A Little Festival… Spirit, Beauty, and Religion During Loy Krathong

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Cheerful, poppy Thai music suffusing the expansive temple yard, the music at odds with the swelling solemn energy in the crowd as thousands of amber lanterns were held in firm grips. Groups of friends shared a last moment amidst the frenzy making urgent, unspoken wishes for their new year.

I watched in wonder as our plain white rice paper lantern, a khom loi in Thai, filled with hot air. I looked around me and my breath caught. We collectively waited for the signal to release our lanterns into the night; a sea of open-faced hope surrounded me.

Loy krathong lantern release
Jenny studies the flame as we light the lantern during Loy Krathong in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
lighting a khom loi lantern
Lighting the center of a paper lantern so it will fill with heat during Loy Krathong in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Loy Krathong in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Ana, Em, and Lee all prepare the lantern for release during Loy Krathong in Mae Jo, Thailand.

Expressions indelibly etched on each person’s face showed hope and the lure of infinite possibilities, the promise of a clean slate. It was no doubt written clearly on my face too. I took those last moments to tune out the cheery music and quickly take stock of the previous year, and to look forward with my hopes for the coming year traveling with my niece. I filled my mind my wishes, hopes, dreams and fears and propelled each one into our group lantern. As I yearned to fill the lantern with that hope, the go-signal gently swept across the huge crowd.

On a pulse of energy, the lanterns slipped from our fingertips. Ours took one unsteady lurch before jolting upward, the cool nighttime breeze collected our orange orb and swept it away from us, into the dark sky. As more joined ours, each illumination shifted the night sky from an impossibly dense black to a deep blue. The sheer number of hopes and wishes seemingly overpowered the night’s ability to stay dark.

I looked down at Ana as the blanket of lanterns floated higher. The distant pinpoints of light painted slow-moving constellations across the night sky, and I saw the light sheen of tears echoed in her eyes as well.

A sea of amber colored lanterns during Loy Krathong in Chiang Mai, Thailand A wave of lanterns swiftly float into the air during Loy Krathong in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Ana does her part to light the lantern during Loy Krathong in Chiang Mai, Thailand Ana and me as the lanterns float away during Loy Krathong in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Lantern release at Loy Krathong in Chiang Mai, Thailand
A wave of lanterns swell into the sky during the first lantern release for Loy Krathong and Yee Peng festivities

The release lit a spark of sweet hope for this coming trip with Ana. The collective energy swelled around us, filling me with enough giddy anticipation to do a little dance to the cheery Loy Krathong song still pumping from the speakers.

The lantern release takes place a bit outside of Chiang Mai, at a temple complex near Mae Jo University and the evening event jump-started an entire week of Yee Peng festivities. Yee Peng and Loy Krathong coincide on the Lanna Thai calendar and the joint celebrations make for one massive maze of lantern parades and krathong ceremonies throughout the week.

In the months leading up to Yee Peng and Loy Krathong, the most predominant imagery on the internet associates this week with the lantern release—and while the group lantern release lit wonder in hope in me as I watched them all float away, the festival traditions are more fully rooted in the krathong release, with the paper lanterns a more modern accent to the handmade and carefully crafted banana-leaf krathongs.

A delicate pink lantern hanging for Loy Krathong and Yee Peng in Chiang Mai, Thailand Pretty lanterns during Loy Krathong in Chiang Mai, Thailand

handmade krathong
My candlelit, handmade krathong during Loy Krathong in Chiang Mai.

When is Loy Krathong and Why is It Celebrated?

Loy Krathong occurs at the end of Thailand’s rainy season, a period of time when water nourishes the rice for a productive harvest season and the rivers flow, full and swift, toward the Gulf of Thailand. The ceremonial releasing of these small lotus-shaped rafts takes on a dual role, it serves as an offering of gratitude—a symbol of appreciation for the rains, as well as a releasing of the bad habits, grudges, anger and negativity in one’s own life.

Earlier in the day, Ana and I joined two friends for a late morning craft party as the crisp sunshine filled the room with clean light. The sounds of the motorbikes weaving through Chiang Mai’s streets created a distant hum nine floors below as my friend Naomi proffered the supplies she purchased at the nearby market: banana stem bases, deep green banana leaves, and an array of fresh flowers, candles, incense and sparklers.

The process of making a krathong is both fun and complex, suffice to say we worked diligently for several hours until we fully decorated each base and prepared them for release that evening.

how to make krathongs for the thai holiday loy krathong and yee ping

making our own krathongs Making handmade Krathongs with supplies from Warorot market.

Releasing Krathongs in Chiang Mai

As the sun sunk low over Doi Suthep, a nearby mountain peak, we bagged our krathongs and wove through the light crowds. Our group started with drinks at Brasserie, a restaurant on the Ping River, where we chatted until full darkness settled over the city—well, as full darkness as expected on a full moon night.

We allowed several hours to pass with easy conversation. The river began to fill with candlelit rafts. The sky lightened once again as thousands of lanterns from all over the city danced like fireflies in the night.

