The Thai sky lantern festival of Yi Peng offers a spectacular sight
I had travelled to Chiang Mai to experience the Yi Peng Festival, a three-day event that has become a magnet for photographers the world over, and was especially eager to see the synchronised release of thousands of sky lanterns.
On the train, I started talking to Nattha Chaloeichanya, a Thai university student who was travelling from Ayutthaya for the festival. We discussed how there seemed to be something distinctly Thai about the splendour of floating lanterns, but she argued there was also something much deeper. “Yi Peng has the beauty of seeing all these lanterns light up the sky, yes, but for a lot of people, there’s also a very real spiritual connection to the festival. It’s about releasing all your negativity and, more subtly, it’s a way for us to simply take a moment to stop, breathe, and let go.”
Similar to the nationally celebrated Loi Krathong, Yi Peng has roots in an ancient Brahmanic festival that was later adopted as a ceremony to honour Buddha. Perhaps the main difference between Loi Krathong and Yi Peng is that instead of focusing on the tradition of sailing candlelit baskets (Krathong) down a river, Yi Peng emphasises the use of rice paper sky lanterns (khom loi) that are released into the ether, creating a dreamlike aesthetic. Yi Peng is now renowned as one of the world’s most spectacular festivals.
The Thai people light lanterns all year round, but they are constantly visible across Chiang Mai’s skyline during Yi Peng. The Kingdom of Lanna’s former capital, an extraordinary city that brims with ancient temples, is the perfect backdrop for this spectacle. No matter what time of day I looked up, I could always bet on finding at least one lantern, lolloping in the breeze on a meandering mission.
One of the paradoxical elements of visiting an ancient city like Chiang Mai for a festival as spiritual as Yi Peng is the obvious demand of an ever-present tourism industry. Not far beyond the superannuated walls of the old temple city are the bright lights of commerce and fast food restaurants. Here, a certain fast-food clown mascot is fixed in the bowing Thai wai, its yellow gloved hands praying traditionally to greet customers. I saw a young Thai family silhouetted in front of that neon modernity laugh as they lit a sky lantern. As they watched the lantern ascend, the couple closed their eyes and pressed their palms together while their toddler child clapped.
Later that night, I bought some khao man kai (chicken with rice) and took a long walk through the winding streets where fine-dining restaurants blended with street food vendors and stalls. There was something intensely personal about each of the yellow dots that peppered the sky, though it was the simultaneous release of thousands of lanterns that I was most keen on witnessing.
I learned that this would take place the following evening at Maejo University, about 20 kilometres outside the city centre. There was no public transport to the event, but the best option seemed to be the omnipresent Thai songthaews, a kind of pick-up truck adapted to carry passengers and fitted with a roof and two parallel benches for seating. At the last minute, I was offered a ride in an air-conditioned sedan by some generous fellow tourists and I jumped at the chance. Still, I was struck by a small sense of envy during the drive out as I peered into the traffic of songthaews. As they headed toward the university, I saw their many happy passengers sharing the journey together, and I felt a pang of solitude in the leather-bound sedan.
After entering the university, I bought a couple of huge cream-coloured lanterns and walked to the main sward where a thin Hollywood-style red carpet divided the grass. There were surprisingly few people sitting in the auburn glow of the afternoon and I wondered if I was at the wrong site. I walked to the food stalls and bought a picnic of pad thai to enjoy on the lawn. Before I finished the meal, the sun had almost completely sunk and a
sea of people multiplied exponentially around me.
As the venue filled, the proceedings began and a procession of Buddhist monks garbed in immaculate simplicity walked along the carpet toward the stage. The crowd listened to a sermon with reverence, and we were soon instructed to begin lighting the lanterns. Experienced locals helped tourists with tips on how to prepare the lanterns as a feeling of community grew.
Then, with most of the giant lanterns shining and expanding with heat, my field of vision became restricted to my immediate neighbours and their lanterns. Very quickly, I felt enclosed in a small, comforting space with the bolstering radiance of light, almost like being under a duvet with a torch. As soon as the signal was given, the neighbouring lanterns began to rise, and I could see thousands more beyond floating up majestically. It was as though we were submerged in oceanic waters and enveloped by endless creatures of bioluminescence. Each lantern encapsulated something deeply personal and rose to form a canopy of light funnelled up as high as it was possible to see, leaving me below with the equally remarkable sight of numerous smiling faces looking up in elation.
People say Thailand has changed amid its journey to become a Southeast Asian economic powerhouse. And certainly, as I stared at the congregation of orange-robed monks sitting with a calm piety onstage, I couldn’t help but notice their striking contrast to the eager wave of smartphones and cameras among the crowd. But then, for one ethereal moment, thousands of lanterns asserted something much simpler, and I was left in an awe of a tranquillity I thought long lost to antiquity.