Before moving to Thailand, I remember drooling over a friend’s photos of an amazing festival…10,000 candlit lanterns filled the night sky while people on the ground gazed upward, drenched in a gorgeous amber light. It was like something out of a Disney movie…
So when David and I moved to Chiang Mai last spring, we knew that seeing this for ourselves was at the top of our bucket list. A couple days ago, we got that opportunity.
The festival — called Loi Krathong/Loy Krathong or Yi Peng/Yee Peng depending on who you talk to — happens every year outside Chiang Mai, Thailand near Mae Jo University. There are two lantern releases this year (2014): a free “secret” event for locals on October 25th which we went to, and another paid event for tourists on November 8th.
Assuming the event in November will be the same as the one we went to, I thought I’d share some tips for getting the most out of Chiang Mai’s lantern release…Arrive between 3-4 PM
This seems to be the sweet spot for getting a great seat and not having to wait for hours in the beating sun. Any later and you might have a tough time. Lanterns went up around 7:30 PM when the sky was dark enough.
Try to snag a candle and a metal votive right away
There will be a festival employee handing these out for free somewhere in the crowd and it’s important you get one early. We luckily got both, but lots of people around us didn’t get either since we were told they’d be handed out to us…not true. A lot of people ended up either sharing their candles or lighting their lanterns on the ground. And don’t count on an employee coming by to light your candle either.
Bring a lighter
Duh! I don’t know why we didn’t think of this one. Chances are, one of your festival neighbors will have a lighter that you can borrow, but better safe than sorry! Plus, if you bring the lighter then you can be the cool guy everyone wants to be friends with :)
Bring a marker
Some people wrote wishes on their lanterns before they released them and I kept wishing we brought a sharpie!
Get a spot in the shade, but not too close to the trees
Sooo many lanterns got caught in the trees, you guys. Thank goodness for humid green Thailand because none of the trees caught on fire. If you arrive around 3 or 4 PM though, the sun should be low enough behind the trees that you can sit far away from them and still be shaded.
Bring something to sit on
The ground wasn’t wet when we went, but I was glad to have a barrier between me and the itchy grass. Plus the hot pink scarf we were sitting on made it easy to find our spot in the crowd after we went to buy some food and our lanterns. And don’t worry about carrying things in a backpack. Backpacks were a-okay, unlike some events in the U.S.
Don’t buy lanterns from the vendors outside the entrance
It may look like you’re getting a great deal (Ooh, 3 lanterns for 100 baht!) but don’t fall for it. They won’t let you past security if you have non-regulation lanterns. The official ones cost 100 baht each (about $3 USD). We bought two and it was nice to have a couple to set off.
Hold the lantern close to the flame for 1-2 full minutes before releasing
I don’t know about you, but I definitely thought the lanterns would fill up instantly and be whisked out of our hands within seconds, so we were both a little nervous when ours wasn’t lighting or filling up right away. Turns out, you just need to be patient. Don’t let it go before it feels completely full or it’ll just fall straight back down to ground — disappointing and dangerous!
It is a Buddhist ceremony afterall, and you wouldn’t want to offend anyone. Even though I saw plenty of bare shoulders and knees once we were inside, there is a sign out front that says you can’t come in if you are wearing shorts or a tank top, so I wouldn’t risk it. (And bonus tip! If you wear respectful, all white meditation-style clothing or traditional Lanna attire, they might let you sit in a special area close to the monks up front.)
Shoot photos with a lens that’s reliable in low light, has a wide angle, and wide aperture
The best photos I took were shot in Manual mode, with DMF focus, ISO 800, f3.5 (the widest my lens could go), 1/25th of a second, at 18 mm, with the continuous shooting function, but I still feel like my shots could have been sharper. In hindsight, I should have done a quicker shutter speed and upped the ISO, but oh well…Now you know my mistake and you can take amazingly crisp pictures for me!
Also, be aware: The lanterns go up fast! Faster than you think. Be ready to snap pictures quickly! And of course, shoot in RAW so you can recover details later (but you aready knew that ;) ).
Taking public transportation is possible but requires patience
We caught a public songthaew (a truck with two benches in the back that acts as a kind of bus/taxi) both ways and it was easy peasy, coming to a total of 70 baht per person ($2USD) roundtrip. Way cheaper than arranging a roundtrip deal, which still shouldn’t cost more than 600 baht.
Green songthaews from Chang Puak bus bay (located here) are on a set route to Mae Jo University that costs 20 baht per person one-way. We were dropped off here, about 2 km from the actual spot from the lawn where you want to be for the festival (follow the crowds, it’s easy to find).
Be aware though: The journey there took us a full two hours because our driver packed passengers like sardines…people were literally standing on the back bumper. It was so full.
On the way home, we also hailed a public songthaew pretty easily, this time just a standard red one. He wanted to charge us 60 baht per person but we haggled him down to 50, which seems like a fair price to me. I was expecting drivers to charge much more for the ride home. Always haggle…we overheard one driver blatantly telling someone that he had a Thai person price and a foreigner price (obviously, more expensive for the foreigners…grr). From the time we left our spot on the festival lawn to arriving at our front door, Google maps says it should normally take about 18 minutes but it ended up taking 3 hours.
Be prepared for crowds after the event
There will be crowds when it’s over. Don’t get mad. Don’t push. Don’t grumble. Mentally prepare for it and just know it’s gonna take a while :)
It’s actually kind of scary/stressful
Okay, this one’s not a tip, but it’s worth noting. I mean, talk about sensory overload!! You’re trying to light your own lantern in time for the mass release, without catching the paper on fire or burning your hand, while thousands of lanterns are being lit within mere feet of you, while you’re simultaneously trying to oggle at the gorgeous sky and snap pictures to capture the moment. I was physically shaking when they all first went up, partially from the overwhelming beauty and partially from the chaos!
Seat selection is key
If you sit near the center aisle along the crowd’s edge, you’ll have a nice closeup view of the Buddhist ceremonies, but you might not have a full sky of lanterns when they finally go up (since no one will be releasing them in the aisle space near you). So it’s up to you: Do you prefer a good view of the religious ceremonies? Or do you prefer a full sky of lanterns directly above you? Personally, we went for a spot in the center of the crowd for the best sky view.
Don’t light your candle before the announcers tell you to
There were seriously lantern police (i.e. festival volunteers with buckets of water) who would dash through the crowds at the sight of a candle flickering too early. Pretty funny to see actually, but yeah, don’t do it. Wait for the signal and then release away and enjoy a peak at heaven….
If you’ve been before, feel free to share other tips in the comments below! Otherwise, have fun at the festival and don’t forget to share pictures here when it’s over! :D