The Magical Sky Lantern Release at Mae Jo, Chiang Mai

***2015 update at the bottom*** Last year (2014) we were staying in Chiang Mai for a few weeks, and luckily just before we moved to Bangkok we had the chance to witness one of the most exciting sights one can see – the Lantern Release Festival. We hadn’t explored the province at all, so we went along with our friend who rented a car with a driver. It was kind of a mistake, because firstly it was quite pricey to rent a chauffeur, and secondly, he wasn’t really sure of how to get there. That is why we lost a bit of time stopping and asking for directions, making U-turns and so on. There are plenty of other ways to get there, including songthaews, vans and buses, as on our way back we saw loads of them packed with people.

Once we arrived, and struggled to find a parking spot, we were greeted by the vendors outside the entrance to the festival who tried to convince us that there’s no food or drinks once we’re inside. There were plenty. Thais love their food, so how can you have a gathering of hundreds of Thai people with no food..? Nonsense!

A good walk before the entrance to the festival there were loads of vendors selling all kinds of lanterns. Yet that was another trick: if we had bought any we would have had to either light them up and release them to the sky before entering the festival or get them taken away from us at the entrance. The ones inside cost 100 baht each.

There were tons of tourists. Behaving like tourists. So I can’t imagine going to the international version of this event… It sort of ruined the atmosphere a bit: there were drones flying above our heads, people playing with lasers, fireworks going off behind the fence when the monks were chanting and people taking selfies every 15 seconds. Ok, selfies are common now, Thais do it too. (But why does the latest version of MS Word is still underlining the word ‘selfie’ in red??) Anyway.

At some point before 6pm the main area got shut, so if you didn’t get in early you were stuck behind the fence. We got there just after 4pm and there were no empty spots left on the grass area, so we just asked if we could squeeze in next to somebody else. Then about 10 minutes later there was an announcement that there were 400 places at the front just opposite the stage, and people dressed conservatively in white or in traditional Lanna costumes could get a space at the centre of the ceremony.

Maejo Lantern Festival Chiang Mai

Small groups of friends gathered in their own spots, with torches positioned in equal distance for lighting the lanterns. They were writing wishes in different languages, taking photos, and were all waiting for the big moment. There were random lanterns released every few seconds here and there, some got stuck in trees, and some were falling down frightening others (if not released properly). Once it got dark, about 2 hours later, everyone lit up and released their lanterns… This was the moment we, and everyone there, were waiting for… You can watch our short Youtube clip here.

It was truly breath taking. We’ve seen lots of photos online and we’d been wanting to go to this festival since the year before, but still, we didn’t expect it would be THIS BEAUTIFUL. I get goose bumps just thinking about it! You have to be there to experience it. It only lasts for about 20 minutes as the lanterns are released in unison 3 times and it’s that minute or so when hundreds of lanterns around you are floating to the sky that’s truly magical. After the first lot is released and they’re high up in the sky, everyone releases the second lot. It looks even more magical than the first one, as you can see the same lanterns, only this time with thousands of tiny flickering lights behind them in the dark sky.

Maejo Lantern festival Chiang Mai

And when they announced they would turn off the lights at 9pm they actually meant it. It must be a good way to force the people to leave the area when it finishes. But the lanterns looked so beautiful once the lights were off. They looked like zoomed in stars. And you could still see the random few people lighting more. But the masses disappeared. Some remained to take selfies with their family and friends, the monks, and the lanterns.

Traffic. Getting out to the main road was a challenge. There was pretty much no space to walk between all the vehicles basically triple parked on the main road from both sides. Even getting out on a bike was impossible, let alone a car. The worst part was listening to the siren of the ambulance stuck in traffic, knowing there was an emergency somewhere. If only traffic was as organised as the lantern release…

I think if the release of the lanterns was tangible, it could be called a world wonder. It’s amazing how a common agreement between people can create such a beautiful celebration. Maybe all beauty is temporary?

Maejo Lanterns Festival Chiang Mai

NOTE: There seems to be quite a bit of confusion around this festival. Firstly, it is not part of the Yee Peng / Loy Krathong celebrations, it is an independent event, so the dates differ. Also, (at least up until this year), there were two types of the same event. There was the free one, which we attended, along with many Thai visitors; and then there was the paid international event in the same location, but on a different date, which was basically for tourists. However, it looks like this year there will be no free mass lantern release, or at least there’s no information in English about it on the web. This website here states that there will be only the paid lantern release event (which is sold out), and a free candle event (whatever that means…).  That doesn’t mean that things can’t change last minute or it could be that there’s information available only in Thai about the event – this is Thailand, after all:)

Also, a new update about banned events on the website here.

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