What’s Loi Krathong like in Chiang Mai?
So the day before (16th November) was the awesome paper lantern release that kicks of Yee Peng in Chiang Mai. So today (17th) it’s officially the national Thai festival of Loi Krathong. Which is also a part of Yee Peng in Northern Thailand. It’s probably easier just to think of it as the water lantern festival in Thailand.
Again it’s a night-time event whereby thousands of little floating lanterns(Krathong) are placed into the river Ping. Or basically end flowing river anywhere in Thailand. The idea behind it is that you wish your bad deeds away on the floating lantern then light a candle to honor Buddha. After that you place the floating lantern in the water and it carries away your bad deeds! Simple eh.
Other events in Chiang Mai during the day of Loi Krathong
I spent most of the day trying to find something, anything that would be of interest. There were a few things near the municipality building like Krathong design contests and an alleged large Krathong race. I really couldn’t find the latter, but there were some really decorative Krathong’s about.
If you want to buy a Krathong they range in price from 20 baht for a really small palm leaf and single flower to really big Krathong’s that seemed impractical to float for several thousand baht. A good average price for a nice Krathong is about 150 baht. Walk out of the touristy areas and the price drops to 50 baht for the same one. My advice is to buy one away from wats and tourist markets.
The best places to see Loi Krathong in Chiang Mai
I really hadn’t made up my mind on where I wanted to see Loi Krathong in Chiang Mai yet. I wanted to avoid huge crowds and actually “experience” Loi Krathong rather than just go for photos etc.
So I figured that I had three choices to see Loi Krathong
- Go to a wat and chill out for the night in front of a golden Buddha
- If that failed go to a quieter wat by the river and chill out with locals putting floating Krathongs into the river
- If that didn’t work out (why wouldn’t it?) surrender to the tourist mob and go up to the main bridge at Nawarat
Seeing Loi Krathong at Wat Pan Tao
Wat Pan Tao is famous for its golden Buddha perched on a rock in front of a pond beside the wat. Every year they put on a light show with monks chanting and posing, erm sorry, meditating in public and so on.
It’s a nice wat. There’s no question about that. At about 15:00 I passed by and took a look in. It was all decoratively set up with unlit torches ready for the ceremony. Unfortunately it also had about 15 photographers all lined up along the edge of the pond with about 20 more tripods set up marking the rest of the empty spots and a few people lying around nearby watching over them. Not a good omen for later on.
I walked up and around the pond much to the glare of several photographers eyeing me up and down dare I move towards their spot. For those interested there were still a few areas with grass exposed at this time.
My mind was made up on this one. I really didn’t want to spend an evening sweltering on the grass elbowing photographers for this one photo. I wanted to chill, remember? So I left for a shower and thoughts of going to a quieter wat by the river.
Wat Pan Tao during Loi Krathong is not such a nice place
Post shower on my way to the quieter wat I passed by Wat Pan Tao again. A street market had been set up in this area so the place was fairly packed. Curious, I went inside Wat Pan Tao’s grounds again. I was and I wasn’t shocked. The crowd nearly went back as far as the temple doors. There were people climbing up the side of the temple and a wall of people with cameras held high in front of them.
It was a horrible scene. Horrible. Just a wall of people hustling and jostling to get a photo of a monk beside a statue. The loudspeakers were going full force with some monk chants that did sound nice but in no way was this going to be an enjoyable experience. I was glad I decided not to camp out there earlier.
On the way out two French guys were shaking their heads in disgust. “This is not a good place to enjoy yourself.”
A big shame as it is a beautiful setting that’s become lost in a sea of clicking cameras.
Personally I think if this is the case all cameras should be banned from this ceremony in future. Have a monk there with a big camera (they have plenty) and/or state TV but that should be it. Then if there’s still a crowd then let someone stay for three minutes then rotate them on out. It’s just too small an area for the mass of people wanting to see it.
Loi Krathong at Chai Mongkol Temple in Chiang Mai
I read online that the Chai Mongkol Temple just south-east outside of the old wall by the river was a very peaceful place to experience Loi Krathong. So that was the backup plan and off I went.
The night air in Chiang Mai in November is cool so it’s easy to walk around. Moreover people during Loi Krathong were lighting candles all along the roadsides making it a really nice experience. Once outside the wall things calmed down a lot. Thai’s were having dinner outside of businesses and houses. Children were playing on the streets. At least in the quieter soi’s (streets).
