Sunday, 3 July 2016

Loi Krathong Festival in Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai during Loi Krathong festival is something unique. I got to experience it almost as a coincidence. It was only after booking my flight to Thailand that I realized that I would be there for this festival, which was mentioned everywhere as one of the most important and beautiful in Thailand. Because it follows the lunar calendar, the dates for this festival change every year, but it usually falls in the month of November.

Child monks in Chiang Mai during Loi Krathong

I was really exited, as I have always been fascinated and interested in Asian religions and their colourful celebrations. At first, I was thinking to spend it among the ruins of Sukhothai, but then I followed some other backpackers heading to Chiang Mai, the enchanting northern city everyone seemed to love.
Deciding at the last moment to be in Chiang Mai for this festival was however a very bad idea in terms of accommodation. Almost all hostels were full, and the only one that had rooms available was the worst I've been in. To give you an idea, I even had to buy my own toilet paper, for a filthy bathroom with that horrendous shower room so common in hostels in northern Thailand.
The festival itself, however, redeemed the bad accommodation experience. The most famous event taking place in Chiang Mai during the festival is the launching of rice-paper lanterns in the sky. This is connected to the Lanna festival of Yi Peng, the full moon of northern Thais, so in Chiang Mai, and all over northern Thailand, there are two festivals going on at the same time. 

Lighting a lantern
You can either follow the launching of the paper lanterns from the town centre, or head to the grounds of Mae Jo University (with a tuk-tuk or your own vehicle), where the biggest launching of paper lanterns take place. There was unclear and contradictory information on the web and from local people regarding this event, but from what we understood 100$ tickets must be purchased to enter the actual event! We stayed just outside of the grounds, but it was a very long wait, sitting on tall grass infested by mosquitoes and bugs, with nothing but a few beers we bought there. There was no entertainment, and no clue about how long we had to wait before the launch.  We only knew that people arrive many hours before the launch to have a decent place to sit and a good view. I hope the authorities will think of something better for the following years, as to go there is becoming more and more popular.

Inconveniences aside, the idea is to light all the lanterns at the same time, for an emotional and visually unforgettable experience. There are thousands of lanterns lit up by tourists from many different countries, especially Asian. The atmosphere is jolly and relaxed, and the reward for waiting so many hours is beautiful pictures and memories of a star-lit sky, only the stars looked a lot bigger.

Lighting another lantern

Back in Chiang Mai, the atmosphere during the festival is equally charming. To be honest, I don't know how the temples look like in Chiang Mai when the festival is not on, because I did my classical temple hopping when the festival was in full swing. During  the night the temples are lit with thousand of candles and colourful lanterns hanging everywhere. Thai people stop to light a candle, leave an offering for Buddha and say a prayer.

Praying during Chiang Mai Loy Krathong festival
I was touched by the spirituality and the atmosphere of contemplation that some simple candles and decorations can bring to a religious building at night.   

Another prayer at a temple

It is really worth going around town at night and stopping at different temples to see what's going on. Occasionally, a couple of friendly monks would be there too, available for a chat. Every temple is a bit different, with beautiful decorations or some music being played, making it impossible to get "templed-out".
A temple lit up for Loy Krathong / Yi Peng
My favourite place was this temple with hundreds of lanterns and a wooden path to walk on.

The same temple
Not unlike Diwali, locals during Loy Krathong light a basket with an offering and make it float on the river. During the festival you'll see many stalls preparing the baskets with flowers and when it's dark they will make them float.

A krathong floating on the river

Loy Krathong is a colourful, enchanting and interesting festival. In spite of the number of tourists attending it, it hasn't become overtly touristic. Yes, room prices increase and lots of Westerners are out and about with their big cameras, but the atmosphere is still authentic. There are traditional parades, fireworks, beauty contests, and hundreds of stalls selling food and flower decorations. 

A parade in Chiang Mai

The city is full of life especially at night: there is delicious local food, everything from meat skewers to sushi, in hundreds of different stalls,  but in the meantime the shops are still open for business and the streets are busy and colourful, with different smells coming from every directions.

A street of Chiang Mai by night

Lanterns and monks in Chiang Mai
In other words, if you are in Thailand around November, make sure to be in Chiang Mai for these celebrations. Of course, book your accommodation at least a few days in advance!

1 comment:

  1. What a shame you didn't go to into the Yi Peng festival at Mae Jo. That's the free one, and there's lots of chanting, music, and prayers going on all evening.

    Of course, because this is Thailand, there's no shortage of food and drink vendors, although being vegan, we always took our own. (No alcohol is allowed, of course - it is a religious festival, after all.)

    The build-up to releasing 10,000 lanterns into the sky is amazing, and once you actually let your lantern fly, it's a deeply emotional thing... especially if you can watch it until the flame goes out.

    Yi Peng is a very beautiful and spiritual event, and my favourite time of year in Thailand.

    (I lived in Northern Thailand for several years - maybe it wouldn't have as much meaning to the casual visitor!)

    It's lovely to wander around the villages too, as most homes have their own lanterns decorating the outside of the houses.

    The temples, BTW, are just as wonderful at other times of the year - if you get a chance to return, they're well worth visiting, especially if you have the opportunity to take part in a monk-chat session, which are very interesting (and a rare opportunity for women to be able to talk to the monks).


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