A series of fortunate & unfortunate events leading to Chiang Mai Thailand’s festival of light

Chiang Mai's eastern gate during Yee Peng
Hua Lumphong railway station at night
Welcome back to Thailand … where we no longer have trains to Chiang Mai!!

Stumbling onto one of the biggest light festivals in the world

It was a mad last-minute dash to Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand for the annual Yee Peng festival (Festival of Light). A festival I didn’t think about attending until a series of events all played out. In the end it all led to me being in a temple full of monks being taught to make paper lanterns. More on the monks and how I came across them later. For now, here’s how a series of unrelated events can lead you to Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand.

The events leading to arriving in Chiang Mai

I’d landed back in Thailand and basically headed due south into Northern Malaysia by train once again before promptly tearing my hand open in a jungle which delayed me indefinitely from my previous plans. It happens to the best of us I think. So the weeks passed and I thought little of Thailand other than a promised job offering and a slight revolt at Thai food (I’m not a fan, who is?).

Train and Monk waiting
Train’s in Thailand are cool … when they work … someone tell the monk it’s going to get a little tight soon!

It was only when skimming through my calendar did I see that Loi Krathong or Thailand’s big light festival was due soon. In fact it nearly coincided with me having to be back in Bangkok a week later anyway so getting there early for a light festival sounded like a good plan. Only it’s Thailand.

Nothing ever seems to go exactly to plan in Thailand even though it seems as if it should.

When I got to Bangkok I discovered Loi Krathong was going to be scaled down this year due to the death of Thailand’s Supreme Patriarch Nyanasamvara Suvaddhana. Well okay … There was still hope but it lay in the North of Thailand. In Northern Thailand Loi Krathong is merged with Yee Peng which is a Lanna celebration. The Lanna were a people who had their kingdom in what’s now Northern Thailand prior to the 16th century and the capital was Chiang Mai.

Yes, it was a history lesson for me too.

However it is here that there is a huge lantern release involving thousands of lanterns into the night sky. Sounded good. Only the great northern railway in Thailand is (was) currently under repair even though plenty of people told me it was working. So on the day I arrived it was naturally still not up and running. And wouldn’t be until December 1st 2013 (Yep, it’s running again!). So that meant taking a wonderful random 10 hour bus to Chiang Mai it seemed. I only hoped I would not end up on one of those awful two tier glow in the dark buses I’d seen transporting mobs of beer swigging young tourists around in.

Off to Chiang Mai by bus

I got to Bangkok’s northern terminal Mo Chit for a night bus only to discover that yes the bus was indeed a giant two tier monster with lots of purple and pink lights along with a horde of Chang beer swigging young tourists waiting outside. So I waited. And waited. And waited for another bus while trying to make out the not so decipherable signs at Mo Chit Bus terminal.

Thailand get’s a big thumbs up from me in terms of Hua Lamphong railway information (so good I wrote a guide about hotels only 10 minutes walk of the train station in Bangkok – it’s good, read it). But by gosh the northern bus terminal is a bit of a subdued fart in terms of access to easy information late at night.

Ticket counters at Mo Chit bus terminal
Mo Chit Northern Bus Terminal in Bangkok … where it’s just too easy to catch a bus at midnight

There’s an outside row of bus companies with occasional squawks from ladies telling you “Chiang Mai, Chiang Mai, leaving now”. Only you go up and the bus is not leaving now it’s leaving in two hours. Then when you ask for the company’s name you get a blank stare. The information counter was usefully closed too.

I searched the internet for information. Sombat tours kept coming up as being one of the few that don’t have drivers off their heads on red bull. Everything is written in Thai. Except the counter numbers. So it’s impossible to tell who’s who. So I started at counter one. “Sombat?” “Where you go?” “Sombat tour?” “No.” Helpful. I move on like this until counter 15 I believe. It was closed. A night security man came over.

“Sombat to Chiang Mai?”

Yes,” I gleamed in delight.

He brought me to the next counter where a lady sat filing her nails. “No bus until 7am morning.”

Hippie on a bus in Bangkok
A hippie with a kindle refusing to eat the free food on the bus

Back to square one again. At the crack of dawn when the Chang drinks had long gone and the prepackaged imperishable food at 7-11 started to call out to me I clambered onto a government bus in resignation. I stared across the bus aisle as a dreadlocked beehive-hair-styled designer hippie from Canada sat cross-legged into his chair and then produced a shiny new Kindle.

Was Buddha mad at me for some reason?

An elderly frail looking Thai gentleman came towards us with a look of mild disdain at the designer hippie. I gave a consolatory shake of the head and offered the seat beside me. Only the bus attendant wasn’t having any of it. The old man spoke Thai to him and I just nodded that it was okay for him to have him sit there instead of his designated seat. I could swear the old man sighed in relief…O maybe he was just as knackered as I was.

It was all an act of camaraderie on my part. Two souls shaking their heads at the hideous beehive creature across from us. Aside from that the old Thai dude was skinny so he wouldn’t take up much room. He was also a better choice of seat partner should another designer hippie or worse yet a beer swigging tattooed tourist in a vest sprawl themselves next to me.

