Celebrated in Chiang Mai and across North Thailand, the annual Yi Peng Lantern Festival is one of Thailand’s most charming events. During the time of the ancient Lanna kingdom, Yi Peng (also written as Yee Peng) was an important event with lanterns used to represent the transition from the darker days of the rainy season to the lighter days of the cool season. In more recent times, the Yi Peng Festival has been incorporated into the festivities for Loy Krathong. Although the biggest and best known Yi Peng event takes place in Chiang Mai, this colourful festival can be enjoyed in provinces across the north of the country including Chiang Rai, Lampang, Lamphun, Mae Hong Son, Nan, Phayao and Phrae.
What is Yi Peng?
In Buddhism, the light of a lantern represents the moving away from darkness into a brighter future. And in northern Thai culture, making lanterns or donating them to the local wat (temple) is a way for Buddhists to make merit. Making lanterns is traditionally carried out at the time of Yi Peng to mark the end of the rainy season. During the Yi Peng Lantern Festival, colourful lanterns are hung outside homes and temples. Sky lanterns are also released during Yi Peng to pay respect to Buddha and as a way for people to symbolically let go of bad memories and make a wish for good luck.
On Yi Peng night, candles are lit and at some locations in North Thailand, street parades and traditional dancing takes place with people wearing Lanna costumes.
Wearing traditional Lanna dress on Yi Peng night, Chiang Mai
Hanging lanterns and sky lanterns
Although the Yi Peng Festival is well-known for the floating of sky lanterns (khom loy) into the evening air, there is more to the festival than this and a number of other lanterns (khom) play an important part in the Yi Peng traditions. These include hanging lanterns (khom kwaen), carrying lanterns (khom thuea/khom gratai), and revolving lanterns (khom paad).
One lovely tradition of Yi Peng is making a donation to the temple and writing your family name or the name of a loved one on a lantern which is then displayed at the temple to pass on merit.
If you’re in Chiang Mai or other northern cities during Yi Peng, you may hear the sound of firecrackers during the day. The noises usually emanate from the local temples where novice monks release giant smoke-filled khom fai lanterns with firecrackers attached to them.
Mass sky lantern release in Chiang Mai
The Yi Peng Lantern Festival in Chiang Mai and other areas of the north is a public event and free to attend. With Chiang Mai seeing an influx of international and domestic tourists for the Yi Peng and Loy Krathong Festival, a number of privately arranged events have sprung up in the Chiang Mai area with organisers selling tickets for entry to their ‘mass lantern release’. Some of these private events are better organised than others and may include transport and dinner, but you will still see thousands of sky lanterns at the free public event where there is no need to buy a ticket.
Celebrating the Yi Peng Lantern Festival responsibly
Yi Peng is an ancient tradition, but there is an increasing awareness about the environmental damage caused by sky lanterns. Action has been taken by local authorities to encourage a more responsible way of celebrating Yi Peng. In Chiang Mai, the times at which the sky lanterns can be released, and the locations where they can be sent into the sky, are restricted. There is also a move towards using sky lanterns made from biodegradable materials with a bamboo frame (instead of wire) and rice paper. Similarly, there is also a trend towards using more environmentally friendly krathongs to float on Thailand’s waterways during Loy Krathong.
At one city centre temple in Chiang Mai, the monks have adapted their event in recent years and come up with a unique approach that preserves the character of the festival, but takes into account environmental concerns. The novice monks at Wat Phan Tao take part in a beautiful candlelit ceremony to pay respect to Buddha before lighting sky lanterns. But instead of releasing the sky lanterns to float away into the night air, the monks attach a long piece of string which prevents the lanterns from flying away too far and potentially causing damage to the nearby wooden buildings.
Major renovation of the temple grounds at Wat Pan Tao took place in 2020. If any future Yi Peng events are held at the temple, they may look different to the photos shown here.
Yi Peng night at Wat Phan Tao, Chiang Mai
Closure of Chiang Mai airport
Chiang Mai airport is located close to the city centre and during the Yi Peng Festival, evening flights are temporarily suspended because of the hazards of the sky lanterns. Visitors attending the Yi Peng Lantern Festival who want to release a sky lantern are encouraged to look for one that is made from biodegradable materials and respect the local laws about when and where to release them.
Yi Peng lanterns in Chiang Mai’s Old City district
Dates for the Yi Peng Festival
Although Yi Peng was originally a festival in its own right, it is now incorporated as part of the Loy Krathong Festival. Yi Peng Day is on the same day as Loy Krathong. The exact date varies each year in accordance with the lunar calendar, but usually falls on the full moon night in November.
Check this Thailand festival calendar for more details
In Chiang Mai, the Yi Peng and Loy Krathong Festival is usually held over three days with cultural events and street parades. It’s a wonderful festival to attend in person and always an enjoyable time to be in North Thailand.
All images in this article are copyright of Roy Cavanagh and used here with kind permission.