The most magical time of year to visit Chiang Mai has to be during the Yee Peng (or Yi Peng) and Loy Krathong festivals, a time of year when colourful paper lanterns decorate the streets and temples, the paths are lined with glowing candles and a palpable sense of excitement fills the air.
During the festival, you can expect to see hundreds upon thousands of lit paper lanterns (khom loy) rising into the sky as darkness falls; if you’ve ever watched the Disney movie ‘Tangled’, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about!
This was one of the undoubted highlights of our family trip to Thailand (rivaled only be meeting the elephants) and one which we feel everyone should experience at least once in their lifetime.
What are the Yee Peng and Loy Krathong festivals?
It’s pretty, but what is it all about? Yee Peng is a Buddhist festival held in the 12th Lunar month during the full moon; it always occurs in November although the exact date varies from year to year.
It is at this time, when the moon is at it’s brightest and the rivers run at their fullest, that Buddhists feel fit to ‘make merit’ (‘Tham Bun’).
Marking the changing of the season, the festival celebrates letting go of the old and celebrating new beginnings.
The principle of casting away any negative energies and all that is bad, and wishing for good fortune for the year ahead, underpins both the Yee Peng and wider Loy Katrong festivals. The paper lanterns and floral Krathongs are tangible vessels within which to cast away all that is bad.
Yee Peng is a traditional Lanna festival and although it is celebrated throughout Northern Thailand, Chiang Mai, as the former capital of the Lanna kingdom, is the epicentre of the festivities and plays host to the biggest lantern festival in the world.
Aside from the festival being the visual equivalent to all of a photographers Christmases coming at once, the atmosphere during the festivities is indescribable.
Krathong – ‘Loi Krathong’ translates into English as ‘to float a basket’. Krathongs are made from a slice of banana trunk covered with banana leaves and decorated with flowers. A candle is lit in the centre to represent passing from darkness to light. Incense sticks, coins and locks of hair may also be added
Khom Loy – sky lantern; a paper lantern with a base made from solid fuel which is lit to fill the paper lantern with hot air to allow it to rise into the sky.
Celebrating Yee Peng in the city
Sounds great, hey? But how can you get involved? We did a lot of research before we planned our own trip, and although there are several options available for celebrating the festival, in the end we opted to experience the Yee Peng festival in the town. Having done so, I can honestly say, I wouldn’t do it any other way!
Most of the action takes place on the third day of the festival down at the Nawarat bridge.
If you haven’t already secured yourself a lantern and a krathong, fear not; there are countless vendors lining the streets offering both at varying prices. Expect to pay between 50 – 100 TBH for a paper lantern and 20 – 100 TBH for a krathong depending on the size and how elaborately it is decorated
As soon as darkness falls, you will start to see lanterns rising into the sky and as the evening goes on, more and more can be seen spiralling towards the moon.
You are permitted to release lanterns between 7pm and 1am on days 2 and 3 of the festival from the Narawat bridge and surrounding area or from the Thapae Road leading towards the bridge.
This road largely clears of traffic from 7pm and as the crowds intensify, you will see more and more people standing in the middle of the road in clusters and lighting their lanterns.
We started out relatively early, around 5pm, towards the bridge with 3 kids in tow and made slow but steady progress towards the bridge; our return trip took much longer as more and more revellers joined the throng and the odd car thought that trying to traverse the hoards was still a goer!
Having reached the bridge, we made our way down the steep slippery river bank to let our Krathongs set sail on the Ping river, realising later that there are concrete steps further along making for a much easier descent!
You will see many people floating their Krathongs in the moat surrounding the old town as well as on the Ping river, a great alternative if you want to avoid the crowds of if you’d rather not have to carry it all the way to the river.
With our Krathongs launched, then came the moment we’d all been eagerly awaiting; lighting our lanterns.
Having seen a few impromptu inferno’s and a number of lanterns only make it as far as getting stuck under the bridge or hitting a tree to crash and burn, we were all anxious to get it right, praying for a skyward ascent rather than watching our wishes go up in smoke!
We had two shots at getting it right; the first time, Stu stood on the steep part of the bank whilst I lit the base, however, we soon realised that no one else could safely hold on to the lantern without risking an unplanned swim, so he went it alone.
The second time, we nailed it! Myself and the kids stood on the flat part of the bank where everyone could reach a side and Stu lit the base.
Whilst the flames warmed the air inside to allow the lantern to rise, there was plenty of time to snap some pictures and make our wishes before the lantern started to pull away, telling us it was ready to fly.
5 happy faces watched in wonder as it floated heavenwards, the white lantern becoming a yellow ball then an amber dot as it joined hundreds of other wishes in the skies.
