Have you ever had one of those moments where you’re right in the middle of experiencing something amazing and realize that this moment should have been on your bucket list, but you just never knew to put it there in the first place? This is exactly what happened to my wife and I.
It was a pleasant October day in Chiang Mai Thailand. After two weeks of running summer camp for kids and me on my feet the entire time with a video camera in hand, we were pretty beat. We finally had a day off so we decided to sleep in, enjoyed our favorite spicy Thai dish Khao soi for lunch, and finally jumped in our rickety old Song Tao to make our way down to the night bazar as the sun began to set. Our driver was about ready to hop in the cab when she said, “Do you guys wanna go see something amazing happening tonight?” We figured she was talking about some kind of typical tourist trap, you know the kind where she can make a little money on commission for bringing us there: the snake charmer, the gold temple, or the monkey arena. But our driver had a different sort of tone about her voice. We could sense even she was excited about it as she mentioned something about a lantern festival in her broken English. Lantern festival?! There was little hesitation on part of our group and off we went on an adventure.
Around 9pm our ride took a turn down a potholed dirt road and our truck finally came to a jostled rest in the middle of this huge field of cut grain. It was twilight, dirty, and as far as the eye could see were the moonlit hoods of vehicles. In the distance we could hear a low drone of drums and chanting with a hazy glow of fire above the trees in the distance.
We set off walking towards the orange glow and music. As we caught up to the crowd, we were astonished by the sheer scale of this event. Easily one hundred thousand people, nearly elbow to elbow, across a green grassy field with a mound of monks centered at the far end. We were clearly the strangers in the crowd. As we entered what I can only call the arena, we came past the crowded tent where we purchased our lanterns (this is where the video begins), and we were quickly ushered into the field. We got the sense we were definitely late to the party. To our great surprise we were taken to the very front right of the arena and super close to the mound of monks.
We found our place right near a giant sign that looked like an unlit neon sign but loaded with fireworks. Directly under our feet were some strange brown objects that looked much like paper soup cans tied together with wire about 10 feet apart. We weren’t sure what they were until someone rushed over to where we were sitting and hurried us to another area repeatedly saying we were in danger. We weren’t exactly sure why but about ten minutes later we realized those cans were very large fireworks that would have blow up right under our feet… yep, adventure.
Moments later the ceremony began. The monks left the mound and marched around perimeter of the arena several times, they then took the flames they were carrying to the center and lit a single torch that then through fuses ignited hundreds of torches around the entire field. We had no idea what was going on but it was astonishing. Everyone started unfolding their lanterns so we figured it was time for us to do it too. The next few moments became etched into my mind for the rest of my life and world just don’t do it justice… so this is the moment that you press play on the video and let the images speak for themselves. (I apologize for the shaky camera work, it was just my small camera since I had no idea we’d be coming here before we jumped in the Song Tao, and I’m filming one handed because my other hand is clutching my wife’s hand.)
To put a little context on who you are seeing in the video: The first guy that talks is my friend Daniel and the second guy is my friend Kip. I’m behind the camera and hand the camera off just for a moment – you see me and my wife’s arm at the 2:05 mark briefly letting our lantern go!
A little History:
It is considered good luck to release a sky lantern, and many Thais believe they are symbolic of problems and worries floating away.
Sky lanterns, also known as Kongming Lantern are airborne paper lanterns traditionally found in some Asian cultures. They are constructed from oiled rice paper on a bamboo frame, and contain a small candle or fuel cell composed of a waxy flammable material. When lit, the flame heats the air inside the lantern, thus lowering its density causing the lantern to rise into the air. The sky lantern is only airborne for as long as the flame stays alight, after which the lantern floats back to the ground.
One very important festival in which sky lanterns are used is the Lanna festival (the one we attended and you see in the video above) known as “Yi Peng” (Thai: ยี่เป็ง) which is held on a full moon of the 2nd month of the Lanna calendar (“Yi” meaning “2nd” and “Peng” meaning “month” in the Lanna language). Due to a difference between the old Lanna calendar and the traditional central Thai calendar it coincides with Loi Krathong which is held on the full moon of the 12th month in the traditional Thai lunar calendar. During the Yi Peng festival, a multitude of khom loi (Thai – literally: “floating lanterns”) are launched into the air where they resemble large flocks of giant fluorescent jellyfish gracefully floating by through the sky. The most elaborate Yi Peng celebrations can be seen in Chiang Mai, the ancient capital of the former Lanna kingdom.Posted // in // Travel // No Comments