What is Yee Peng & Loi Krathong like in Thailand?
I’ll cover a more personal story of how I got to the Yee Peng sky lantern festival in Chiang Mai in a couple of weeks. Meanwhile, while it’s still fresh in my memory, I wanted to write about what it was like to attend all three days of the festival as there’s a lot of mis-information out there.
So let’s get it all cleared up and learn about what is one of the best festivals to attend in Thailand. But is it worth going out of your way to attend all three days and battle with booked out accommodation, crowds and what is the best thing to see?
What is Yee Peng & Loi Krathong?
Firstly without going into a lot of history one really needs to understand the difference between Yee Peng or Yi Peng as it’s sometimes known and Loi Krathong. So here it is in a nutshell.
Loi Krathong is a national festival that pays homage to Lord Buddha. Loi is to float. While Krathong means decorative float. It involves setting small floating rafts into a river with the idea that they will take all your bad deeds and thoughts away with them. This has developed into becoming small lotus shaped floating decorations made from banana leaves, flowers along with some incense and a candle. Got it? Easy, now let’s mix things up a little
Yee Peng is another festival that happens in Northern Thailand at the same time as the national celebration Loi Krathong. Northern Thailand was once the Lanna kingdom. Yee Peng is held for similar reasons on the second lunar month. It is celebrated by releasing candle lit sky lanterns into the air all at once.
Okay, so basically in November every year (exact dates change as they are lunar based) there is one national celebration called Loi Krathong and in the north of Thailand there are two festivals at basically the same time – Loi Krathong and Yee Peng.
So it very much makes sense that if you want to see both festivals while in Thailand then you should go to the north of Thailand to see them both. And with Chiang Mai being the former capital of the Lanna Kingdom it’s the best place to see Yee Peng which is often written as being a once in a lifetime experience!
The Yee Peng festival is held over three days.
The days before Yee Peng in Chiang Mai
About a week before Yee Peng there’s not a lot going on in Chiang Mai other than some colorful paper lanterns being put up at the four gates of the old city wall. Some Wats (temples) also begin putting up paper lanterns. There’s a slight air of excitement but that’s about it until two days before the festival of light really kicks off.
About two days before Yee Peng opposite and around the Three Kings Monument in Chiang Mai there is a nice display of colored paper lanterns at night. Here people begin to light sky lanterns one by one at night. It’s a good place to go if you are only passing through Chiang Mai and want to light a lantern. Sky Lanterns here cost about 40 baht and they help you light them. You can buy them elsewhere for about 30 baht.
Basically, it’s a nice time to visit Chiang Mai. But you’ll only see the lanterns at their full effect at night when they are lit up. That’s about it really!
Day 1 of Yee Peng: Sky Lantern Release near Mae Jo University
This is without doubt the highlight of Yee Peng! If you are going to Chiang Mai to see Yee Peng do not miss this. If you want a bucket list item then add this and then go and tick it off. Do not miss – get it?!
I have written a full guide on the Yee Peng Sky Lantern Festival. So you can read that if you want the specifics on how to get there etc. In summary: about 5,000 people go to the grounds behind Mae Jo University to take part in the sky lantern release. It’s free to attend.
I drove out there at about 3pm and arrived at 5pm and was impressed with the organisation considering the expected crowds. You can park a motorbike there safely for about 10 baht. Tuk Tuks cost 500-600 to drive and wait. Private songthaews (public transport in Chiang Mai) cost about 1,500 upwards to hire privately. If you can ride a motorcycle well then I’d advise you to take this method to avoid traffic jams and parking issues. Otherwise if you are a large group then hire a songthaew. Just bargain and agree on prices beforehand.
Toilets, mats to sit on, food and drinks are all available inside the grounds. No alcohol or smoking is allowed. Don’t bring a lantern, you can only use the ones inside for 100 baht!
Again, read my guide to the festival above for more specifics on getting there, costs and maps.
Waiting for the sky lantern release
You are welcomed into the area by two rows of singing university girls. I kid not. It was a lovely and unexpected welcome. They gave me a plastic bag for my shoes and I nearly fell over at the thought of having to remove them inside an open field. I said it was against my religion to remove my boots and everyone suddenly got excited at this bizarre religion known as “David” but anyway…. It brought about more smiles and it was a good start to the evening and one in which I managed to keep my boots on.
Inside the grounds there were a mass of people already gathered. From what I could see, mainly tourists. Too many tourists. Wayyyyyy too many tourists. Also lots of Thais. It’s basically a big field surrounded by trees with a stage set up at the top with a golden Buddha statue and some monks ornately sitting in semi circular rows before him.
I managed to get a space in the middle. I thought about the rear to get the full effect of the release but wanted to experience the event more than photograph it.
In hindsight the middle is okay if it’s right beside the large red paper walkway leading to the monks. If you want monk photos then you’ll need to get there earlier and grab a spot up front from the hoard of photographers lined up. If you want to capture the whole field then head to the back and do battle with a few far too serious people with big cameras on the scaffolding set up there.
