In a life that sometimes feels like a never-ending parade of amazing experiences and beautiful moments, I’m the first to admit I’m grateful — and the first to admit I can get a little jaded. To shake me out of those occasional weary times, I need one of what I (and, granted, Oprah) call our “aha moments.” Moments that are so undeniably, core-rockingly special that they kind of jolt me awake out of any kind of sleepwalking I might have been doing through life.
Yi Peng was one of those moments.
I’d long been interested in attending the Lanna (northern Thai) festival known as Yi Peng. Often confused with a corresponding festival that takes places around Thailand, Loy Krathong — including by yours truly — Yi Peng involves thousands of sky lanterns being launched into the air simultaneously as part of a religious ceremony. Images of the release grace postcard stands all over Thailand, and I knew someday I’d have to finally make it a priority to attend. Turns out, this was my year.
Because the date of Yi Peng is aligned with the lunar calendar, it changes every year and is kept secret until very close to the date. Recently, the festival has grown to be so popular that in addition to the free local event there is also now an expensive, ticketed and tourist-driven lantern release that is scheduled and often sold out far in advance. In 2014, this event fell on November 6th and cost over $100USD — but we weren’t interested in attending that one. Lovely and well organized as I’m sure it was, as veteran Thailand travelers we felt we could handle the local event, despite the challenges.
The biggest challenge being, of course, to figure out what darn day it was! Thankfully I have some friends in Chiang Mai, and between chatting with them and combing through Chiang Mai expat groups on Facebook I managed to find out in early October that the 2014 free local event was going to be held October 25th — at least I hoped. There wasn’t any official announcement and there was some debate, so we just crossed our fingers and basically based our entire trip up north on this somewhat dubious date.
I was absolutely overjoyed when I realized that one of my favorite humans on the planet, , was also going to be in town and was up for joining us. These three musketeers were ready for anything.
Upon arrival in Chiang Mai, we were relieved to find confirmation that we did indeed have the festival date correct. However, there was still work to do — we had to figure out how to get to the grounds of Mae Jo University, about 12 miles outside Chiang Mai center. We saw travel agencies offering packages to that included mini bus transfer for anywhere from 500-1000 baht ($15-30) but they left very early in the day and we were wary of sharing our special experience with a bunch of weirdos (aren’t we optimists!)
We also did not want to drive our own motorbikes, though it would have been the cheapest option, as we are all uncomfortable driving in the dark in traffic. Finally, the morning of the festival, we found a tuk tuk driver willing to take us there, wait, and return us to Chiang Mai for 900 baht — a mere $9US each for round trip transport.
So we packed up our cameras, sarongs (we knew we’d need something to camp out on for the day), and a whole bundle of high expectations and made our way out to Mae Jo.
We arrived around 3:30 and even at that early hour we had a bit of a scramble to find a spot around one of the float launches. With the ceremony not starting until far after sunset, after we staked out our spot, we had quite a few hours to kill. Luckily we had cameras, copious snacks, and each other for entertainment. And while one of us always stayed to guard our float launch, we took turns wandering back out to the festival grounds for a stroll. While it was indeed a very long time in the very hot sun, it was worth it for our prime location, in my opinion.
We had seen an information sheet in our hotel that had a few guidelines about how to be respectful at the ceremony, including dressing conservatively, covering shoulders, and wearing white. This launched a massive scramble around town that resulted in, if not exactly white, a very neutral colored ensemble. We were pretty pleased with ourselves for our Eat Pray Love-esque adherence to the dress code, but laughed when we arrived to find hundreds of Thais dressed in brightly colored minidresses. Ah well, who doesn’t need a new pair of tan hued hippie pants?
Though we’d bought our own balloons back in town, guards stopped us at the entrance and told us we could not bring them into the lawn. Whoops. Turns out you can only release the official, supposedly eco-friendly lanterns sold inside for 100 baht (about $3). We were interested to see that tons of people just hang out outside the official area so they can drink, make merry and release whatever darn lanterns they want — but we were happy to go the official route this time around.
No lie: much to Heather and Torre’s amusement, I may have fallen asleep and took a nap sitting cross legged on our sarong sometime around sunset. Did I mention there was some really hypnotizing music on and we’d spent all day in the heat?
