Perhaps one of the most visually mesmerizing celebrations in the world, the Loi Krathong festival in Thailand is a favorite memory for all who experience the magic. For good reason, Loi Krathong (also spelled as Loy Krathong) is the most popular fall festival in Thailand.
During Loi Krathong, thousands of small, candlelit floats (krathongs) are released on rivers and waterways as offerings to the river spirits. In Chiang Mai and other parts of Northern Thailand, the Loi Krathong festival also coincides with a Lanna festival known as Yi Peng. The two celebrations usually get rounded together as "Loi Krathong." But when travelers talk of seeing the thousands of candle-powered sky lanterns launched in Thailand, they are actually referencing the Yi Peng festival in Northern Thailand.
Standing on a bridge over the river in Chiang Mai during Loi Krathong and Yi Peng is truly unforgettable. The sky appears to be full of burning stars, creating a dreamlike world too surreal and beautiful to be real. Meanwhile, scores of candles float beneath on the Ping River.
Krathongs are small, decorated floats made from dried bread or banana leaves that are placed in the river with a candle as an offering. Sometimes a coin is placed on the float for good luck as misfortune floats away. Krathongs are launched to demonstrate gratitude to the Goddess of Water and to ask forgiveness for the pollution. Ironically, much pollution as a result of the festival can be seen floating on the water the next day.
If you wish to make your own offering to the river, krathongs of various sizes and cost are available from street vendors for purchase. Avoid contributing to the environmental issues after the festival by only purchasing krathongs made from biodegradable materials such as bread or banana leaves. Avoid the cheapies made from Styrofoam and plastic.
The Yi Peng Festival
The Yi Peng festival is actually a separate holiday celebrated by the Lanna people of Northern Thailand. It coincides with Loi Krathong, and the two are celebrated simultaneously. Although many people tend to refer to the launching of sky lanterns as "Loi Krathong" (pronounced correctly as "loy khra-tong"), Yi Peng is what they mean.
Colorful lanterns adorn houses and temples during Yi Peng. Monks, locals, and tourists launch paper lanterns into the sky. Temples are busy selling lanterns to raise money; volunteers help people launch them. The interaction with monks can be enjoyable.
The sky lanterns (khom loi) are made from thin rice paper. A burning fuel disk heats the air inside to provide lift. When launched correctly, the glowing lanterns fly surprisingly high. They appear as fiery stars after hitting peak altitude. Messages, prayers, and wishes for good luck are written on the lanterns before launch.
Some lanterns come with a string of firecrackers attached to the bottom. The fireworks go wrong more often than not and rain down, exploding into chaos on unsuspecting crowds. Have fun, but be aware of what's going on above you!
Launching Your Sky Lanterns
Launching your own lantern is a fun part of participating in the festival. Lanterns can be purchased nearly everywhere during the Loi Krathong festival. Temples sell them to tourists as a way of generating money, or you'll receive numerous offers from individual vendors.
Launching the biggest lanterns is easiest with two people. Light the fuel coil (it takes some effort), then hold the lantern evenly until it fills with enough hot air to take off on its own. Be patient as the air inside heats—don't let go too soon. Keep the lantern as level as possible. The thin paper can catch on fire easily, sending you to look for another lantern to buy.
Most importantly, don't try to force the lantern skyward. Wait, hold onto it, quickly snap your photos, provide some resistance when you feel lift, then only release once it's ready to speed upward. Timing is key. If you hold too long, you'll burn too much fuel, and the lantern won't reach its full potential.
What to Expect at Loi Krathong in Thailand
Chiang Mai will become extraordinarily busy during Loi Krathong as tourists and Thais cram in for the event. Plan in advance: Finding accommodation becomes more challenging. Don't expect to find deals for hotels unless you arrive very early or stay on the outskirts of Chiang Mai.
Expect the sky to be filled with fire as both glowing lanterns and fireworks mix. The lanterns fly high enough to look like stars, meanwhile, the Ping River below the Nawarat Bridge will be covered with floating, candlelit krathongs. The setting is both eerie and romantic as people cheerfully celebrate the unusual ambiance.
Some speeches and proceedings are usually held at the Three Kings Monument. A large city lantern will be launched. Afterward, a noisy, colorful procession will pass through the Old City square before making its way through Tapae Gate, across the moat, and toward the river.
Young Thais get into the celebration by shooting fireworks in all directions. The constant rumble and chaos is unlike any “safe” fireworks display you've probably experienced in the West. In recent years, police have cracked down on illegal street fireworks, but a few are inevitable.
With so many additional travelers in town, the nightlife in Chiang Mai should be extra lively.
Where to See the Sky Lanterns for Yi Peng
Loi Krathong celebrations of some size take place all across Thailand. You'll even see people observing the festival in parts of Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar. But undeniably, the epicenter and most visually stunning place to be for the sky lanterns is in Northern Thailand.
Chiang Mai is home to a large population of Lanna and hill tribe people who observe Yi Peng. Fortunately, getting to Chiang Mai and also to Chiang Rai (another popular place to witness Loi Krathong and Yi Peng) is easier than ever.
In Chiang Mai, a stage will be constructed at the main Tha Phae Gate on the east side of the Old City. On the first night, an opening ceremony will take place. A long procession then moves through town, out the gate, and down Tha Phae Road toward Chiang Mai Municipality. A throng of people, many of whom will be launching their own lanterns into the sky, will follow the parade.
Although much celebrating will take place around the Old City moat, those are mostly tourists who aren't "in the know." The best place to see the floating krathongs, fireworks, and lanterns is on Nawarat Bridge above the Ping River. Reach the bridge by walking through Tha Phae Gate and continuing straight down the main road for 15 minutes. Just go east of the Old City toward the river. You won't have much difficulty finding the noisy action!
Celebrating Loi Krathong in Bangkok
Bangkok will observe Loi Krathong with cultural demonstrations and floats on the Chao Phraya River. But the fireworks and sky lanterns most travelers love are prohibited. You can actually be jailed for setting off fireworks or launching your own lantern—so don't!
One good option for celebrating Loi Krathong in Bangkok is to go to the park at Phra Sumen Fort. Set along the Chao Phraya River not far from Khao San Road in Banglamphu, the park will host cultural performances and demonstrations. People launch their krathongs into the river there near Phra Athit Pier.
Dates for Loi Krathong in Thailand
Technically, the Loi Krathong festival begins on the evening of the full moon of the 12th lunar month. That means Loi Krathong and Yi Peng usually happen in November, but dates change on the Gregorian calendar every year due to the nature of the Buddhist lunisolar calendar.
Loi Krathong and Yi Peng typically last three days. Preparations and decorations are put in place for a week or so before the actual event. Perplexingly, Loi Krathong is not an official public holiday in Thailand.
The release of sky lanterns during Yi Peng in Chiang Mai is only allowed on the second and third days of the festival between 7 p.m. and 1 a.m. Fireworks and sky lanterns are completely prohibited in Bangkok.
For 2019, Loi Krathong is estimated to begin on Wednesday, November 13. In 2018 the dates for Loi Krathong in Thailand were November 21–23.
What to Do After
After celebrating Yi Peng in Chiang Mai, consider escaping to the more peaceful town of Pai just a few hours north.