Thailand’s Yi Peng Festival

Hands on Sky Lantern

Thanks to Habitat for Humanity I was fortunate to be part of an event listed as one of the Places to See in Your Lifetime

The Yi Peng Festival of lights originated in what is now northern Thailand. Although celebrated throughout the country, the festival’s epicenter is located on the campus of Mae Jo University in Chiang Mai. First practiced as a Buddhist ceremony by the ancient Lanna people, the synchronized release of now over 10,000 sky lanterns includes thousands of foreign visitors in the annual event.

The release of the khom loy, or sky lantern, enables people to send their wishes into the atmosphere, at the same time casting away bad luck or negative energy. The formal ceremony includes a pre-launch meditation period to relax both the mind and body before setting the lanterns free.

Not your typical western holiday

Before coming to Thailand I had a limited sense of the festival, drawing parallels with the Fourth of July in the US, with sky lanterns replacing the fireworks.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Street vendor, Yi Peng FestivalAs we walked into the campus down the wide path, loudspeakers broadcasted the monks chanting from the formal ceremonial area. Noticeably absent were the raucous bands and boom box wars.

There were no signs of corporate sponsorship, commercial food stands, or peddlers hawking t-shirts or “super-sized” lanterns. Instead, local merchants sold the customary street food and lanterns.

We’d arrived several hours before the official launch in order to find parking. We snacked on fried banana, skewered meat, and steamed dumplings while we waited.

Like English-reading salmon we were predictably drawn to an area beneath a sign that read, “WELCOME COWBOYS!”. There, our team had a few beers, then lit several lanterns in a small field equipped with torches.

For the final lantern, we each wrote an intention for the world. That one took off like a rocket.

As the official liftoff time neared, we attempted to reach the formal ceremonial area. The crowd was thicker now, and we had to work to keep our group together. The closer we got, the tighter the crowd and the more slowly we walked.

Sky lantern constellationSuddenly, over the loudspeakers we heard the measured rhythm of a countdown in Thai. And then hundreds of lanterns began rising into the sky. We stood there, watching the ascent of lanterns against the fringe of tall bamboo trees that flanked the path. Unable to move, we stood in place and took in the display.

Eventually the floating lanterns transformed into stars, creating animated constellations across the night sky.

When traveling, make the most of the unexpected

During our stay, the nights would cool down to about 85 degrees F (that’s 29 degrees Celsius to the rest of the world). On this night, the ambient temperature and humidity was amplified by the body heat of people crammed together on the path.

I was focused on managing feelings of claustrophobia against the stifling heat, when I heard one of my teammates behind me say, “I think I’m going to throw up.” She’d been feeling ill all day after a late night – and perhaps one too many Mojitos.

Someone retching in the crowd while packed together like sardines would be bad news.

I asked her to grab my hand and, after informing another teammate, pulled her through the horde to a clearing on the other side of the bamboo.

It opened to a wide field where people were releasing their lanterns. I brought my friend to an open shed where vendors were making and selling lanterns. Celebrants quickly made their purchase and left, so there were fewer people and the air was cooler.

Some of my teammates had followed us over. Rather than attempting to walk to the ceremonial site, we decided to buy a lantern and release it there with our small splinter group.

As we prepared to leave, we noticed one person was missing.

I found Kate near the torches, helping a young couple. The mother was holding a baby and lantern, while the father was struggling to hold the lantern and photograph them. The baby was wearing a set of headphones that dwarfed his head.

I smiled at this touching scene and offered to take a picture with their camera. Afterwards I quickly snapped a photo on my own camera before they released their lantern.

Back home, while going through my photos, I was surprised to find a picture of the father taking a snapshot of us.

Family with baby at Yi Peng Festival

Family with baby at Yi Peng Festival

We never introduced ourselves, however I know somewhere this couple has a picture of their moment at Yi Peng with their little baby in hand, and a photo of the two strangers who helped them capture that memory.

Of all the pictures I took that evening, this is one of my favorites.
The essence of the festival: a shared experience

Westerners quickly learn: you can’t perform the ceremony on your own. It’s not only impractical to do solo, it’s unsafe. You’re handling a balloon of tissue paper held afloat by the heat of an intensely burning coil of dripping wax.

This is a shared event, not a contest in self-proficiency, speed or size. Its beauty is in the harmony, the cooperative effort of participants walking without pushing, waiting without rushing, in holding the lanterns and lighting them in unison.


This is a lesson that I and others had to learn. Once I made this realization, I was able to enjoy the meaning derived from the shared experience of standing together in our reflections, then collectively sending our wishes up into the sky in one single lantern.


If you go: Verify the festival dates which change each year. Yi Peng (also known as the Yeepeng Lanna Ceremony) occurs annually during the full moon of the 12th month of the Buddhist calendar.  Also be aware that there is a second Yi Peng Festival held specifically for tourists which allows you to reserve a place in the official ceremony.  See for more information

Here’s a quick video of scenes from the Yi Peng festival:
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Categories: Travel, Volunteer


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