Here I go again. My third official trip to Thailand (fourth according to my passport). This time though, I wasn’t going to be alone. Ramesh, a friend I have travelled extensively with, was going to join me this time. But since he is working, he could only take a week off. Whereas I would be in Thailand for nearly two weeks.
I’ve been meaning to return to Thailand ever since my disappointment of 2010, when I first tried to capture the Yi Peng Lanna festival. I was still bitter about missing the big lantern release and vowed I would go back to do it right.
So it was good fortune when I landed a return ticket from Bangalore to Bangkok on Thai Airways for just Rs.14,558 ($266/€204)! How? Well, Cleartrip to the rescue again! I have been keeping a check on prices since January. For the first few months of 2012, the price was around Rs. 25k! Same airline and about the same travel period. Which was quite shocking, considering I paid Rs. 15k and Rs. 16k in 2009 and 2010 respectively. Then in early September, I was served an ad banner from Cleartrip promoting a discount coupon where by I could save some money on international flights.
This time the same Thai Airways flight cost Rs. 16k, a far more reasonable fare. I used the coupon code and got a further Rs.1600 discount. At Rs.14,558, this was the lowest I had ever paid for a Thai Airways flight to Bangkok. I immediately told Ramesh and he booked his ticket as well.
My last day in Hong Kong was supposed to be spent at Ocean Park, but I woke up to this…
You can’t make out much from this photo taken from my phone, but it was raining heavily!
Realizing such weather would ruin a far off visit to a theme park and delay my departure to the airport, I decided not to go and sought to get a refund for my ticket. I bought it from Fiona at the hostel itself, but she hadn’t come in yet. I asked the housekeeper who was Filipino and her reaction went something along the lines of this: “You want a refund? Ha! No way… Fiona won’t give your money back… Chinese don’t do refunds!”, with a laugh. Continue reading →
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!)
We set off
The weather seemed great and the highway leading to Maejo University was easy on the traffic
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.
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.
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)
There was some ceremony going on
More of a photo-op for us
The boys had a showing too
Once that was over, we moved to the actual grounds nearby
These are the lamps that would be used to light the ‘khom loys’ or paper lanterns
And the whole ground was full of them!
My friend Ramesh and I found ourselves a small tree under which we could take respite from the sun
That’s the podium on which Buddhist monks would be chanting prayers before the actual release
I walked up to the center of the grounds
I guess the carpet is for the many ceremonies that lead up to the big lantern release
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.
Our bags were cooling off in the shade
I decided to drink as much water, juices and then go to the toilet beforehand
There was some ceremony going on inside which we weren’t allowed to photograph
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.
A lot of video cameras and DSLRs were setup well in advance to secure the best viewing point
A LOT of cameras!
This whole venue is going to be full of people lighting paper lanterns
I set up my tripod and made test shots of all the possible viewing angles
Everyone took respite from the sun under the shade of the trees
Slowly but surely the crowds were making their way in
People carried their khom loys which were sold at the venue for 100 baht each
Tour groups were trying to get their people together
I guess you get your lantern ready if you already paid to come here with a tour group
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!
This guy’s spot isn’t too bad either
It was a full moon night, a factor based on which they set dates for this festival
The paraglider was still doing the rounds while paper lanterns made their way up. What a perspective he must have got!
As the sun was setting, the crowds were growing
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
By 7pm, we were well into the many ceremonies that precede the release of the lanterns
The monks chanted prayers which were followed by traditional songs and performances
Thais around me were deep in meditation and chanting along
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
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!
This is a long exposure panorama comprised of 4 shots tried with as little shake as possible
They lit some firecracker… or something
After all the ceremonial activities were over, the announcement was made to light the lamps
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.
And so it began
Myself and Ramesh decided we would light lanterns after the big release. Until then our focus was capturing photos and videos.
It’s not easy to light up such a huge paper lantern and try to take photos at the same time
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
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
Lanterns were going up even before the main announcement
People near to us were still getting their lanterns ready
These khom loys are massive!
I was getting a bit worried the lack of co-ordination was going to ruin the big lantern release
I mean, the whole beauty of Yeepeng Lanna is seeing thousands of lanterns go up at the same time
He was happy to let go, but I prayed the others would wait
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.
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.
The lanterns were floating right over me. Guess that’s the way the wind was blowing.
I took this vertically to get as many lanterns as possible
It was amazing to see just how quick these lanterns float away out of sight
People were still lighting up lanterns
And just like that… into the distance
Another panorama I had to manually piece together
Another manual panorama stitch comprised of 4 shots
Wonder where these lanterns eventually drop to
Another panorama manually pieced together from 5 shots
And another one pieced together from 4 shots. Not perfect, I know.
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.
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.
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.
But just when you think the visual sensory overload is over…
I actually took a lot of photos of the fireworks
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.
We wondered what the spectacle from up here would have looked like
A team next to me were still filming video. I set up my tripod to take some longer shutter release.
We took each others’ photos using the fire lamps as backgrounds
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.
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.
These Japanese girls helped us light the big one as you need more than two hands to hold the lantern up — and take photos!
Two or three minutes later, it was ready to float away
Made a wish, and then let go
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.
So we let go of our final khom loy
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 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.
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.
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.
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: