Lanterns in the sky: Sights from Loy Krathong in Chiang Mai, Thailand

[Regular visitors please note: This post is my entry to the Indiblogger/Cleartrip contest; the full day-by-day report of this Thailand trip will appear after I’m done with my Malaysia posts]

I arrived in Thailand after I got a great deal from Cleartrip last November for the Bangalore – Bangkok route: Thai Airways return flight + Rs. 1500 hotel voucher + Rs. 500 preloaded Thai SIM + entry to DreamWorld theme park — all for Rs. 16,472.

After buying a bunch of camera equipment from Bangkok, I arrived in the historical city of Chiang Mai two days later.

What was my purpose of landing up in Chiang Mai? Firstly, I love this city. The word I often use to describe Chiang Mai is ‘charming’.  But the main reason why I was here in November 2010, was to witness the Thai festival of Loy Krathong, more popularly called Yi Peng festival in Chiang Mai.

I always wanted to witness the festival as just seeing the photographs and videos lead me to think this is such a beautiful festival to experience first hand! Loy Krathong is the Thai equivalent to Diwali. You could say it’s Thailand’s ‘festival of lights’. I chose the dates based on information I gathered online, but even after arriving here and asking the hotel staff, I still couldn’t get any concrete information on the schedule of events.

Regardless, for day 1 in Chiang Mai I went around town to find out more about the days ahead and more importantly, where the big release of lanterns was going to be held.

Chiang Mai bicycles for rent dogI rented a bike and decided to just go for a drive, as I loved it when I rode around town the first time in 2009.

Chiang Mai Thapai gate floats
They already had floats on the waters surrounding Thapai Gate

Chiang Mai Thapai gate fountainsThe last time I was Chiang Mai, I drove up Doi Suthep hill, to visit the temple perched atop. I didn’t want to go all the way up this time, but I still wanted to drive up the hill to a certain point.

Chiang Mai way to Doi Suthep hillThe ride up Doi Suthep is enjoyed by many — tourists and locals alike.

Chiang Mai Doi Suthep cyclists
Be it cyclists or tourists on superbikes, everybody enjoys the ride
Doi Suthep hill mini waterfall panorama
Along the way, one can stop to see the many mini-waterfalls on Doi Suthep

But my stopping point was the last viewing point before you reach the top of the hill.

Chiang Mai Doi Suthep viewing point
From here, you get a very good view of Chiang Mai city...
Chiang Mai Doi Suthep full moon vertical panorama
... which looks particularly lovely under a full moon night
Chiang Mai full moon
Loi Krathong celebrations begin on a full moon night (Shot this with the telephoto lens)
Chiang Mai Doi Suthep vantage point
The sun sets rather quickly in Chiang Mai

As darkness fell, I made my back down and back into town.

Chiang Mai Thapai Gate lanterns locals
Such ornate lanterns were put up near Thapae Gate

Chiang Mai Thapai Gate traditional lanternsThough celebrations hadn’t officially begun, people had still gathered around Ping River.

Chiang Mai Yi Peng festival Ping river trees
Some couldn't wait to light fireworks
Chiang Mai Loy Krathong Ping river celebrations
Others couldn't wait to light paper lanterns
Chiang Mai Loi Krathong Ping river bridge fireworks
All the bridges across Ping River were packed with people
Chiang Mai market near Ping river
The nearby market was lit up with goods for the festival
Chiang Mai krathongs for sale
These are 'krathongs'
Chiang Mai market near Ping river flowers
All varieties of flowers too

Chiang mai paper lanterns for saleI got a taste of what was to come the next few days.

Day 2

After learning how to make Thai Green curry at the cooking class I attended in the day, I set off for Mae Jo in the evening. One of the staff at the cooking class told me the massive release of lanterns would be from here.

Ever since I saw photos of the festival, I made it a point that I would witness it myself. So by 5pm, I hired a Tuk Tuk as I didn’t really know how to get to the grounds at Mae Jo.

Chiang Mai Mae Jo Loy Krathong traffic
The traffic was starting to pile up
Getting to Mae Jo Loy Krathong traffic jam
It's probably wiser to just come by bike as the roads only get narrower towards the grounds
Getting to Mae Jo Loy Krathong
By the time, I finally got in, it was 7pm

It was pitch dark inside and virtually no street lights anywhere. When I had spoken to the staff earlier in the day, he told there would around 20,000 people at the venue. Judging by the traffic and the scores of people in front of me, I believe him!

Mae Jo lanterns in sky crowd
There were plenty of lanterns being released into the sky. I hope I wasn't too late.

After walking further in for around 10 minutes, I stopped at a crowded section where hundreds of people were lighting lanterns and releasing them into the sky.

I knew I was there to find the site where thousands of lanterns were going to be released at the same time but I couldn’t help but get distracted. It’s such a beautiful sight and a lot of fun to see people attempt to make these lanterns fly.

People lighting lanterns at Mae Jo
It's not as easy as you think it is
Mae Jo lantern burned
Not all get it right 🙂
Mae Jo roof on fire lantern
And for some, this festival can burn their house down!

Half an later of observing people and staring into the full moon night, suddenly, I hear screams.

I turn around, and couldn’t believe my eyes…

Thousand lanterns at Mae Jo
I can't believe I missed the big release!

I ran, but so did several others! I tried to squeeze through the crowds to try and get a good shot but alas, to no avail. There were just too many people… disappointed, just like me 🙁

I was gutted.

The one moment I was hoping to see up close for months… and I couldn’t be in the middle of it all.

Loy Krathong Yi Peng lanterns
One of the very few good photographs I managed to click in focus

The grounds from where the actual release was happening was still further away. By the time I finally managed to get in, it was all over.

