After a couple of days in Chiangrai trying to make like a Natgeo photographer among the hill tribes, it was almost time for the Loy Krathong festival which fell on 25th November 2015. We found ourselves back in Chiangmai on the eve of Loy Krathong. The city and it’s people were already busy preparing for this important festival with decorations being put up along the Ping River, temples and major hotels and buildings.
Loy Krathong is a major Thai festival that falls on the 12th lunar month of the Thai calendar. This usually happens in November and is a festival to honor Buddha. It is a tradition to light and float small baskets called krathongs on the river which signifies the letting go of your guilt, misdeeds and misfortune. In northern Thailand, Loy Krathong also coincides with the Lanna festival of Yi Peng. Instead of floating krathongs on the river, the people in the north release sky lanterns. Nowhere is this celebrated more exuberantly than in Chiangmai, the former capital of the Lanna Kingdom.
On the eve of Loy Krathong, the temples in Chiangmai were already starting their ceremonies associated with the festival. Monks were busy preparing the temple grounds with lights, incense and offerings to Buddha. One of the more well known temples for such ceremonies is Wat Phan Tao which is located just next to Wat Chedi Luang, the main temple in Chiangmai. Their meditation ceremony is well known and attracts lots of visitors.
The ceremony at Wat Phan Tao usually takes place on the night of the eve and on Loy Krathong itself. It’s best to check with the temple directly on the dates and time that they hold the ceremony. The temple grounds are also not big, so it pays to get there early to reserve your spot if you want an unobstructed view of the proceedings. Only the monks are allowed to release their sky lanterns so don’t bring any sky lanterns of your own. You will be asked to leave them at the entrance. For 2015, no lanterns were allowed to be released on the eve and in the picture above, the lanterns were actually attached to thin steel wires and not allowed to float away. The ceremony itself lasts for 1 hour or less and is a pretty quiet affair. There is no music or fancy displays besides the oil lamps and lanterns.
After our visit to Wat Phan Tao, it was time for a late dinner and a trip to the banks of the Ping River to release our krathongs.
Every year the release of sky lanterns poses a risk to aircraft and are also a potential cause of fire hazards when they fall to the ground. Although there have been no aviation accidents due to the sky lanterns, there have been enough close calls for the Thai authorities to restrict the releasing of sky lanterns in 2015. Usually, there are 2 major releases of the sky lanterns during Loy Krathong. The first release is during Loy Krathong itself (free entry), and there is a second release 1 week later which is for tourists and is a paid event. But for 2015, the Thai authorities only allowed the mass release during the paid event which was held on Loy Krathong day itself. So for us, we had to go the paid event which is held at Mae Jo north of Chiangmai. This event is organized by a Buddhist sect and is targeted at tourists.
The release of the sky lanterns was only allowed from 9pm on 25th November onwards as regulated by the Thai authorities, because they will stop all flights at Chiangmai Airport by that time. Even with the late timing, we found ourselves at the festival venue by 4pm to avoid the large crowds which were converging at Mae Jo. I must say that paying US$100 to join a festival that could have been free reeks of commercialism, but being a paid event it had it’s privileges. It was properly organized with each of us given 3 sky lanterns to release, dinner and refreshments were provided, there were proper toilet facilities, everyone was given a designated seat so that we don’t have to fight over prime spots, and due to the limited tickets, there was no over crowding which made it a more pleasant experience.
After our dinner, the sky was getting dark and everyone went back to their assigned seats to wait in anticipation for the sky lantern festival. Monks were already sitting in position for the meditation and prayer ceremony which was to precede the sky lantern release. During the ceremony there was a live commentary of what was going on, and emcees were there to translate into English, Chinese and Japanese. As mentioned earlier, the paid event is catering mainly to tourists, and there were many there including photo tours like us, bus loads of Europeans, Japanese, Koreans and Chinese tourists, and news crews from around the world.
Now, lighting up the sky lantern and releasing is easier said than done. There is a certain technique to have a successful launch. For first timers, there is an impatience to quickly let the lantern go and hope that it flies into the sky. Firstly, it’s easier if there are 2 or more people holding the lantern. One person has to open the lantern and hold up the top so as to expand the lantern into it’s full size. The fuel at the bottom of the lantern then needs to be ignited and this can take a frustrating couple of minutes as the fuel does not catch fire easily. When the fuel is burning, the top of the lantern still needs to be held up to prevent it from crumpling down and catching fire. Then wait for the lantern to fill with hot air until it’s fully inflated. When this happens, you can then release the lantern and it will float away. If there is not enough hot air in the lantern, it will fall to the ground. It’s believed that if your sky lanterns falls to the ground in sight of you, then you are going to have bad luck for the rest of the year. So there is an incentive to make sure your sky lantern remains afloat as long as possible, hence the proper technique of inflating and launching the sky lantern.
Unlike, other sky lantern festivals in Taiwan or China, the purpose of Yi Peng and releasing the sky lanterns is to signify the letting go of your sins and bad luck. Whereas, in other cultures, your wishes and aspirations are written on the sky lantern. Although I could see some people writing their wishes on their sky lanterns, the majority of the participants were happy to just follow the tradition of not writing anything on their sky lanterns.
The entire sky lantern mass release is less than 15 minutes before everything comes to a close. And to think that we waited 5 hours for this! How I wished it could have gone on for longer. Besides photos, I also recorded a video. The quality isn’t that great because it was recorded with an action camera which doesn’t perform well in low light situations. The video has also been edited to shorten it and show only the highlights.
After most of the sky lanterns have been released, the monks will release their own sky lanterns and this is the time for some good photo opportunities.
When To Go
For those who are thinking of going to this year’s Loy Krathong Festival, the date is 15th November 2016. However, the date of the sky lantern mass release is still not known yet. Usually, the date is given only 1 or 2 months before it happens. There is no news yet if there will be a free mass release event, or just a single paid event only. But if you find that paying US$100 or more is ridiculous to attend the paid event, then you can just stay in Chiangmai where thousands of sky lanterns will be released anyway. The sight may not be as spectacular as seeing thousands of sky lanterns in a coordinated launch, but still beautiful all the same. There will also be fireworks in the city.
A popular area to release sky lanterns is by the banks of the Ping River near Nawarat Bridge, otherwise, Wat Phan Tao is also a popular place because of the temple’s meditation ceremony. If you want to attend the paid event, then tickets can only be bought online and you have to arrange your own transportation to Mae Jo. Getting there is not too much of a problem as tuk-tuks, taxis and buses will be ferrying tourists during the day, but I heard that coming back is a major hassle as thousands of people will be fighting for all forms of transport to return to Chiangmai. As usual, for a major festival like this one, early booking of hotels and flights will save you a lot of money and convenience in getting lodgings which are close to the action.