Letting go of lantern Chiang Mai

Loy Krathong: Yeepeng Lanna in Chiang Mai – A second chance to do it right

Date 24th November 2012

For those who have been following my website since 2010 – or have landed on my website when searching for information on Loi Krathong in Thailand – you must have read about how disappointing my 2010 attempt to capture the Yeepeng Lanna festival was. Long story short, I got confirmation when and where the event was taking place but by the time I got to the venue, I missed the big release of lanterns by a matter of minutes!

I was gutted the remainder of the night and vowed I would go back to do it right the next time. I wanted to go to Thailand in 2011, but last year’s floods ruined my plans. This year, I could wait no more. I had plenty of good reasons to go to Thailand and I did.

Even though I had a friend for company, I made no compromises about getting to the venue early this time. As soon as we were done with lunch, we found a tuk-tuk driver willing to take us to Maejo University and back for 600 baht. In 2010 I paid 500 baht, so 600 baht for both of us sounded like a good deal. Plus our driver spoke fairly good English – something of a rarity in Thailand. We felt comfortable knowing everything was going smooth so far. (Yeah, wait till you read how it all ended!)

Tuk Tuk driver Chiang Mai
We set off
Chiang Mai highway to San Sai Maejo
The weather seemed great and the highway leading to Maejo University was easy on the traffic
Inside Maejo University Chiang Mai
Our driver told us it was the first time in over 20 years that he was entering Maejo University. For which there was no need to, because I knew from last year’s visit there was an alternate road to take.

After getting directions from the university staff, we reached the same point where I was dropped off last time. It all came back to me now — how I walked for at least a kilometre before reaching the actual grounds where the event was taking place.

Way to Yee Peng Lanna venue Maejo
People were setting up their stalls to sell paper lanterns, food and drinks

But this time, we drove down the same road and found parking right next to the main grounds! It was just past 2pm and we were really early. I was happy though. I knew I was safe inside and sure to witness the big release of lanterns this time!

Our tuk tuk driver said he would wait for us until evening and told us he was just going to go out for lunch. But we knew he was leaving the venue to go about his business of picking up other passengers. Who cares, as long as he came back for us. We hadn’t paid him yet.

Yeepeng Lanna Maejo afternoon
We weren’t the only ones who arrived early. Many other tourists – mostly Chinese and Japanese, some locals and volunteers were milling about. (The above photos were all taken on the phone)
Yeepeng Lanna ceremony Thai girls
There was some ceremony going on
Pretty Thai girl Chiang Mai
More of a photo-op for us

Thai girls traditional dresses Chiang Mai

Yeepeng Lanna opening ceremony Chiang Mai
The boys had a showing too

Thai boys Yeepeng Lanna ceremony Chiang Mai

Maejo grounds lamps for Yeepeng Lanna
Once that was over, we moved to the actual grounds nearby
Lamps covered Yeepeng Lanna Chiang Mai
These are the lamps that would be used to light the ‘khom loys’ or paper lanterns
Yeepeng Lanna lamps lines panorama
And the whole ground was full of them!
Lamp lines Maejo grounds panorama
My friend Ramesh and I found ourselves a small tree under which we could take respite from the sun
Buddha podium Yeepeng Lanna Chiang Mai venue
That’s the podium on which Buddhist monks would be chanting prayers before the actual release

Buddha statue Yeepeng Lanna Chiang Mai venue

Chiang Mai lamps for Yeepeng Lanna festival
I walked up to the center of the grounds
Yeepeng Lanna venue setup Chiang Mai
I guess the carpet is for the many ceremonies that lead up to the big lantern release

Maejo University grounds entrance

Chiang Mai happy tour Yeepeng Lanna
But walking around, I noticed most of the sections were blocked by tour groups. As if they reserved sections for whoever paid to be here.
Tree shade bags Yeepeng Lanna Chiang Mai
Our bags were cooling off in the shade
Hall Yeepeng Lanna Chiang Mai
I decided to drink as much water, juices and then go to the toilet beforehand
Maejo Yeepeng Lanna hall Chiang Mai
There was some ceremony going on inside which we weren’t allowed to photograph
Yeepeng Lanna volunteers greeting visitors
They had volunteers greeting visitors in both Thai and English

I drank a lot of ice cold water and went to the restroom because henceforth I wasn’t moving away from my spot.

