Overhead a river of dreams twinkled as it receded into the black of night. Thousands of sparkles, each a hope and blessing, floated upward and onward. Like soft but determined little beings these messengers hurried on, carried aloft by the feelings of those who lit them, by fires as bright as the human spirit.
Far below the already travelling wishes I watched as a wall of new hopes prepared to take off. Around me people excitedly lit their Dhammachai lanterns—eager to help them join the transient Milky Way. The field where once darkness had rested was aglow with a warm light.
There was no antagonism though. The darkness had felt just as comfortable. Together, the night sky accompanied by the floating lights made a complete picture, a total moment.
It felt like the manifestation of the principle of Ying and Yang. The dark and the light: together, accepted and perhaps—just maybe—understood.
I was standing in the middle of the Yeepeng (or Yi Peng) Lanna International Festival a floating lantern ceremony for paying homage to Lord Buddha.
Located near the city of Chiang Mai, the ceremony is designed for foreigners and includes English instructions on how to meditate before releasing the lantern and lighting it properly.
This ceremony was the most magical moment I’ve witnessed in a while. I miss seeing the Milky Way in Canada’s deep winter—the piercing clarity of the stars arching across the sky in the icy black sea of night.
Where I live near Bangkok the lights of humanity drown out the stars so I was ecstatic to see even a replica of our galaxy’s arm.
Held at Mae Jo University the festival is a bit of a distance out of town, but it can be reached via a bus or songthaew (two-bench taxis. Remember those?). If you are feeling particularly daring and adventurous you can rent a scooter or motorcycle from one of the many rental shops in Chiang Mai and find your own way there. Google Maps is great and you can always follow one of the many songthaew also heading to the university.
IMPORTANT NOTES TO MAKE THE EXPERIENCE AWESOME:
– DO NOT BUY THE LANTERNS BEING OFFERED ON THE WALK INTO THE CEREMONY. The canal road leading to the site was lined with food stalls and vendors selling lanterns.
I bought three lanterns on the way and found out at the final gate that I wouldn’t be allowed to bring them in. The ceremony organizers only want their Dhammachai lanterns in the festival (and they are 100 baht each).
Now this may seem like a rip-off because you can buy three lanterns outside of the gate for 100 baht, but apparently these are special lanterns.
Dhammachai lanterns are made from recycled paper and a bamboo frame. The candlewick inside is attached to the lantern with heatproof threads, which helps prevent a short circuit if the lantern falls on a high voltage power transmission line.
One of my friends also pointed out that the standard shape and size of the lanterns sold inside the gate made their release extra beautiful due to the harmony. I saw so many shapes and colours in the lanterns outside of the gate.
– BRING SOMETHING TO SIT ON THE GROUND WITH. If you have a nice outfit on—oh and wear comfortable, respectful clothes
- don’t show your knees
- wear a short skirt/shorts (you will be bowing a lot)
- really short sleeves
- or tight clothes (again, you are on your knees, bowing with your butt in the air. Any unfortunate wardrobe malfunctions will not go unnoticed)
- And no I did not experience any said malfunctions because I dressed properly!
Anyway, if you are wearing a nice outfit be prepared to sit on grass/dirt. Something soft to sit on would also be useful because you are asked to kneel a lot and there is a good hour, at least, of sitting around.
– BE PREPARED FOR CROWDED CONDITIONS AND TRAFFIC. This is a scene from after the ceremony.
Keep in mind that the beautiful spectacle from earlier is a result of the presence of thousands of people and they all want to leave at the same time down a really narrow canal road. There was one point where I was literally mashed in a group and I feared my camera was going to be crushed by the weight.
Don’t let my description keep you from the ceremony though. I’ve never been in such a large crowd so maybe I’m providing a small-town exaggeration. Just keep in mind you may want to bring a nice blanket and snacks so you can settle down and wait for the initial mass to work its way down the exit. I could still see the lanterns when I managed to reach the exit so one could easily stay behind and continue watching them float off.
This of course also means horrendous traffic as everyone tries to leave at once. This is where being daring comes in handy. If you rent a motorcycle and have the nerve to be an offensive driver you’ll be able to follow the flow of veteran Thai riders out of the chaos. Otherwise you will have a long walk mingling with cars, songthaews, motorbikes and fellow walkers. You will breathe in a lot of exhaust and there is no getting around it. It was CRAZY.
But, definitely, totally, unquestionably worth it.
I don’t think the sight of that ceremony will ever leave my memories.