A magical exhalation of thousands of paper lanterns rising up onto a pitch-black canvas of the night sky, while a full moon knowingly hovers as a shining pearl in the heavens- this is the experience you will witness if you attend the coveted Yi Peng festival, in Chiang Mai, in Northern Thailand. Many brochures and travel books about Thailand feature images of this stunning event, but it isn’t until you actually attend the festival yourself that you are able to truly understand the sensational eruption of emotion within you that results from being a part of this massive ceremony.
What is it?
The Yi Peng festival is primarily celebrated in Chiang Mai, although the release of the paper lanterns occurs throughout Thailand, this offering of the paper lanterns is a devoted ritual that pays homage to the Bhudda. The lanterns are also meant to represent the release of a person’s misfortune and luckiness and the belief is that if the lantern’s fire stay lit until is no longer visible, then the bad luck is completely removed. There is another ceremony that is performed specifically for tourists and requires a fee of 100USD, at a later date than the original ceremony.
Yi Peng is separate from the Loi Krathong festival, which is celebrated in the same time frame. Loi Krathong traditions include sending candle lit offerings made of bread and flowers and usually have ornaments of incense and palm stems, floating down the river that runs through Chiang Mai.
When is it?
The actual date of the ceremony is not usually released until a few weeks before the festival as the festival is dependent on the moon cycle, rather than a traditional date each year. The festival is held during the full moon of the second month of the Lanna calendar, which makes sense because in Lanna, Yi means second and Peng means month.
When the date is finally released, the ceremony begins at about 3:00 pm, but the actual release isn’t until about 6:30/7:00pm. Many parties tend to arrive as early as possible in order to find a comfortable position in the main field, which over looks the stunning temple and the glowing Buddha figurehead surrounded by monks.
Where is it?
The release of paper lanterns occurs throughout Thailand, but the most concentrated numbers of releases are in and around Chiang Mai, since this is where the festival is actually celebrated. The days leading up to the actual weekend and a few days after, several lanterns and coordinated releases can be observed around the Chiang Mai area. The largest release is orchestrated at Mae Jo University and has been known to have thousands of international attendants, each equipped with one to five lanterns each.
How Do I Get There and How Do I Get Back?
If you are interested in heading to Mae Jo University, the distance is about 16 km from Chiang Mai and there are a few modes of transportation that you can utilize. A rental car is not your best bet given the large volumes of people that attend the event, but scooting in on a motorbike is much easier and will only cost you 150 baht, excluding the cost of gasoline. There is designated parking for bikes, where your motorbike will be watched over if you pay the 10 baht fee. There is parking for cars, but the line to park and the line to exit are typically an eternal tangled mess. There are also local communal taxis called songthaews, which are only 20 baht one way, and you will have to walk the rest of the way to the field, which is about 1.5 km. The green songthaew at Warorot Market heads in the correct direction and you just need to communicate with the driver so that he tells you the proper stop to get off, but with the massive influx of tourists around the time of the festival, he will probably anticipate Mae Jo University as your destination even before you have taken a seat in his songthaew!
Most festival attendees have accommodations in Chiang Mai, and thus getting back is another obstacle to take into consideration. If songthaew is your only option, hitchhiking is a decent possibility to help you make it out to the main road quicker. If you brought your own bike, be careful of the massive evacuation that will have vehicles spilling out of every orifice of the University and making traffic beyond chaotic. There are also the options of hiring a driver to wait for you, but this is much more expensive and depending on your hired service, not always a guarantee that they will actually still be there waiting for you. A red songthaew will deliver and wait for you, for a total cost of 1,600 baht, and a tuctuc will charge 600 baht for the same type of service.
Whatever option you choose, it is crucial to set a designated meeting time and places for your friends and the driver, in case anyone was to get separated in the turbulent exodus of the festival. Purchasing insurance on your motorbike is also highly recommended. There are some tours that include the travel to Chiang Mai or Mae Jo for the festival as a part of their package, but these will be fairly expensive. You will be able to find locals willing to act as an unofficial tour guide, just be prepared for exorbitant prices that they know they can push on uninformed tourists determined to get to the big release.
Anything Else I Need to Know?
When it comes to purchasing the paper lanterns, most of the Northern Thai cities will have several street stands selling the beautiful products, sometimes in different colors and shapes such as Hello Kitty or Angry Birds. It is highly recommended that you do not purchase your lanterns outside of the actual event because the organizers do their best to standardize the size of the lanterns during the major release. That being said, I purchased my lanterns before I read that helpful hint, and was still able to enter in the festival without any conflict.
Bringing a blanket to sit on is more comfortable but not necessary as the grass is soft and as long as it hasn’t rained, pleasant to sit on. The main field is laced with a grid of torches comprised of a small basket of fire at their top.
Alcohol are not permitted, but you will still see some people consuming alcoholic beverages within the grounds and not receiving any penalization for it. Remember that this is a religious ceremony, and the lanterns are offerings to Buddha, so please be respectful to the local culture and its rituals. Food and drink are sold once you enter the Mae Jo grounds, so people typically indulge in the street food offered at the entrance and pick up a can of soda to wash it down.
Clothing must be conservative, especially for the ladies. Attire should feature covered shoulders and shorts or skirts that hit or cover the knees and no sexy deep V-necks please! Shawls and sarongs worn over the shoulders is also acceptable attire.
What Else Is Happening?
The lantern release is only one specific event in the overall Yi Peng festival, so there are many other activities such as traditional Thai dances, beauty pageants, boat races, decorations, music exhibitions, pop up amusement parks and markets and one of the most distinct celebratory acts is the profuse lighting of fireworks.
Why Should I Go?
I was blessed with the opportunity to attend the Yi Peng festival in November 2013 at the authentic ceremony at Mae Jo University.
Just upon arrival at the ceremony grounds, the energy radiated throughout the entire premise, as a strong devoted sensation. The chants of the monks also developed a very spiritual and holy atmosphere, which I could feel lifting my heart into a state of lightness. When it came time to finally release the paper lanterns, the emanating glow was enough to make my heart beat right out of my chest with excitement and we were directed step by step on when and how to light our lanterns, to purposefully make a wish and release your negativity with your lantern and then finally send your offering of light to the Buddha!
It was though I was a part of the birth of a million stars, immersed in a celestial emancipation that was not only visually stunning, but spiritually impactful. One of my travel partners was a very burly, juggernaut type of Irish man who I had only met a few days before, but this ceremony had us wrapped in an intense embrace with inevitable tears for how beautiful the whole experience was.
This was one of the most important events of my life, and to think that I was actually planning to go to the Full Moon Party down in the southern islands! The kindness, the powerful energy, the spiritual connection that can be felt permeating through all that attend the festival is inexplicably unique to the Yi Peng festival.