About This Festival
The indisputable highlight of Yi Peng and Loi Krathong is the spellbinding show that happens when thousands of people converge to release khom loi (lit lanterns) into the night sky. Prior to the big spectacle, the setting is joyful and serene as monks perform chants during an on-stage ceremony.
During the other key ritual of this beautiful Thai festival of lights, participants let go of krathong—small floating vessels made from banana stalks and decorated with incense, offerings, flowers and candles—into rivers and other bodies of water, creating an ethereal sight that’s rarely duplicated elsewhere in the world.
Surrounding events include bright parades, musical performances, beauty pageants, traditional dances, lantern-making contests, fireworks, and lots and lots of food.
Meaning of Yi Peng and Loi Krathong
The Yi Peng and Loi Krathong light festival has its earliest roots in Brahmanic tradition but Buddhists later adopted it as a way to honor Prince Siddhartha Gautama—the Buddha.
For Buddhists, participating in these acts serves as a time to reflect and let go of personal demons and negativity. All the flickering flames and lights symbolize their veneration of Buddha. Many also use this occasion to honor Phra Mae Khongkha, the Hindu water goddess.
Since this festival is a spiritual, ancient, and sacred affair that invites new beginnings via spiritual cleansing, attending as a westerner should be regarded as a privilege, which is why it’s important to treat the event with the right amount of respect; heavy drinking and rambunctious behavior, for example, cause offense.
To quote a participant who blogged about the spectacular experience: “Soon the darkness was filled with one of the most amazing things I have ever seen. I had jealously looked at photos of the event for the last two years, but being there was a hundred times better than any picture. The shared excitement and happiness was indescribable, the flickering glow of ten thousand flying lanterns reflected on the upturned faces of the earthbound crowd below . . . It was, quite simply, magic.”
Since what goes up must come down, the fuel cells in the lanterns burn out after about 10 minutes, at which point the lanterns gracefully fall back to earth, triggering what amounts to an extensive cleanup effort. Fortunately, most of the lanterns are made from biodegradable rice paper, which grazing animals eat or, if that doesn’t happen, break down after a few rains.
Where and When to Go at Yi Peng and Loi Krathong
The biggest Yi Peng celebration happens near the northern Thai town of Chiang Mai because that was the ancient capital of the former Lanna kingdom, in which Yi Peng originated.
MaeJo University, just outside of Chiang Mai, is where the largest event happens, the reason being that so many fire-fueled lanterns launched at once makes the event unsafe for a dense urban space. English translation at this particular gathering makes it all the more alluring for international visitors.
Back in Chiang Mai’s Sansai district, the areas near the Three Kings Monument and the Thapae Gate get decked out with gorgeous decorations, and throughout Old Town, temples and houses are festooned with flowers, plants, candles and lanterns, making the entire district appear enchanted.
Away from Chiang Mai, simultaneous celebrations of Loi Krathong happen throughout Thailand and its surrounding countries. Travelers often fret about how to find the best place to see the krathong but you needn’t worry: Simply head to wherever there’s water. Every lake, river, pond, and fountain transforms into the perfect place to release lanterns and pay respect to Buddha.
How to Participate at Yi Peng and Loi Krathong
If you’re unsure about what to do, your best bet is to follow a nearby monk’s lead—this used to be an event exclusively for monks before the greater population was invited in. And if you’re releasing a krathong (a sky lantern) into the water, make sure it’s made of natural materials (plant materials or bread, usually) and not Styrofoam or plastic, which don’t decompose and end up turning into litter and pollution. Make sure, too, to make a wish when you let go of your lantern or float.