Camera men Yeepeng Lanna
A lot of video cameras and DSLRs were setup well in advance to secure the best viewing point
Camera men Yeepeng Lanna Chiang Mai
A LOT of cameras!
Yeepeng Lanna venue Maejo Chiang Mai
This whole venue is going to be full of people lighting paper lanterns
Sirui tripod Yeepeng Lanna Chiang Mai
I set up my tripod and made test shots of all the possible viewing angles
Tourists Yeepeng Lanna Chiang Mai
Everyone took respite from the sun under the shade of the trees
Maejo grounds crowd panorama
Slowly but surely the crowds were making their way in
Tourists Khom Loy lanterns Yeepeng Lanna Chiang Mai
People carried their khom loys which were sold at the venue for 100 baht each
LCMT tour Yeepeng Lanna Chiang Mai
Tour groups were trying to get their people together
Yeepeng Lanna big paper lanterns
I guess you get your lantern ready if you already paid to come here with a tour group
Power paraglider Chiang Mai Thailand
Look up in the sky! Is it a bird? A plane? Kind of… this paraglider was surveying the grounds from up above. Imagine the view of the lanterns he was going to get from up there!
Man on top of light tower Chiang Mai
This guy’s spot isn’t too bad either 🙂
Full moon Chiang Mai Thailand
It was a full moon night, a factor based on which they set dates for this festival
Paraglider Chiang Mai Loi Krathong
The paraglider was still doing the rounds while paper lanterns made their way up. What a perspective he must have got!
Yeepeng Lanna crowds gathering
As the sun was setting, the crowds were growing
Yeepeng Lanna venue night Chiang Mai
The venue was full and by 6:30pm people were getting the urge to start lighting lanterns, despite constant announcements asking everyone to refrain from doing so
Yeepeng Lanna buddhist ceremony
By 7pm, we were well into the many ceremonies that precede the release of the lanterns
Buddhist monks stage Loi Krathong Thailand
The monks chanted prayers which were followed by traditional songs and performances
Thais meditating Chiang Mai
Thais around me were deep in meditation and chanting along
Buddhist monks Yeepeng Lanna Chiang Mai
But I couldn’t get a good sight of all that from where we were standing as it all happened in the center of the grounds – sections all reserved for guests and VIPs
Man hair strands silhouette
It was hard trying to get clear shots because there would always be some head obstructing my view. But I made the most of it. Love the 70-200mm lens! 🙂
Maejo night lanterns Yeepeng Lanna
This is a long exposure panorama comprised of 4 shots tried with as little shake as possible
Smoke Yeepeng Lanna Chiang Mai
They lit some firecracker… or something
Lamp fire Yeepeng Lanna Chiang Mai
After all the ceremonial activities were over, the announcement was made to light the lamps

Thai praying Yeepeng Lanna Chiang Mai

Lamp fire Chinese tourists Yeepeng Lanna
But everyone was instructed not to light the lanterns yet

Sadly the instructions were only in Thai and English, meaning some Chinese and Japanese around me couldn’t wait to light up.

