“What are you doing for Loi Krathong?” – It was the phrase most often uttered during breaks in cooking class the days leading up to the annual Thai festival. Loi Krathong takes place in Thailand during the full moon of the twelfth month of the Thai lunar calendar. If you are interested in travel, you’ve likely heard of it. If you Google “Loi Krathong,” the first images you’ll see are actually of Yi Peng – literally meaning “second month,” the festival coincides with Loi Krathong and is held on a full moon the second month of the Lanna calendar. Images of thousands of lanterns littering the sky should turn up doing a search of either festival. Our time in Chiang Mai happened to overlap with Loi Krathong this year.
It seems fitting that I am writing about this just days after the western New Year. Being in Chiang Mai during Loi Krathong as a tourist is like being in New York City on New Year’s Eve – of course you should be in Times Square watching the ball drop at midnight. So, if you’re in Chiang Mai for Loi Krathong, what else would you do besides be witness to the thousands of lanterns being lit off at the same time?
Shawn did some research on how to get to the big event for Yi Peng and it turned out to be about 13 km outside of the city at a University and is a completely separate event from all the festivities we had seen advertised in the city. Information online was scattered and incomplete, as far as we had seen, and residents didn’t seem to understand everyone’s urgency to get the real experience. Was there some conspiracy to keep foreigners out of their event? Maybe. Can I blame them for staying elusive on the subject?
After some conversations at class with my friend Greet from class, we made plans with our instructor and two other classmates to get together for the main event on the 17th of November. The day of the festival, we were eluding questions about our plans for that evening. We couldn’t be held responsible for letting the cat out of the bag and overloading Pon with more tourists.
I didn’t have a chance to tell Shawn what we were doing so when we arrived at our apartment to pick him up, he had about two minutes to get his things together before we rushed off. First up – drinks. It was only 4:30 in the afternoon and we sat out front of the bar, so those who ordered beers had to drink them from mugs. The rain started threatening at this point and within minutes went from threatening to downpour. We waited it out a little longer (with a couple more drinks) and thankfully the rain stopped for good at that point.
After our drinks, I think we all thought we would be going to the big lantern release at the University next. We were not. We drove to another part of town to where stages were being set for a performance by the local children who were all dressed to the nines for the event. On the way, Pon stopped and asked if I could take a photo with one of the girls. Being from the U.S. where everyone is paranoid about strangers near their children, I stood my distance from the girl. This is not the U.S. Eventually, with urging from Pon and the girl’s family, we got a nice photo where it looks like I actually know the kid.
Next, we headed down to the river where we were stopped by a group of teachers who asked if we wanted to make our own krathongs. The word loy means “to float” while krathong is a lotus blossom-shaped vessel containing candles, incense sticks and flowers. Thais float their krathong down the river in Chiang Mai to pay respects to the Lord Buddha and seek forgiveness from the goddess of water for any misdeeds against her. (source: Bangkok Post). I had no plans to buy a krathong or participate since I didn’t know much about the tradition, but the women were so nice to offer to show us how to make them, how could I refuse?
Some of our group members chose to buy lanterns to float off into the night. We opted not to participate, which gave me a chance to take some photos of the process.
Pon, showing us how it’s done
The festival is meant as a time for tham bun, to make merit
Ellen setting her lantern free
Short video about the process (music by Talkdemonic)
As we made our way back through the crowds, we came upon a small fair. Shawn and I looked at each other, both thinking how this had come full circle. Pon bought us all three darts to try our luck at winning a stuffed animal. Much like his try at the Puyallup Fair, Shawn won! This time he got a stuffed Winnie the Pooh – just what every traveler needs, right?
It was getting late and rather than lead six foreigners through the increasingly tight crowd yet again, Pon went to get the car and said he’d come back for us (we were hoping he wasn’t just ditching us). While we waited, Shawn found the perfect recipient for his Winnie the Pooh prize. A little girl was sitting with her father on the riverfront – he was clearly on a break from one of the many booths at the festival. Shawn went down there, without a word to anyone, and explained as best he could that he won the bear and couldn’t take it home. The look on her face was priceless – pure elation. As he made his way back up to our group, we knew he made the right choice as she repeatedly hugged the stuffed bear.
Dad holding his daughter, who is squeezing her new BFF
I have a serious issue with fear of missing out – to the point that I almost felt guilty for not being at this massive lantern release. As if someone is going to take away my travel cred or this whole long-term travel thing runs on a point system for authentic travel experiences. But, much like being in Times Square on New Year’s Eve, for us, doing the “quintessential” thing for Loi Krathong really isn’t that attractive. The night we had was one of my favorites from our three and a half months of travel. It was filled with friends, laughter, and an experience that no one else but those in our group had. And that’s more important to me than any photo I could have taken.