“Keep holding, keep holding, and let go… NOW!”
At the exact same moment, my travel buddy and I released our hands from the edges of the burning Chinese lantern that we’d been holding close to the ground. The advice from the Thai locals had been to light the wick, and then wait until the body of the lantern was completely filled with air. If the lantern wasn’t filled with enough air, then it might hit a tree or a roof nearby – and that would be “very bad lucky for your fortune” as the old Thai man next to us said.
It seemed that night that we were in luck. We watched as the lantern rose slowly but surely, above the crowds gathered by the Mae Ping river, above the street food stalls, tuk tuks and motorbikes, above the trees and above the rooftops of the city of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. The bright yellow glow became smaller and smaller in the dark night sky until it was nothing but a shining speck in the distance, and then vanished out of sight. Around us, hundreds of people — travellers, families, old and young — were setting off lanterns of their own. Fireworks could be heard somewhere in the distance. A sense of hope and celebration filled the air, and the scene around me was like nothing that I had ever witnessed in my life. I felt inspired and touched by the event, even more, when I began to learn about the sentiments behind the festival…
Loi Krathong Festival takes place on the night of the full moon in November, marking the end of the rainy season. Night skies all across the country are illuminated as glowing lanterns are floated into the air, and rivers and lakes glisten with candles as tiny boats are set afloat in honour of the Goddess of Water. The roots of the festival lie firmly in Buddhist origins, and the beliefs centre upon the concept of ‘letting go’ or ‘being freed’ from your troubles.
As the lantern or boat is launched and drifts away, it is believed that people can be released from their dukkha or suffering and make a wish for good luck in the future. The name of the festival comes from the small lotus shaped boats, which are called krathong, and are made of banana leaves and filled with candles, incense and other offerings. The boats can also contain locks of hair, photographs or symbolic remnants of the past. Loi Krathong is a time when the people of Thailand release their past troubles and open the door to new beginnings.
When is it?
The festival takes place on the night of the full moon in November, which this year is 14th November 2016. The date varies from year to year.
Where are the best places to celebrate the festival in Thailand?
Although the festival takes place all across the country, the northern city of Chiang Mai is one of the best places to witness the scene. This is because a similar festival, ‘Yi Peng’, which derives from Lanna culture, takes place at exactly the same as Loi Krathong, meaning more lantern releases and more festivities.
For the festival itself, it’s good to place yourself by a body of water, such as the river, or the city moat, so that you can see people setting off their boats. The area by Tha Phae Gate is often decorated with lanterns and you can witness parades and concerts there. Nawarat Bridge also gives a good view of the river and city scenes.
Are there events taking place during the entire week?
Events will take place every night, after sunset, for around three days during the festival.
Before the full moon
Usually, one night or a few nights before the full moon, there’s a ‘sky lantern release’ at Mae Jo University, or the ‘Lanna Dhutanka’ grounds (you can find out the official date from the Thailand Authority of Tourism nearer the time). This is the biggest lantern release during the festival and is a photographer’s dream. It can be extremely crowded within the university grounds, so make sure you give yourself plenty of time if you plan to attend.
We’ve been told that this is a non-official, paid event, so if you’re on a budget, wait for the official celebrations on the night of the full moon.
The night of the full moon
The night of the full moon marks the official start of the Loi Krathong and Yi Ping Festivals and there are many places across the city where you can participate in local traditions. The official lantern and boat launch will take place just after sunset on the Nawarat Bridge, and all of the main bridges will be the site for many fireworks and firecrackers. There will then be celebrations around Tha Pae Gate going on until the early hours, with lots of street food, dancing and partying.
The day after
There is usually a parade taking place with decorated floats and traditional costumes from Tha Phae Gate towards the Chiang Mai municipality. It tends to begin around 6.30pm, but again check the TAT website for more information.
Tips to enjoy the festival
- Take your camera. This is one of the most photogenic festivals in the world, and international photographers flock to it every year. You won’t want to forget your camera!
- Go local. Try to experience the festival amongst local families and their children to understand the real excitement of the event. It’s best to be out in the city exploring, rather than in a bar with fellow backpackers.
- Beware of kids with fireworks. As a four-year-old child launches a firework inches away from your foot, you realize that the health and safety in Thailand may not be what you’re used to in your home country! Stay calm and enjoy the experience, keeping your distance from areas where fireworks are being set off.
- Visit a temple. As with most Thai festivals, Loi Krathong is primarily a religious event. Visit a temple during the day to see locals worshipping Buddhist statues and preparing for the event in a spiritual way.