Yeepeng Lanna Loy Krathong Chiang Mai
And so it began
Lamp fire close-up Chiang Mai Thailand
Myself and Ramesh decided we would light lanterns after the big release. Until then our focus was capturing photos and videos.
Thai light lantern Loi Krathong Chiang Mai
It’s not easy to light up such a huge paper lantern and try to take photos at the same time
Releasing lantern Loi Krathong Chiang Mai
And despite repeated announcements not to release the lanterns yet… there’s only so long one can hold on to it once it fills up with hot air
Thai family lantern Yeepeng Lanna Chiang Mai
This Thai man giving us the thumbs up was overly joyous and talkative to us asking us where we’re from and what we were doing in Thailand. Nice chap 🙂
Releasing paper lanterns Yeepeng Lanna Chiang Mai
Lanterns were going up even before the main announcement
Paper lanterns Loy Krathong Chiang Mai
People near to us were still getting their lanterns ready
Khom Loy Yeepeng Lanna Chiang Mai
These khom loys are massive!
People releasing paper lanterns
I was getting a bit worried the lack of co-ordination was going to ruin the big lantern release
Lanterns night sky Chiang Mai
I mean, the whole beauty of Yeepeng Lanna is seeing thousands of lanterns go up at the same time
Lighting lanterns Chiang Mai Thailand
He was happy to let go, but I prayed the others would wait
Paper lanterns floating Chiang Mai Thailand
But then…
Khom Loy Yeepeng Lanna Chiang Mai Thailand
Lanterns Yeepeng Lanna Chiang Mai Thailand
… !!!!! 😀

All around were just screams of joy and exhales of utter amazement! Even Ramesh and I were going: “Oh man, oh man… oh oh-ho-ho!” Really… there are no words to describe how you feel at that very moment you see it. It’s a visual-sensory overload! Even though I was shooting at my widest, no camera can capture the sheer scale of the what the night sky looks at that moment. Your eyes are the only best tool.

I immediately then tried to try an capture a panorama comprised of multiple shots. I never once thought how the end result would look… I just clicked-clicked-clicked-clicked.

Yeepeng Lanna Chiang Mai big lantern release
And this is the best I could put together

I had to piece together the above 4 shots (out of 6) manually as no photo-stitching software (including Photoshop’s otherwise impressive Photomerge) could find common links between each photo. Here’s a larger version.

Lanterns floating away Loi Krathong
The lanterns were floating right over me. Guess that’s the way the wind was blowing.
Lanterns floating night sky Chiang Mai
I took this vertically to get as many lanterns as possible
Lanterns night sky Chiang Mai Thailand
It was amazing to see just how quick these lanterns float away out of sight
Paper lanterns rising up Thailand
People were still lighting up lanterns
Lanterns floating away Chiang Mai
And just like that… into the distance
Yeepeng Lanna festival Chiang Mai
Another panorama I had to manually piece together
Yeepeng Lanna crowd lanterns Chiang Mai
Another manual panorama stitch comprised of 4 shots
Yeepeng Lanna trees lanterns Chiang Mai
Wonder where these lanterns eventually drop to
Lantern festival Chiang Mai Thailand
Another panorama manually pieced together from 5 shots
Yeepeng Lanna crowd lanterns Chiang Mai
And another one pieced together from 4 shots. Not perfect, I know.
Lantern festival Thailand
I knew back in 2010 itself just how tough this festival is to capture on camera. One, it’s dark, and two, you’re trying to capture moving objects in low light.
Paper lantern festival Chiang Mai Thailand
I shot in Manual Focus mode because keeping it in Auto Focus meant the focusing would be slow (my wide angle is the Canon 10-22mm f3.5). Although I had the Tamron 28-75mm f2.8, from experience I know how lousy its focusing is compared to the Canon. Keep in mind, most of these photos were taken at shutter speeds ranging from 1/6 to 1/20.
Lantern festival with flash
And shooting in Auto mode with flash like how many with point-and-shoot cameras were clicking meant you get photos like this. It kills the very glow of these floating lanterns.
Lantern festival crowd Chiang Mai
But just when you think the visual sensory overload is over…
Maejo lantern festival Chiang Mai
… fireworks!

Yeepeng Lanna fireworks Chiang Mai Thailand

Yeepeng Lanna festival fireworks
I actually took a lot of photos of the fireworks
Fireworks Yeepeng Lanna Chiang Mai lantern festival
Sadly, most of them came out blurry. I guess that’s the downside to keeping your lens on Manual Focus and getting lost in the revelry :-/ They looked fine on the LCD but it’s only when you zoom in or view them on the computer you realize: “Crap!”

