Thailand: A Festival of Lights

Loi Krathong, better known internationally as The Lantern Festival, celebrates the twelfth full moon of the Thai calendar year. As one of the most talked about and celebrated festivals around the world, I was fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time and got myself to Chiang Mai just in time for this annual celebration. Three days in Chiang Mai, the capital city of the Chiang Mai province in northern Thailand, while Loi Krathong took place proved to be one of the most magical and memorable traveling experiences I've had to date. 

Release of the lanterns above the King's Archway into the city

Release of the lanterns above the King's Archway into the city

Following my very brief visit to the City of the White Temple, Chiang Rai, I boarded a quick three-hour bus ride to Chiang Mai, the capital city of the Chiang Mai province in northern Thailand and the hub of Thailand's higher education, elephant parks, outdoor recreation, and culture (at least I thought). I continued my travels with the same group of people I'd met during my journey on the "slow boat" from Laos, but parted ways upon arrival as we were all meeting up with alternative people we'd previously been spending time with (for myself I planned to reconnect with a friend I'd met in Croatia and a few friends I'd spent a couple weeks with throughout Laos).

Loi Krathong (translated directly as "to float a basket") usually falls within the month of November in the western Gregorian calendar, but is always on the twelfth (or sometimes thirteenth) full moon of the Thai Lunar calendar. During my travels I'd heard extensively about the magic of attending the festival, and a quick Google search was all I needed to see to get me to plan a few weeks around being in Chiang Mai for these few days. Though the festival and day are celebrated around all of Thailand, the festival and corresponding release of lanterns is most famous here, and has become a massive tourist attraction for people from all over the world. 

As we arrived to the city a couple of days before the full moon, we spent the better part of our time in Chiang Mai visiting some of the must-see places and relaxing a bit. Chiang Mai is a bustling city, but is organized in a very western way with an Old City square plopped right in the middle of town. The Old City is where most of the action takes place for tourists including fish spas, Thai massage parlors, coffee shops, markets, and some of the old temples in town including the most famous, Wat Chedi Luang.

Coincidentally, Loi Krathong (12th full moon) and Yi Peng (2nd full moon) somehow fall on the same day every year and are celebrated simultaneously in Chiang Mai. The city itself is the former capital of the Lanna Kingdom, an ancient kingdom in northern Thailand which follows a similar but different (same same, but different as the Thai people would say) calendar to the Thai Lunar calendar. As Yi Peng celebrates the second full moon of the Lanna calendar, the two naturally create a lot of buzz around the city and region as a whole. 

Lighting our lantern

Lighting our lantern

The holiday itself is now symbolized by its countless floating lanterns and baskets released during the evening of the full moon. Though the festival technically lasts three days and sees beauty pageants, markets, float competitions, and parades throughout its duration, the main event is the lantern (into the sky) or basket (into the river) release. These, if you Google image search Loi Krathong, will be the iconic images shown. It's a magical sight to see. Historically the lantern release is timed so that every one of the millions of lights is simultaneoulsy launched into the sky. This year, though, intentional actions were taken to distract and confuse tourists attempting to launch their lanterns with the locals and a continuous stream of lanterns populated the sky of Chiang Mai for more than five hours. 

Though it didn't provide the same type of pictures, the effect was just as dramatic and breathtaking as you'd imagine with a continuos line of lanterns bedazzled with prayers, messages, paintings, and even fireworks dancing into the sky. 

What's most unfortunate about Loi Krathong is the fate that it has ultimately suffered at the hands of tourists and travel guidebooks. Millions of visitors every years have begun to flood to Chiang Mai for the festival, and nowadays the streets are littered with westerners and Chinese tourists itching to set off their own lanterns into the sky in order to get the best picture for Instagram and Facebook (myself included in this foolishness). Locals have almost completely disappeared from the streets of Chiang Mai during the main event which I feel has completely changed the meaning of Loi Krathong. What was once a celebratory cultural event among the Thai and Lanna people has now become a trap for tourists.

Though I felt the main celebration was a bit polluted with visitors, the evening of the full moon was still one of the best travel moments I've had thusfar. The sheer magnitude of the event was unbelievable with over a million lanterns easily being set off throughout the evening. Everyone from children to grandparents and Christians to Buddhists attempted to recreate the tradition of setting off their lanterns or sending their baskets with candles lit atop them down the river. Sure there were a lot of tourists getting pushy and rude, but the scene throughout the night was enough to counteract all of the other annoyances

View looking north up the river. People are setting off prayer baskets along the left edge of the river and you can see lanterns from throughout the city above

View looking north up the river. People are setting off prayer baskets along the left edge of the river and you can see lanterns from throughout the city above