On the main road it was jammed with traffic. Tour buses, tuk-tuks, SUV’s, motorcycles. You name it and every form of transport seemed to be on the move. At Chai Mongkol Temple it was sadly no different. I got a glimpse of my peaceful Loi Krathong evening going up in a puff of giant tourist bus fumes.
Yes they were parked outside the temple. Inside there were many Thais but also many many tourists. Not the average tourist type either. But the tourist on a package tour tourist. They were busy setting off sky lanterns in big groups in the courtyard.
I went down towards the river to see what was happening. There were a few locals placing Krathong’s into the river but it was all very subdued indeed.
Was that it? My night of experiencing Loi Krathong seemed destined to be heading back up the river to the main tourist mob to watch fireworks. So be it.
Finding the best place to watch Loi Krathong in Chiang Mai
The first bridge I came across was Loi Khro Bridge. It’s a metal suspension bridge lit up with lights and packed with people. Ramshackle fireworks exploded overhead as smaller firecrackers were set off on the bridge. People were between gasping at fireworks up above and shouting in fright at firecrackers exploding at their feet. Beer flowed from a nearby bar and it was all very festive but not for me.
I very nearly turned back here. But for the sake of it crossed over just to see if the other side of the city was equally as explosive. It wasn’t. The streets were packed and as I passed another bridge there was an equal amount of chaos around. Further up and the street and there were bedlam by the next bridge. I turned back. I really just wanted to witness people putting Krathong’s into the river. No more.
I figured one last attempt opposite the Chai Monkol temple would do. A couple of locals floating out some Krathong’s and that was it.
Only on my way back I stopped for a drink and noticed a small opening into a throng of people leading down to the river. It seemed as good a place as any to take a look so I went down to the riverside.
Watching people placing Krathong’s into the river
There were small bamboo platforms floating along the riverside. They creaked and groaned as massive queues of Thais tried to board them in an attempt to place Krathong’s into the river. It was here the magic started to happen.
Although it was so full of people jostling to get by the river couples, families and singles all moved aside when someone came by with a Krathong knelt down and raised it to their foreheads. It was moving to see this.
Prayers of wishing away bad things and hoping for good fortune were said.
Then a candle in the Krathong was lit alongside some incense before the Krathong was placed into the water to drift away.
The only off-putting thing here is the struggle people had to go through to set their Krathong’s into the river. The water was much lower than the bamboo platform so they literally had to get down on their stomachs to reach out at arm’s length to place the Krathong into the river. This is when the smiles and laughs of the Thai people rose up. They knew how awkward it all looked.
But, it was fun, peaceful and good-natured despite the mass of crowds.
That is until one of the rudest photographers I’ve come across in recent memory arrived on scene.
A rude photographer at Loi Krathong
A white male in this forties with frizzy shoulder length hair and round spectacles appeared with a large camera up to his face. Truth be told I smelt him before seeing him. There was really bad smell of body odor which made me wince and turn around. Taking an opportunity the man stepped in front of me and right in front a young Thai woman praying in front of her Krathong.
Essentially he was blocking her from the river. She opened her eyes and jumped back with a startle. I thought at this stage the man would say sorry, or ask permission to take the photo or at the very least say thank you. But he didn’t. He just stood there taking photos of this lady. Then got down on his knees and slithered backwards as she tried to side step him to the river. And so he continued clicking away.
It got worse and I won’t continue on about it. But the highlight of this man’s rudeness was when a small girl appeared in the water helping people launch their Krathong’s. She was a street child by the looks of it. More on her next but for 30 minutes this man took photos of this young girl and in the process blocked others and embarrassed himself by his nonspeaking actions. Never once thanking anyone or saying hello.
I spoke out at one stage that they were trying to get through. But it went ignored. I bit my tongue and moved further on down the platform away from him. It was embarrassing to see someone act like that. The Thais were being as friendly as they could but even with that indelible smile some were very obviously irked.
There were tourists with cameras like the two youths in the photograph. Beer cans and cigarettes they were out to party. Not my kind of people these days but in fairness to them and their goofing around they launched their own Krathong and stopped to ask these girls for a photo. Get it, they asked. The Body Odor photographer never said a thing.
Okay, rant over.
The small Krathong girl in the river
There are rich people and poor people here in Thailand like there is in the rest of the world. When I arrived at the bamboo platform there was a man in a t-shirt wading in the river helping people push their Krathong’s out into the river. He left and this young girl took over.
She helped a lot of people who couldn’t reach the water with their Krathong’s. Some people gave her a few coins, others twenty baht. She was in the water for about an hour when she stated shivering.
