Watching the night sky fill with thousands of blazing balls of light, the Yee Peng/Yi Peng lantern festival in Thailand is something you see on many bucket lists. When my travel partner Jenn and I realized our leg of the journey coincided with the festival’s potential dates (it varies each year depending on the full moon cycle), we were elated. It was, judging from the photos, something to not miss, being THE festival of festivals. It’s Instagrammed by the masses, used as inspiration in wedding celebrations, and the one that some people travel specifically to Thailand for. Hell, it’s on my 30 before 30 list and I wasn’t about to miss out.
As we arrived in Chiang Mai, Thailand we tried to gather as much information out about the Yi Peng lantern festival as could be. Websites were unclear, and listed locations for the event differed wildly. Some mentioned the main event was now a ticketed, you-better-get-there-several-hours-beforehand deal. Others talked of a general block of time it would occur on the bridges around the walled portion of the city. And, based on the scene that lit up the sky the night of, people were taking it upon themselves to send off their paper lanterns anywhere they damn well pleased.
I can only speak from personal experience, (and would absolutely love to know if someone had a better experience of Yi Peng in 2017 and on) but it was a complete nightmare.
Living in New York City, I’ve learned not to bat an eye about sharing a tiny café table with a stranger, waiting in line for longer than most, or squeezing into a sardine-packed, rush-hour train. I don’t mind the closeness of other human bodies, surprisingly enough for someone who loves their own space. Yet, not being able to stop and properly take a moment to just observe because you’re constantly jostled and on high alert of where the crowd is going is where I draw the line.
I actively avoid places like Times Square, ESPECIALLY during the holidays when there’s a complete standstill on the sidewalks from too many people trying to see the displays. I detest the pit at concerts now, having the experience of literally being swept off one’s feet as the crowd sandwiches you tight enough to help you move without trying. So, when we arrived at the Tha Pae Gate, it was exactly as I had feared.
Name: Yee Peng (local name)/ Yi Peng. Yi Peng is typically celebrated alongside Loi Krathong in Chiang Mai.
When: Late October-Mid November. Loi Krathong takes place on the full moon of the 12th month in the traditional Thai lunar calendar. In the Western calendar, this usually falls in November. Most of the time, the official date isn’t released until a few weeks prior, but you can somewhat gauge it based on last year’s. Ours was on November 4th for 2017.
Projected Loi Krathong Dates:
2018: November 23
2019: November 13
2020: November 1
Time: 7pm-1am lanterns are lit on the bridge, but the majority of the action is right at 7-8pm.
Where: The largest display is at Saphan Nawarat Bridge where the Tha Pae gate is located. There is also a ticketed event at Mae Jo University not associated with the official Yee Peng festival that is supposedly more photogenic, but not exactly government-sanctioned, or a traditional indigenous event.
How much: Free around the city unless attending the ticketed Mae Jo event.
Coming from the opening ceremony in front of the Three Kings Monument where ornately dressed children were crowded by eager tourists and parents alike, I was hoping for more of a relaxed environment the next night at the Yi Peng lantern release. The slow-moving opening ceremony was beautiful, yet the growing ring of people trying to take several dozen snapshots became a sweaty mess as we all craned to get a look at what was happening. Ultimately, the two of us gave up when giant cameras, backpacks, and sweaty fingers from the people behind and in front of us poked and prodded us like sheep. It couldn’t all be like this, right? Where was the calm atmosphere in those photos everyone posted about?
Yee Peng/ Yi Peng Lantern Festival in Thailand
As we walked toward the bridge, we saw the shops that normally sold trinkets and pillows now selling handmade paper lanterns for Yi Peng. The frames were constructed with a fragile wire and the middle seemed as if it was some sort of waxy, bamboo base. You could get some as small as a typical brown paper lunch bag, and others as large as a tall trash bag. One could also find some with different colors and faces depending on the vendor. Women sat in plastic chairs on the sides of the roads, twisting the contraptions together as they shouted prices at you.
I quickly discovered in certain parts of Bali a few days earlier, this behavior with vendors was typical, whereas in parts of Thailand, they seemed more relaxed. This night, however, they were relentless in their exhaustive efforts to sell paper lanterns, krathongs to float down the river, as well as various other festival supplies.