With the activities slowing down at the grounds and people making their way out, Ramesh and I went up to the big hall to get an overhead view.

Maejo grounds lamps Yeepeng Lanna
We wondered what the spectacle from up here would have looked like
Fire lamps Yeepeng Lanna Chiang Mai
A team next to me were still filming video. I set up my tripod to take some longer shutter release.
Mithun Divakaran Yeepeng Lanna Chiang Mai
We took each others’ photos using the fire lamps as backgrounds
Yeepeng Lanna ground after lantern release
And that was it. We were done.

Well, done taking photos of other people having fun! Now it was our turn. We went to buy one of the big lanterns but sadly they were all sold out. We went out to the main road by the river stream to check with the vendors there.

Crowd leaving Yeepeng Lanna Chiang Mai
The stream of thousands leaving the venue meant it was going to be near impossible to walk through it all. But it did remind me of 2010 when I was one sad face walking like a zombie (in disappointment, than lacking life) after having missed the big release of lanterns.

This year though, I had a smile of my face. I captured the amazing moment the lanterns went up and now I just felt like lighting up some lanterns myself. We looked around until I finally found a big one lying unused and wasn’t torn. Ramesh found a vendor inside and bought another.

We decided to light up the bigger one first.

Ramesh Japanese girls Loi Krathong
These Japanese girls helped us light the big one as you need more than two hands to hold the lantern up — and take photos!
Ramesh Mithun Yeepeng Lanna Chiang Mai
Two or three minutes later, it was ready to float away
Mithun releasing lantern Chiang Mai
Made a wish, and then let go
Mithun Divakaran lantern Thai girl
We lit another one with this Thai girl, who was awfully kind to help us

But I later realized she was only helping us so we would finish up and leave. She was one among the many volunteers who immediately began cleaning up the venue.

Letting go of lantern Chiang Mai
So we let go of our final khom loy
Fire lamps Yeepeng Lanna Chiang Mai
And with that, we were finally done for the night

Walking back, looking at all the volunteers cleaning up the grounds, putting out the lamps and clearing all the trash, I now understood why the organizers have started commercializing this festival. For over 20 years, this privately organized event grew into one of the most symbolic of Thai festivals in the eyes of many tourists. Heck, I’m sure this event is what inspired this scene in ‘Tangled‘!

Last year when they announced a separate event would be a paid event, that too with a US$100 entry fee (slashed to $80 this time), I scoffed at how greedy they had become. Of course, now they hold two – one free event and one ticketed event. But even this event had large sections of the ground cordoned off by tour groups, reserving the good spots for those who surely paid to attend this festival.

Still, I won’t blame them now. Just because it’s free for many of us, doesn’t mean there aren’t expenses. Somebody has to pay for the free ice-cold water, somebody’s got to pay for all the free plastic chairs they handed out to those who waited since afternoon. Not to mention, again, the hard-working volunteers cleaning up the entire venue and helping out with the various activities.

Will I attend this lantern festival again? Although I managed to get in early this time, I’m still not absolutely thrilled with the photos I took. I shot altogether over 440 photos today, but I only used a quarter of that for this post. Many came out blurred. I don’t entirely blame myself, because I did the best I could with my Canon 7D and 10-22mm f3.5 lens. Being surprised by the moments of amazement that took place before my very own eyes, it was hard to plan every shot. Trying to capture what your eyes see with a camera is always tricky. I would like to think had I got a full frame camera with the Canon 16-35mm f2.8 lens, I would have taken better photos. Then again… ‘shoulda, coulda, woulda’. We all have such thoughts after something has happened.

As we walked back to our waiting tuk-tuk driver, it was 8:45pm. But we were happy. Not for long though.

When we approached our driver, he had the look of displeasure on his face. He complained saying he’s been here for hours and we promised we would be out by 6pm (which we never did). I knew why he was acting this way and it soon came out. He demanded we pay 1000 baht instead of 600 baht. I refused, saying that was too much for a tuk-tuk ride. He said he would take us to the police station if we didn’t pay up. So I said “sure, go ahead” and got in.