It is said that if your lantern disappears from sight before the flame goes out, your wish will come true.
Top tips for lantern lighting success
- Be sure to prevent your lantern from tearing or developing any holes in it; brief science lesson – the lantern rising depends upon the paper part filling with hot air. If there are any holes in it, the hot air will escape and the lantern won’t rise.
- Unless you want to be handling a miniature inferno, you will need to make sure the paper part doesn’t catch fire! Before you light the fuel disc at the base, open up the lantern fully. Once you have it the disc, make sure you hold it upright so that the flames point upwards and don’t lick the sides of the lantern. Although other people’s fires are quite amusing to watch from a safe distance, you don’t want your own!
- Make sure you have a clear space to release the lantern and that the lantern has a clear path upwards. If you light it right under a tree, you can guess where it will end up!
After lighting your own lantern and letting you Krathong set sail, the evening is far from over.
During the festival period, the streets come alive with market stalls selling beautiful handicrafts and souvenirs and there is street food galore to stop your tummy from rumbling.
If you cast your eyes skywards, the spectacle of thousands of lanterns ascending continues throughout the evening.
The opening ceremony for the festivals is held at the Tha phae gate. The area in front of the gate is adorned with giant free standing lanterns as well as paper lanterns hanging in colour groups making for some perfect photo opportunities.
The opening ceremony on the evening of the first day features lighting of the candles and traditional Lanna dance performances.
Cultural performances and parades of people dressed in traditional Lanna clothing held on a stage here during the evenings throughout the remainder of the festival amid a great atmosphere of celebration.
Similarly, the square in front of the Three Kings Monument is decorated with hundreds of lanterns and hosts a series of creative activities, including making your own lantern.
An opening ceremony is held here also with dance performances and lighting of the candle trays.
Nearby Wat Inthakhin Sadue Mueang temple displays an impressive tunnel of multicoloured lanterns and makes a beautiful backdrop to your festival photographs.
Buy your own lantern to add to the display from the friendly monks stationed outside the temple.
One of the most iconic parts of the Yee Peng celebrations is the ceremony undertaken by novice monks at the Wat Phan Tao temple at the centre of the old town (off Prapokkloa road).
As darkness falls, around 15 young monks emerge around a central tree which is heavily adorned with paper lanterns and begin to light the many candles surrounding the tree and the within the moat.
The ceremony continues with the monks meditating and chanting under the guidance of a senior monk and concludes with the novice months lighting and releasing their own paper lanterns into the night sky.
Mesmerising to watch and to listen to, the ceremony lasts between one to two hours, but if you’re hoping for a good view and impressive photographs, you will need to arrive at least an hour before the ceremony begins to secure a spot; many photographers will set up their tripods a couple of hours before the event and patience is a must.
It was some feat achieving this with three young children although snacks, crayons and allowing them to play games on our phones did help!
The temples resident dog barking every time the bell was rung did provide a little entertainment for them too!
We attended the monk ceremony at Wat Phan Tao temple on day 2 of the festival, however, it runs on day 3 too and sometimes even on subsequent days.
You will need to look out a schedule of events for the festival when you attend to see what is happening when as it does vary from year to year although the overall structure is consistent (opening ceremony on the first night and release of sky lanterns on days 2 and 3).
As an alternative to celebrating Yee Peng in the town, there are a couple of organised events where you can be involved with the mass release of sky lanterns.
The most famous and largest event is held at Mae Jo University, 20Km outside of the city centre. Here, some 6000 visitors gather annually to take part in simultaneously releasing their sky lanterns; if you’ve ever seen a photograph of thousands of lanterns in one place, it was probably taken here!
Visually spectacular, the event isn’t cheap! Tickets cost from around 5600 TBH (correct of 2019) which includes transportation and your sky lantern. Children under 12 can attend for free at the time of writing.
Slightly cheaper, the smaller CAD Khom Loi lantern festival event at Cowboy Army Riding Club offers participants lanterns, transportation and unlimited food and drinks during the event. When I say ‘smaller’, there are still around 4000 seats at this event; that’s an awful lot of lanterns, so you’re unlikely to be disappointed. Tickets for this event start from around 2999 TBH (correct of 2019) but children will also require a ticket here.
Tickets for the various events are available though a number of websites. We have listed several here for reference but cannot vouch for them having not used them ourselves – https://yipengchiangmailanternfestival.com/ KK Day https://yeepenglanternfestival.com/
Which event is the best; organised V’s celebrating in town?
The answer to that question really depends upon what you are wanting to experience, and that will be different for everyone.
If you want to experience Yee Peng like a local and soak up some of the incredible atmosphere from the event, then staying in the town and releasing your Kratong and lantern around the Nawarat bridge is a great option.
