When I first began planning my trip to Southeast Asia, it all revolved around two things. Seeing elephants up close for the first time and experiencing the Chiang Mai Lantern Festival. I, just like hundreds of thousands of other people, saw the photos and videos captured of countless paper lanterns ascending into the sky and thought I want to be a part of that.
I began rummaging the Internet for information. How, when and where could I participate in this once in a lifetime experience?
The information available online is both minimal and slightly confusing. Especially since the actual Lantern Festival is a much smaller festival that is celebrated in the north within and alongside the nationally celebrated Loy Krathong festival.
What even begins to feel more daunting is where to see it and how much it is really worth paying for a ticket to possibly end up shoulder to shoulder with numerous other tourists, packed like cattle into whatever space is available.
I was afraid that purchasing a ticket would be like paying full price for a one day pass to Disneyland. Then only going on a couple rides because the lines were so long.
I wasn’t prepared to spend a lot of money, but I wasn’t willing to give up so easily.
To experience this festival, you have options. One of them (the one I did) is easy, free and can be done with minimal planning. I am not here to say that my way is the best way. But I am here to say that my experience was easy, only slightly annoying and still breathtakingly beautiful.
WHAT IS YEE PENG?
But before I get there, let’s talk about Yee Peng, or what many tourists know as the Chiang Mai Lantern Festival.
It is celebrated alongside Loy Krathong, which can be experienced throughout Thailand. This is celebrated all over the country by placing candles in baskets and releasing them down the river. It’s done at a time the rivers are believed to be at their fullest. Thai people use this opportunity as a cleansing ritual. Releasing the basket symbolizes letting go of hatred, anger and past mistakes.
Yee Peng is similar, but it is celebrated by releasing paper lanterns into the sky, along with any bad luck from the previous year. This is done only in Northern Thailand, where you can find the streets lined with colorful lanterns and participate in release parties happening all around the region.
Chiang Mai is the center for Yee Peng and there are three main places to participate in the festival. You can witness the grand ceremony at the Lanna Dhutanka Buddhist Center, or participate in the release party at Mae Jo University (the most popular option).
You can also do what I did. Stay within the city center and release your lantern at Narawat Bridge alongside hundreds of others, just outside the old city walls. This is appealing for multiple reasons, but like most things, has some negatives as well.
PROS OF CELEBRATING THE FESTIVAL WITHIN CHIANG MAI CITY
1. First and most importantly, there’s really no planning that needs to be done ahead of time. All you really have to do is book your accommodations within the Old City walls in advance and show up the weekend of the festival.
2. It’s cheap – and by cheap I mean free. Stay walking distance to the bridge and all you need to do is buy a lantern and show up. You don’t even have to pay for transportation. It’s really THAT easy.
(Pro tip: buy your lantern as far away from the bridge as possible. I got mine for 35 baht (3 for 100 baht) right near the hostel and saw the same ones being sold for 50 baht right next to the river.)
You can also stock up on multiple lanterns if you want more than once chance at successfully sending a lantern into the sky. I saw multiple lanterns crash and burn before making it into the sea of lanterns above.
3. It’s relatively easy to get in and out. I showed up just before sunset and were able to squeeze my way down to the river to light my candle and release my basket for Loy Krathong. Then made my way back up to the bridge to release my lantern.
I dealt with no traffic or aggressive tuk tuk drivers, and a pretty manageable crowd of people.
When it came time, I lit my lantern, held on to it tightly and let it go over the river. I watched it join all the other wishes and hopes for a better year to come. And when it was done, squeezed my way through the crowds. My friend and I made it away from the excitement and noise back to the calm streets of Chiang Mai almost instantly. Stopping often for glimpses of the lantern filled sky behind me.
CONS OF CELEBRATING THE FESTIVAL WITHIN CHIANG MAI CITY
1. The main issue with celebrating in the city is that it’s not an organized event. It is easy to follow the massive amounts of people to the river and hold onto your lantern until it’s time to start. But the time to start is uncertain.
Nobody is clearly in charge of this event so you really just have to go with the flow. Just wait for it to get dark enough that somebody decides they’re ready to let theirs go.
Because of this there isn’t one moment of lanterns ascending simultaneously. Instead it takes a little while to get the full affect of a lantern filled sky.
2. Lighting the lanterns is harder than it looks and you will need help. I watched multiple people struggle with holding their lantern open while attempting to light the wax. Although you will most likely experience this same problem wherever you try to release your lantern.
3. Lastly, the overall disrespect you’ll inevitably witness from this supposed-to-be religious experience is a little upsetting. You will see girls in inappropriate clothing, people smoking, and empty liquor bottles tossed on the ground everywhere with minimal regard for the environment and culture.
What is meant to be a religious cleansing experience, feels a little more like a backyard college party. I do think it’s important to have fun while traveling and I’m also not a prude when it comes to having some drinks.
But I believe it is important to show respect for other cultures and their traditions, especially when it comes to religious practices.
Be prepared to make friends with the people around you. They will be your allies when it comes to successfully getting your lantern into the sky, whether helping hold the paper up or using their lighters to get the wax burning faster.
If you’re lucky, you may meet a girl who without even having to be asked, grabs your phone and captures the perfect photo of you and your best friend living out one of the most amazing experiences you’ll ever have again with anybody ever.
I am sure witnessing a more structured ceremony would have opened my eyes even more to the beautiful tradition that is Yee Pang. But I can honestly say that I am satisfied with my experience. I was honored to take a small part in such an important festival. Being able to do it within the city center was a huge bonus.