Chiang Mai Day-1: Celebrating 2019 Yi Peng Lantern Festival

Buddha Statue at Wat Phan Tao

I had been dreaming about attending Yi Peng Lantern Festival forever. The image that I saw in Instagram was just too beautiful to Ignore. Monks seated in terraces with thousands lanterns flying and brighten the sky, or the other picture where the beautiful lantern in the sky was reflected by the water surface creating surreal image of lantern festivities are just stuck in my memories. So, when I asked my friend if she wanted to go to Chiang Mai for the festival and extend the trip to Laos and she said yes, I was super, super super excited.

What is Yi peng Lantern Festival (and Loy Krathong Festival) ?

The annual Yi peng Lantern Festival is a religious festival unique to northern Thailand. It is celebrated in the twelfth full moon of the lunar calendar, which traditionally occurs in November. This tradition goes way back to the ancient time of Lanna Kingdom where people gathered to honour Buddha and ask for good fortune and wisdom before lighting the lantern (khom loy) and release them into the night sky.

The lantern used usually made from rice paper with a candle attached to it. The fire from the lit candle generates hot air that is trapped inside the lantern, which accounts for the lightweight sky lantern’s lift. As the lantern rises, the fire produces energy that allows it to drift in different directions as it flies into the night sky. (source: travelawaits)

On the same day, another holiday is celebrated across the Thailand as nation-wide festival. This festival is known as Loy Krathong (“Loy” means to float and a “Krathong” is a small handmade boat traditionally made from a section of banana tree trunk). Loy Krathong is an ancient harvest festival that honors the Water Goddess and the importance of local rivers in sustaining village life.

While in Yi Peng people celebrating it by releasing lantern into the sky, in Loy Krathong people lighting a floating vessel (usually ensemble lotus flower) which decorated with incense and candle (krathong) and release them into the river. In Loy Krathong, people releasing the floating vessel in the hope to free one’s past year’s sins and burdens and usher in luck and fortune.

Where to celebrate Yi Peng Lantern Festival

Paid events VS Free Events

I was quite surprise to find that images I so profoundly adore was taken at paid event. Yes, there are two kinds of celebration of Yi Peng Lantern Festival. The paid festivals and the free ones. There are at least five famous paid events of the lantern letting-go and you can see it in this website. The famous one is the one that’s held in Lanna Dhutanka near Mae Jo University. These paid events cost from 200-300 USD from standard to VIP class which includes lantern and dinner buffet. As for the other events, it is usually vary each year in terms of the place where it is held and the event organizer. Each event has its own seating capacity and usually sell fast.

The paid event in the Lanna Dhutanka Temple behind Mae Jo University (15 km north of Chiang Mai) usually starts with traditional dancing and music festivities, and then later the monks will chant prayers and offer blessings before all the guests and participants light their lantern and letting it go to the sky in a coordinated mass release. This is when and where the magic happens.

Different with the paid events, the free events happen in various places around the city of Chiang Mai. These events usually take 1-2 days and every evening around 8-9 pm people gathered in designated places to release the lanterns and or the floating vessels. The one that I followed, had a parade, musics and dancings along the street as well. Some of the events are also take place in various temples across the city.

Where to celebrate Yi Peng Lantern Festival for free

After weighing and discussing with my friend, we decided not to follow the paid events. Our consideration was that we could see and participated in the free events, and considering the length of our travel, it was just not wise to spend such amount of money for one night. (something I regret later, but for a whole different reason! Might want to keep reading to find out why).

Next thing i knew, we started looking for the best spot to feel the magic of release of the thousands lanterns around the Chiang Mai. Thankfully, internet is very resourceful with other traveller’s experience in Yi Peng Lantern Festival. The common suggestions were to visit these places:

  1. The Mae Ping River at Nawarat Bridge. It is said that people gather in this river banks to release the floating vessel and release the lantern at varying time throughout the night.
  2. Three Kings Monument. I read about this place on a blog but quickly dismissed it. But, our hostel receptionist in Chiang Mai gave us a pamphlet which detailed Yi Peng Itinerary hour by hour and that’s when I noticed the Three Kings Monument was mentioned in the itinerary. The pamphlet was detailing celebration of Yi Peng held by the city official (or that’s what I assume)
  3. Wat Phan Tao. I was immediately drawn of Yi Peng celebration photos that were taken in this temple, where colourful lantern hung from the huge tree, and monks sit peacefully under those tree chanting prayers. We made it to this place and it was just as beautiful as seen in the picture if not even more.
  4. Wat Buppharam (near Nawarat Bridge)
  5. Tha Phae Gate. Tha Phae Gate is situated at the eastern side of the old city Chiang Mai

sources: Onceuponajrny, bonvoyagethailand , & Yogawinetravel

My experience celebrating Yi Peng Lantern Festival in Chiang Mai

It is important to note, that 2019 Yi Peng Lantern festival was held on 11-12 November 2019. When I purchased the airplane ticket to Chiang Mai, the price before and on November 11th 2019 was multiple times higher than any other day (😱wondering why!). But, if we were to go on November 12th, the price was much lower than the day before. That was why we decided to buy the ticket on November 12th 2019. Also, from the blogs i read, the first day of Yi Peng Festival had always been super crowded, so we thought it would be the best decision to come at November 12th 2019.

