It was a bittersweet culmination of a dream I had harboured for many years. To see the Loy Krathong festival. Or, as hippie instagrammers often called it, the lantern festival.
Bittersweet, because it was everything I had expected. And much more. But we will come to the ‘much more’, later in this post.
Thanking the Lannas
It had been a long road from Phuket to Bangkok. Thanks to some seasonal floods that were happening in central Thailand, my long, arduous 21 hour bus ride from Phuket to Chiang Mai, had become a long, arduous 27 hour bus ride from Phuket to Bangkok, and Bangkok to Chiang Mai. But I didn’t care. I knew it was not an easy trip, but the prospect of being at Chiang Mai – the only major city in Thailand where it is legal to fly sky lanterns during Loy Krathong – was too tempting for me. So, I ignored my knees and gritted my teeth all the way through the bus ride.
To read: This wasn’t my first festival in Chiang Mai. Click to read about the time I celebrated the Thai new year, Songkran, in Chiang Mai.
Loy Krathong was a traditional Thai farmers festival which happened on the 12th moon of the lunar calendar. The date keeps changing each year, in accordance with the lunar calendar. In 2015, it was on November 25th. In 2016, on November 24th.
In 2017, it was on November 3rd. And I was going to be in Chiang Mai to celebrate it, by releasing a sky lantern into the Thai sky.
I had to thank the Lannas for this opportunity. Loy Krathong is celebrated across Thailand by floating a basket (that’s what Loy Krathong translates to: ‘floating a basket’). The baskets are made of buoyant materials, and decorated in bright colours, with some food materials and a coin placed inside it and a candle stuck on top of it. The candle is then lit, and the krathong is released into the river or the sea as the person who releases it makes a silent wish. Kind of like what I do when I see that rare shooting star in the sky.
But the Lannas included a twist into this ceremony in the Chiang Mai region. The Lanna kingdom was once a historically important kingdom in the North of Thailand. The kingdom may have disintegrated over time, but the Lannas became one of the most culturally important populace of the Northern Thailand region. And Loy Krathong happened to coincide with the Lanna festival of Yi Peng. Yi meant ‘two’, and Peng meant ‘full moon day’, signifying that the festival will be celebrated on the full moon day of the second month of the Lanna Lunar calendar. And since the second month of the Lanna lunar calendar happens to be the 12th month of the Thai lunar calendar, Yi Peng and Loy Krathong became one in Chiang mai, like a heavenly unification that was supposed to happen.
The lannas – to celebrate Yi Peng – came up with the idea of releasing sky lanterns into the sky. Called Khom loi, these lanterns are made with rice paper, and a candle is attached in the center of it. The hot air trapped inside the lanterns after lighting up the candle, caused the lantern to lift and fly off.
It was a simple, yet ingenious creation.
To read: If you are looking for other colourful festivals in South East Asia, I strongly recommend the Masskara festival of Bacolod, Philippines.
The Lanna folk artists of Chiang Mai
So, I started my Loy Krathong in Chiang Mai by first visiting the Lannas. The Loy Krathong festival itself is kicked off with traditional Lanna folk dances, ceremonies and cultural performances happening everywhere in Chiang Mai.
In Tha Phae gate – that epicenter of everything that happens in Chiang Mai – the ceremonies kicked off with Lanna folk artists doing a drums performance. And in Wat Mahawan – on the way from Tha Phae Gate to Nawarat Bridge – another group of Lanna artists were playing music with instruments that I have never even seen of before.
The lanterns are flying
I could see them by this time. Lanterns up in the sky. Thousands of them!
I knew where they originated from. The Nawarat bridge. As per the official communication, people were allowed to release lanterns at the Nawarat bridge. And the tourists were allowed to release between 7 PM to 1 AM.