Mae Jo celebrations
THIS is where it happens

Words can’t describe how gutted I was in knowing I was ‘so near, yet so far’ from being there at that moment. I could have consoled myself by saying “Oh well, hundreds of others missed it too…” but it couldn’t cheer me up any which way.

I went back to Chiang Mai city disappointed.

Ping river bridge lit up
Bridges across Ping River were all lit up

Thai girl Nawarat bridge

I was in no mood  to party that night.

Day 3

After yesterday’s disappointment, I wasn’t even in the mood to step out during the day. I was also feeling a bit feverish as the return journey in the tuk tuk was chilly– and I was woefully ‘under-dressed’ yesterday night.

I finally stepped out by around 4pm and hoped for something today to make up for yesterday’s ‘loss’.

Thapai Gate stalls Loy Krathong
Plenty of stalls at Thapai Gate selling all sorts of stuff...
Thapai Gate food stall lady
... and of course, great food at very reasonable prices!
Chiang Mai Thapai lanterns celebrations
Thapai gate had plenty of colourful lanterns on display. (That's me by the way!)

And yes, there were events lined up that did bring a smile back on to my face.

Chiang Mai Thai lady parade
A massive parade was lined up for the evening -- today and tomorrow
Chiang Mai Loy Krathong celebrations
Even the foreign embassies took part
Chiang Mai Loy Krathong parade men
These poor folks had to carry & walk with that dancer for nearly 2 hours!

Hundreds of locals thronged to the banks of the Ping river to release krathongs into the water.

Ping river Loy Krathong

Chiang Mai Krathongs Ping river
The krathongs are biodegradable

The release of the krathongs into the river is a symbolic act of letting go of one’s grudges, anger and any past bad moments, and hope one can start afresh in life.

All the Buddhist temples were abuzz with activity and many turned into food courts, offering all sorts of delicacies.

Barbecue meat balls
Some appetizing...
Chiang Mai fried insects
... some not too appetizing
Big lanterns Buddhists
Even the temple monks were in on the 'big' fun
Chiang Mai Wat lions firework
Plenty of fireworks

Rim Ping hotel Loy Krathong firework

Chiang Mai footballer
Plenty of street entertainment

With all that was happening around me, for a moment, I forgot about yesterday’s disappointment and just enjoyed what was on offer today.

Chiang Mai lanterns Ping river
After this, I put my camera down and decided to join the other tourists in lighting a few lanterns myself

Loy Krathong is an amazing festival. Though its celebrated across Thailand, Chiang Mai throws the biggest ‘party’ of them all. I waited months and invested quite a lot in photography equipment for this visit, and although I extremely disappointed on missing being at the site where the big release of lanterns took place, I told myself: “I’ll be back next year”

And my ‘purpose’ remains the same.

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4 Comments

  • saffronstreaks

    18/02/2011

    been there in thailand last year but missed the loy krathong festival. wonderful pics. thanx for sharing

    [Reply]

  • Hiral

    04/03/2011

    Hi Mithun,

    I got to know about your wbesite from one of our mail we get from CTS adventurist group link (actually, landed up on ur site, after following the links.. 🙂 )

    I enjoyed all the posts of your travels, and would thank you for sharing all information (on planning, getting to the place etc) with those love travelling.

    Even I love to travel different places, but so far could visit only few places in india like Goa, Konkan areas (diveagar, shrivardhan, harihareshwar, Alibaug), Bangalore, Mysore, Ooty. (i love photography as well, but don’t have any such high end cameras, and exp in it)

    I don’t get much chance to travel so frequently like you do, but now I have decided to follow my passion. Hope to get some more tips by reading blogs on the net, like yours.

    Regards,
    Hiral Gandhi.

    [Reply]

    Mithun Divakaran Reply:

    Hey Hiral,
    Thanks for your comments.

    I began travelling in 2005, two years after I had started working. I travelled throughout India from 2005 to 2009 and I only had a Canon point-&-shoot camera back then. But trust me, start off that way. You’ll learn at least the basics that way. I didn’t have money to travel abroad and invest in an expensive DSLR back then. I saved up, and with a credit card’s help, I invested in the right camera when it came out in 2009.

    India has more than enough places to see and photograph. I’ve been to Rajasthan (twice), New Delhi, Agra, Goa (twice), Gokarna, Pondicherry (twice), Hyderabad, Bylakuppe, Coorg (twice) and Kerala. I still have to put up those older photos. I’m just trying to finish my recent international travels first (before I forget what all I did) and then go back through my travel archives.

    You have to start somewhere. Save up as much as you can. International travel isn’t as expensive as it used to be thanks to budget carriers. Just follow my blog and I’ll show you how much we ended up spending for our Singapore and Malaysia trip.

    [Reply]

  • RON

    12/11/2011

    Some lovely photos there!

    What those who promote Chiang Mai don’t want ‘outsiders’ to know is that LK is a horrendously noisy affair.
    Yes, the floats, lanterns, decorations and costumes are wonderful but THE FIREWORKS …..
    I live here and I tell you that, along the Ping River, the fireworks have been exploding since October 5th and will continue for another couple of weeks.
    I wont get into a discussion about the irony of ‘poor’ people still having enough money to explode or the irony of celebrating the Water Goddess during terrible floods.
    Suffice to say that, if the likes of the Tourism Authoirity of Thailand and numerous websites were honest, they would warn everyone that the fireworks have been allowed to become an intrusive aberration that detract from what was and should be a peaceful celebration.
    So, if you want peace during LK time of the year (November), go elsewhere.

    [Reply]

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