Right now is the month of the lantern lighting festival in Chiang Mai, known as Yi Peng or Loi Krathong. It’s a spectacle so popular that a photo of it graces the cover of the most recent addition of the French Lonely Planet Thaïlande guide book. I will not be in Chiang Mai for the festival date itself, which falls on November 10th, one day after my flight departs from Bangkok to New Delhi, but I was able to attend the opening night’s ceremony at a university campus just outside of town. I rented a motorbike for the occasion and motored out to Mae Jong University with two of my friends from my guest house. We took a rather winding, circuitous if scenic route out there but still arrived with plenty of time to enjoy a relaxed meal, sitting beside the canal which ran alongside the path to the University campus.
Everywhere were stalls selling food, drinks, desserts, toys, and stacks upon stacks of white lanterns. Of course none of the patrons of such stalls made any mention of the fact that these lanterns were not allowed on the University campus. No, all the tourists had to find this out for themselves when, upon reaching the gates, they were told their lanterns must stay outside, and once inside, only the event-sanctioned lanterns could be purchased (for triple the price of those outside). But locals and tourists alike put away their grumblings and willingly purchased the $3 event sanctioned lanterns because this is still a very small price to pay for what will certainly be a most memorable experience.
As dusk approached we made our way onto the campus grounds along with the pressing tide of thousands of other participants, stopping briefly to purchase our $3 lantern. At last we arrived at the sloping lawn where everyone was gathering and settling onto the grass. Spaced evenly throughout the lawn were unlit candle lamp posts for lighting the lanterns later on. We sat next to one post that wasn’t yet claimed and waited eagerly for the ceremony to begin. However, once the prayers and chanting of the ceremony did commence our eagerness gradually faded to boredom as the prayers stretched on and on for an eternity. One of my companions and I found ourselves slumping closer and closer to horizontal, until finally we both took a small snooze for a spell. We arose briefly for the taunting excitement of lighting the candle lamp posts. But no, it wasn’t yet time to light the lanterns. Still the lamps created a beautiful warm glow across the grass, illuminating all the participants, their families and friends, everyone’s faces shining, full of eager anticipation. Before we were to light the lanterns we first were to sit in a communal meditation to the beautifully haunting sound of chanting by a head monk. During the meditation the monk’s soothing chant easily quieted the mind, but perhaps a bit too easily as again I found myself drifting rather than focusing on my breath.
After a second eternity had passed we were finally called to stand and unfold our paper lanterns. In another few moments the call came for everyone to light their lanterns. All around us, tall glowing white paper columns started mushrooming up out of the air. To light the lantern, one must first unfold the paper and extend it to its full length. Then, careful not to light the wispy thin tissue paper, one lights the coil of fuel soaked paper at the open end. And now you wait for the hot air of the burning paper to inflate the lantern to its full height and girth. These lanterns were perhaps a meter or more tall and about a half meter across so you can imagine the bizarre sight as you look around and see nothing but massive glowing marshmallows interspersed with people carefully tending to their glowing puffed marshmallow. A moment of silence fell as we were called to raise up our lantern but hold still and wait for the signal. “What signal??” I kept thinking. “How will we know?” Then all at once there came a massive “BANG!” Before I could regain my senses a second huge “BANG!” sounded and no thought was needed. We gently let go of our lantern along with thousands upon thousands of other lanterns and watched, awestruck, as they rose slowly into the sky. It was one of those moments where time seemed to stretch for a breath; where everything was suspended in wonder. We watched in rapture as the endless glowing lanterns gracefully lifted into the sky like a school of fluorescent jellyfish making their migration to the stars.
Indeed the lanterns began to resemble swarming stars or galaxies as they drifted ever higher. New waves of lanterns were being released constantly into the sky as people lit and released their second, third or even fourth lanterns. The soft breeze created the most surreal effect as it carried the lower lanterns one direction and the higher lanterns in another. The result was a beautiful shifting pattern, again giving the lights a life force and the illusion that they were caught in a gentle liquid current.
It was all the three of us could do to simply stand there, heads thrown back, mouths open in incredulous grins, eyes wide and shining. Finally the rapture broke and we laughed, overcome with wonder, and danced about, falling into a warm group hug. We expressed our deep thanks for the each of us being there to share the experience. The two individuals with which I witnessed this beautiful spectacle were named Dan and Gil and they were two fantastic, intellectual weirdos who I met during my time in Chiang Mai. I do not have their e-mail, nor do they have mine, and I doubt I will ever see them again. But they both, in their own unique way, added light and learning to my experience in Chiang Mai and I won’t ever forget them, nor could I ever thank them enough for being there with me.
A fiery fairy who has set off to explore Asia and discover new things about the world and herself. The journey is one to fully realize her strength and an unwaivering faith in her personal power.