I wasn’t afraid as this wasn’t the first time a local tried to pull this trick on me in Thailand.

Chinese tuk-tuk driver
I took his photo while we were stuck in the slow moving traffic outside the grounds

But then, strong winds started blowing. Blowing so hard it was toppling sign boards, chairs and other things off shops on the road side. Then came the loud sound of thunder. Then it began to rain. And how! It was pouring cats, dogs and any other animal you can throw at to describe a torrential downpour! Myself and Ramesh, although with a roof over out heads, were still getting wet with the heavy wind throwing water at us from all open sides. I tried to take my rain coat out of my camera bag but hesitated to move from the covering position I was in. Even opening up the rain coat was a challenge with the wet winds rendering it counter-productive even before I could use it as cover. My camera was getting wet too, so I needed to stuff that back in before it could take in any more water.

And just when you think bad weather in the midst of heavy traffic couldn’t make things any worse, our tuk tuk sputtered to a stop. Water got inside the spark plug making it hard for the driver to restart the vehicle. So yeah, we were stuck in the rain. Then the power went off all around us. Yup.

Ten minutes later, the vehicle restarted and we were off again. But given the driver had chosen to take the inner roads to hopefully skip traffic (or take us to the nearest police station), driving through puddled roads… the tuk tuk stopped again. For the same reason. We now had to wait longer. In the rain, in the dark, and with no clue where in Chiang Mai we were!

But the driver’s attitude changed by now. Although he complained of how cold he was (he was getting drenched too), the talk moved to light banter complaining about Thailand’s electricity cuts, calling it the worst in the world. We assured him there’s always India to make Thailand’s infrastructure look far superior. But as light as both our attitudes were by then, Ramesh and I couldn’t believe how our night was turning out to be. I couldn’t believe my drive back from the lantern festival could possibly make me sick again. We were shivering in the cold and prayed the tuk tuk would start again. It did, some 20 minutes later, and fortunately by then the rain had reduced to a drizzle. We asked the driver to avoid potholes and see if he could connect back to the main highway.

Funnily enough, all I kept thinking was how the rain could have possibly been caused by the development of hot air caused by the thousands of lanterns in the air from the Yeepeng Lanna grounds. It was as though god was pissed with all the fire we were sending up his way and he decided to wash us out with a massive downpour of water! But the driver told us he had heard in the weather report that there was a depression from Vietnam heading towards Thailand. Still, I think the hot air could have aggravated the rains.

Chiang Mai rain bikers
It was well past 10pm by the time we saw a highway. Ramesh could take his phone out to take this snap as I wanted some evidence of just how much it rained. Trust me, it was much worse when it began!

By the time we reached Chiang Mai city, it was 10:45pm. It took us two hours to get back, but what horrible two hours it was. We asked our driver to drop us near the Night Market as we just wanted to have some hot food before everything shut shop early because of the rains.

When it came time to pay him, we still gave him 700 baht feeling sorry for an old man shivering out at this time of the night when his wife kept calling asking him where he was.

It’s not that I have it usually, but we felt like having some rum or whiskey to warm our bodies. This was a moment when I craved hot Indian food too, and although available aplenty at the Night Market, most places were Muslim-run restaurants. Which meant we would get the food, but not the alcohol.

We just sat inside a popular restaurant and ordered everything. I desperately wanted to be done with dinner so I could run home to take a hot shower.

Myanmar pork curry
I wanted something hot and spicy to warm my body up but there was no Indian food on the menu. Instead, I tried Myanmar pork curry, which although tasted okay, ended up being gingery sweet. Not what I craved that night.

Done with dinner, shivering and soaking wet from head to toe, we walked back to our room and I quickly took a hot shower. It felt soooooo good.