Thankfully, there was a flurry of activity to knock me back awake.
Photo on right via
Things started kicking off right before sunset, as Buddhist chanting and prayers began and a nasally voice came over the loudspeaker to explain the processions in both English and Thai.
You’ll notice that Heather took almost every single photo in this post, and I am so grateful to her for that. She’d been on a self declared “camera hiatus” up until then (as a professional photographer, she certainly deserves one every once in a while!) and so when I saw how fired up she was about firing shots off here, I was able to really relax and just submit to the sensory overload without worrying about documentation.
Though I did, admittedly, get a little hypnotized by a light-painting experiment with some of the loner lanterns being set off from outside the gate. If you ever want to try something similar, just slow your shutter speed way down and play away! It took me about a million outtakes to get these results.
And then finally, finally, it was our turn. There were to be three strictly timed releases, and we listened carefully to the instructions coming over the loudspeaker. The lanterns are made with a thin rice paper stretched over a bamboo frame, from which a fuel cell is attached. The poles gridded around the lawn each contained a candle for lighting the fuel cells. Having set off lanterns before, we already knew the drill — the secret is to get the middle lit, and then hold the lantern down to the ground to trap hot air and create enough tension and lift for the lantern to float up up and away.
We were instructed to fill our balloons with feelings of love and good hope for our loved ones, and my heart swelled like our lantern as I thought about my mom, my dad, my sisters and all my other people around the world.
Photo on left via
Honestly, I don’t know if there is a writer alive who could bring justice to that moment with words. While writing this post I went back and watched a bunch of crappy cell phone videos I took — nothing worth sharing here — but they brought me back, and so they brought me to tears.
In the midst of the overwhelming euphoria and surreality, there were moments that grounded us right back in Thailand — lanterns getting caught in nearby trees and incinerating the defenseless branches, waylaid lanterns landing on soon afire heads of hair, a man proposing in the midst of the madness.
Photo on left via
I couldn’t believe we got to do it two more times! The magic didn’t wear off in the slightest.
Later, pulsing with adrenaline and trying to form words to describe our experience, we concluded that the only thing we could compare it to was coming down from drugs (and by that, mom, I mean what my friends have told me coming down from drugs feels like, obviously). We laughed, we cried, we had the shakes — nothing can prepare you for the natural high of witnessing Yi Peng in person. Thousands of lanterns released into the night sky like giant pulsing jellyfish, each one filled with good energy for friends and family around the world.
And the night ended with a bang — literally. Passionate fireworks filled the now-black sky, a stark contrast to the lazy balloons still making their way upward.
We’d been warned endlessly about the journey back into town. In the end, it took up about two hours to get from our spot on the lawn back to our hotel — much of that was simply making our way back through the festival grounds, which was also prime snack refueling time. And actually, I didn’t mind the time in transit — it gave me time to reflect and to absorb, and to soak up a few more hours with these two special ladies.
This was truly one of the most amazing days of my life and I can’t think of two women I’d rather have shared it with. Thank you, Torre and Heather. I know I’ve shared this quote before, but I can’t help but share it one more time again.
It’s hard to stay mad, when there’s so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I’m seeing it all at once, and it’s too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that’s about to burst… And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it, and then it flows through me like rain and I can’t feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life.
I will do everything in my power to make it to Yi Peng again in 2015, and probably, like, I don’t know, every other year for the rest of my life as long as I live. Will you join me?
What festivals around the world have left you feeling euphoric?
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UPDATE: I have received countless emails asking for the specific dates of future Yi Peng festivals, or advice on how to determine those dates. As stated in the beginning of this post, there is no easy nor definite way to determine the date ahead of time. My best advice is to keep an eye on Chiang Mai expat groups on Facebook, and to keep your travel plans flexible. With close monitoring I was able to suss the date about a month ahead of time, though there was a lot of debate and misinformation out there. There is no official announcement! Hence, there is no way to know with absolute certainty if you’ve arrived on the right date until you’re standing in a field with thousands of other lantern-holders.
If you can’t live with that kind of uncertainty, your best bet is to book around the paid, ticketed tourist event. Best of luck!