredibly powerful and humbling to witness so many wishes being released into the universe.
Have you experienced the Festival of Lights and partaken in Loy Krathong or Yee Peng? Tell me about it in the comments!
Thank you Maraya Resort for hosting me. This post contains affiliate links. Please read the Miss Filatelista disclosure policy for more information.