Monday, November 26, 2012

The Magical Night of the Yi Peng Lanna Lantern Festival

Few, very few, events in this world fill spectators with such overwhelming sense of magic, spirituality, festiveness, and peace all at the same time. Those things all came together the night of November 24 when the Lanna Thais of northern Thailand and visitors to the northern Thai capital Chiang Mai went up to the open grounds of Mae Jo University to participate in and witness the great Lanna tradition of the Yi Peng Lantern Festival.

Yi Peng Lantern Festival 2012, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Magical release of the Yi Peng Lanna Lanterns

It was as if Chiang Mai needed another reason to be the best and most livable city on this side of the world. You then discover that one of its oldest traditions includes scenes of spectacular beauty which, it has been said, can move people to tears. It almost did me.

The Yi Peng Lantern Festival is a tradition of the Lanna Thais of northern Thailand. The Lanna people were the ancient and original inhabitants of northern Thailand, a rival kingdom to that of the Thais of Ayutthaya in central Thailand. The Lanna people had cultural traditions distinct from the rest of Thailand. One of these traditions is lighting a khom loi (a lantern made with rice paper) on the yi peng, the second month of the old Lanna calendar. They fill the khom loi with hot air and en masse let it float to the dark night sky with all their dreams and wishes.

I have been anticipating the Yi Peng Lantern Festival for over a year now. I knew that it was something I had to experience. Seeing it in photos and videos is one thing, how much more magical would it be to be right there standing right below those lanterns as they simultaneously leave the ground and fly to the night sky like stars, like constellations, like golden galaxies? And the Yi Peng Lantern Festival was magical, the most magical sight I had the privilege of seeing.

Yi Peng Lantern Festival 2012, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Elevated platform with Lord Buddha front and center, monks in orange robes surrounding it

To be able to experience the Yi Peng Lantern Festival the way the local Lanna Thais experience it, you need to commute 40 minutes along a highway with moderately heavy traffic to get to Mae Jo University, around 16 kilometers from Chiang Mai old town. Rent a motorbike if you can. We did. It is best to head up early, around 3 or 4 p.m., to beat the crowds as well as to reserve a spot and a torch. And boy, were the crowds heavy this year. The religious ceremony begins around 6 p.m. when the monks enter the open field and situate themselves on a round platform with a golden statue of the Lord Buddha front and center. They then lead Buddhist chants while the crowd silently and solemnly sits with palms in prayer.

Yi Peng Lantern Festival 2012, Chiang Mai, Thailand
One of the thousand torches to light up the Yi Peng Lanna Lanters

At least, silent and solemn is how it should be. The crowds were a little noisy, to the displeasure of the university student ushers. The crowds got even more riled up when prematurely lit khom loi already in mid-air suddenly lose flight and fall to the crowd below. But we did try to keep things solemn. At least I did. I sat down on the ground and closed my eyes in order to, at the very least, keep things silent and solemn for the faithful Lanna Thais who were praying, and in that small way, make merit myself. The Yi Peng Lantern Festival is after all a time for making merit.

Yi Peng Lantern Festival 2012, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Yi Peng Lantern Festival 2012, Chiang Mai, Thailand Yi Peng Lantern Festival 2012, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Finally lighting the khom loi, the Yi Peng Lanna Lanters

After the chants and prayers, it was time to light up the lanterns, what most people, including myself, came to the Yi Peng Lantern Festival for. The university student ushers lit the torches one by one. We then started to raise the massive rice paper lanterns onto the torch and let the round cloth serving as fuel cell underneath the khom loi to catch fire and fill the space within the lantern with hot air. Once it fills with hot air, the lantern naturally rises from the ground. The lantern release was not as simultaneous as we hoped for but the lanterns did start floating around the same time—the magical moment everyone waited for. There it was. Tens of thousands of khom loi up in the air slowly swaying and floating like jellyfish in the serene dark night sky. The master of ceremonies pronounced a tall order by declaring it one of the most beautiful sights in the world. He was right.

Yi Peng Lantern Festival 2012, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Finally releasing the Yi Peng Lanna Lanterns

Yi Peng Lantern Festival 2012, Chiang Mai, Thailand
The Yi Peng Lanna Lanterns move slowly and serenely in the night sky.

Yi Peng Lantern Festival 2012, Chiang Mai, Thailand
The Yi Peng Lanna Lanterns follow the same route, seemingly forming galaxies and constellations.

I was able to get a few minutes of footage of the Yi Peng Lantern Festival 2012. It was difficult shooting in that kind of darkness, but I did try! And I'm glad with whatever I captured. It reminds me of that magical night and gives me another good reason to attend Yi Peng Lanna Lantern Festival 2013!



Have you heard about the Yi Peng Lanna Lantern Festival of Chiang Mai? Is this something you plan to attend in the coming years? Beautiful, right?


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