You have probably heard about the legendary Yee Peng (or Yi Peng) Lantern Festival taking place each year in Northern Thailand. You know the one where thousands of lanterns are released into the night sky, and the locals take to the streets to celebrate with traditional live performances, fireworks, street food, and the whole charade. We visited Chiang Mai in November 2019 to experience this, but there were a few things we would have liked to know beforehand. That’s why we wrote this post, shedding some more light on this ancient tradition, when it is held, and why you should (or shouldn’t) take part in the celebrations
What we cover here
- What is the Yee Peng Lantern Festival?
- Travel Video
- When is Yee Peng celebrated?
- Where is Yee Peng held?
- Visit Chiang Mai during Yee Peng
- Where to be in Chiang Mai
- What is the environmental impact of Yee Peng?
What is the Yee Peng Lantern Festival?
First of all, you should know there are actually two similar lantern festivals taking place in Northern Thailand. It is very easy to get them confused as they both involve burning lanterns and take place around the same time. They are both Buddhist occasions, and their cultural significance is very similar.
One is the famous Loy Krathong (or Loi Krathong) festival, which is celebrated all over Thailand and in some of the neighboring countries, including Laos. Loy Krathong is also referred to as the Thai Festival of Lights and involves lanterns which are sent floating down the river. The small floating vessels usually consist of flowers and a burning candle. It seems this act has something to do with letting go of the past and welcoming the future.
Yee Peng is the festival we are primarily writing about in this post. It’s all about flying lanterns. You have probably seen it on Instagram – beautiful pictures of thousands and thousands of burning lanterns filling the night sky as far as the eye can see. The occasion which is celebrated is the ending of the long monsoon season and the start of winter. It also has something to do with wishing for a brighter future. Good fortune will come to those whose lantern rises high and disappears into the night. If your lantern crashes and burns, well, you are not so lucky next year.
What is the difference between Yee Peng and Loy Krathong?
Nowadays, the line between Loy Krathong and Yee Peng is a blurry one, and it’s probably not completely understood even by many locals. The simplest way to distinguish between the two is that Loy Krathong involves floating lanterns, whereas Yee Peng is all about flying lanterns. Also, Loy Krathong is celebrated across the country while Yee Peng is unique to Northern Thailand. If you go to Chiang Mai for Yee Peng, you will have no choice but also to experience Loy Krathong. Two birds one stone!
We experienced the lantern festivals of Chiang Mai in November 2019. That resulted in a little video which you can see right here. You might notice that we are mentioning the environmental impact, but don’t worry, we will come back to that point towards the end of this post.
When is Yee Peng celebrated?
There is nothing simple about the two lantern festivals. Take, for example, the question of when they are held. Well, it depends on the moon. The magic happens on the night of the 12th lunar month of the Thai lunar year. That translates to sometime around November each year, on the night of the full moon. For 2020, that is most likely going to be around November 1st, but dates will not be finally confirmed until a few months before.
Where is Yee Peng held?
As mentioned, Loy Krathong takes place all across the country, whereas Yee Peng is only celebrated in Northern Thailand. The most popular place up there to experience the festival is, by far, Chiang Mai. It is the largest city in Northern Thailand and used to serve as the capital of the ancient Lanna Kingdom. There are hundreds of temples in the city, and since Yee Peng can be considered a Buddhist religious tradition, it is no surprise that Chiang Mai is the place to be for the celebrations.
Visiting Chiang Mai during Yee Peng
The days surrounding Yee Peng and Loy Krathong is the most popular time of the year to visit Chiang Mai. You should book accommodation early, and expect higher prices. Be aware as well that public transport may sell out. We experienced this first hand trying to book a train ticket from Bangkok to Chiang Mai a month before our visit. It was impossible. Instead, we had to fly, and even airfare was double the usual cost.
Where to be in Chiang Mai
There will be stuff happening all across town. However, the main things to see will be in the old town area where all the temples are located. During the day of Yee Peng, we visited various temples, which were all decorated with colorful paper lanterns. We aren’t usually much into temples and the like, but we must admit the decorations and the atmosphere on this day made them that much more exciting to visit. You might consider finding accommodation in old town as well, for easy access to the festivities. However, we were staying a bit further out, in Nimman, which we felt were a bit quieter while still close enough to be within 10-15 minutes by tuk-tuk.
In the evening, if it’s flying lanterns you are after, you can choose between paid events or finding a free spot to watch the spectacle. We suggest the latter.