The krathong boats themselves were beautifully intricate; constructed of fresh flowers, candles, incense and dried banana leaves all twisted and piled atop a floating base shaped like a lotus. Our hostel had a class on building them we unfortunately missed the evening prior, but something tells me my fingers wouldn’t be nearly as deft in weaving these tiny boats together as some of the school children I saw. They sang songs as they wove the Krathongs by lamplight, unhurried, and unbothered by the hordes of people.
After buying our Krathong boat and negotiating with a few vendors before settling on a medium-sized, plain lantern (honestly, the red ones made a more beautiful image in the sky), we made our way through the ever-thickening crowd to the side of the river to get a better view of what was about to take place. The riverside was already dense with people, all vying for a spot close to the water. Sweat trickled down my legs as I crouched in the dirt, unwilling to sit fully, but no longer able to stand.
Finally, our legs gave way and plopped our tired butts down, and promptly bit by dozens of lord-knows-what. The bridge above was indescribably crowded, a select few impatient to begin and started lighting their lanterns off before the 7 pm kickoff. We watched as people began to let their lanterns off into the night sky.
Some couldn’t wait long enough for the fragile paper shell to fill up with hot air, resulting in a quick crash into the river below. Others, unaware, or aware and careless, lit theirs off on the sides of the bridge in direct line with the trees above our heads. More than once screams could be heard and the trampling of feet as people scrambled to get out of the way of the burning embers above. I could only wonder how these trees didn’t catch fire. Dozens of paper lanterns fell into the net of dried leaves above and burned out.
As we sat along the riverside, I noticed dark masses moving in the water. There were men under the bridge and all along the riverbank in the water pushing the flaming boats away from the shore. There must have been hundreds of boats in the river, all in various stages of dismantlement from the water and flame. Ours almost didn’t catch flame with its one candle, but we managed to set our Krathong down in the water as it quickly fell apart while we rushed to send our well wishes along with it. In exchange, it’s said the Goddess of Water grants a release from all bad things along with a good life and good luck. Not a bad deal.
Back on the bridge, it wasn’t much better.
Chaos surrounded me as I tried to get a closer look at the bridge-goers to figure out how exactly we should be lighting these. Cars honked as people blocked the middle of the road, everyone seemingly ignoring the fact this was an active bridge still. Anywhere you walked, you tripped into someone’s selfie, a couple’s kissing portrait, someone posing with their lantern as it got dangerously hot. Cameras and phones were everywhere, I found myself apologizing profusely as I tried to walk through the shrinking, empty-pockets of space. It was a circus of phones, flaming paper, and sweaty bodies.
There are only a few things I’ve learned I fear, and one of them happens to be large, open flames. As careful of a path I tried to weave, I found my short hair getting closer and closer to multiple lanterns launching upwards in front of me. Some were lit on the ground, so one must be careful to look down (and around). Others lit them in the air at eye-line. It was a minefield of flames half the people had no idea how to handle.
How to light a paper lantern.
- Lighting a lantern safely usually involves two or more people, so grab a partner.
- Meditate before preparing to release the lantern and hold onto a calm, positive feeling.
- Pick a relatively uncrowded spot away from the trees and flammable objects.
- Extend the lantern out to its full height.
- Light the circular block inside the lantern on the ground. Make sure the lantern remains extended.
- Wait for the lantern to fill with hot air. Hold on tight, this process may take a minute or two depending on the size of the lantern.
- Once you feel the lantern tugging, make a wish and let it go.
- Try not to get hit by others lighting their own lanterns while looking up at your own, it flies away quick!
Back up top, it was time for us to finally set our paper lantern ablaze. As my overwhelmed/ over-it attitude raged stronger after being pushed and stepped on for an hour, it quickly went away as we borrowed a nearby group’s lighter and set ours ablaze. As we waited for the paper pocket to fill up with hot air, a group of guys rushed over as one grabbed hold of our lantern and began to chant something over and over.
If they spoke English, they refused to as we stood there, confused as two of the guys filmed our surprised expressions next to this man. It was our moment to finally light ours and focus in on the positive things we wanted to accompany our little lantern. Yet this guy was making a spectacle of it for his friends and followers. He finally relented when he saw my unsmiling face and firm words as I nudged him out of the way. I didn’t come here for someone else to ruin the few seconds my heart had yearned for years to be a part of. And it certainly didn’t help with the meditative and positive attitude you were supposed to hold onto whilst lighting your lantern.
