Yi Peng in Mae Jo, Chiang Mai
An inside look at Northern Thailand’s floating lanterns festival
There are few words which can describe the emotions of absolute awe one experiences during Yi Peng. Yi Peng is a floating lanterns festival which happens at Mae Jo university, approximately 18 kilometers from Chiang Mai’s city centre. It’s an annual festival, which happens in conjunction with the popular Loy Krathong. Some may argue that this is not entirely off-the-beaten-path, though it seems to be an annual event just trying to figure out WHEN the event is actually happening.
An ancient ceremony dating back to the old Lanna kingdom which once ruled northern Thailand, and parts of Burma/Myanmar and Laos, Yi Peng is still widely practiced all over those regions. The most elaborate celebration takes place at the university of Mae Joe, near the ancient Lanna capital of Chiang Mai. An annual event, this is not to be missed! 10,000 people gather together in celebration of the Yi Peng festival. The festival is intended to be a time for people to make merit. The lanterns themselves are known locally as khom loi and are typically made from a thin fabric, or rice paper, and have a wax fuel cell in the middle which when ignited sends heat and smoke into the balloon shaped lantern, until it is heated enough to be released as a glowing orb up into the sky.
Everyone gathers in the designated field at the university and there are some initial ceremonies which happen from 5pm until about dusk. Once the sun has set, and the ceremonies come to an end, all 10,000 attendees simultaneously light their khom loi (lanterns), and the ground fills with an electric glow of wonder. On the command of the monks leading the procession, everyone is to let go of their lanterns at the same time, which in turn fills the sky with an organic galaxy of ever changing constellations. The flickering lanterns take to the sky, bumping, colliding, drifting and causing a universal sense of awe. Fireworks and sparklers join the lanterns as they drift their way to the heavens. Never before have I seen such a sight!
The lanterns generally last about 5-10 mins before either being too far off to see the glow, or before they eventually burn out and gracefully tumble back to the earth. I do feel sorry for those down wind who have to clean up the tens of thousands of lanterns that have fallen. Luckily, many are just rice paper and should dissolve after a few rains, if not get eaten by grazing water buffalo. Regardless, it’s truly a man-made wonder, and a memory anyone joining would cherish forever.
This article focuses on the when and where, please also see the Yi Peng photo essay of this beautiful event.
SEE – Photos & Videos
GO – Getting There
Mae Jo University is the place to be to witness, and participate, in this incredible must-do event! The festival kicks off around 5pm, on the Saturday of Loy Krathong. The grounds are located about 18 kilometers from Chiang Mai’s city centre, and are enormous. That said, however, space is still limited. I would suggest trying to get up there as quickly and as early as possible. Given travel time can be about 30-45 mins, plus walking in to the grounds, You should aim to leave Chiang Mai by 3pm at the latest, to not only assure entry, but also to get yourself a good spot. Many late comers end up having to stay outside the grounds main gates, and lighting/observing the floating lanterns being launched from there.
You can get to Mae Jo University a number of ways. The first, and perhaps easiest way, is by arranging a Songtow. These are shared taxis that hold up to about 12 people. I would suggest swapping contacts with them, and prearranging a pick up time as well, as it can be a nightmare when leaving. You don’t want to get stuck way out in Mae Jo, unless you’ve booked accommodation there for the night (ok, maybe THAT’s the easiest way).
For the braver, you can make your way out as we did, on a rented scooter. The rental only costs 200 baht (about $6.50 USD) for 24 hours, plus the $2 of gasoline you’ll want to put in it. It’s a pretty straight line to get there, once you get on the 1001 highway. Just follow the signs for the University, and eventually the stream of traffic heading there. Again, leaving can be a bit crazy, so if you choose this route, please just make sure you’re comfortable driving at night, and with traffic. Once you’re back on the 1001, it’s a straight line back. Unless you accidentally take the scenic route as we did… whoops!
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Do – Activities & Attractions
Stay – Accommodation
Eat – Restaurants
Time – Seasonality & Schedules
So the first big question is ‘when’ does this happen. Yi Peng is an annual event, and yet it still seems to be a confusing time figuring it out every year. Because of it’s ancient roots, it’s date is actually determined by the traditional Thai lunar calendar. It coincides with Loy Krathong, an ancient Brahmanical festival adapted in Thailand to honour the original Buddha, Siddhartha Guatama. Yi Peng is a festival with Khom Loi (the floating lanterns), which signify a time to make merit. Although tradition dictates that the launch ‘should’ happen on the day of the full moon, given the number of floating lanterns going up at the same time, a venue out of the city centre had to be chosen, making it more difficult to commute during a work week. Because of this, Yi Peng is usually celebrated at Mae Jo University on the weekend before the 2nd full moon of the Lanna calendar. This is often in mid to late November.
There is, in fact, a second Yi Peng floating lanterns launch a week later. It has been designed specifically for tourists, with a full day itinerary looking deep into the culture and tradition, and may be easier to get to for those who want a stress-free day. It can be booked here: Yeepeng Lanna International
Safety – Possible risks
Please Note: Travel inherently comes with an element of risk (just like crossing the road does). You are putting yourself in elements that are unfamiliar and foreign to your usual lifestyle and with that, become more susceptible to fall victim those who try to play off those unfamiliar to their local scams. There are also potential dangers in the environments to which you may not be accustomed to.
Please take extra care in travelling, ensure that you have adequate medical insurance (accidents seem to happen when you least expect them), and have let a trusted colleague, family member or friend know your whereabouts and activities.
Where Sidewalks End travel advises you to travel at your own risk, and to be extra aware of your surroundings (without letting it spoiling your time).
Pay – How much does it cost?
Responsible Travel – Best Practices
Reality Check – Be Aware
Yi Peng is a sacred, ancient ceremony. Most of those in attendance are there because this is a traditional practice which is important to their culture. It is important to be mindful of this, and respect everyone in attendance, both for personal space, but also in attitude while attending. Foreigners are very fortunate to be able to join in what may be one of the most beautiful ceremonies Thailand has to offer. One should not be loud, drunk, or disorderly, as this behaviour will be seen as insulting to the Buddhist Thai’s who have come to make their merits. That said, it IS a beautiful ceremony. If planning a vacation to Thailand in November, see if you can work out which dates the event will fall on that year, and try to plan a trip up to Chiang Mai in time for the event. It’s a must experience event that everyone should have on their bucket list! Happy Yi Peng!
SPECIAL NOTE: DO NOT BUY YOUR LANTERNS EN ROUTE! Please avoid buying lanterns before entering the grounds. There are vendors EVERYWHERE – but the security at the gate will not let you in with them. You must buy your uniformly shaped/sized lantern from inside the grounds. They are about 100 Thai Baht ($3.50), and are large enough to be shared by several people!
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This sounds like quite the adventure, right? We thought so too! Though we realize it can be pretty intimidating to get out there into the world on your own, especially when travelling to some of these off the beaten path locations. We love it when our readers give it a shot and try it for themselves! In fact, please leave us feedback if you do!! If trying something ‘this’ adventurous on your own is just a bit outside of your comfort zone, WSE Travel is here to help!
Follow this link for our ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ Tours – packages that are highly personalized and tailored at your request.
Have you ever been to a festival which was so awe inspiring, it left you feeling breathless? Where was it, and what was so magical about it?
Please feel free to share your stories and thoughts in the comment section below!