The bus takes off for … the repair center

And so we were off … Well, not yet. We had to wait an hour for some guy to hammer a fuse into the roof or something. But after that we were off. And without a break down all the way! Nope, the bus went just fine and we even stopped for something to eat along the way.

The only issue en-route was that the designer hippie couldn’t eat anything because he didn’t know if there was meat in it or not. Some poor Thai lady felt sorry for the bag of bones and gave him a Thai donut with purple goo hanging out the sides. The hippie ate it. I never saw this hippie again. I have no idea if Thai purple goo donuts have a terminating effect on them. But this is something worth taking note of should one ever be in a similar situation again.

Feed the hippie Thai purple goo donuts and watch them vanish

Accommodation searching in Chiang Mai for Yi Peng

Of course the part in all this I’m leaving out were all the days beforehand. The ones where everybody told me all the accommodation in Chiang Mai would be fully booked out for Yi Peng. The joys of last-minute unplanned travel. I’m a nine year road warrior at doing this stuff, what fear do I have? Aside from Designer Hippies and Thai Soup.

I did check online and there was still accommodation available in Chiang Mai. But it was all horribly inflated for the festival. So I took a chance on being a walk in customer.

Out of the bus and into a tuk tuk for 80 baht and no arguing to just outside the old city walls on the west side. First guesthouse 2,000 baht per night – nope. Next 1,000 nope. Next 300 okay. Saw the timber room and some tie-dye girl walking around barefoot and left instantly.

Next 500 with aircon or 370 with fan. Show me the fan. One minute in the fan room and this transpired. “It’s hot. Do you have Wifi?”

Kind Chinese lady,”Yes have Wifi. Take AC for 500.”

“I take AC for 400”

“500, peak season!”

You have restaurant?”

“Yes, you eat here.”

“Yes I eat here if AC room 400.”

“How long you stay?”

As little time as possible please. “Maybe some time. But I eat here. You have coffee?”

“Okay, 400 you stay.”

“Okay. Free coffee too?”

She frowns.

I smile. “Joking!”

She smiles then frowns.

Done deal.

Colorful decorations around sign for Chiang Mai
Welcome to Chiang Mai … it’s all colorful like bubble gum here

Finding out where all the festivities are in Chiang Mai for Yi/Yee Peng Loi Krathong / Loy Krathong …. “Shiny Happy Lantern Festival” is not so easy

So the Wifi is blindingly slow as I search for Yee Peng in Chiang Mai. Everything centers around the Mae Jo University lantern release on the 16th. Okay … but what about the 17th & 18th? And all the other little bits in-between?

The backpackers downstairs in the restaurant looking at phones with Facebook’s eerie blue hue reflecting on their skin were under the impression it’s the following week. Okay well then … Finally the guesthouse owner confirms Yee or Yi Ping is on the 16th and on the 17th it’s Loi Krathong but she pronounces it a different way so now I think there’s another event and there is. On the 18th. None of the backpackers seem bothered about any of this.

Love me this travel in 21st century Thailand.

Taking a walk in Chiang Mai to find answers

Out on the street I finally get a good look at Chiang Mai. The air is cleaner than Bangkok’s by far which is good. Inside the old city walls traffic is less mental too which is good. But no buses only songthaews and tuk tuks which is bad.

Where are my thieving motorcycle guys! This was all getting too clean and sterile!

Barefoot backpackers in Chiang Mai
I’ve seen more barefoot backpackers on the streets in Chiang Mai than in any other city center in Thailand

Deeper into Chiang Mai’s old city I go and I’m quickly beginning to wonder if there’s a foreigner invasion or something going on.

Chiang Mai has more foreigners living in it than locals. A slight exaggeration but still. Not good.

Indeed it would seem Chiang Mai is quite the expat and tourist haven of Thailand’s north. Old foreigner dudes walking their petite dogs. White dudes on motorbikes (cough, scooters, cough, cough, small ones) with no helmets. Rich ladies in white pants and pearl necklaces looking uncomfortable in tuk tuks. Older still ladies with baggy dresses in random market stalls “looking” like they know what they are doing. Ill looking tourists eating cheap MSG laden soup beside food stalls. A dude with a full head tattoo and no he’s not a smiley type.  And of course the obligatory young TEFEL teachers in uneasy tight suits and older ones in ill-fitting pants.

There are actually so many non-pc stereotypes of loopy white folk living in Chiang Mai it could fill an entire novella

Not to mention the fact I’ve seen more barefoot backpackers walking along streets in Chiang Mai than in most other places. And those just seem to be the people living in Chiang Mai on day one. Oh my, oh my.

When in Rome lie to the tour agent in Chiang Mai

The fastest way to get an answer is to pay for it and ask for your money back.

