A few days after booking my tickets to Southeast Asia with my friend Laura, I got an email from her with the subject: “I need this” followed by “more than anything” in the body. Below that, she included links to the Yi Peng Lantern Festival in Chiang Mai that just so happened to be going on during our two weeks together. After watching the videos – a real-life scene as magical as the scene it inspired in Disney’s “Tangled” – Laura and I made the Yi Peng Festival the center of our trip and that turned out to be THE BEST decision possible!
If you’re going for the Yi Peng Festival, Chiang Mai is a great place to stay and explore. Located in northern Thailand, Chiang Mai has a small-town vibe with metropolitan ways, a rich history and picturesque nature. Depending on where you’re coming from, Air Asia offers flights from surrounding cities (like Bangkok), but travelers also take trains or buses.
Before we even arrived, we ran into some confusion. We could not nail down the actual dates of the Yi Peng Festival, if it was the same thing as another festival called Loi Krathrong, where the Lantern Release was held, etc. Here’s what we figured out:
- Yi Peng (Yee Peng) and Loi Krathrong are both celebrated during the full moon of the twelfth month of the Thai Lunar Calendar (this falls most often in November).
- Loi Krathrong is celebrated throughout the entire country of Thailand as well as parts of Myanmar and Laos, while Yi Peng is just celebrated in the northern region.
- To celebrate Yi Peng, lanterns are released into the night sky; to celebrate Loi Krathrong, candlelit katongs (little handmade boats) are released into rivers and other bodies of water.
- There are two main Yi Peng Lantern Releases – the one for locals is free while the one specifically for tourists costs money. The free release (a.k.a. the local and traditional one) happens during the full moon, while the tourist celebration happens a week later and will cost you about $100USD.
- We went to the traditional festival that took place at Mae Jo University, where thousands of local residents and international travelers gathered in celebration.
- UPDATE: In 2015 unfortunately the free release was canceled. There was only one release – the tourist celebration – held on Wednesday, November 25, 2015. Tickets sold out online and if you have any questions for 2016, email email@example.com or message Lanna Dhutanka on Facebook.
After figuring out the traditional Yi Peng Lantern Release was going down (or I should say up!) at Mae Jo University, we opted to make a whole day out of it because of the crowds. The owner of our AirBnB in Chiang Mai helped us coordinate a shared van with a group of local ESL teachers. The group left early (around 3pm) to try and avoid the massive crowds and subsequent traffic.
As we walked around Mae Joe University, we bought our lanterns and ate street food from local vendors. Although it was still daylight when we arrived, thousands of people were already waiting and ceremonies were underway paying respects to Buddha.
Before arriving, we didn’t realize that the Yi Peng Festival wasn’t just about the actual lantern release. The hours of prayer, meditation and rituals beforehand are just as important. Everyone was told to wait to light their lanterns until the first release, but rogue lanterns made their way into the sky throughout the early evening. Looking around at people gathered from all over the world, I could feel the electricity of the moment.
When the time came for the first release, we lit our lanterns using torches and waited for the signal to let go. Words cannot describe how incredible this moment was.
Throughout the night thousands of lanterns were released into the sky. My friend Laura and I released a second lantern together that she dedicated to her fiancé, Matt.
Once the celebration was over, it was chaos. The enormous crowd moved at an extremely slow pace. At one point we crawled through barbed wire, walked through water and searched for each other among thousands of people. It took us over an hour just to find our driver. A few of the girls in our group had a Thai phone and our driver’s number, but the service was spotty.
By the time we figured out we were headed to Chiang Mai for Yi Peng, almost all of the hostels were booked. We had luck using AirBnB and stayed at the following listing.
Overall the accommodations had everything we needed and if you can survive being a minimalist, you’re good to go. It’s in a great location (everything was walking distance), good internet, and has great owners, Stephen and his wife, who gave us a ton of useful information and helped us with anything we needed.
Traveling is all about once-in-a-lifetime experiences and the Yi Peng Festival was exactly that. It truly was the most beautiful experience of my life. The festival is about so much more than just lighting and releasing lanterns. Gathering in prayer beforehand with thousands of strangers from all over the world was an unexpectedly spiritual moment for me. It gave me the opportunity to reflect on my life and prepared me to let go – with my lantern – sources of negative energy, representing a new beginning. Yi Peng was such a majestic experience and to this day still feels like a dream (come true). If you’re ever planning a trip to Thailand, do yourself a favor — plan it around attending Yi Peng.