At the top our list when we decided to come to Chiang Mai was attending the Yee Peng festival. Once I saw the pictures and video of this event from fellow bloggers, I knew I had to attend. In fact, this festival was one of the reasons we stuck with our plan of doing 6 months in Chiang Mai when we arrived instead of traveling around.
Yee Peng is a festival celebrated by the Lanna people of Northern Thailand. It’s a religious ceremony paying homage to the Buddha. The sky lanterns — known as khom loi — are released into the sky while making a wish. At the Mae Jo event we attended, everyone releases their lantern at the same time.
It was very hard to get accurate details about this event. They don’t release the actual date til a month or so before the event, there isn’t much about it in English, and what you can find in English is unofficial. I’ve been a bit stressed about it for the last couple of months trying to figure out where the best event was, what date and time, was this the same as the other Yee Peng festival being held in the city, etc. In the end, we got it all figured out and attended one of the coolest festivals on the planet.
Despite leaving pretty early, we hit a bunch of traffic going to the event and when we finally got nearby, we couldn’t find parking. Cue major stress. But then we found parking near the first gate. Best 100 Baht I’ve spent to date. We then had to walk about 1 km or so to the main event gate and we were finally inside – much later than we wanted but inside nonetheless.
We stopped to buy 3 lanterns then walked into the venue just after 6 pm as the event was just getting started. After finding a teeny tiny spot of lawn to call ours, we waited and listened as it got dark. The ceremony consisted of asking the Buddhists to pray, some quiet meditation time, and other activities that I didn’t quite understand. There was also chanting by the Buddhist monks, which was really cool.
After the prayers and chanting (about 7:45 pm), it was time for the big launch. There are a few thousand candles on 3-foot high stakes driven into the ground throughout the venue and they told everyone to light those first. Then, they announced for everyone to begin lighting lanterns and hold onto them for a few minutes as they fill with hot air. (Note: They do directions in English and Thai on loudspeakers, so it’s easy to know. But even if you don’t understand, just follow the crowd!)
We decided to let everyone light their lanterns first and just enjoy watching the first wave float into the sky. There was no way I was missing the “big moment”.
When they gave the signal, everyone released their lanterns into the air all at once.
I took so many pictures but often just held the camera away from my face so I could watch in real life and not behind a camera lens. I just stood there in awe and was overwhelmed by the beauty of all of these lanterns in the air floating off into the distance. I actually started to cry at points because I was so overtaken with how beautiful it was, and how grateful I was to be able to attend this festival. I felt so fortunate just to be there. It was a moment and a feeling I don’t think I’ll ever forget.
The kids were oohing and aahing as well and even Chuck had this look of amazement on his face.
After a few minutes, they launched fireworks into the sky.
After letting the people near us light another lantern, we decided to light ours. The kids were so into this part; especially Beckett. He was the perfect height to hold the lantern but also peer underneath to watch the flame as it fills. The look on his face while lighting each lantern was priceless. Apparently we weren’t the only ones who thoughts so, as people kept coming over to photograph him. No lie, he attracted so many people that it became funny and I took a picture of all the people taking his picture (see below).
We talked to one of the photographers and they sent us this picture of Beckett.
We lit 3 lanterns and watched them float off into the sky.
After that, we went around and helped other people. The lanterns are quite big and tall and it takes more than 2 people to hold it and expand the top so it fills with air without catching on fire. People seemed to love having the kids’ help and sometimes Chuck and I would take their photos.
Once most of the lantern lighting was over, we strolled around the grounds. We were able to get up close to the Buddha, torches, and other decorations that we couldn’t approach when it was so crowded before.
We were on the grounds until about 9 pm, when they turn off the lights. Even though it seemed most people had left well before us, it was a complete traffic jam of people walking the 1km back to the gate. Took us about 50 minutes. Since we were moving so slowly, we stopped off to buy krathongs (floating lanterns) from the Mae Jo University kids (they were so fun and nice!). Beckett picked his out first (for 20Baht – $0.60) then walked down the water where they lit the incense and candle and helped him place it on the canal. Mara then picked out one and set it floating down the canal. I of course couldn’t resist, so the kids picked one out for me and off it went down the canal.
Upon getting out of the gate, we saw traffic wasn’t moving so we found a mini-mart and bought some snacks and drinks to hold us over while we waited. When we went back to our car, we noticed 2 cars had an accident pulling out of the parking lot. And by accident, I mean there were 2 cars barely touching and it didn’t even look like there was a dent or even scratched paint. However, they left their cars there blocking everyone in. The kids were still eating and traffic wasn’t moving so its not like we would’ve left for a while anyway. Eventually the kids were done eating and went to the car to go to sleep (about 10:40pm at this point) and traffic had cleared out. Finally common sense prevailed and one of the drivers came over and asked if we wanted to leave (um, yes!), so they moved their cars and everyone was able to head home.
This festival is definitely one of the coolest things we’ve ever done. I am so grateful that we were able to attend it and witness the beauty of the lanterns floating off into the sky. If you happen to be in Chiang Mai around November, this is a must-do as the pictures and commentary do not fully do the reality justice.
