Chances are, you’ve seen a million photos online of the famous Yi Peng (AKA Yee Peng) lantern festival in Thailand, when thousands of paper lanterns illuminate the night sky. Like you, I’ve long dreamed about witnessing the captivating event with my own eyes, and to perhaps even release a lantern for good luck.
As the biggest Yi Peng celebration is held in Chiang Mai, the ancient capital of the former Lanna Kingdom, I made plans to fly over to check it out. Long story short, I was surprised by what I saw. Though the sight of the lanterns floating against a backdrop of the full moon is indisputably breathtaking, few travel guides delve into the deep-rooted religious significance of the festival and even fewer talk about the outrageous crowds and irresponsible tourists who release lanterns into power lines, trees and other people.
Before you travel to Chiang Mai to check out the Yi Peng Festival next year, please read up on some of these important things to know about the Thai lantern festival first!
Visiting Chiang Mai for the first time? Make sure you read my guides on what to do in Chiang Mai and how to plan a perfect day trip to Doi Inthanon National Park!
1. What is the Yi Peng Festival?
Yi Peng is a festival primarily celebrated in northern Thailand. The Lanna festival has several names including the “Chiang Mai festival of lights”, “Yi Peng”, “Yee Peng”, “Chiang Mai lantern festival” and so on – they all refer to the same thing. The unique feature of Yi Peng is the release of paper lanterns called “khom loi”, which are lifted high into the sky by fire and hot air as it rises. Buddhists believe that the act of releasing the lantern during the full moon frees themselves of bad luck from the past year, and generates good fortune in the coming year.
Chiang Mai, the former capital of the Lanna kingdom, hosts the largest Yi Peng lantern festival in Thailand, and draws tens of thousands of tourists every year.
2. Loy Krathong and Yi Peng are 2 different festivals
The two festivals are often confused with one another as they overlap and are celebrated around the same time in November. Loy Krathong is a festival celebrated throughout Thailand on the evening of the full moon of the twelfth month of the traditional Thai lunar calendar. It is characterized by floating baskets made of flowers, leaves, candles and incense that are sent down the river to pay respects to the river goddess and Buddha.
In Chiang Mai and northern Thailand, Loy Krathong coincides with Yi Peng which falls on the full moon day in the second month of the Lanna lunar calendar (which is the twelfth month of the Thai lunar calendar) and the celebrations span across three days.
Because the dates of the festivals are based on the Thai lunar calendar, the exact dates of the lantern festival in Chiang Mai and Loy Krathong shift every year. They typically fall around November every year but the exact dates are only announced approximately two months ahead of time (though the forecast dates tend to be fairly accurate). In 2018, the Chiang Mai Yi Peng festival was held from November 21st to 23rd. Yi Peng in 2019 is thought to be held around November 11th to 13th but this won’t be confirmed by the tourism board until closer to the time.
3. Book hotels early
Yi Peng in Chiang Mai is quite possibly the busiest time of year to visit. The small city receives hundreds of thousands of tourists traveling to partake in and observe the lantern festival, and for this reason hotel rooms are in short supply. If you are visiting Chiang Mai for the Yi Peng lantern festival, book early! You can book ahead on Booking.com where many hotels offer a free cancellation policy, and if for some reason you can’t make it to Chiang Mai you can cancel your booking at no extra cost. Just make sure you check when the cancellation deadline is!
If you are traveling to Chiang Mai for the lantern festival, your best bet is to stay in the Old Town area so that you can walk to and from the festivities as traffic is horrendous. Here are some of my favorite places to stay in Chiang Mai:
See You Soon Hotel and Cafe in the heart of Old Town is an amazing hotel with a handful of spacious and newly renovated rooms and stunning & tasteful decor. The rooms sit atop a wonderful cafe (try the mango and sticky rice) with tasty food and drinks, and the wifi connection is very stable and fast throughout the property. Click here to check current rates at See You Soon Chiang Mai.
I would also highly recommend Nawa Sheeva, about 2 blocks away from Wat Chedi Luang and the Tha Pae Gate. This small boutique hotel has incredibly friendly staff, clean and spacious rooms as well as a small private pool, though the wi-fi can be a little unstable at times. Click here to check current rates at Nawa Sheeva.
If you are looking for a slightly more modern hotel with a pool in Chiang Mai, then you’ll want to check out BED Hotel Chiang Mai Gate. This boutique property is an adults only hotel in Chiang Mai and offers clean and spacious rooms. Click here to check current room rates at BED Chiang Mai Gate Hotel or click here to find some other highly rated accommodation options in Chiang Mai’s Old Town!
4. The Yi Peng festival is outrageously crowded
I was not mentally prepared for exactly how many people had traveled to Chiang May for Yi Peng, and how crowded the main areas were. During my first trip to Chiang Mai a few years ago, I visited during the off-peak season and the town and Doi Inthanon National Park were peaceful and quiet. This time, there were people EVERYWHERE and in some areas the crowds were at a standstill.
