Southeast Asia, Thailand

Girl on Fire at Yi Peng in Thailand

January 26, 2017

What does “Girl on Fire” mean to you?

If you’re a diehard fan of #TheHungerGames you can thank me for the opportunity to reminisce about Katniss Everdeen heroically entering Panem in flames representing District 12 (R.I.P. Cinna). Or if you love R&B, “Girl on Fire” may have you channeling your inner Alicia Keys.

When I hear the phrase, “Girl on Fire” the first thing that comes to mind is Thailand’s Lantern Festival. Why? A few years ago I traveled to Chiang Mai, Thailand to participate in this #stunning #majestic #epic festival known as Yi Peng. During the ceremony, I not only watched lanterns float beautifully into the sky, I witnessed a girl’s head catch on fire… and she didn’t have a clue until after I put it out with my bare hands. Here’s how it all went down:

Yi Peng Lantern Festival Girl on Fire Thailand Chiang Mai atwjustin.comYi Peng Lantern Festival Girl on Fire Thailand Chiang Mai atwjustin.com

After I booked a trip to Southeast Asia with a friend, we discovered our dates overlapped with the Yi Peng Lantern Festival in Chiang Mai. It was a no-brainer, we had to go! The problem for us was that getting information was difficult and the details were confusing. We couldn’t figure out the actual dates, if it was the same thing as another festival called Loi Krathong or even where it was held. When we finally arrived in Chiang Mai the locals got us up to speed.

  • Yi Peng (also spelled Yee Peng) and Loi Krathong (also Loy Krathong) are festivals that take place during the full moon on the 12th month of the Thai Lunar Calendar (usually in November).
  • Loi Krathong is celebrated in the greater Southeast Asia region while Yi Peng is just celebrated in northern Thailand.
    During Yi Peng, lanterns are released into the night sky; for
  • Loi Krathong, candlelit handmade boats known as kathrongs are released into bodies of water.
  • Typically there are two main Yi Peng lantern festivals that take place at Mae Jo University – a local release that is free, and one specifically organized for tourists that costs money.

Once we figured things out, we opted to attend the free, local Yi Peng Lantern Festival. If you have the option, I would definitely recommend this route to save money, however, and this is a big however, last year the free event was actually canceled last minute. I got hit up by a ton of travelers frantically looking for tickets to the tourist event, but tickets were sold out months in advance. The unpredictability of the free release makes it a good idea to buy tickets in advance.

Okay, now that I’ve warned you, back to my Yi Peng experience. On the day of the event my friend and I shared a van with a group of ESL teachers to get to Mae Jo University. One of them was Jen… the future “Girl on Fire.” When we arrived to the university our group walked on a gravel path toward the fields where the main event was being held. The route was lined with local vendors selling food and lanterns (under $5 USD each) made of biodegradable, tissue-like rice paper. With every step closer, an electric energy continually grew among the crowd – everyone was excited, eager and smiling!

Yi Peng Lantern Festival Chiang Mai Thailand Girl on Fire atwjustin.comYi Peng Lantern Festival Chiang Mai Thailand Girl on Fire atwjustin.com

We picked a spot on the Coachella-esque grassy fields where we were surrounded by roughly 5,000 other attendees. The large, open space was lined by trees (not university buildings) giving us an unobstructed view of the sky and full moon. The crowd was a diverse mix of local Thai residents and global tourists – all ranging in age from toddlers to elderly.

What we didn’t realize was Yi Peng isn’t just about the lantern release. Hours before sunset and the “big moment” thousands of people gather in prayer and meditation as a part of ceremonies that pay respect to Buddha. Although there were a lot of tourists, the experience didn’t feel touristy. Participating in the traditional ceremonies and centering myself to be present in the moment helped to keep it a uniquely authentic experience.

When it actually was time for the “first release” – the moment everyone had been waiting for – we gathered around lit torches that provided the flame to light our own lanterns. Everyone was told to start lighting the lanterns, but to not let them go… yet. As the minutes passed, the once dark field became illuminated by hundreds of lanterns, and then thousands. After 10 minutes of lantern lighting the entire place was glowing and the countdown began: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1… let go!

As I stared into the sky, I was completely blown away by the beauty of the floating lanterns: the real life event that inspired the scene in Disney’s Tangled. As I continued watching the lanterns I noticed nearly everyone was glued to the sky, many trying to capture it on their phones. And then I saw it! Out of the corner of my eye, just a few feet away from me, there was a large flame. At first I thought it was the torch, but then I realized it was moving. It was a female holding her phone to the sky as her head of hair was going up in flames!

Even with a “Girl on Fire” scare, Yi Peng was incredibly spiritual and moving, which I honestly didn’t expect. The purpose behind the festival is to reflect on life and to then release lanterns as a symbol of letting go of negative energy, representing a new beginning. It truly is a once-in-a-lifetime travel experience: visually stunning and emotionally powerful.

So, if you ever head to Yi Peng (which you should!), watch out for those torches.

Yi Peng Lantern Festival Chiang Mai Thailand Girl on Fire atwjustin.comYi Peng Lantern Festival Chiang Mai Thailand Girl on Fire atwjustin.comThis article originally appeared on Janbala.com 

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5 Comments

  • Reply Kristin L. February 6, 2017 at 7:38 pm

    I just saw they’re going to have one of these lights festivals in Nashville this spring, and I couldn’t be more excited!

    • Reply Justin Walter February 6, 2017 at 8:03 pm

      Kristin, are you going to go?! There’s actually a really good one in Vegas in the fall too. I went and am going to be writing about it soon.

  • Reply Jonathan Gera September 20, 2017 at 4:40 pm

    Great information and thankfully you saved the girl on fire! May I ask what kind of camera and set up you used for the video? Thanks!

    • Reply Justin Walter October 2, 2017 at 11:12 am

      Thank you! I used two cameras. At the time a GoPro Hero 3+ on a tripod which caught the girl on fire and also a Canon DSLR Rebel T3i.

      • Reply Jonathan Gera October 19, 2017 at 2:48 pm

        Thanks so much for the reply!

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