Last updated on July 11, 2019
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.