Sometimes the stars align and you are able to be in the right place at the right time with very little planning or forethought. I knew I was headed to Thailand and the end of November, but how thrilled was I to find out I would be arriving in Chiang Mai just one day before the Yi Peng Lantern Festival? Answer: ECSTATIC.
I, like many other girls born in the early 90’s, grew up obsessed with Disney Princesses. Belle, Pocahontas, Jasmine, and Esmeralda (although technically not a princess) were the heroes of my childhood. I had Princess Jasmine sheets and Pocahontas light-up sneakers (velcro, obviously!), and I have dressed up as both Belle and Esmeralda more than once for Halloween/themed parties in college. And though I am a 90’s Disney purist at heart, I have to admit that some of the new princesses are obsession worthy as well. Like Rapunzel from Tangled. So spirited and fun and adventurous. Just like we all hope to be.
The lantern scene in Tangled movie is pure magic and that is how watching a sky full of lanterns felt in real life. Magic.
Yi Peng happens concurrently with Loi Krathong during the full moon in the twelfth month of the Thai lunar calendar. In most of Thailand the event is celebrated with floral floating baskets, which are released onto the rivers throughout the country. In some parts of Thailand, particularly the in the north, the celebration also includes sending fire-powered paper wishes into the sky.
In years past there has been a free event at the Mae Jo University where thousands of lanterns are simultaneously are released, but for 2015 that event required tickets, ranging from $100-$300 per person, and was mostly aimed at tourists. I believe that this was the first year where admission was required for the Mae Jo event and it is uncertain if this will be the case in the future, but I was still able to join in with the festivities without forking over what equates to three times my daily budget for Thailand.
Instead I headed to the riverside, where thousands of tourists and locals mingled and released lanterns sporadically as soon the sun went down.
The festival is actually three days long, and while the lantern release is easily the most popular event, there are also parades to watch and a riverside carnival to enjoy as well.
You can buy lanterns from street vendors day-of, and there is a huge range in price, so it’s easy to shop around and find the lantern that fits your wishing needs. I had a big wish this year (which I can’t say or it won’t come true!), so I bought a gigantic lantern.
Although the goal is to release all the lanterns at the same time, the restless crowd could not be stopped from lighting their sky-bound wishes whenever the mood struck. So while I did not get to experience the massive release like you see on Pintrest, my Yi Peng experience was a slow, steady and slightly chaotic stream of flickering heaven bound lights.
If you have multiple wishes, or one really big wish, you can also head down to the river itself where locals sell beautiful, candlelit, flower-covered baskets to celebrate Loi Krathong.
Chiang Mai is obviously a madhouse in the days leading up to and immediately following the event, so transportation and the more popular accommodation gets booked months in advance. I was late in deciding my plans for the Thailand part of my trip so by the time I went to book a hostel most of the ones in old town were fully booked. I ended up finding a place near Maya Mall in the “hipster” neighborhood of Chaing Mai, and while I needed transport to and from the main festivities, it was nice to stay away from the madness.
I got a little less lucky with transportation and ended up on a bus that left Bangkok at 6 am and took all day to get to Chaing Mai. I was honestly lucky to find anything at all, but there are so many overnight options (and cheap flights if you book far enough in advance) that my 10-hour daytime bus was an annoying waste of my day.
In the end it was more than worth the accommodation and transportation headache and I feel so lucky to have gotten to see the light!
Dollars and Sense
25-100 baht: Lantern of various size
TIP: Book accommodation and transport as soon as you know when you will be arriving!