There are plenty of lanterns to admire throughout the evening and your experience will only cost you as much as your lantern, a lighter and your Kratong.
If the main thing you are hoping to get out of the event is the visually spectacular sight of thousands of lanterns being released simultaneously into the night sky and amazing photographs of the same, then an organised event is probably your best bet.
That said, once all of the lanterns have been released, it’s all over for another year and you can expect a mass exodus of people and a slow journey back to town through the traffic.
Alternatively, you could ‘hedge your bets’ and do both! Head for the organised event first and then come back into town to join in the celebrations,
There’s really no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers here, just a matter of personal preference.
We personally didn’t attend an organised event so what we know about them is based only upon our own research and talking to fellow travellers.
For us, the event in town was perfect with children; relaxed, fantastic atmosphere, no long car journeys or traffic jams and the whole thing cost us under 300 TBH including food.
Making your own Krathong
We arrived in Chiang Mai on the second day of the Yee Peng festival and were lucky enough to stumble across a tiny florist where a couple of Western tourists were making their own Kratongs under the watchful guidance of the Thai florists.
Of course, the boys immediately wanted to join in and so myself and the three of them were ushered inside the tiny shop and space was made for us to work between the many ladies sitting on the banana leaf laden floor.
Each child was taken under the wing of one of the florists and instructed in the folding of banana leaves to cover the disc of banana tree trunk which forms the base.
With the base covered, the boys chose marigold and orchid flowers to decorate their Krathongs before adding a candle to the centre of their masterpieces.
There are a number of places around the city offering tourists the chance to make their own Krathongs so keep your eyes peeled if you want to have a go.
Environmental Impact of the Festival
As beautiful as the Yee Peng and Loy Krathong festivals are, there was a persistent niggle of guilt in my consciousness about the environmental impact of releasing these lanterns and floats.
Although the paper component is rapidly biodegradable, the lanterns contain a thin wire support which takes much longer to biodegrade.
Another consideration is where the lanterns land and the potential hazards. You are effectively dropping litter upwards with a built in fire, and absolutely no control over where it will land. Clearly, this poses a fire hazard as well as a potential danger to wildlife who could ingest the metal ring or be injured by it.
Indeed, we did see a couple of fallen lanterns in the countryside in Pai when we visited (pictured) which we helped to find their way to a bin.
In Chiang Mai city, there is an enormous clear up operation after the event; on the evenings of the festival, we spotted spent lanterns being piled up with other rubbish in distinct spots along the streets.
By the following morning, there was no trace of the paper lanterns or krathong boats which are very efficiently removed from the city.
It is estimate that over 90% of the debris from the lanterns is cleared up after the event, limiting the impact on the environment.
By releasing the lantern within the designated zones in the city centre, they are unlikely to stray into the surrounding countryside where they have the potential to cause more harm.
The authorities have also limited the release zones now for fire control purposes, and in fact Chiang Mai airport is closed on the evenings during the festival to avoid the potential hazards to planes posed to by sky lanterns.
Although most components of the krathong floats are biodegradable, the leaves and flowers are held in place with leaves and staples, and the candles contained within pottery holders, which of course are not.
Again, the city’s clean up operation means that is no sign of the krathongs on the city moat the following morning as they are removed, with no threat posed to fish or other wildlife. Obviously, the floats have more potential for harm when they are relased on the river.
If you’re keen to take part but worried about the environmental impact, you can make some reasonable compromises;
- Limit the number of sky lanterns that you release to one of two per family, rather than one each
- Celebrate the festival in Chiang Mai where there is a well established clean up operation and avoid releasing sky lanterns in the countryside where they are more likely to cause fires or harm wildlife.
- Float your krathong on the city moat or in the dedicated pools at some of the cities temples rather than on the river to minimise the environmental impact on wildlife.
- Consider buying more eco friendly sky lanterns with bamboo as oposed to metal frames on the internet prior to your trip (we found out about these whilst researching our blog post after our trip. Amazon are amongst the suppliers of these lanterns)
The Yee Peng festival is a magical event and an absolutely incredible experience. If you’re planning to be in Thailand around November time, it is definitely worth planning a visit to Chiang Mai to coincide with the festival and experience it for yourself.
Because the exact timing of the festival depends upon the lunar callendar, the dates do vary and it is worth planning to be in the city a few days around the expected dates to make sure you catch it right.
The festival is enormously popular with both Thai and international tourists. Booking accommodation in Chiang Mai as well as train tickets on the overnight train from Bangkok will therefore need to be done as early as possible to avoid disappointment.
For our family, the memories of this amazing festival will last a lifetime.