The Yi Peng sky lantern festival in Chiang Mai in Thailand is fast becoming popular with photographers, who will love the challenge of photographing thousands of lanterns being released simultaneously into the night sky.
Yi Peng is held on the full moon of the 12th month of the Thai lunar calendar, usually in November.The celebrations are usually held on the Saturday night of that week. As the exact date of the event is not known until a few weeks before, it’s difficult to plan for. It’s also hard to find reliable information before booking tickets and accommodation to travel to Chiang Mai.
In researching the event, I relied on old forum posts and websites that were not very informative. There is an event which charges $100 (US), this is mainly aimed at the tourist crowd, while the more “authentic" experience is free and for the locals and held the weekend before the publicised event.Yi Peng is held at the same time as the Loy Krathong festival. Loy Krathong is when lanterns are lit and placed on water.
In Chiang Mai this takes place usually around the south entrance moat. Lucky for me, a few photography mates happened to be in Chiang Mai for the festival. Top travel photographers Colby Brown, Daniel Nahabedian and Michael Bonocore, were able to pool resources and crowd source accurate information about the festival. Colby and Daniel have also lived in the area before so I was lucky enough to tap into insider knowledge!Chiang Mai in November is still warm and hazy.
As my hotel is a bit of a hike from the city centre, we decided to hire scooters, which is cheap and easy to do. Most of my time is spent photographing the temples in the centre of town and the lovely sunset at Su Thep temple. Central Chiang Mai is bustling with tourists who have flocked here to experience the Yi Peng festival. The Wats are packed with people and far too crowded.
In the evening before Yi Peng, the locals gather around the south entrance to the city to let off fireworks and lanterns with New Year blessings scrawled on them. It’s fun, it’s noisy and it’s a nice time of year to be celebrating. The largest celebration is held at the Maejo University, north of Chiang Mai, on the Saturday night.We work out the easiest way to get there is by scooter.
Judging by the heavy traffic heading out of town, we are reassured that we are heading the right way on highway 1001. The trip is like the sum total of every car and scooter I had seen all week! Eventually we get to the college, with the help of Google maps and the occasion conversation with anyone that looked official.
We arrive at what we think is a reasonable time. It’s about 4.30pm in the afternoon but its already obvious from how far we have to park the scooters, there are a lot of people here already. A steady stream of people is shuffling towards the entrance. There are locals selling food and lanterns along the path but take a tip from me and don’t buy any lanterns on the way in to the event as they will be confiscated at the entrance. It seems like ages before we get inside the grounds.
Every vantage point for photography is already taken. We worked out that all these people must have arrived to set up around lunch time! Now that’s keen, for a lantern launch scheduled for 7.30pm. The Buddhist monks on the stage perform a ceremony before the lanterns. We wander around and find a spot in front of the pavilion where dozens of photographers have already gathered. Occasional lanterns are being released and all the ones that were confiscated at the entrance.
I notice that from the direction they are floating off that they are heading straight up and over my shoulder. I decide to try my luck at the other side of the stage.I have seen my fair share of firework displays around the world but nothing I have ever seen compares to the spectacle of thousands of lanterns being lit and simultaneously released into the night sky.
It is truly jawdropping. The moment the lanterns are released and all moving in unison being carried away by the wind happens quickly. The grandness of the spectacle is imprinted in my mind. Photographing the event is challenging as the lighting switches from pitch black to lots of bright light when the lanterns start moving at varying speeds and distances from you.
The effort to leave the event is also messy. It will test your patience. If you’re there friends, it’s a good idea to agree on a meeting spot outside the field, in case you get separated. The event is one I would highly recommend.
Make sure you do your research to end up at the right place at the right time and you won’t be disappointed.