Call it a bucket list. Call it a life list. Call it a wish list. No matter which way you slice it, Thailand’s Lantern Festival has been on both Ron and my list for years and years! It is still surreal to think that that entry now has a big, bold check mark next to it. When we started to outline the skeleton of this trip, there really was no question about it. We were going to make it to this festival; one way or another.
The challenging part is that information regarding this spectacle does not really seem to live in any one place. Rather than the wealth of information you would expect, there is an air of mystery surrounding everything. All we knew for certain was that it took place near Chiang Mai sometime around the last full moon in November. With that in mind, we scheduled our travels around those few details.
The more we researched, the more confused we got. We knew that this famous lantern lighting ceremony took place for the Buddhist Festival of Light celebration. Loi Karrang, as it is known nationally, is celebrated throughout Thailand. However, the actual lantern ceremony is special to the Chiang Mai province and is known locally as Yi Peng (or Yeepeng). Yi Peng coincides with Loi Karrang, but not exactly. There are even rumors out there that this particular celebration of light is specific to a certain sect of Buddhists, those who incorporate magical elements into their faith. (I would not take that to be fact by any means though seeing as that was just one of the many theories online as to why information is so difficult to track down.) Where there lacks concrete information regarding the dates, times, and all other specifics of the Lantern Festival, there are forums upon forums upon forums filled with curious and often frustrated people looking for advice and logistical information. When we were looking, we found dates for this festival that ranged from November 13 all the way until November 30! Crazy! Adding to all of these factors, in addition to the official local gathering, there is an organization that has started to put on a tourist version of the festival on a later date due to its rapidly growing popularity. Probably the most unbelievable part of all of this ambiguity however was the fact that not even locals seemed to know any helpful information. Eventually, we started to see a growing consensus that the festival takes place on the Saturday before the full moon…so we just crossed our fingers and went with that until it was proven differently. We had a few scares during our first few nights in Chiang Mai though when we looked to the sky and saw a smattering of lanterns floating into the abyss, but luckily they turned out to be nothing more than a handful of people in the area lighting then for fun. Phew!
The big day came and all things seemed to be in order. We had received a semi-confident confirmation from the owner of a local shop. We knew the town of the celebration. Even if we still had no idea what time everything started or where exactly in Mae Jo, the town of the festival, everything was set to take place, things were looking good! We decided with so much still up in the air (Get it? Up in the air? Like lanterns?) we should probably get an early start so that we had plenty of time to sort out the remaining unknowns. We walked around for a while pricing out the different open air public transport pick-up trucks, tuk-tuks, and taxis. While we were doing this, a girl approached us to see if we were also looking to go to Mae Jo for the festival.
Yes! Let’s share a ride!
Her name was Jessie and she was from China. (And she also seemed to think that the festival took place the same day which was a huge bonus!) After haggling with a tuk-tuk driver, we all met back in an hour and were on our way. During the drive, our driver kept trying to pressure us into hiring him for the return journey, but we said no. He told us that there would not be any way to get back from here. No taxis, no tuk-tuks, no trucks, no nothing! With this being an event that thousands and thousands attend annually, we highly doubted that.
Reaching the festival grounds, which turned out to be at Mae Jo University, we exited the tuk-tuk and followed the crowds to the entrance. Although Ron and I purchased a little lantern to light from a stand in Chiang Mai, they were confiscating all outside lanterns. You had to purchase one inside. Frankly this made a lot of sense seeing as many outside lanterns have fireworks and other explosives in them, are made in the image of cartoon characters, or are just not of good quality making them very dangerous. Plus, this unifies the look of the whole ceremony and greatly enhances the overall effect. (And honestly, a very small price to pay in order to witness such an outstanding event.) Also, no short shorts or bare shoulders were allowed. All of this would have been great to know beforehand, don’t you think? Conveniently they had a shop right inside of the gate that sold both pants and shawls. Hmm…very smart!