2019, November 12th – morning till noon

I arrived at Chiang Mai International airport at 08:40 am before having short transit at Don Mueang. I used AirAsia, and it does not have direct flight from Kuala Lumpur to Chiang Mai. Hence, we stopped at Don Mueang and change airplane.

The tricky part was getting to the city. I remembered going to ride tuk-tuk but turned out they only drop the passenger and could not take any in front of the arrival gate. But, we met this kind lady driver of Tuk-tuk who wanted to take us to the city for 250 THB after she dropped passenger off. So, off we went by tuk tuk.

We stayed at Tato House, and this is probably one if not the best accommodation I have ever stayed during my history of travel. The place was clean, facilities work perfectly, location was perfect, the receptionist was super kind and helpful, and to wrap it all up, the host was super, super cool and friendly. He draw his every guest a portrait cartoon as a thank you note, and I couldn’t be thankful enough for the hospitality. When I remember Chiang Mai, the memories I had in this accommodation along with places I visited makes me so happy.

Portrait Cartoon of me drawn by Tato House owner

In this accommodation, I rent a bike for that day. The reception staff helped contacting the rental company and have it delivered to Tato house within minutes.

Things to be noted when riding motorbike in Thailand:
1. Bring your driving license accordingly. When we were there, there was huge traffic inspection on motorbike, and I saw a lot of foreigner tourists were caught not having IDP (International Driving Permit) or country origin’s driving permit that equals or applicable in Thailand.
2. If you rent motorbike, please ensure the helmet is provided and check the condition of the motorbike during the handover from the company to you.
3. Always ride on the left side of the road

Here’s the route that i took that day visiting temples in Chiang Mai during Yi Peng Lantern Festival

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

After we got our motorbike, we directly went to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. It’s a Theravada Buddhis Temple and it’s 15 km from Chiang Mai City Center, located inside Doi Suthep National Park. This national park height is 1073 meter above sea level. The road towards the temple was very good and the gentle winds accompany us along the way as we ascend toward the top.

When we arrived, the place was packed with tourist for it’s coincide with the Yi Peng Festival. Well, not just this temple, everywhere around the city was full of visitors. We bought the entrance ticket for 100 THB. The entrance to the temple is 309-steps staircase that decorated by dragon flank on both side. It is said that the temple was build back on 1383.

Once inside the temple grounds visitors must be appropriately dressed and must remove footwear. The original gold plated chedi is the most holy area of the temple grounds. Within the site are pagodas, statues, bells, a museum, and shrines. Aspects of the wat draw from both Buddhism and Hinduism. There is a model of the Emerald Buddha and a statue of the Hindu God Ganesh. Views of Chiang Mai can be seen on the far side of the temple. (source: Wikipedia)

What I love about this temple, is the intricate details of the ornaments, the wood carving on its stupas, and the starkly bright gold colour that paints on its pagoda and the many decorations. I took a circling walk on the main stupa clockwise and knelt before the Buddha statue and invoked prayers.

The situation in front of the temple

Tips: Wear comfortable outfit, but ensure to dress appropriately as well. Wear sandals as it’s practical when entering the temple where one has to put off the footwear. Keep exploring to the back and the top of the temple complex. You will find remarkable spots that overseeing the lower grounds around the area.

Wat Chedi Luang

It was almost 4 pm in the afternoon when we arrived at Wat Chedi Luang. Wat Chedi Luang complex centered on its Buddhist stupa, as it is once the home of the Emerald Buddha, Thailand’s most sacred religious relic. The big stupa is inaccessible by tourist as it is fenced. But, we can still admire its unique structure and design. The entrance fee to the complex is 40 THB.

There are other buildings include the city Pillar Shrine. According to ancient Lanna beliefs, the city pillar is erected at the epicentre of the city, to mark the centre of the universe, which in the past was the Lanna Kingdom. Dwarfing the city pillar shrine is one of the three gum trees believed to protect the city from all ills. Legend has it that if this tree ever falls, a great catastrophe will follow. (source: wikipedia) No women allowed to enter the shrine, so we can only admire from the outside. Compared to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, the lantern decoration in this temple is very minimum.