Finally, focusing in on something positive to send it off with, we let go.
The lantern soared right up into the air, away from trees, and joined the thousands of others in the night sky. Soon, it was a bright speck against the darkness, and they all created a beautiful scene above us. One traditionally lets their lanterns go to pay respect to Buddha, but to also symbolize letting go of negativity while wishing on the future as the lantern floats away from you.
A thousand bright specks of hope against a dark sky, one could find a lot of meaning inside the scene before us. All of those lanterns represented of the hopes, dreams, and wishes of the people around me. I became filled with a sort of yearning that every person, even the guy I had to push out of our lantern circle, got whatever they wished for that night. Even the people whose lanterns fell into the river, or the trees, or didn’t get a chance to let go of their own, and wished on passing by lanterns.
I had been so cranky, so tired that evening and yet looking at our own float delicately away from us, it was a moment of inner-stillness. It was one that I had been hoping to get the entire time we spent squeezing our way through the crowd. As we walked through the streets, they could still be spotted from afar, the beautiful spectacle never seemed to cease as the night grew longer.
The problem with the over-saturation of content in social media.
It’s frustrating when the masses become aware of something truly beautiful in this world, they want to document it. They take their selfies, Snapchats, and video after video of the entire thing. Take the guy jumping into our lantern lighting. His friends laughed and filmed him as he chanted over and over in our faces. All for a few views. It partly ruined the feeling of being, “in the moment” and left me wondering what the age of boundary-pushing social media is doing.
Yet, who am I to say “they” and “them”- I’m no exception. I was there to photograph and capture as much of this magical night as I possibly could. But when do we put down the camera? When do we stop live-streaming for everyone at home and just be a witness? When do we take the time to find that moment of inner stillness that we can hold onto and reflect upon years later? It felt as if the original purpose of the Loi Krathong and Yi Peng festival was lost when it was nearly impossible to hold onto any positive thoughts while dodging flaming lanterns.
Was it always like this? Will it continue just to evolve into a tourist trap, one that becomes ticketed all throughout the city in the way the original site had? Maybe we were in the wrong place, or went at the wrong time, but the whole thing just felt like a cluster of tourists scrambling to take a photo with one hand while holding on to their lanterns or boats with the other.
We’re in a curious time now. Social media is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it’s allowing people to see parts of the world they may have never realized existed and it’s encouraging the expansion of horizons. People are traveling more now than ever. Yet, the dark side of the “experiences over things” movement on everyone’s mind is creating a certain type of monster tourist/traveler. They are the ones there in a foreign place for more content creation and less cultural appreciation. These are the people who come in for the perfect Instagram shot, and do “whatever it takes to get it” regardless of anyone or anything. Rules are ignored, locals lives are disrupted by with cameras being shoved in their faces, and traditions become less “genuine” as they are marketed and hyped up for the masses to ogle. The image portrayed becomes less about the reality of the situation, and more what looks aesthetically pleasing.
Artists need to create, yet at what expense?
I don’t know the answers to a lot of the questions I’ve asked, but it’s growing worrisome to see what some of these events or places are becoming. I wonder if we begin to call influencers out about little things such as doing yoga poses with shoulders and stomachs bared in front of the iconic Pura Lempuyang in Bali, aka Heaven’s Gate, despite being told both are incredibly offensive, if it’ll make a difference. They aren’t technically hurting anyone the way surge of tourists riding mistreated elephants in Thailand, despite it being common knowledge, but it’s giving the go-ahead for others to follow suit and potentially push things even further.
Rules are made to be broken, yet some are put in place specifically to preserve the traditions we are constantly looking to see a “real” glimpse of. And while some are antiquated and need to be replaced, do we blunder forward without much regard, all in the name of good content?
I don’t feel good bending the rules for a photo anymore. And maybe my own personal content will start to suffer when I can’t wear the one-shoulder, flowing dress to a temple. It doesn’t make me a better person than the person who is, but I don’t like what I’m seeing as I slowly travel this globe. And maybe if I can be the one more person who isn’t disrupting the daily life of a local or completely ignoring the traditions of a country, hopefully others will begin to realize the absurdity of it in time.