If you are active on Instagram and Pinterest, or even if you've just watched the Disney's Tangled, you've seen pictures of Chiang Mai's famous Festival of Lights, Yi Peng.
Or colloquially known as "that festival where they, like, send lanterns into the sky." Ya know what we're talking about now?
Whether you're headed to Chiang Mai this year to partake in the festivities or you're just now hearing about it and adding it to your travel bucket list, this article will walk you through everything you need to know about Loy Krathong* and Yi Peng.
Wait... why are there two festival names?
Don't worry, we'll get to that in just a minute!
We were in Chiang Mai for Loy Krathong and Yi Peng in 2015 and we had a fantastic time. That said, there was a lot we wish we would have known ahead of time. We're here to help you feel more prepared for these festivals than we did!
*Note: This festival name has a few different spellings: Loy Krathong, Loi Krathong and Loi Kratong are all correct.
When are Loy Krathong and Yi Peng?
Historically these two festivals were set during different times of the year, but today they are typically celebrated at the same time. It is near the end of rainy season (usually late October - late November). The dates of these Buddhist festivals change each year, as they follow the lunar calendar.
In 2017, Loy Krathong is on Friday November 3, 2017, the night of the full moon, but there are several events throughout the entire week leading up to the full moon.
What is the difference between Loy Krathong and Yi Peng festival?
Here's the short version:
Loy Krathong is a celebration of thanks to the gods for the rain and the rice harvest, as well as a chance to repent for the pollution we've created in our environment.
Yi Peng is known for the releasing of wish lanterns into the sky.
Here's the longer version:
The historical origins of Loy Krathong are not entirely clear, but this is one of the most important holidays in Thailand. Loy Krathong is the opportunity to atone for one's sins during the previous year and make a wish for success in the year to come. People will symbolically place a floating krathong* onto the river as they repent and make a wish. If the krathong stays lit until they can no longer see the floating vessel, their wish will come true.
*A krathong is a decorative floating vessel made of plants and flowers with candles lit on top.
Yi Peng is the festival of lanterns you are most likely familiar with. In preparation for this festival, people create lanterns and hang them outside of their homes and donate them to temples, which represents resisting the darkness and welcoming a brighter future.
On the night of the Yi Peng festival, people make a wish and release their own lanterns, khom loy, into the sky. It is said if your lantern stays lit until you can no longer see it, your wish will come true.
Where are Loy Krathong and Yi Peng celebrated?
Loy Krathong is a festival that is celebrated in many parts of Southeast Asia.
Yi Peng, however, is a Lanna (Northern Thailand) tradition. In the last few years, some touristy places in the Thai islands have started releasing lanterns to draw more visitors, but the real celebration is in the north of Thailand, specifically in Chiang Mai.
It's safe to say that the best city to celebrate both Yi Peng and Loy Krathong is Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Mae Jo Buddhist Monks and the Mass Sky Lantern Release
Many people dream of traveling to Thailand and witnessing the simultaneous release of hundreds of flaming wish lanterns into the sky. Like all those pictures on Pinterest, amiright?!
The videos and photos many people associate with this festical are from the Lanna Dhutanka temple near the Mae Jo University, which is about 15 km north of Chiang Mai. This Buddhist sect holds an event every year. This lantern releasing event in the past used to be free, but ever since 2015 you must purchase a ticket which costs between $100-300 USD per person.
As you can imagine, this event -- the Mae Jo Sky Lantern Release -- is now directed at tourists who want to get that iconic photograph for Instagram instead of locals actually partaking in this cultural festival.
With this event's popularity, there are other paid events popping up elsewhere around the city, and some tour agencies will make it sound like this is the only way to partake in the festival.
This is false.
You can absolutely partake in Yi Peng and Loy Krathong without paying any money to a tour agency.
You will have plenty to do during these festivals and you will even have a chance to get your sky lantern photo amongst locals who are doing the same thing without shelling out hundreds of dollars.
You don't have to arrange anything in advance. You just need to know where to go. That's what we're here for!
Overview of Loy Krathong & Yi Peng Events in Chiang Mai
The week leading up to Loy Krathong is full of fun and colorful activities throughout the entire city of Chiang Mai.
The week of Loy Krathong
As you walk through the city, you’ll see lanterns of all shades hung from stores and house and even trees. In the moat around the Old City, large inflatable floats are erected for a competition later in the week. There are traditional dances in the evenings near the Old City gates at the moat.
Day of the Full Moon, (Nov 3, 2017)
- Mister and Miss Yi Peng contest
- Handmade krathong contest, which are floated down the Ping River
- Ceremony of young monks releasing lanterns at Wat Phan Tao
- This is also the day locals and travelers release sky lanterns
- Locals release krathongs (floating boats) into the river
Day After the Full Moon, (Nov 4, 2017)
- Second and last evening to release sky lanterns
- Final processional through the city. (One of the best spots for viewing this parade-like event is near the East Gate (Pha Thae Gate) where the entire procession will pass right by you. Don’t feel like you have to stay and watch the whole thing, because it can go on for hours!)
Young Monk Ceremony at Wat Phan Tao
One fantastic experience (and a great photo op!) is at Wat Phan Tao, a beautiful 14th century teak Buddhist temple located in Old City. On the night of the full moon, the garden outside the temple decorated with hundreds of colorful lanterns and is illuminated with thousands of candles. It is a sight to behold.