The Yee Peng festival we attended near Mae Jo University was a separate event from the Loi Krathong/Yee Peng festival being celebrated throughout Chiang Mai. The Mae Jo event was held Saturday, November 16, 2013 and the Loi Krathong event also kicked off on November 16, 2013 and ran (officially) to Monday, November 18, 2013.
We attended the Loi Krathong/Yee Peng festivities in downtown Chiang Mai on Sunday the 17th and and Monday the 18th and it’s different than the Mae Jo event, but also great fun.
Information about the date is hard to find and usually not announced til a month or so ahead of time. The event is is based on the full moon and lunar calendar and I *think* some years its held in October instead of November. I found out about the date from the Facebook group “Chiang Mai Events” and also from ChiangMai City News which posted the date less than a month beforehand.
If you want to get a decent view of things, I’d aim to be inside by 4:30-5pm. That was our original plan, but we got a little bit of a late start, and it also took us much longer to get there than planned.
Route 1001 goes North from the city and it’s not too far to Mae Jo, but the lights at the major cross streets caused big delays. Once you pass the University, you U-turn and make a left, then drive about a mile until you get to the spot where you walk down to the entrance. We got to the turnoff from 1001 about 4:30 pm and it took about 45 minutes to inch our way back to the parking and dropoff areas.
It was after 5pm as we got close to the first entrance and unfortunately there weren’t any parking spaces left on the side of the road so we started stressing out. Luckily, just past the main gate, someone had opened up a parking lot and we pulled right in, parked and forked over 100Baht happy as clams. At about 5:30pm we were parked right near the first main entrance.
And by main entrance, we mean the point from which you have to walk about 1km down to the real entrance!
There are food vendors set up all along the walk with the usual Thai street market fare. There are also a gazillion vendors selling lanterns. Do NOT buy one! You aren’t allowed to bring them in, and must buy the ones inside. The cool side effect of this was a steady stream of lanterns being released from the gate area throughout the entire evening because people had to light them or leave them.
Once inside the official gate, there is a place to buy the lanterns for 100 Baht each. We bought 3 which worked out about right.
From there, you walk another few minutes to the grounds and pass a restroom facility along the way.
There isn’t any food or drink sold inside the grounds so it’s best to buy that along the walk and cart it in or bring your own from home. We ate on the way and threw a few sandwiches in a backpack.
We got to the grounds around 6:15pm and by then it was PACKED. We found a tiny patch of grass that was kind of in a path at the back and claimed it. Unfortunately we were near another lantern buying stand and about as far away from the front as possible. Eventually we got our patch big enough to sit down and the entire walkway behind us filled in as well.
It turned out to be a decent location because once the lanterns were released, it was all in front of us in one big panorama of lanterns. If we were in the middle, there would’ve been lanterns all around us in a 360 degree circle which would’ve been cool as well, but maybe not been as amazing of a photo op.
It was also great because I was able to sneak out to go to the bathroom relatively easily. And while returning to my spot was a problem, I didn’t have to go far. Forget about that if you were in the middle somewhere. If at all possible, make your last bathroom run at 5:30 or before.
FYI, there is a 2nd set of bathrooms on the other side of the grounds (left side when facing the front) which were clean, Western and stocked with toilet paper, AND there was no wait.
They announce everything in Thai and English so you definitely know when its time to light your lantern and when its time to release. Please wait for the announcement – its very clear – but some people didn’t.
As mentioned above, we stayed on the grounds till nearly 9 pm when they said they were going to turn off the lights. Once we got back to the main entrance gate, there was a wall of people barely moving. It took us a good 50 minutes to walk the 1km back to the first gate. Traffic was creeping forward at this point so we found a mini-mart right near the gate (~50-100 meters to the left) and picked up ramen, yogurt and milk. The restaurants there were closed (so they said) and I wasn’t able to locate a toilet nearby.
By 10:45pm, traffic was pretty much gone so when we left, we drove right on out to the main road and cruised on home.
One more note, respectful clothing is necessary as they won’t let you in wearing tank tops and short shorts. Mara and I wore a t-shirt and capris while Beckett and Chuck were fine in a nice short sleeve shirt and shorts. Fireworks and alcohol aren’t permitted either and they have a lot of people at the gate checking out what you’re wearing and what you’re carrying.
As far as taking kids, it would probably be tough to take kids younger than 6 due to the crowds, long wait, firecrackers (along the walk only), and potential inconvenience of having to hit the bathroom at an inopportune time. However, I know plenty of folks took very young kids with no issues so you really need to be the judge. Our kids were grumbling a bit, but I think at this point they’re conditioned to being dragged around to stuff! We had also done a practice launch the day before, so they were motivated to hang in there until the big release.
One final note, there is also a paid version of this event put on for tourists a week after the ‘real’ event. They are 2 separate things. The one we attended is the ‘real’ event, which is free and a religious ceremony for the Thai people. The paid one is just for tourists and costs $100 USD. It looks more comfortable, less crowded, and dates are set far in advance, which is great for planning. More info on that at http://yeepenglanna.com/
Other great posts about the Mae Jo Lantern Ceremony:
Mithun on the Net: Loy Krathong 2012: Yeepeng Lanna in Chiang Mai
Never Ending Voyage
Living Outside the Box who went with small children
Where Sidewalks End: Yi Peng – Floating Lanterns Festival in Chiang Mai
Map of Lantern release location
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