Amber dots danced across the midnight blue sky! They numbered in the hundreds but soon thousands of hopes, dreams, wishes, and prayers would clutter the horizon. Floating off in the distance taking away people's doubt and fear- leaving room for abundance. The embankment I sat on across from the main temple was illuminated by the full moon. Boats made of flowers floated past us as individuals and groups let off their own lanterns. We waited wondering, if whoever was out there would hear us! Grant us the joy and freedom from the sorrow we have placed into these objects made of paper, metal, and fire.
Loi Krathong, is an annual festival celebrated in Thailand, and some neighboring countries, during the 12th month in the traditional Thai lunar calendar. This typically falls in late November according to Western metrics of time. The festival typically lasts about 3 days. Loi means to float, while Krathong is a banana trunk decorated with flowers that is floated down the river. When I asked my Thai friend View what the festival celebrates she told me that rivers are very important to Thai people and that this festival celebrates and honors all that its done for us. In Chiang Mai, Loi Krathong is celebrated along side another festival called Yi Peng where floating lanterns are launched into the air. The combined spectacle makes for the most beautiful thing I experienced during my travels.
The first day of the festival our hostel manager Khai took us outside of the city to Mae Jo where a private lantern release happens around the same time as the festival. The event at Mae Jo is often confused as the Yi Peng festival but it's not sponsored by the Thailand Association of Tourism. To get inside costs about $100 dollars but to just watch the lanterns you can snag a seat along the river bank right outside.
To travel through SE Asia is to travel in a state of perpetual naivety. Information is not something you're given either because they know you'll complain or because they don't have the information themselves. For example, I didn't even realize the event I went to wasn't apart of the Yi Peng festival until I sat down to write this travelogue. We were told by our hostel manager, Khai, that we were going to see the highest concentration of lanterns let off at the same time. We thought early afternoon was a bit early to be leaving for an event that doesn't start until the sun sets but we were stuck in bumper to bumper traffic at 2pm. We stopped by a convenience store to grab some road beers before continuing our journey in one of the many red taxis that dots Chiang Mai's city scape.
At long last we pulled to a stop along a nondescript road lined with tuk tuk's and tourist buses. We walked about 200 yards from where we parked before stopping. Khai gestured toward a patch of of overgrown grass and weeds and told us this is where we would watch the lanterns. The area looked like it needed a weed wacking before it was fit to host anyones butt. But Khai saw what we couldn't. He walked straight into the unruly nature and tamed it with his flip flops. Methodically and intentionally Khai carved a path of flattened grass. When the weeds proved no easy challenge he just pulled them out the ground. By the time he was finished we had a nice patch of ground to ourselves. However we would have brought blankets and towels if we had known we'd be sitting on the grass.
Our area became the most coveted spot and latecomers tried to colonize. But Khai shooed them off, telling them to clear their own ground. With our space secured, we went off and explored. We walked down a narrow one way road separated by a stream from its twin. There was a restaurant and a convenience store at an intersection about 700 yards from where we initially stopped. Those are normally the only businesses around for miles, however due to the event a micro-economy was set up closer to the temple with stalls selling meat skewers, mango sticky rice, and other delicious treats. Hours past and the sky was illuminated once again though this time not by the sun but by thousands of lanterns. As we drove back to our hostel we could see that the sky was still pregnant- full of dreams.
The next day we woke up and set about making our very own krathongs to sail down the river. Tired after yesterday celebrations we asked if we could schedule it later in the day but Khai insisted that we start earlier- that the krathongs were more difficult then it seemed. The foreigners scoffed at this idea but sure enough a couple hours deep into the craft we were stumped trying to make the leaf cones. The process started out so easy and then grew with each passing step increasingly more complicated. Some people just gave up and designed their own ships, like the photo in the middle. The table was full of broken banana leafs, stray metal pins, and bright pink and yellow flowers by the time we were done.
The mental energy to took to make the krathong exhausted me, It was like origami but instead of paper I was using leaves and flowers. In the photo of all our krathongs mines is the last one on the middle row. Before we left for the parade most of us took a nap. When we walked the streets later that night during the parade I had a new appreciation for the time and skill that went into the krathongs I saw for sale- both intricate and simple.
As we made our way to the Ping river after the parade I began to appreciate the quieter ceremony from the previous day. It was harder to enjoy the festival because there was so much happening at once. Lanterns were falling from the sky, fire crackers pop Pop POPing all around you, bright colors dotting through your peripheral vision, the smell of grilling food, the constant shouting and yelling. Police tried to guide the chaos and protect order but there was nothing to protect. Just people pushing in unison. We stood under a tree along the bank of the Ping river. Lanterns launched from the bridge illuminated the sky while those with too much to carry caught on fire and sank into the water below. Krathongs of various sizes also sailed by illuminated by candles and incense. Further down the river I spotted people fishing out krathongs that had money in them.
Khai was explaining the history when a burned out lantern came crashing down out of the sky calling his krathong to fall out of his hands and roll down the ground. Thankfully it was caught before it reached the water. But that wasn't the only time we had to be careful of firey lanterns dropping out of the sky. After sailing out boats we made our way to the crowded bridge. The wind was not kind today and so lighting lanterns became a treacherous act. Khai pictured above was truly the best hostel manager I had the entire time I traveled through South East Asia. He made sure to create personal connections with everyone who stayed at his hostel. He threw family dinners and planned cultural events and really tried to turn his hostel into a home for anyone who stayed a couple nights. The amazing environment that he created allowed for the relationships of the travelers to really deepen. I'm so happy that the universe brought me north and I got to experience such a beautiful and enriching tradition with these amazing crew of new friends.
If you liked this post make sure to share it below and Subscribe so that you never miss an addition to the Archive!