Several hours later, the crowds swelled across the river. Our small group of four gathered our handmade krathongs and stepped down to the quiet river’s edge on the restaurant’s peaceful private dock. We re-positioned misplaced flowers and jostled incense sticks before lighting the candles, making one last wish and hope. Then we released them one-by-one into the water.

Ana lights her krathong for release during Loy Krathong in Chiang Mai, Thailand Lighting the sparklers and incense during Loy Krathong in Chiang Mai, Thailand Catherine prepares her krathong for release during Loy Krathong in Chiang Mai, Thailand

krathongs on ping river
Ana splashes the water to push her krathong into current of the Ping River during the Loy Krathong and Yee Peng celebrations on the full moon in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

I watched my handmade krathong join Ana’s meticulously decorated raft near the shore-line; we stared at the river, captivated by the flickering candlelight and stream of fragrant incense creating patterns in the dark night. We gently splashed the water until our krathongs caught the swift current on the Ping River and became indistinguishable from the herd of floating krathongs, each one an offering hope, a chance for atonement, gratitude and thanks.

The group lantern release was an inspiring event — in fact, it tops the charts as one of the most beautiful festivals I’ve attended. Thailand is my adopted home, and I’ve also traveled around Thailand a good deal too (I’ve extensively backpacked all over Southeast Asia for that matter).

And beyond the beautiful, there’s something magical about learning about the culture through these festivals. For that reason, releasing our handmade krathongs alongside the Thai people was magical. Our rafts of hopes and wishes joined thousands of others, meeting on a river and moving beyond the realm of language, culture, or religion. We used that raft and the river’s water to cleanse the mind and spirit and start this new year fresh and open to the possibilities.

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51 thoughts on “A Little Festival… Spirit, Beauty, and Religion During Loy Krathong”

  1. How delightful are the night photos! What kind of camera did you use? If I understand correctly, it was NOT a phone! Because 7 years ago, when this post was written, the phones still did not have such good cameras as now =) Probably, Canon PowerShot S-series?

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  3. The lantern release looked amazing, its really great to view spirituality blended with creativity. Beautiful glance of Thailand you have shared with us here.

    • Thank you Vishnu! It’s hit or miss in low light with my camera, but a few great ones came out. Cheers and happy New Year :)

  4. Your writing and photos made me tear up a little bit too, especially imagining how Anna must have felt to be part of something so incredible. I’ve spent a little bit of time browsing through your blog today and I’m adding to to my list of regulars.

    Thanks for writing, and sharing your photos!

    • Thank you so much for the kind words Peg and Brian, I appreciate the support, it really was a stunningly pretty spiritual event :)

  5. This was great !!

    Hi Shannon , angela here .. I think I’d like to add this festival of lights to my todo list , my cousin lives in chang Mai , he teaches English there, he’s spoke of the many festivals , this looks great!
    And great pics

    • If you have family here it should be heaps easier to check this one off the list then! There are festivals here all throughout the year, and I’ve seen a bunch, but I have to say, this stands out as a favorite :)

    • Thank you Gerard :) I used a 20mm lens on my Panasonic micro-four-thirds camera, it doesn’t usually do low-light situations very well, but the light from the lanterns was enough to make it perform pretty well!

  6. I’ve always found this ritual exceptionally beautiful. I see some kind of merge between tradition and hope, shared by the people! Amazing!

    • That’s the perfect description Diana, it is a cross between the two and so amazing to take part of as a Westerner, without any pieces of this type of tradition in my own culture :)

  7. I was jealous of the CM crew who got to witness this spectacle last year. And here I am finding myself green with envy once again. Beautiful photos Shannon! And what an amazing experience for Ana.

  8. Great  post and the pictures were absolutely fabulous.  The joy in everyone’s face at the lantern ceremony made me smile with them.

  9. Absolutely beautiful article and what wonderful, wonderful, wonderful pictures.  I am so happy that Ana got to experience this, too!

    • Are you planning to visit Thailand around this time?! If you do, keep me posted and I can email you some tips on where to go and the best spots to participate :)

  10. I was just thinking about how you haven’t posted anything for a few days and was wondering how your journeys in Asia were going with Ana. It looks like you’re having fun – those lanterns are beautiful!

    • I was silent there for a bit, processing things over here and trying to make sure Ana and I spend time off of the computers doing things around town — the lantern festival was so beautiful and gave us lots of things to do around here! Hope you are well :)

  11. One of the best yet!! I just had the kids finish writing their leaves for our thankful tree and this was in my inbox – simply inspiring!!!! And I LOOOOVE the photo of Angela holding the lantern with the other one of both of you and the lanterns behind. xoxo

    • Aw shucks, thank you Jo :)  The tree project sounds wonderful, is it a tree hung on the wall?!  Hugs from us both, we head to Laos tomorrow but will Skype soon! xoxo

  12. Not only is this my favorite post of yours, it also contains my favorite photos of yours! BRAVO darling!!! I’m dying to attend this festival. I think I would be in tears the whole time from the abundance of beauty.

    • Aww, thanks Andi, I really do appreciate that feedback, I spent a lot of time pondering how best to share it — any plans to travel through SEA sometime soon?!  :)

  13. Wow! What a beautiful post, and a special experience for you and Ana to share. It sounds so magical – thanks for sharing with us!

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