The main Yi Peng events happen after dark at Thapae Gate or Nawarat Bridge, a 10-minute walk away from the city walls. However, this is where all of the crowds congregate. If you want a quieter and less hectic experience, go where the locals go – Wat Chai Mongkhon is a smaller temple where people release their kroythongs into the river and release lanterns safely with the help of the resident monks.
5. Loy Krathong and Yi Peng are meaningful Buddhist festivals
The two festivals are spiritual occasions for Thai Buddhists, who make up 90% of the population in the country. The acts of releasing lanterns and krathongs during Loy Krathong and Yi Peng symbolize letting go of the misfortunes and bad luck from the previous year, and are a way for Buddhists to pay respect to Buddha and the river goddess.
As you observe the festivals, it is important to bear this in mind – while the festivals are very beautiful, be mindful that you do not obstruct people from releasing their krathongs and lanterns, dress appropriately if you are visiting a Buddhist temple, and keep your voice down. Please be respectful when you are in Chiang Mai for the lantern festival.
6. The festival generates a lot of trash
Krathongs often have staples or small polystyrene bits (even though they’re not supposed to have them anymore). The Natural Resources and Environment Ministry has suggested people use vegetables and plants like bitter gourd, papaya, pumpkin and banana blossom as alternative materials for the vessels. Although these types of krathong are biodegradable, their massive quantities can pollute the river if they remain uncollected. They are therefore often collected as soon as the full moon festival is over (source).
Yi Peng lanterns in Chiang Mai are mostly made of rice paper with a bamboo or wood frame and wire to hold the candle or flammable coil. The vast majority of the lanterns end up on the ground, in trees and in the river after the festivities – what goes up must come down! We spotted fallen lanterns throughout the city during the festival as well as the next day.
Which brings me to my next point – I would urge you to think long and hard about whether or not you want to release a krathong or lantern, and think about your motivations for doing so. Are you Buddhist? Are you doing it for the photo opp? Do you appreciate the religious significance? Could you be content with simply observing the beautiful ceremony and festival?
Interested in reading more about responsible tourism in Southeast Asia? Click here for 10 things you should know before you visit Southeast Asia!
7. It is free to observe
There is no cost associated with observing or partaking in the Yi Peng lantern festival in Chiang Mai, unless you are purchasing a krathong or lantern of course. There are a handful of paid ticketed events held outside Chiang Mai town that advertise the opportunity to take part in a mass lantern release. These have no historical significance and are not official government events.
If you want to observe the Yi Peng lantern festival in Chiang Mai, head to Nawarat Bridge and all along the Ping River towards the south. However, in my humble opinion the best place to observe the Chiang Mai lantern festival is in Wat Chai Mongkhon where monks help devotees and tourists release lanterns safely, or Wat Phantao in Old Town (however, the monks no longer release lanterns within the Old Town – they light them and hold onto floating lanterns using wire).
8. You can’t release lanterns all willy nilly
Floating lanterns pose a safety threat to planes flying over Chiang Mai’s international airport, and every year flights in and out of Chiang Mai are cancelled or delayed during the peak of the holiday. In fact, hundreds of lanterns land near the airport every year. For this reason, Yi Peng lanterns can only be released after 7 PM and before 1 AM.
Also, you can’t just release lanterns everywhere around town and there is clear signage letting you know where it is prohibited and the associated penalties. This year, lanterns were not allowed to be lit around Thapae Gate or Wat Phantao.
9. It’s important to be careful when you release a lantern
Please, for the love of all that is good, be careful when you release a ball of fire surrounded by flammable material into a crowd of people! I can not count the number of fail lantern launches around Nawarat Bridge, many of which flew into power lines, trees, people, street food stalls, or simply imploded into a fiery mess on the ground.
If you are releasing a lantern, make sure that there is sufficient hot air to lift the lantern and give it a gentle push upwards rather than sideways.
10. The lanterns and krathongs are hard to photograph
Let me tell you this, the flying lanterns and floating krathongs are not easy to capture well on camera! They move quickly, it is dark and there are often people photo-bombing from left, right and center. If you have a DSLR, turn on the continuous shooting mode and if you are using an iPhone, hold the shutter down to take multiple shots. Of the hundreds of photos I took during Yi Peng, I ended up scrapping more than 50% of them.
For people with a DSLR camera, forget auto mode and use manual settings with a high ISO (>2000). I used 1/25 shutter speed, 4.0 F Stop and +1 exposure. Play around with the settings and test what works best for you and your camera. For some of my favorite photo editing tools head on over to this article, or check out some of my mobile photography tips here.
Visiting Chiang Mai for the first time? Read on for 10 Things to Do in Chiang Mai That Don’t Involve Riding Elephants or Petting Tigers
I hope these tips help you to plan your trip to Chiang Mai to check out the Yi Peng Festival in 2019!
Ready to book your fabulous responsible vacation in Chiang Mai? Click here to check current rates at See You Soon Chiang Mai and make sure you check out their fabulous coffee shop and restaurant, or book a room at Nawa Sheeva, a small Thai boutique hotel with a private pool within Old Town, or check out BED Chiang Mai Gate for an adults-only hotel in Chiang Mai with a pool. Click here to find some other highly rated accommodation options in Chiang Mai’s Old Town!
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