I walked from the Wat Mahawan to the Nawarat bridge. The crowds were crazy. I wasn’t new to crowds in Chiang Mai, as I had been here for Songkran before. But there was something different about the crowds during Songkran and Loy Krathong. During the Songkran, most of the people I met in Chiang Mai were locals, as the farangs and foreigners partied more in Bangkok. But for Loy KRathong, almost everyone in the crowd was a foreigner. There were people of all countries, and almost everyone carried one or all of 3 things: a colourful krathong, a sky lantern to be released later, or a camera. It was an ocean of tourists here!
Mixed emotions in Chiang Mai
It was when I finally reached Nawarat bridge that I felt a little raw about the whole thing. I had come all the way to Chiang Mai, hoping to watch the locals engage in the lantern-flying act. And maybe float one myself. But on reaching the Nawarat bridge, I found that majority of the people were actually foreigners. I could count the number of Thais releasing lanterns on my fingers. Sure, they were everywhere around, but they focused on selling Krathong and Khom Loi to the foreigners.
The other thing that bothered me was the slightly unorganized nature of the event itself. All the travel guides that I had read – online and offline – had told me that the lanterns are supposed to be released only at the Nawarat bridge. The sky lanterns – as beautiful as they look – can be quite dangerous. Apart from the fact that they can bring down aircrafts – which was why Chiang mai had to cancel air travels for 2 nights in a row – they often need a little patience to be able to float correctly. The candle has to burn long enough for the lantern to get filled with hot air. Otherwise, you release the lantern into the sky and it will go sideways and strike something else. Which was why the officials kept repeating to light lanterns on the bridge, so that any failed lanterns will fall into the river.
But there were tourists lighting lanterns everywhere! I saw some as early as the Chiang Mai moat, which was surrounded by a lot of buildings, electricity lines, and everything else that shouldn’t come to contact with fire. And at Nawarat bridge – since it was packed with people – many choose to go to the perpendicular roads next to it, and release it there. Only problem: there was a night market happening right next to it, and the food stalls had cloth roofs! Every once in a while, a stray lantern would make its way to the food stalls, and the owners would panic to get it out of contact with any cloth. It was a disaster that didn’t happen, but could have easily happened.
To give due credit to Chiang Mai city administration, there was a fire truck positioned very close to the bridge, available for any emergencies. That sight relieved me a little bit, so I headed to the river itself. To see the Krathongs. And it was a much more beautiful sight than watching the lanterns. The Krathongs – the colourful baskets which are released into the river.
A note for responsible travel: If you are buying a krathong, check if they are made of bread or Styrofoam. Bread will become food for the fish soon, but Styrofoam take years to decompose, and will pollute the river.
Releasing the krathong into the Ping river, turned out to be a much less stressful activity for me than watching thousands of people play with fire lanterns. It was still crowded, but I did notice that there were more Thais here releasing their krathongs along the river than foreigners.
One of the festivities during Loy Krathong, is the one at the Mae Jo University. I didn’t go for that, but I met a lot of friends during Loy Krathong who went for it. I do have some reservations about the event. If you are planning to go there, I recommend you to read this link first, beautifully compiled by Thaizer.
The Loy Krathong Grand Procession
The schedule for the Loy Krathong festival, had something called a ‘grand procession’ on Day 2, i.e, 4th November. I didn’t know what to expect, but I decided to get a vantage point early to ensure that I had the best view.
The procession started from Tha Phae gate and ended at the chiang mai municipality office. And if one thing that going to various festivals have taught me, it is that the crowds are mostly on the starting and the beginning. It tends to be less crowded at the middle.
So, I took up a spot in the middle, on the walk-bridge near Warorot Market.
It was quite an interesting procession, from a political viewpoint. The construct was simple. There was a contingent of people who walked in some traditional costume, followed by a float. The floats were mostly made by embassies and consulate-generals of different countries in Chiang Mai, and some companies like Airasia.
What was surprising, was the order. The procession began with the local Thai float as expected. But following it, was a float from China. And China did showcase their achievements as well as they could – which included a float shaped like a bullet train! And after China, came the United States. Followed by Japan.
If you needed more proof that the pecking order of the world – or atleast South East Asia – has changed, look no further.
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