Tips: Go inside the temple that is visible once we enter the complex, and then go to the back where the Wat Chedi Luang Stupa stands, and last but not least, circle the complex till you find the City Pillar shrine (only men allowed to get in)

Wat Lok Moli (during the day)

Wat Lok Moli is another temple in Chiang Mai that I love. It’s Vihara is ornated with white carvings on top of its brick foundation. Not to mention the lantern decoration fills the complex with festivities nuance. It was such a colourful and bright decoration on the temple.

The three main buildings is the Viharn and the Wat Lok Moli Stupa which located behind the Viharn. The unique facts about this temple is that it is aligned to north–south axis, while other Budhhist temple usually orientated toward the east.

The Wat Lok Moli Stupa

2019, November 12th – the evening

Three Kings Monument

After visiting Wat Lok Moli, we took some rest before preparing for the night’s festivities. That night we went to three kings monument which is located at the central of Chiang Mai. The area in front of the monument and the main street were full of colourful lantern with different shapes and decorations. The night started to look so beautiful with the lantern flooding the streets. We took the stroll along Prapokkloa Road and Ratvithi road and the festivities spirit felt everywhere.

one can buy and light this lantern – but it is not for release

Wat Phan Tao

After circling around the street, we went to Wat Phan Tao. The temple was so packed, especially the area near the Buddhist tree. Unfortunately, no monks chanting prayers that night, and no lantern release. So I was kinda sad not being able to watch what I expected to see. However, the colorful lantern hung under the tree was beyond beautiful.

Buddha Statue at Wat Phan Tao

Nawarat Bridge

In the hope to catch the release elsewhere, we went to Nawarat Bridge. The road towards Nawarat bridge was closed and we had to make a detour, stopped and parked our motorbike in the Chinatown night market. At that time, the main road alongside the ping river has already flooded by people watching the parade. We could not move closer to the bridge because the road were blocked and people were literally everywhere.

At the end, we just stood there, stuck in the sea of people and watched the parade as well. After quite some time, feeling desperate for not being able to move, we pushed our way to the back and squeeze ourselves for any way out. Seeing that it was impossible to go closer to the bridge, we went back to Wat Lok Moli again.

Wat Lok Moli (during the night)

This is the second time we went to Wat Lok Moli and this time, the colors of the lantern were more punctuated during the night. We took a quick stroll to photograph the hanging lanterns and then visiting decorated bridge in Chaiapoom road. At that time, no lantern release at the temple.

Lesson Learned

Feeling sad not being able to see the release, we went home back to our hotel. Later around 10 pm, my friend screamed at me saying that she was seeing lantern being released into the night sky. We didn’t know for sure where it was, but it’s either coming from Nawarat Bridge, or from the Mae Jo University.

Having experienced all of these I just wanted to share some lesson learned :

  1. The free mass lantern release can only be guaranteed on Day-1 at all places. Reading from numerous blogs, you can choose a place that I had mentioned in the above and wait from around 7 pm to around 10 Be it on the Wat Phan Tao or Nawarat Bridge. If the mass lantern release we saw from our room’s veranda was coming from Nawarat bridge, then we should have stayed longer. And that means, the release in Nawarat Bridge happens two days in a row.
  2. I read an article that suggested to stay outside the premises of the paid events. For example, stay outside Lanna Dhutanka Temple behind Mae Jo University. Many people do that and we could also see the mass release of lantern. This is a great alternative if you want to experience the paid event for free.
  3. Ask your local hotel or accommodation where you stay in Chiang Mai about the established schedule from the city official for the free events. On top of that, come very early to secure the best spot and to avoid squeezing through the crowd.

It is important to note that lantern release cannot be done anywhere and there is clear signage detailing where it is prohibited and the penalties associated with the violation. The lantern also can be release in certain hour as it is may intervene with the flights.

Although I didn’t watch closer the mass lantern release, I am still feeling grateful to feel the vivid atmosphere of Yi Peng Lantern Festival in Chiang Mai. All the lantern decorations along the main street, the beautiful array of Lantern in every temple I visited really engulfed visitors in the festivities joy. Beside that, I got to capture the very colourful lantern hung under the sacred tree in Wat Phan Tao. However, I’m still quietly wish I have another chance to redo and watch closer the mass lantern release as portrayed in the picture.

Asana Kusnadi
I'm Asana Kusnadi from Semarang Indonesia. Some of my friends call me Mei, it is taken from my Chinese Name. I was born in Semarang, capital city of Central Java and lived there until I graduated from University. After graduated i worked in Sumatera island and it's been almost 9 years now i live in Riau Province

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