I’m not sure if this girl was all their mentally. Either that or the cold was really getting to her. Either way the beauty of this girl is how she handled each and every Krathong in the river. Every Krathong she touched was with the deepest of respect whether people paid her or not. The same went for random Krathong’s floating down from further up the river. It didn’t matter.
She was so gentle with each Krathong – determined to push them out further so they wouldn’t get stuck in the riverbank.
She made my night in terms of just seeing such a gentle natured person in among all the ordered chaos.
I gave the girl 20 baht and said thank you in Thai for no other reason than I wanted to.
I stayed longer on the platform just watching people by a quiet corner on the other side. It was the experience I wanted. Just to sit and watch people be so respectful of their wishes and of those around them.
When I had my fill I went back to the edge with a plastic bag and another 20 baht for the little girl. But she was gone. I walked around to look for her. But no, nothing. I wondered if she’d left because her bag was full or she was simply too cold to go on.
It was time to leave.
Sitting by the river ping with locals at Loi Krathong
The bamboo platform had given me what I wanted and what I didn’t want. The B.O. photographer will probably win a Pulitzer Prize for his epic photo of a freezing girl in the river. Meanwhile I’d seen some beautiful moments as men, women, children, couples and singles had spiritual moments wishing away bad things and hoping for better things to come.
I wanted another drink and to sit down for a while. It wasn’t overwhelming but I did want to take it all in.
An over iced drink in hand I continued on to the end point near a bridge. There were places to sit on the ground by the riverbank so I did just that.
All around me locals came down and either sat to watch the fireworks over the bridge or other people placing Krathong’s into the river.
A group of University students came to sit next to me and struck up a conversation. They’d had all just moved to Chiang Mai and this was their first time at Yee Peng and Loi Krathong. It was fun talking to them about it as we were all experiencing it for the first time.
In front of us fireworks filled the sky in random colorful bursts for two hours while sky lanterns drifted high above. Firecrackers rattled all around us. Music played and people smiled.
Other locals came by from all walks of life to float Krathongs. Rich people with elaborate Krathongs got down on their knees alongside poor people with simple coconut shell Krathongs. Everyone was respectful.
Anytime you caught the eye of someone you got a wide smile and gentle nod of the head.
It was truly a great place to experience Loi Krathong. Down by the river with the locals.
Lively firecrackers at Loi Krathong
One of the noisier more squint worthy traditions at Loi Krathong is the fact that nearly everyone has a firecracker of some description. Watching people randomly swing a firecracker beside you with the “hope” it will fly out in front is an uneasy experience. I’d say at least 10 percent of the firecrackers either went into the trees above or the crowd behind us.
This scene from Loi Krathong by the river went on from about 7pm to 1am (If you are reading this via email then click here to view this video of Loi Krathong (2.09))
It wasn’t just young Thai’s either. A middle aged lady sat down beside me and after launching her Krathong proceeded to produce four-foot firecracker rods.
She then gave them to their mother who proceeded to let loose and nearly take my head off.
Walking back from Loi Krathong
Truth be told I left the riverside by 1am. The fireworks had died down aside from occasional explosions but the firecrackers kept going even though the crowd had thinned. It was now for the first time I actually saw Thai’s easily outnumber tourists in Chiang Mai. Coming back towards Loi Khro Bridge and there were some drunk tourists by the river where some Thai’s were placing Krathongs.
The tourists detonated a very loud large firecracker beside them and shrieked in laughter before throwing underwater firecrackers into the river. It was a sad sight to see at the end of the night. The locals jumped as one of the drunk tourists set off another one. There was plenty of space to do this elsewhere. Little firecrackers okay. But whatever they were detonating was dangerously big.
Further on towards the old city and more tourists were exploding random fireworks around houses and small Soi’s. Then came the bars and loud music. The ladyboys and the 2am massage parlors.
Passed the walls and things quietened down again.
A good end to Loi Krathong in Chiang Mai
Nearly back at my hotel and a group of young Thais on motorcycles pulled up. I didn’t know what they wanted until one of them lifted of their helmet and pointed back to the river. It was the group from the University I’d been sitting with earlier.
There was a party going on near the university. I smiled and shook my head.
“I’m too old!”
In typical Thai fashion I got huge smiles and a lot of head shaking.
Loi Krathong is undoubtedly best experienced with the locals down by the river!
All this and still one more day to go.
Day three of Yee Peng / Loi Krathong a giant parade … should you go? Surely a parade is worth skipping …
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