Finally inside of the gates with lantern in hand, we found a spot to sit in the grass along with everyone else and wait for the festivities to begin. When you light and release your lantern you are supposed to make a wish and send it into the heavens. After a little brainstorming we had our wishes decided and wrote them on the top of the lantern to send up with it when the time came. As the daylight started to fade, we could see lanterns (that were going to be confiscated) being lit outside of the gate and starting to float high into the sky. This handful of little, flickering lights in the sky as dusk encroached was so simple and beautiful. After a long, hot afternoon and evening or waiting patiently, the ceremony got underway. Before the monks entered in silence, there were a few traditional dance performances down the center aisle put on by local school and other groups. Once they reached the Buddha statue in the front, the monks commenced their chanting. It was so soft, yet powerful when they all chanted together that it was almost eery, but beautiful all the same.
Prior to attending this ceremony, we kept asking ourselves why anyone would willingly choose to go to the designated tourist festival when there is the option to go to the real deal. After sitting through the ceremony, our question changed. It seemed to us that the real question was why were tourists still allowed into the festival. (Don’t get me wrong, we were thrilled to be a part of it and so thankful that tourists have not been banned yet. It was beyond incredible to experience the authentic ritual.) So many people were acting rudely and in total disrespect to those trying to pray. Talking throughout, walking around, not obeying the announcer’s request to sit down, walking side by side with the monks during their procession to snap photos, etc. We were just stunned by people’s total disregard for the heart of this festival; the meditation, prayers, and faith of all of the Buddhists gathered there. As if all of that were not enough, while all of this commotion was taking place, many of the lanters that were being lit outside were starting on fire in midair and falling to the ground. (I wonder why they don’t allow them inside?) There is nothing quite like fire falling from the sky to disrupt one’s concentation. The truly unbelievable thing though was that the monks seemed totally unphased, even when an Angry Birds cartoon lantern fell right onto their stage platform. Now that is some serious power of concentrated meditation!
To be honest, we were starting to have doubts about the wonder and beauty of the Lantern Festival, thinking that there was no way it would be able to live up to our imagined expectations. Just then, everyone was asked to make a wish for world peace and light the ground torches that would subsequently light all of the lanterns. The whole field was just glowing! Gorgeous music started playing! Fireworks were going off! Everyone began to light their lanterns from the ground torches and we watched in awe as tens of thousands of wishes floated into the dark sky.
There is nothing like it on Earth! It literally takes a person’s breath away. All I could do was gasp and fight back the tears. It was phenomenally spectacular to watch as the soft lights floated gently out of sight, creating an ambiance I don’t think can be recreated by words. It was like you looked out and all of the sudden you were in the midst of a galaxy of millions of sparkling stars. The whole world seemed to stand still for those few minutes. It was overwhelming in its purity and beauty. Your heart just feels so full and all you can really do is smile.
After all was said and done, we made our way through the mob scene to the exit. (It was like the trmpling crowds on Black Friday after a day dedicated to thanks or the angry drivers in the parking lot after Christmas mass. Isn’t it always ironic?!) Finally we were funneled out of the gate and began walking in search of a ride back to Chiang Mai. We met another couple looking for a ride and decided to stick together and split the cost. Jan and Heleen were diginomads (people who run an internet-based business and can therefore live and work from anywhere) from Holland. We had a great conversation with them as we wandered in search of transportation. Great company is always welcome in our book!
As we approached the main road we did not see the mass of taxis and other transport vehicles we were expecting. Uh oh! All of the sudden our tuk-tuk driver’s words were echoing in our heads. But then, just around the corner was a public transport pick-up looking for others to join its return journey to Chiang Mai. Thank God! Just a few minutes into the drive it began to pour out of nowhere! This was not like, “Oh no, it’s raining.” This was more like, “Whoa! We are driving through a swimming pool!” As you can imagine, we were more than happy to already have found a ride and be on our way after such an unforgettable night. Thank Buddha! 🙂
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