The image above is an indicator of what our evening of October 29th looked and felt like. No, we didn't have the spins from a wild night out. We went to the Yi Peng festival on the grounds of the Lanna Dhutanka temple, in Mae Jo, just about 20km north of Chiang Mai. However, it was a few weeks back and there are some good nuggets that fill out the story, so let's rewind a notch.
Way back when, about halfway into our saving spree and trip planning phase, we became great friends with two amazing people who happened to live right down the street from us. Among many other things, they had lived in and adventured around Chiang Mai (how convenient!) and, from the beginning of our many travel focused conversations, urged us (nicely implored, happily required) us to make it to this area in time for the Yi Peng festivities. We witnessed surreal images, heard impossible tales, and even sent a real khom loi on it's way one night from the backyard in Brookline. We always wonder if someone in a neighboring town might have peered up at the sky that night and thought themselves hallucinating.
Finding information on the celebrations, and specifically the local festival, is a small adventure in itself. Combing through various forums, being thankful for google translator, and "fact" checking with our friends seemed at first to produce no more an a pile of theories based on past years. To complicate things, there would be a Special Event for Foreigners this year on a different date than the true festival. If it weren't one hundred US dollars to attend (true story) we may have felt relaxed about making either event. However, we are more than glad to have had things weave themselves together nicely. Since we had to leave Bangkok so quickly after arriving, we chose to high tail it to Chiang Mai and figure out the festival-going upon arrival. With our patchwork of half details, and fingers crossed, we managed to make our way to the temple quite early and settle in with anticipation. Past a heap of signage about the forbidding of fireworks, and group after group of college students assisting the event, we found a nice spot in an open area. Note how empty the field and bright the sky:
With time to kill, we did what any reasonable person would. We perused and took our bellies to the food stalls, which were plentiful and set up along the road leading to the field. Casey sipped her Thai iced coffee, which was clearly take-away, and Eli contemplated his fried cake ball on a stick (layer upon layer of...fried cake), complete with mystery surprise at the center:
So, all of this anticipation is for what? Yi Peng is a Lanna festival for making merit held on the full moon of the second month of the Lanna calendar. Rice paper lanterns are lit aflame, filled with prayers, and sent off to the heavens. It happens to coincide with the Thai festival of Loi Krathong, which also relies on the full moon and includes things on fire, though in a different way. We will tell you more about this one in the near future.
Before the big moment could arrive we witnessed a procession of monks to the main area of the field, listened to remarks and chanting that likely touched on beautiful intentions (though we have no idea what was actually said), and observed the circumambulation of the stupa by the monks and a few hundred college students. All the while, the sun was setting and we were kneeling along with thousands of other people in the dark, next to our personal lantern lighter. From outside the temple grounds, hundreds of lanterns were being sent off and rising above the tree line. We were getting giddy:
At long last the moment had come. We were instructed to "Quiet our minds, slowly light our lanterns and wait for the signal". What was the signal? We weren't sure, but we did as we were told. The quiet minds part was more difficult due to the buzz of excitement from the crowd and the challenge of holding a three foot tall rice paper lantern without setting the whole thing, or ourselves, on fire. We invited a lantern-free family nearby to join us and were thankful for the extra sets of hands while waiting for it to fill with hot air:
Then...A FIREWORK! (remember, those forbidden things?) THAT was the signal, of course. At that moment, there was quite possibly the loudest group gasp we have heard and all of the (thousands of) lanterns slowly but certainly began to take flight. We had talked about it, seen pictures and video, and had an idea in our minds...but none of that could have truly illustrated the magical experience that unfolded. It is simply one of those things that you think you grasp - until you are under the canopy of all of these lights, so full of prayers and wishes and merit and love, listening to the ecstatic giggles (oh, that's ME laughing like an awe filled child) and staring wide eyed at the sky for so long that your neck hurts.
They gently rise like balloons, they flock like birds, they disappear into the distance as you look fondly upon them - friends going on journeys, notes of love and wishes of health sent out to their personal gods, fireflies in slow motion skimming across the lake. This continues even as you leave the field and make your way back through the crush of the crowd, into a truck ride back to the city, and out of the rain that has begun to fall. Each step you take, until bed, is full of that same airiness and amazement that was there as you let your hand fall off the lantern's edge. It is this that we wish to keep with us, pass out like candies and hold during the most boring or painful of times.
Thanks abound to Katie and Luke for motivating our attendance and to Yi Peng for even happening in the first place.
Location:Chiang Mai, Thailand