Lantern release at Yee Peng Festival 2013.

Yee Peng Lantern Festival in Chiang Mai Thailand

There was one thing that I saw while I researched different paths to take, lifestyles to live, and places to go that really stood out. It solidified my desire to travel the way we are now. The thing that I saw that changed it from a vague “that would be neat…” to the absolute certainty of “Decision made. I MUST see that with my own eyes!

That was the lantern release at Yee Peng in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

I’ve grown up reading about faraway places and cultures in National Geographic and other travel magazines and shows, so have always wanted to travel. But it was so often still in a traditional pipe-dream status in my mind like it stays for so many of us. The amazing places were always just something that existed in faraway lands where those Nat Geo photographers dared travel. Where I grew up, nobody ever left their home town.

As I dug deeper into the lifestyles of different travelers and unconventional people as time went on, I began to realize that this old way of thinking was holding me back. There were plenty of regular people doing amazing things and traveling to these amazing places. They weren’t all just rich or from other more travel-savvy cultures. They were just like you and I, and just decided to do the things they wanted.

As my views began to expand about these different possibilities, I began to see almost too many options. Do I travel around in an RV or van? Do we sail around living on the sea? Go native, fill a backpack, and see the world?

When my friend Shannon posted photos of the lantern release at Yee Peng, I knew what we were going to do.

Side Trip to Chiang Mai in Beautiful North Thailand

We made several other decisions along the way to get ourselves to Thailand. Many things were on the list that we wanted to experience, and we’ve done many of them already (some several times, such as the Tiger Temple, where we went to again this month when a friend visited from the States), but the lantern festival was worth planning a special trip.

My dad and his girlfriend also planned to be there, so we were able to go as a group. We only stayed in Chiang Mai for a week, but we can see why so many expats and digital nomads tend to congregate there: we fell in love with the place and expect to return to see more.

The Yee Peng and Loy Krathong Festivals happen over a series of nights coinciding with the end of the rainy season in Thailand. Each evening leading up to the main lantern release on the full moon, the city got more crowded with arriving tourists during this week-long celebration. The gates near the moat were always busy with beautiful lanterns lit and lofted into the night sky. It was a beautiful sight to see and made for a nice time just walking to and from dinner each night.

But that was nothing.

On the day of the main lantern release, we were told to arrive early to get a decent spot to sit on the main lawn of the ceremony site near Mae Jo University. We hired a taxi truck driver to take us there and back for a reasonable price, and made it there with plenty of daylight to spare.

The event is a Buddhist ceremony that is very important to the Thai people. It is a huge attraction for tourists, so you see all kinds of people there crowding the lawns for a spot to sit.

Monks on stage during the ceremonies.
Monks on stage during the ceremonies.

The announcements are in Thai, English, Japanese, and one of the Chinese dialects, and are easy to hear over the crowd. Throughout the evening, the announcer admonishes the crowd not to let your lanterns go until the main ceremony, but there is nonetheless a constant stream of beautiful orange lanterns glowing as they rise mostly from spectators outside the official grounds of the event. I was admiring them the whole night as the ceremony went on.

But that was nothing.

As the night grew darker, the announcer continued to remind people to keep your lanterns unlit until the official ceremony release. Also increasing was the number of jack-wagons who completely ignored those instructions and sent their lanterns aloft anyway. The skies were getting increasingly crowded with lanterns, and it was gorgeous.

And still that was nothing.

As the cue was given for the wonderfully helpful student assistants from the University to begin lighting the lamps that we would use to then ignite our lanterns, the crowd got increasingly excited. We’d all been sitting in the grass for up to several hours and were ready to go!

The four of us each got a lantern of our own, as well as one for the group. We decided to pair up and help fill the first two in pairs. The crowd gets louder with anticipation as they work to fill their paper lanterns with hot air without setting it aflame. Most people succeeded in this.

When the signal is given for the main release, nothing can really prepare you for the sight of thousands of these going up at once. I’m not sure how to be descriptive enough. The video I shot can do a better job, so I embedded it here.

As part of the Loy Krathong Festival of Thailand each year, this event is something truly remarkable to see. I can’t recommend it enough. As amazing as the photos and videos you can find here or elsewhere on the internet look, it pales next to being there.

It was not nothing.

How to Get There and Details

The lantern release takes place each year during the full moon in November. Being the largest annual event in the area, the crowds are huge. Expect the delays getting there, as well as trying to get out. Don’t be in a hurry. That won’t work.

You won’t be close to the center of town to attend the main event. The University is fairly far to the North of central Chiang Mai and the old city. You could go yourself on a rented scooter, but you’ll be no closer to getting out of there on your own. It’s a traffic jam. If you want to pop for the extra cost, get an air-conditioned car to take you there and back. Sitting int he back of a taxi truck sucking diesel fumes for hours is not a grand time, but still probably beats walking.

Don’t be tempted to buy any of the lanterns for sale at any of the vendors outside the gates of the main event. You won’t be allowed to bring them in, and they’re no cheaper than the lanterns for sale inside the gates. They’ll make you leave them outside or deny you entry with them.

Admission to the event itself is free.

There are restrooms, but there may be long lines for those as well.

Figure out photos and video with your group ahead of time, especially if doing both. Or just enjoy the experience and point to the many photos online.

Maria wrote a couple of posts on one of her blogs here with more spectacular photos and here with more helpful tips if you plan to attend next year!


5 thoughts on “Yee Peng Lantern Festival in Chiang Mai Thailand

  1. That was amazing. It seems that, no matter how busy I am, it is always worth my time to stop and read your blog entries. Seeing a lantern festival is now on my short list of things to do. Thanks, James, for sharing this.

    1. Glad you enjoy them, Harry. I’ll be adding more. I’ve neglected the sharing of more than just occasion photos anywhere but my Facespace page. Been too busy doing fun stuff instead of sharing them!

      I can’t recommend seeing this lantern festival enough….

  2. The pictures sure look awesome. I just wonder, what happens to all the lanterns once they go down again?
    I’m not trying to spoil anything, but that’s the question that kept popping up in my head. Are they bio-degradable? Does someone count them and then pick them all up afterwards? Or do they just remain wherever they end up? Do you know something about that?

    1. There are plenty of people using “unapproved” lanterns for sale in various parts of the city. The ones sold at the event are made from paper and a balsa-like wood. Though there is a short wire holding the candle in place. I didn’t save the info that discussed this from the event, but they use the most environmentally friendly materials they can at this point at the major places. There is no shortage of other people trying to make a living selling lanterns that may or may not be as green, though.

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