Back in the grounds the field is neatly divided up with three-foot metal candle holders separating areas into little sections. These are used to light your sky lantern later. Mat down, it’s time to wait.
There’s a loud-speaker with announcements in English, Chinese, Japanese and Thai telling you what to expect. With repeated warnings of do not release the lanterns until you are told to do so!
Meanwhile behind you there’s a stream of sky lanterns being released.
Well, at least it keeps you busy while you wait and wonder if your bladder will hold out or if you should run to the toilets now and risk losing your place. Again, this is another reason to bring someone else along.
You can buy a sky lantern inside the grounds for 100 Baht. It’s so that all the lanterns are uniform in size and color. It makes sense really as outside I saw some people hawking “Angry Bird” sky lanterns. Honestly, it does look better if everything looks the same in the sky later on. This is yet another reason to go with someone. They mind the mat while you buy a sky lantern and nip into the toilet on the way back.
Still waiting for the Sky Lantern Release
From about 18:00 to 19:30 the monks begin chanting.
Announcements are made. You are asked to bow and join in etc. I found many tourists trying to join in. But really it was very hard for most people to understand what was happening as the main stage is near impossible to see in among the throng of people in the field.
Ideally the stage area with the Golden Buddha and ornately seated monks could do with being raised up by about 3 feet. That would solve a lot of problems of seeing what you are meant to do. If you think that’s a little harsh then you should see the effort the monks go to for USD$100 a week later at a special tourist/photographer only show.
At one stage people were asked to hold hands but it never happened. Mass confusion from a speaker lost behind the person’s head in front of you. Raise the stage up!
Also quite annoying were the bunch of photographers with tripods prancing around in the upper one-third of the field to the left. One had a mini-drone helicopter that took off into the sky several times. It had purple flashing lights, made a noise and really did not belong in such a place. Likewise having people standing like that throughout the release was painful to the actual experience of being there.
No one wants to see a bunch of photographers and five foot tripods standing up with LCD screens shining out into the crowd all night while a drone buzzes around.
A few monks (or students) with bamboo sticks could be unleashed to get them to sit down next year
During this time there were also some people who got over excited and started to release some lanterns early. The announcer kept asking not to do this, but they did anyway.
Personally I think some geo-location naming and shaming needs to be done here. Or a pause and wait until they stop lighting lanterns. It doesn’t spoil things. But it is annoying and makes you wonder about the intelligence of some people. Again, everything was translated into four languages.
Monks with canes or participants must pass an IQ release “If the man on stage says do not light a lantern what do you do? A) light lanterns B) sit and wait – It’s really not hard!
The Sky Lantern Release
Several volunteers come around to light the metal candles dotted around the field. Helped by a flurry of people all panicking that they forgot to bring a lighter. You don’t need one. It’s all done for you.
An announcement is then made to “light your lanterns”.
At this stage I really must mention again it’s good to go with someone. Going on your own means lighting a lantern on your own. It’s a two person job! More on that later.
Some people set off lanterns early again. However you tend to ignore them at this stage as you’re too busy lighting your own, taking photos and waiting for one of these paper lanterns to catch fire and engulf everyone in this peaceful ceremony into a hellish inferno. Sorry, it wouldn’t be me without some raw frankness! Yes there were a few fires, but don’t worry about it.
What happens next is indeed very special. Once the lanterns have been lit and they fill with hot air the mix of candles, white bobbing lanterns and the dark sky above has everyone smiling in anticipation.
Another announcement is made. And it is now, at this very moment, when everyone releases their paper lanterns that the best experience of Yee Peng is felt. 5,000 people all gasping as thousands of glowing silent sky lanterns get released into the night sky. It’s an amazing thing to hear so people gasp in excitement and wonder coupled with the beauty of so many incandescent lanterns floating upwards.
It’s as if you are lost in a heavenly dream of mass ascension for a brief moment in time
The lanterns rise into the dark sky very quickly and people all around you are smiling at this communal event as happy music is played in the background and some fireworks explode. This is good.
This is very good indeed.
Watching the paper sky lanterns float away into the night sky
From creamy white to bright yellow from orange to burning specks of amber everyone’s gaze is turned upwards towards thousands upon thousands of sky lanterns flowing into an ember river in the sky.
They gently ebb into a long jewel like band in the night sky until they eventually disappear into the distance.
If you followed your own lantern, where your bad wishes and deeds were given unto, then it is at this moment when your lantern disappears that is also meant to be when your bad deeds and wishes disappear.
All around you people then start lighting up more lanterns. And more, and more. Monks chant in the background and then another small firework display occurs.
It all goes on like this for about 20 minutes. An announcement is then made and you are told the ceremony is over but you can continue lighting lanterns if you so wish. Or go down to the river to release some floating river lanterns.
After the lantern release
Things go back to normal pretty quickly after the release. Some people rapidly start to pack up. So there’s a mass of humanity on a mission to leave quickly to avoid traffic etc which dampens things a little. But life goes on. Hang back a bit if you are feeling a little overwhelmed and want to hold on to it for a bit longer.