Rux Thai twin room Chiang Mai Thailand
I tested my camera to see if everything worked fine. I know the 7D body is weather sealed, so it can handle the elements to a certain extent. But I was glad to know the lens and the motor all worked a-okay. (This is was our twin room at Rux thai Guesthouse by the way)

So that was my day. From hot and sunny in the morning, thrilling in the evening, to cold and rainy in the evening. I wasn’t even in the mood to look at the photos I took because it was well past midnight and we had a morning flight back to Bangkok where I had to attend SM Town III the next day. I had to sleep.

But I was still happy 🙂

P.S: Here’s a video Ramesh took when the lanterns were released into the air:

My 2010 Loi Krathong in Chiang Mai posts:

Thailand 2010: Chiang Mai cooking class; Loi Krathong celebrations in Mae Jo, Sansai

Thailand 2010: Chiang Mai Loi Krathong celebrations; first Grand Parade

Thailand 2010: Last day of Loi Krathong; Sunday Grand Parade (Day 4, Part 2)

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  • Ash


    Awesome isn’t the word, Miths! You lucky bum.

    Mithun Divakaran Reply:

    Thanks Ash 🙂

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  • asroberts


    This is a great recap! Thanks for sharing… I am hoping to catch Yi Peng in 2013, but I’m having trouble nailing down the exact date. Full moon is November 17th, but there are conflicting reports. Can you share how you confirmed the correct day? Would love any resources you might have!

    Mithun Divakaran Reply:

    How did I confirm the date last year? I didn’t. I knew a tentative date after much researching, e-mailing my hotel in Chiang Mai and asking on forums. It was only once I arrived in Chiang Mai and saw I sign board and asked a few more locals/taxi drivers that I confirmed the date.

    If I were to wager a guess for this year, the free event (one I attended) is going to be held on Nov 16-17 weekend, because the paid one is being held on Nov 23rd http://www.yeepenglanna.com/event.html

    Mithun Divakaran Reply:

    It’s confirmed. November 16th it is! http://www.chiangmaicitynews.com/news.php?id=2550

    asroberts Reply:

    Thanks for following up again! I got the same news, and we’ll be arriving on the 15th to get settled in! So pumped about seeing this spectacle – I’ll share any additional footage I can get…

  • Tracy


    This is fantastic! Were you able to attend the free festival? If so, can foreigners release the lanterns as well?

    Mithun Divakaran Reply:

    What I attended was the free festival. Yes, foreigners can release lanterns.

  • Raw Spiritoo


    MAJESTIC! Though a fraction of what you actually took, these are great shots.

    We are already booked for Yi Peng 2013, hoping it is on Nov 16th.

    I am not very versed in photography lingo. One thing I know is, of course no flash. Any tips or tricks on getting good non blurry photos of the mass release? Is a tripod necessary? Would it be cumbersome or problematic with the crowds?

    I have a micro four thirds Sony NEX 5 camera. The lenses I have are:
    1) F2.8, 16 mm fixed pancake lens
    2) F3.5 – 5.6, 18 – 55 mm
    3) F4.5 – 6.3, 55 – 210 mm

    Thank you so much.

    Mithun Divakaran Reply:

    Of all the lenses, the F2.8, 16 mm is the one lens you will end up finding the best as the sun sets. It’s not easy to shoot in the dark and flash ruins the lanterns. If you have a tripod or a monopod, that would be super useful to get steady shots. That said, your camera is lighter than my Canon 7D, so as long as you have steady hands, you’re good.

    Just try a few experiments at home by shooting a lit candle in a dark room or the day before the event by taking photos of the lanterns (people will be lighting them as soon as arrive at Chiang Mai) and see which camera settings work best.

    Raw Spiritoo Reply:

    Awesome! Thanks. I will practice at home with the 16mm fixed.

    Is it cheaper and easier to get a tripod in Chiang Mai? I have a collapsible monopod, but still does not fit in my luggage. haha

    Mithun Divakaran Reply:

    Well, depends on your country of origin. If you are coming from the United States, then just buy from there as Thailand will be slightly more expensive and choices will be fairly limited.

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  • Klim


    Wow, your lantern photos are amazing. I can only hope I can walk away with anything halfway useable if attend. Going there in November, but not sure if it will line up with the ceremony yet.

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