The light from the thousands of giant paper lanterns (khom) added a beautiful warm glow to everything. Everywhere you looked the lanterns towered over the crowds like inflatable pillars, glowing with an overwhelming warmth. People were huddled around, gripping tightly onto their khom, waiting for the signal to release them in unison.
As we let go, the sound of releasing cheers washed over us, and we waved bye bye to any bad luck, wiping the slate clean to begin anew. It was a magical moment.
The moon was at its fullest last Saturday night at Maejo University, the setting for the biggest annual Yi Peng celebrations in Chiang Mai. It was an absolutely beautiful evening, and everyone was in high spirits.
This Lanna (Northern Thai) festival takes places each year in the ancient capital of the former Lanna Kingdom, on the full moon night of the 2nd month of the Lanna calendar. The celebration at the university is the biggest organised event, not widely advertised in English, to try to steer tourists to the 'paid' event the following weekend.
The ceremony leading up to the lantern release takes the form of rhythmic chanting by monks and the sharing of the story of Buddha. Initially I found this a very spiritual time but as it went on the crowd began to get restless and those outside the main compound started to release lanterns, breaking the almost silent atmosphere.
Finally, after 2 hours, the movement of the monks on stage followed by a blaze of smoke was the signal to light the torches and await further instruction for lighting the lanterns.
Although numerous people let their lanterns go early, most of the crowd still managed to release in unison, sending their wishes flaming into the night sky. It was beautiful, even beyond my expectations!
A few things to note when attending Yi Peng at Maejo University:
- Lanterns from outside are not permitted at the event, although people will light then outside and sneek them in, only the standard size are available for purchase and release within during the event.
- Dress respectfully... Covering shoulders and knees as checks are done at the entrance and you won't get in. Plus it's embarrassing to see Westerners always falling foul to local traditions, and even worse seeing them ignore them by uncovering once inside!
- Get there early, it gets busy and the traffic is scary. Prepare for delays in leaving too.
There are also other things going on in, and around, the city. Another festival, Krathong, coincides with Yi Peng, meaning there is 3 days of festivities. Lanterns are released everywhere throughout each night and there is a parade along Thae Pae Road.
Following on from Yi Peng on the Saturday, we were treated with an opportunity to make our own Krathong (small raft decorated with banana leaves and flowers) for release along the river Ping, on Sunday.
My friend Wi who I learnt Thai massage with last time I was here (see more in previous post: Jera Thai massage course, Chiang Mai), is quite creative and she willingly offered to show me how to make my own Krathong. I've put a tutorial up, over on my craft blog if you're interested in reading more: Making Krathong - banana leaves boat.
In the evening we joined the thousands of others at Nawarat bridge to release them. Saying a little prayer before sending them off on their journey.
The river area was extremely crowded and it was difficult to get to the edge of the water without almost falling in. I was a little disappointed to see several local people in the water scouring the offerings for money; not very Buddhist.
Looking out across the river at all the floating Krathong is quite a sight. Up in the sky the sight of lanterns is also quite impressive. Not quite like the night before, but still amazing to be a part of. The atmosphere continued well into the night, as we wandered through the crowds and checked out the Sunday walking market.
I've been lucky enough to take part in the Visakha Bucha (Buddhist holiday) pilgrimage up Doi Suthep back in May - see here for related post. That was a real experience and Yi Peng has been amazing. What else does Chiang Mai have to offer in terms of festivals? Can I get back here for Songkran (Thai New year) sometime? I hope so ...