Young monks come out out of the temple and release wish lanterns... well, sorta. They let the lanterns float, but suddenly they stop in midair. No, the monks don't have super powers. Bummer, I know. They actually suspend the lanterns for the ceremony (and of course the photo opportunity).
This event is undoubtedly beautiful. But if you do decide to attend, be sure to get there early. It gets PACKED. The year we went, I believe the ceremony was supposed to start at 7 p.m. We got there at 5:45 and it was already filling up fast. Of course in Thai style, the event didn’t start until 8 p.m., but we were happy to be near the front.
What to expect: It is a really neat experience, but not without its discomforts and annoyances. You will be crammed into a small space because of the hordes of people watching. Also, expect tons of photographers with tripods and cameras.
Our advice: Stick it out until the monks light all the candles, meditate and "release" the sky lanterns. But once you get a few shots, get out of the sweaty hot mess of a crowd and head to Nawarat Bridge to release your own lantern. More on that below.
How to release a Sky Lantern in Chiang Mai
One of the best parts of the Loy Krathong and Yi Peng festivals is the releasing of a khom loy, or sky lanterns, within the city. There are specific dates to send your lantern of fire into the sky.
In 2017, the sky lantern releases are acceptable only on the nights of Nov 3 and Nov 4, 2017 after 9pm*.
The best spot to release a sky lantern in Chiang Mai is near the Nawarat Bridge that spans the Ping River. As you get close, you will see vendors selling folded sky lanterns for about 30 baht.
Once you’re in a good spot to release, open the lantern fully and hold it at the top and bottom. Have someone else light the circular, doughnut-looking disc soaked in kerosene. You have about a minute or two for the heat to fill the lantern before it will start to float away.
Be sure to have your camera ready for a spectacular picture with the other floating lights in the sky and the full moon in the background.
*Warning: Do not, under any circumstances, release lanterns outside of this time frame. As this festival attracts more visitors each year, the government has become increasingly strict about when lanterns can be released. In order to ensure that the sky lanterns don't interfere with air traffic and cause fires, they have introduced fines ranging from 100,000 baht (around $3,000 USD) up to jail time.
What are the risks of releasing sky lanterns?
As you can imagine, there is a risk of fires being started by releasing wish lanterns. Loy Krathong/Yi Peng are celebrated at the end of rainy season in Thailand, so the risk isn't as high as it would be during other times of the year. Plus, being that people are only allowed to release lanterns on two nights, authorities are able to keep better track of any potential danger.
Aside from the potential of fires, releasing wish lanterns can have some detrimental effects on the environment. Even lanterns that are labeled as "biodegradable" can contain wire pieces that take years to break down. We always try to do our best to travel in a way that is responsible and sustainable. That said, we are not perfect, and it is a constant learning process. This article from The Guardian discusses this issue in greater detail. As with any topic like this, do your own research so that you can make an informed decision.
Release a krathong into the Ping River
You will find more locals releasing krathongs into the river than sky lanterns because this is perhaps one of the most important Thai holidays. You can partake in this celebration as well.
What is a krathong?
“Loy” means float and “krathong” is the actual floating vessel is placed on the water. It is usually made out of a slice of a banana tree trunk and is decorated with intricately folded banana leaves and flowers. Incense and candles are then placed on top.
How to release a Floating Krathong in Chiang Mai
Head down to the Ping River, and just south of both the Nawarat and Iron Bridges there will be vendors selling krathongs. Pick the prettiest one and go to the bank of the river. Just follow the locals!
Don’t light your krathong until you are ready to release it. There are some spots on the bank that have docks you can walk onto. Light the incense sticks and candles, make a wish and GENTLY place your krathong into the water and give it a soft push. With any luck, your krathong will float into to the current and get swept way.
Tip: When we were in Chiang Mai in 2015, we took a cooking course with Thai Secret Cooking School on the day of the Loi Krathong celebrations. The cooking class was special that day and we actually were able to make our own krathongs, which was a really cool experience. Try to book a cooking class for that day and ask if you’re able to make your own krathong!
Tips before coming to Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai basically doubles in size starting the week leading up to Loy Krathog, or at least it seems that way. Outside of the festival week, its hard enough to cross the street because of all the red trucks and tuk tuks. But during the festival, Chiang Mai swells with people, Thai and foreigners alike enter the city for all the activities. It’s no wonder the hotels get book up quickly.
If you’re headed to Chiang Mai during Loy Krathong, make sure to book your hotel well in advance. Learn from our mistake: We were stranded with out a bed during two nights of the festival in 2015.
Luckily, our hostel owner was super nice and he set up a mattress and mosquito net on his porch in what he adorably called a “Jungle Bungalow”. Better than nothing, but you better believe it wasn't the best night of sleep.
Here are a few hotels in Chiang Mai we recommend based off of their reviews:
Luxury/High End Traveler: Puripunn Baby Grand Boutique Hotel
Couple Vacation/Mid-range Traveler: Moondragon Hotel Chiang Mai
Social atmosphere/Budget Traveler: Baan JaJa
Wondering what to do in Chiang Mai?
We've got just what you're looking for! This article lays out some unique experiences to add to your list of things to do in Chiang Mai!
More Resources for Travel in Thailand
- If you're headed to Bangkok first, we've got you covered with all the best things to do in Thailand's capital city.
- Here's everything else you need to know about travel in Thailand.