The Yi Peng festival of Chiang Mai is a unique celebration in Northern Thailand that coincides with Loy Krathong, which is celebrated throughout the country. Chiang Mai is the old capital of the Lanna Kingdom, which for many years co-existed independently with Siam. The North part of Thailand still has a certain character and charm that differs from the rest of the country. This is especially reflected in local festivals and traditions.
Loy Krathong is the holiday when Thais pay respect to the “Mother of Waters” or Phra-Mae Khong-kha, which is actually the Thai name of the Ganges River in India. So we can see that there is some connection between the festival and the worship of the goddess of the Ganges River. The exact origins of the festival are not so clear, but it was known to have been celebrated at least seven centuries ago during the Sukhothai Kingdom.
The central activity of Loy Krathong is placing small floats of offerings into the river. The floats, called “krathong” are traditionally made from a slice of a banana stalk that is decorated with folded banana leaves and flowers. The krathong will contain a candle, incense, and a coin as offerings to the river goddess. Thais offer the krathong as both a “thank you” and an apology. They are thankful for all the water they’ve used throughout the year, and they apologize for any pollution they’ve caused to the river.
At the local market you can find both the materials for making your own krathong and pre-made krathong for those who are lazy or less artistically gifted. For a period in the 90s, foam krathong became popular, but gladly people have turned away from using such an environmentally unfriendly material. Banana krathong are once again popular, and so are krathong made from bread, which the fish can eat.
In village celebrations it’s common for young boys to swim in the river downstream from where people release krathong in order to snatch up the coins placed inside. (I’m not sure how the Ganges goddess feels about this.)
Loy Krathong is one of the best times to visit Thailand, and Chiang Mai in particular. It’s the beginning of the cool season, which means it’s still plenty warm, but not ridiculously hot or humid. The town is very colorful as temples, shops, and homes decorate their entrances for the holiday by hanging paper lanterns on bamboo poles. The city also usually puts on a display with oversized lanterns such as the naga serpent, stupas, or the 12 animals of the Eastern zodiac.
The only thing kind of annoying about Loy Krathong is the firecrackers. Teens and kids play with big firecrackers well into the night, making you feel as though you’re staying is a war zone. And sadly, every year there are a few who end up with missing fingers.
The name “Yi Peng” means “2nd month,” but this is according to a local lunar calendar, so it usually falls in the month of November. Loi Krathong is said to be held on the full moon of the 12th month. But since both holidays are observed at the same time, we can conclude that there are two different lunar calendars at work here.
The main highlight of Yi Peng is the release of floating lanterns (khom-loy) into the night sky. The khom-loy are quite simple, yet genius in their design. They are basically miniature hot-air balloons. A trash bin sized paper cylinder is open on the bottom, where a set of wires criss-cross to support a small fuel-soaked disk. To float the lantern, you need to hold it upright as you light the disk of fuel, and then wait for the lantern to fill with hot air. After about a minute, the air inside will be hot enough to give the khom-loy some lift, and off it goes!
It’s truly a beautiful sight to see hundreds or even thousands of khom-loy lanterns fill the sky like rising stars. It’s only a slight inconvenience for the local airport, which can’t schedule any flights during the peak times for lantern releasing.
For an amazing spectacle, plan to go to the mass lantern release held each year behind Mae Jo University at Wat Thudong Sathan, located a little bit out of town just to the north of Chiang Mai. Over 10,000 floating lanterns are released at part of an offering ceremony to the Buddha.
The event is actually scheduled for two dates each year, with the first one being free to attend and the second usually held a week later, which costs around $100 and is mostly just a way to get money out of tourists’ hands. Many people make the mistake of believing that the mass release event is THE Yi Peng festival. But it is actually just one activity organized by a somewhat unorthodox Buddhist group that is timed to more or less coincide with the Yi Peng festival. You can find some clear info about the lantern release here.
I went this year (2013) at it was quite an event. The release was supposed to take place at 8 pm. We left the house at 5 pm, which was not early enough to get a good seat. The traffic heading out to the temple was thick and had get funneled along a narrow road. After that, it was another long walk from where you could park to get to the temple grounds.
There were many vendors selling khom-loy lanterns outside the temple, but they were supposedly not allowing these inside. Instead, you were supposed to buy them once you passed through the gate. Naturally, there was a small crowd of tourists standing just outside the gate lighting the lanterns that they had already bought from vendors, not knowing any better.
Once inside, there was a monk giving a Dharma talk and leading the crowd in meditation before the lantern release. Then the monks chanted some prayers, after which the crowd was supposed to wait to release their lanterns in unison. Getting such a large crowd to all follow directions is not easy though, especially when a good number of them are tourists from China, Japan, and other countries. So a few khom-loy got away early, but most people were able to wait for the signal.
It was pretty cool to see all the lanterns go up. What was fun to watch is how all the lanterns got carried by the wind to make a golden river heading up into the sky. One lady standing next to me found it such a moving sight that she started to cry. What do you think?