Given the surroundings and prior knowledge of where to find answers I ducked into one of the many, many travel agents around and asked about the festival. But they don’t know anything until I lie and say I want a tour to the long neck village but don’t want to miss the festival and don’t care how much it costs to see the long necks. Show me the Long Necks! (Just be grateful I didn’t choose the deplorable Tiger Kingdom as a destination or as pic for my avatar – *girly-shrieks*)

Lanterns around Buddha at Wat Pan Tao, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Lanterns around Buddha at Wat Pan Tao, Chiang Mai, Thailand

The tour agent in the second office reacted very well to my Long Neck dilemma and wrote it all down for my poor distressed mind to understand (I am being sarcastic you know?).

  • Day one is Yi Peng at night.
  • Day two is Loi Krathong day (parade) and by night floating lanterns by various bridges.
  • Day three is random events in Chiang Mai city.
  • So he can take me to the Long Necks on Day three or on day four.

I thank him and say I’m still asking around. Yea, I know. But for every one of me I’m sure he get’s a 100 people actually wanting to see Long Necks. He was also wrong about day two-point-five and day three. So officially it all starts on the 16th this year. But it’s lunar based. And I figured if it was lunar based it’s random within a day or two depending on what head monk is giving the orders about all this. So that means be prepared for anything. Or go straight to the heart of all this and speak to a monk in the know or at least a person who knew a monk who knew what was going on and where I could see things.

Right, time to find a monk in the know. And a monk willing to talk … not as easy as it looks as Monks are generally not the most talkative of people unless you are chilling with them at a Monk Chat with a donation box floating around nearby.

Off to visit a few Wats with monks in Chiang Mai

Of the more stable things in Chiang Mai are the cities ample number of Wats which are nearly always open. At least between the hours of 4am and 8pm. I could go straight for the big ones or medium ones to find my answer. Surely in the Festival of Lights the Wats would be decorated well? I wasn’t disappointed. Although it was still daylight walking along the center of Chiang Mai the city’s main temples did show signs of preparation for a festival. Moreover outside the temples people were starting to sell floating lanterns or khom loi as they are known.

Floating Sky Lanterns from Yee Peng
All this because I just want to experience the Sky Lanterns from Yee Peng … well okay they are pretty great

What was nice is that outside the Wats themselves there were lovely multicolored lanterns. Chiang Mai was indeed becoming more colorful. If only it wasn’t so jam-packed full of tourists. But hey, it’s a big festival and foreigners gotta occupy some place in vast numbers. But what’s up with the cheesy Burrito bars?? Oh yea … refuge from Thai food.

Don’t go in that room in the temple!

Inside one of the temple grounds I was trying to avoid a hand holding couple from getting in the way of a nice photo when I passed a small outside open door leading into a dark little room in a temple. There was a man there sitting on the ground. “Sawadee” we greeted each other. I looked at the ground and saw a messy line of shoes.

As a person who hates removing his shoes I thought no more and walked on. Hand-holding couple reappeared on the other side of the stupa. Back I went. Again the man waved at me as I peaked in. This time I saw some Monks cleaning inside. Monks never seem to greet me so I just waved at the man again before walking on.

Monk making a paper lantern in Chiang Mai
Happy smiling monk making a paper lantern

Back out by the stupa and a lone guy with a camera appeared to be taking my original photo that at least 1000 other people had taken already that week. So back I went again and did the whole wave thing to the man with the monks in the temple room before finally getting the photo I wanted. Hurray! Now to leave.

Passing by the seated man yet again I waved and he waved as is now our tradition. I then stopped for a longer look at what they were all doing on the ground in the first place.

Ah, they were making colorful paper lanterns.

I nodded and walked on. Then stopped. Went back and walked as far in as I could without removing my shoes. The man looked up and smiled. Yes indeed it was a man with some monks making lanterns for Yi Peng. It was hot and I could do with a break.

I hesitated as I fought the urge to keep my shoes on. The man finally waved me in. I grumbled. Bent down and removed my shoes. Then as any good person who’s been traveling for nine no-return years would do I calmly took my sock covers out from my camera bag and put them on over my trekking socks.

These sock covers are hereby called “temple socks”.

The man didn’t bat an eyelid. I liked him already. Good thing too. I’m known to lecture people about this whole shoe removal thing. And that is how I met Toi. The man who teaches monks how to make paper lanterns for Yee Peng.

So that’s how I got to Chiang Mai through a series of fortunate and unfortunate events. It’s a personal travel journal entry so comments are off.

P.S. Yes the final insult of this series of fortunate and unfortunate events leading to Yee Peng was writing this just as the riots in Bangkok started messing up my whole plan on returning to the capital for world domination … trapped I was!

Trapped in the Loopy White People Boogaloo Town of Chiang Mai!

If you’d like to read about my experiences at each of the three festivals over Yee Peng then here they are:

Or, here’s a full travel guide to Yee Peng

Coming soon: Watching monks make paper lanterns (Less of me, more on monk photos) 

Hotel search at the Longest Way Home

Planning on booking a hotel room in Chiang Mai for Yee Peng?

Here are the best online rates guaranteed!

I recommend you try my own hotel search for Chiang Mai.

Accommodation for Yee Peng in Chiang Mai books out quickly so remember to book well in advance!


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