It’s quiet. Still. Thousands of people stand, a tense, palpable energy in the air. But it’s only a quick moment of serenity, a calm before the storm.
Suddenly, a flock of paper lights burst into the air. Thousands of fluorescent bulbs drift upward, illuminating Chiang Mai in an ethereal glow.
This is Yi Peng, Thailand’s annual floating lantern festival.
Where: Chiang Mai, Thailand
When: The 12th full moon of the year
2017 dates: Nov. 3-5 (Lantern release: Nov. 4)
Thailand’s Loi Krathong Festival is a must-see for any traveler to Southeast Asia. Every year, during the twelfth full moon, locals place candles on baskets fashioned out of banana leaves and wood and float them downriver. The light of these makeshift lanterns are significant in Buddhist culture, signifying the transition from darkness to a brighter future.
But those in the northern city of Chiang Mai put a dazzling twist on the annual celebration, opting for lanterns that float not on water, but in the air.
For the three-day festival, lively processions parade through the lantern-lined streets. On the night of the full moon, participants release thousands of these paper lanterns (called: khom loy) into the air, making wishes for the year ahead. The result? A fluorescent flurry of lights ascending into the night sky.
It’s a magical event not to be missed. Though attendance is free, thousands of visitors flock to the city every November for a glimpse of the floating lanterns, so make sure to stake out your spot early!
Buying a lantern of your own to release can be a difficult — and even dangerous — process. Only vendors with specified permits are allowed to sell them, so expect long lines and fierce competition at each stall. Occasionally, a crowd has been known to break out in pushing and shoving, so have an exit strategy — it’s just a lantern made of rice paper, after all.
Prices will vary by vendor, but expect to spend around 100 baht for one big lantern or three small lanterns.
WHERE TO WATCH
During the days of the festival, you’ll be able to spot lanterns and colorful displays all over Chiang Mai. Houses, shops, and temples decorate their entrances with lit candles and ornate arrangements of coconut leaves and flowers. The entire city is shrouded in a mystical glow, filling the air with an enchanting energy. Though you can feel it everywhere, there are specific spots that will help maximize the enjoyment of your evening.
Festival participants have been known to line the banks of the Ping River, releasing lanterns both into the air and onto the water. For the best vantage point, head to either the Nawarat Bridge or Iron Bridge (Saphan Lek), and watch as the khom loy light up the night.
For a more tranquil experience opt for the temple gardens at Wat Phan Tao. Local monks host a ceremony beginning with guided meditation and culminating in the release of their lanterns.