Chiang Mai Yi Peng Festival Guide For First Timers
Going to the Yi Peng Festival in Thailand had been a dream of mine ever since I saw a photo of the countless floating lanterns online. I was absolutely intrigued by the magical experience and booked by flight to Thailand to attend the 2016 Yi Peng festival months in advance. However, information on how the festival actually works and especially where the lanterns and activities take place were almost nonexistent and various online sources and blog posts contradicting. That’s why I decided to write up what it was really like in this Yi Peng Festival guide!
Below is a map that showcases every major point of interest during the 3-day festival. I will break down each POI (point of interest) in the daily overview of the festival below for detailed information. Be sure to choose an accommodation that lies anywhere within the ‘square’, the historic center of town. This way, you can get anywhere very easily on foot.
What is Yi Peng?
Yi Peng is a Lanna (northern Thai) festival referring to the full moon day in the second month according to the Lanna lunar calendar (the twelfth month according to the Thai lunar calendar). Countless Lanna-style sky lanterns (khom loi) are launched into the air. They resemble large shoals of giant fluorescent jellyfish gracefully floating through the sky.
What is Loy Krathong?
In fact, Loy Krathong is the main festival and Yi Peng a local sub-festival that coincides with Loy Kratong. Loy Krathong is celebrated throughout Thailand, Laos, Shan, Tanintharyi, Kelantan, Kedah and Xishuangbanna. It literally means “to float a basket”. This comes from the old tradition of a krathong, or decorated baskets, which are then released into a river to pay respects to the water spirits.
Mae Jo Mass Lantern Release
The blue ? point on the map indicates the location of the Mae Jo Mass Lantern Release, an independently organized event that has nothing to do with the original Yi Peng / Loy Krathong festival. In fact, the Mae Jo event is organized solely for the purpose of making money off of tourists. The tickets cost $100 and you won’t see any locals there.
Day 1: Opening Ceremony
On day 1 of the festival, an opening ceremony is held at Tha Phae Gate. Head there about 2 hours before sunset and you’ll have plenty of time to check out the area. There is a local street market and lots of temples that offer delicious meals at low prices. When I went there, I had a delicious stuffed squid dish at one of the temples.
After grabbing a bite to eat, head to the square where you’ll see lots of people gathering and preparing small candles on the ground in beautiful shapes. Take a seat at one of the chairs in front of the stage and let the opening ceremony surprise you. There’s singing, dancing and lots of introductions of important people. After the ceremony, people light the candles.
Note: There is no lantern release on the first day of the festival.
Day 2: Lantern and Krathong Release
Morning and Afternoon
I spent the morning and early afternoon temple hopping in Chiang Mai. I recommend heading to What Phra Singh Temple as they make traditional krathongs. Write a wish on your krathong, leave some hair and a bit of your fingernail and it will be blessed for good fortune by a Buddhist monk. Such a cool experience!
In the evening of day two of the festival, head back to Tha Phae Gate at around 5PM. Then, walk straight towards Nawarat Bridge. Along the way, you will see countless people selling handmade krathongs, traditional floating baskets decorated with elaborately-folded banana leaves, incense sticks, and a candle. A small coin is sometimes included as an offering to the river spirits.
Purchase one of the krathongs if you like and head down to the river where people release them. Note that releasing the krathongs happens before the lantern release so be sure to release your floating basket into the river before sunset. I made the mistake and kept mine until the lantern release was over and had a hard time getting down to the river because it was so crowded.
Once you have released your krathong, it’s time to find the best spot to watch the lanterns later in the evening. While you can sit down next to the river, I found it better to stand on top of the bridge overlooking the people and the river. However, it means you will be standing for a few hours but I think I got a better overview of everything going on plus better photos from up there. You can also purchase a couple of floating lanterns that people sell on the bridge and the street.
When the sun has set, the first floating lanterns show up in the sky. It seems like there are more locals releasing krathongs into the river and more foreign visitors release lanterns. Still, I really enjoyed the festivities and the atmosphere. Since it’s not easy to light a lantern and release it into the sky, everyone cheered once someone was able to make it float.
It was good fun.
Day 3: Closing Ceremony Parade
The final day of the parade has a special treat in store for you: a huge parade! Again, head to the Tha Phae Gate. Here, you will see dozens of beautifully decorated wagons and people dressed in a variety of traditional Thai costumes from different eras getting ready to walk in a parade. I suggest heading there at around 5 PM again as you will be able to take photos of (and even with) local participants before they run off walking in the parade.
When the parade was over, people released more floating lanterns at Tha Phae Gate and the atmosphere was magical.
Yi Peng and Loy Krathong: Worth it?
Honestly, the festivals turned out to be very different from what I expected – in a good way! I had a splendid time in Chiang Mai and learned a lot about the local culture. I have to say that I actually enjoyed the Loy Krathong festivities a lot more. The floating baskets were absolutely stunning and I loved the amazing atmosphere of the city during the festival days. The parade on the last day of the festival was also absolutely amazing and I loved seeing all the smiling faces of the locals and tourists.
I recommend going to the two festivals but also be sure to explore Chiang Mai’s many other sites and attractions while you are there!
However, there is also a downside to the beautiful lanterns and that is the impact on the environment and potential dangers to ourselves. Therefore, please read this article from The Guardian and inform yourself before making the decision to go to Chiang Mai. I didn’t know about this before I went.
Sky lanterns have long been a tradition in east Asia. You only have to look at this footage of a sky lantern festival in Chiang Mai in Thailand to see how popular they are – and how potentially dangerous they can be when lit en mass. – The Guardian
Recommended Hotels in Chiang Mai
The hotels recommended below are hotels I have personally stayed at and recommend to other travelers.
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I had a business meeting once during Loy Krathong. My local colleague got his daughter’s music teacher to teach us to play a Loy Krathong song with bamboo instruments as the ice breaker. It was awesome 🙂
Yi peng and Loy Krathong are definitely worth it. To see the sky filled with lanterns is breathtaking. The cultural significance of Krathong is really fascinating as well. This is on my travel list!
I have heard a lot about yi pend festival but didn’t know it’s significance. Once the lanterns are released in the sky, it looks so wonderful. I will bookmark your post as a guide for myself when I travel here
thank you so much for taking the time to right down this guide. I am so surprised you enjoyed the Krathong festival more than Yi Peng, all the floating laterns look really great. We saw some around New Year on the beach in Koh Samui and it was so romantic. But leaving some hair and fingernail is probably a very new experience 😉
Can you tell me when the festival actually takes place? Or maybe I just overlooked it.
Thank you so much.
This is something that has been on my bucket list for the longest time. I’ve seen so many YouTube videos and like you said, no one ever gives you the real run down so this is dead useful!
This would be something I would just love to see for myself. What a wonderful festival, although I do take note of the new information and caution. Great photos and very useful description of the festivities.