Chiang Mai is about to celebrate Loi Krathong and tourists are already pouring into town for the beloved and much-photographed festival that begins on Wednesday. Like America’s Thanksgiving, the date changes every year, and this year the two will coincide. Based on the Thai lunar calendar, Loi Krathong always falls during a full moon and, in Chiang Mai, it lasts for three festive days.
Krathong are decorated baskets or vessels that are floated on a river. Most are beautifully decorated with intricately folded banana leaves, flowers, three sticks of incense, and a candle. People are encouraged to float them on a slice of banana tree trunk, a spider lily plant, or bread, because they are biodegradable. Krathong are lovely to look at and fun to make. I’ve been invited to a “How to Make Your Krathong in DIY” workshop in the lobby of my building on Monday and look forward to joining in the fun this year.
Yesterday, a group of students and teachers at my Thai language school, TSL, gathered to make krathong and the result was impressive. My teacher, Kuhn Rung, added Thai orchids and small white flowers to hers.
In Chiang Mai, most krathong will be floated on the Ping River, others on ponds and canals. All over Chiang Mai, Thais will make a wish and launch their lovingly-made creations, along with their hopes and dreams, sending them floating off into the perfumed evening air by the light of the full moon, thousands of flickering candles, a lantern-filled sky, and fireworks.
Families, backpackers, lovers, expats, children, and international tourists alike will gather at Chiang Mai’s Nawarat Bridge, and farther downriver at the Iron Bridge, to watch, take photographs, and launch their krathong.
Many, like me, will gather at the nearby River Market Restaurant for a night of music, dancing, good food (including Thanksgiving turkey!), and a great view of the festivities.
But wait a minute! What about the lanterns? Isn’t Loi Krathong about lanterns? Read on…
The famous Chiang Mai Lantern Festival, otherwise known as Yi Peng, is the festival of lights celebrated every year across northern Thailand. It’s a religious celebration that pays respect to Buddha. And it’s all happening at the same time. Just don’t expect this:
That photo, seen ’round the world, was taken at an orchestrated, ticketed event, outside of Chiang Mai, created for tourists. That’s not what you’ll see at the real Yi Peng. Lanterns float into the air, sure. But an hysterical crowd does not release them all at once after a Times Square-like countdown. Asian Woodstock is a manufactured photo-op for farang–it’s not the real thing.
Yi Peng by the Mae Ping is a gorgeous thing to see, really. Once you get past the idea that the sky should look like it does in that famous photo. It’s actually going to look more like this at times:
But Chiang Mai is alive with excitement right now and I feel like a kid waiting for Christmas. Buildings and temples are being decorated with colorful lanterns and torches. Excited children are watching in awe and playing at their parents’ feet as they string up lighted lanterns in rainbow colors. Restaurants have special menus. The Starbucks souvenir mugs are out. Vendors are setting up stalls to sell ready-made krathong, sweets, candles, incense, lanterns, food, and souvenirs. Colorful signs are everywhere, as are tourists and tour buses.
Massive parades and beauty pageants are in the works. Krotong contests are fierce. Ladies are wearing their traditional Lanna costumes and the Thai people look very, very happy and expectant. Me, too!
It’s a gorgeous, serene, moving, mesmerizing, and amazing experience. If you’re coming, you’re going to love it. I promise. If you didn’t make it this year, you should come. There’s nothing like it.