Pay to participate in mass lantern launches
There are mass lantern launches organized for tourists at several sites well outside of the city. These are generally quite expensive and eventually sell out. They are, however, the only place you can get a close-up photo of thousands upon thousands of flying lanterns all launched at the same time. We didn’t participate in a mass launch ourselves, because we didn’t like how these events are organized. You are basically standing with a bunch of other tourists and what is the point of that? We can live without those photos. Lanterns are quite hard to photograph anyway, as it is dark and they are moving quicker than you’d think. If you want to book a ticket to one of these mass launches, though, a quick google search will list them all up for you. The price will likely be a few hundred dollars.
Celebrate for free with the locals
Rather than go to a mass launch, this is how we experienced Yee Peng. We walked from Tha Phae Gate down to the Ping River, where we found a small bar, had a drink, and waited for darkness to fall. On the way there, we passed by a huge street market that popped up out of nowhere all the way from Tha Phae Gate to Nawarat Bridge. Here you could buy your lanterns, or get a bite to eat. The area around Nawarat Bridge didn’t seem too exciting to us, and it was plastered with signs saying that flying lanterns would be illegal to launch, threatening with fines and even jail time. So we headed a little upriver towards a pedestrian bridge known as the Chansom Memorial Bridge. Here there was a lively atmosphere, and we were a bit secluded from the otherwise heavy traffic.
As darkness slowly descended, more and more people showed up. We did wait for a fair bit, so we would say you don’t have to be there until around 7 pm. But soon thereafter, things started to heat up. The streets came alive with live dance performances, children were shooting handheld fireworks (great parents), lanterns filled the sky, people were eating street food, and everyone was having a jolly good time. It really was a unique atmosphere that we have rarely experienced anywhere else in the world. Make sure to watch our video at the top of the post to get a feel for it.
Book a table at a riverside restaurant or a rooftop bar
An alternative way to watch the celebrations, away from the crowds of the street, is to book a table at a riverside restaurant or a rooftop bar. You won’t get to be in the thick of it with the locals, experiencing the unique atmosphere on street level, but you will still see the pretty lights sparkle in the sky. For people who despise crowds, this is definitely the better solution. For anyone else, we suggest you get down with the mobs.
The single best place to watch the flying lanterns?
Doesn’t exist, unfortunately. We suggest you do like we did and walk around down by the Ping River. Chansom Memorial Bridge seemed to be a good spot, but there are likely many other fine places to be. Things are not very organized, and there is no saying how the evening will progress. Take things as they come and just soak in the atmosphere. Don’t stress too much about this because the lanterns will be visible from all over town. When we experienced Yee Peng, we had just arrived in Chiang Mai. We had no idea how to get around, or where the festival was primarily taking place. However, things worked out just fine for us, and they no doubt will for you as well. This is Thailand – you can’t plan yourself out of everything.
What is the environmental impact of Yee Peng?
As you might have guessed by now (or seen in our video), there is a significant negative side to the Yee Peng festival. All the flying lanterns going up must eventually come back down. They generate a huge amount of trash, can easily start fires and pose a real risk to wildlife. Animals have been known to get strangled by the metal frames or even eat them and choke to death. The environmental footprint of the whole thing is huge. Run a quick google search for “environmental impact of flying lanterns,” and you’ll see what we are talking about. This is not just an issue in Chiang Mai, but all over the world. Several countries have banned flying lanterns altogether.
Should you launch a flying lantern?
So considering the environmental impact… should you partake? We’ll leave that up to you. Maybe this has been an item high up on your bucket list for a long time, and then we definitely aren’t going to tell you to abandon your dream. We can only say what our personal feelings are. We launched two lanterns and must admit that we’ve since come to regret it. We just can’t find any good reason to justify our actions. We are not Buddhist, so the festival bears no religious meaning for us. We are not Thai either, so there is no cultural aspect to it. We could simply have observed the activities and our evening would have been largely the same. It just isn’t worth the environmental cost for us to have those few seconds of joy.
You could argue that we supported the local community somewhat by purchasing floating and flying lanterns, but considering those things costs less than 50 baht, that effect seems negligible. We can’t defend our choice at all – we simply got caught up in the moment. It’s the classic “everyone else was doing it,” argument and the truth is it was fun. However, we are actually quite ashamed that we didn’t realize what we were doing, and we definitely won’t be launching another lantern ever again.
Around town, for example, at Nawarat Bridge, we saw official signs from the government stating that it was illegal to launch lanterns. They even threatened with jail time for offenders. It seems their reasons aren’t just environmental, but also that the approach to the airport in Chiang Mai goes directly over the city. Whatever the reason, they might have a point.
While we won’t criticize the locals for sticking with their tradition, there is probably no good reason for tourists to take part. But if you are hell-bent on launching a lantern, make sure to get one with a bamboo frame rather than one made out of metal. And if you are floating a candle down the river, avoid those built from styrofoam. Then at least you have done something to minimize your environmental impact.
Throw us a comment below with your opinion about launching flying lanterns at Yee Peng. Would you do it and why/why not?