People are urged to clean up around them. By 22:00 university volunteers are trying hard to finish the clean up operation.
The crowd is sober and there’s no pushing or shoving. However it is crowded. Small children may not like it. But in fairness it’s not a mad panic. Just a lot of people trying to get out quickly.
By the toilets there are even some Thai police helping tourists trying to find their way back to Chiang Mai. Sufficed to say there are no taxi’s as one group were amazed to hear. Having your own transport is essential and also quite easy to arrange (see my guide below).
Traffic on the way back is jammed until you leave the immediate area. There are a few local events in the area where alcohol and stage shows are taking places. Do drive carefully here as small firecrackers are rapidly set off by overzealous teens.
Once on the motorway everything is fine until you are just outside Chiang Mai’s old city and then it gets jammed again. Surprisingly the way back was much quicker than going out to the Lantern release.
Along the way you can see what happens when a sky lanterns candle burns out and it comes back down to earth …
Depending on where you are it can be a bit like the “invasion of the silent grey zombie lanterns”
What was Chiang Mai like during the Lantern release?
So back in Chiang Mai’s old city the “party” was still going on. The busiest areas were Thae Pai gate, by the Three Kings and the old market. Lanterns were also released here. But nothing near as spectacular as out by the University. I sat with some Japanese people who had been in the city and looked through their photos. They were nice. But nothing on the scale of the Lantern Release out by the University.
Moral of the story? If you are in Chiang Mai for Yee Peng make an effort to go out to the University for the main lantern release.
Was the paper lantern release a life changing event?
I read quite a bit about this online before attending. Phrases from “Life changing” to “It will make you cry” were used profusely. Unless you are seriously emotional about everything I don’t get the crying bit. I saw no one with a tear in their eyes. No one. Lot’s of smiles, yes. Tears no.
Life changing? Sorry but again no. It’s an incredible event. The solitary gasp of 5,000 people as lanterns went up was a unique experience indeed. But life changing? Not unless you’ve not experienced much in life already.
Exceptions to the above will be people effected by personal emotions at the time. If you are there with your spouse, children or a person you care about then things will mean more during the event. Likewise if you love to see something beautiful. So yes, it’s an individual thing.
Laugh, cry, meditate do whatever floats your … sky lantern (groan). Just enjoy.
That many paper lanterns in the night sky is an exceptionally beautiful sight to behold.
The Lantern Release in Chiang Mai for Yee Peng is indeed a must see and experience event! Make no doubt about it. It’s bucket list material for sure. If you are in Thailand during the month of November go out of you way to see this. Again you can use my guide to Yee Peng in Chiang Mai to help you plan.
What’s the Yee Peng Lantern Festival in Chiang Mai like? (Summary)
Chiang Mai city is in party mode and many wats look exceptionally beautiful at night. It is a good time to visit. Book accommodation online well in advance to avoid price hikes. Walk in rooms were still available two days before the event. But the day before and on the day I saw many people walking the streets looking for a room to stay. It’s possible, but not online at good rates unless you book in advance.
- Some lanterns did catch fire. One behind me went up in flames before being rapidly stomped out by a panicking Korean man. Someday an accident will happen at Yee Peng. Thankfully alcohol is banned so that helps delay this. There were a few fire trucks outside and an ambulance or two. But I didn’t see one fire extinguisher. This should really happen, along with fire blankets before something really nasty happens. Hand them out to the volunteers who patrol the areas.
- Raise the monk stage up.
- Something needs to be done about the photographers standing up at the top of the field blocking people’s views and for goodness sake ban the flying drones with cameras.
- There’s a secondary Lantern Release about a week after the free one I’m writing about above. Tickets cost USD $100. More details on my guide but be warned it’s not the same thing and it’s usually booked out weeks in advance.
- Forget Chiang Mai city center celebrations – Go to the Lantern Release out by Maj Jo University at all costs.
- There’s another Yee Peng celebration the next day & evening to look forward to!
Dates for Yee Peng in Chiang Mai in 2014
Yee Peng is lunar based. So exact dates are not known until about a month before the actual event. However you can get an approximate idea of when Yee Peng will be due to this as well.
- Yee Peng Lantern release date in 2013 was November 16th.
- Yee Peng Lantern release date in 2014 is the 6th November 2014
- Yee Peng Lantern release date in 2015 is the 15th November 2015
Again, these are not confirmed Yee Peng dates. But these are the dates for the full moon and Yee Peng takes place then so you can at least plan around these time frames.
The Yee Peng & Loi Krathong festivals takes place over three days so you do have some leeway in regards to attending. Yee Peng happens the day before Loi Krathong. Accommodation will be a factor. After that it’s which events over the three days interest you the most.
So, with that in mind I’ll write-up about the second day of Yee Peng & Loi Krathong next to give you an idea of what to expect.
Meanwhile here’s a full guide to the Yee Peng festival in Chiang Mai.
Coming up next:
Yee Peng day 2 – Loi Krathong kicks off with thousands of floating lanterns taking to Chiang Mai’s river Ping. Is it also worth attending? Or is it okay to miss it?
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!