The Yi Peng Festival coincides with the Loy Krathong Festival. It is the releasing of flaming lanterns into the sky. This tradition comes from Northern Thailand’s Lana Kingdom. It marked the end of the monsoon season and the beginning of the cool season.
Inspired by the Buddhist story of a candle bearing bird who visited Buddha to discuss merit, Buddhists monks across the region have celebrated this for a long time by lighting lanterns (Khom Loi) into the sky. By paying respects to Buddha one’s chances of being reborn with joy and purity in the next life will increase. Most common folk believe that “making merit” is another way of wishing the new year brings good fortune. However making merit for Buddhists is more complicated. Merit can only be achieved by giving, virtue, and mental development (Click Here). Lighting a lantern and sending it up for good fortune for the year is pretty far afield from how Buddhists achieve merit.
Captured by the beauty of this event people flock to Chaing Mai, the capital of the old Lana Kingdom every year to participate. It is no longer a quaint religious celebration.
In our first night as we walked back from the night market stars were barely visible with the full moon coupled with the light from the city. I found it strange to see low lying stars on the horizon. Until I realized they weren’t stars but lanterns. Slowly the quantity began to increase. From the distance they appears like embers from a campfire slowly rising into the darkness. By the time we made it to the bridge, the crowd was so thick we couldn’t move together as a family. Snaking through the crowd we found group after group releasing lanterns on the bridge. People released them riverside, on the bridge, and extending down the main street. Lantern after lantern rose, filling the sky with cylinders of light. Every once in a while a lantern caught fire and fell earthbound.
Lanterns came in medium and large sizes. People releasing them came in different varieties as well. There were groups who clearly wanted the photo opportunity taking 5-10 minutes worth of pictures with their lantern. There were groups making up their own rituals. Dancing around their lanterns like some pagan pageant. Couples released lanterns sharing a magical moment, and parents released them with their kids. Groups of tourists had stacks of five to ten lanterns releasing one after another. There was little regard for safety. Burning lanterns got caught in trees and power-lines. They landed on people’s roofs and balconies. They even fell back into the crowd while burning.
My mood became sour dealing with the crowd. The kids were stressed as well. We started to become more and more vocal about our displeasure. Sharleen became angry. This was the one event that she had planned the whole trip around. The one thing that was significant to her, and we were ruining the experience.
We vowed to return the second night and release the lanterns as Yi Peng is celebrated over several days. The full moon was actually the next night.
On the second night there was another parade, but we decided to skip it. We opted to enjoy the carnival games instead. After dinner we had decided to release a lantern. As we walked towards the street we saw more and more police, volunteers, and officials with signs saying releasing lanterns is against the law. “It interferes with Air Safety. The burning lanterns come down on houses and start fires.”
“If you want to release them go outside the city limits.” The ministry of tourism sponsors “lantern release” events outside the city. At $100 a seat, it was not cheap, but it was regulated. There people could get their lantern fix. However, most of the people walking the street with a lantern or two were not willing to spend $100 for the experience. Scheduled releases alone account for about 8,600 lanterns (Click Here), and bring in quite a bit of revenue.
By 8pm the parade was still going strong, and thousands of revelers anxious to release their lanterns were still unable to do so. Occasionally, we’d see a lantern or cluster of lanterns in the sky, but nothing like the night before. We went to a local carnival to pass the time thinking maybe after the parade we’d be allowed to release the lantern.
We visited a local carnival to pass some time and wait and see if the rules would change later in the evening. It featured lots of food, carnival games, a mini-ferris wheel and musical acts.
By 10pm the police had collected hundreds of lanterns from people who gave up. We started to walk around for another place to release them. We bought a lantern an was determined to release it. We saw some going up and headed in that direction. After all there was safety in numbers.
Masses of tourists were lighting their lanterns right in the main street after the parade.
We decided to light our lantern and send it upwards.
The festival’s reality
As beautiful as the idea of this tradition is, it had mutated into something different over the years. “30 years no one but the monks would float lanterns. And when they did it, they used smoke from fire and didn’t actually send a flaming piece of paper into the sky.” The sensei from the Chiang mai dojo told me in regards to the Yi Peng festival: “Anyone who believes the tradition is more important than the negative impacts is misinformed.”
His point was well taken. We saw flaming lanterns float into trees, onto houses, and into balconies. Moreover, the next day there were dead lanterns all around town. The Thai government cancelled 160 flights (Click Here).
Release our hopes for the next year into the sky today and let someone else clean up the mess tomorrow seemed like an apt metaphor for the do-whatever-I-want-and-hope-for-the-best ideology. There are more people letting their garbage float downstream and sending their hopes in the air rather than actually doing something to achieve them. The metaphor of sending hopes up for merit was also different from the Buddhist idea of achieving merit. Doing something to achieve merit is at the heart of the Buddhist philosophy (Click here). Essentially to achieve merit, one must be charitable, virtuous, and continually to develop mentally. Sending flaming lanterns into the sky achieves none of those.
As magical as it was to light a lantern and let it float way, it felt like a licence to litter:
Part of our agreement with ourselves was to pick up litter the next day. I contacted Trash Hero Chiang Mai, but their litter clean up was on Sunday after we were to leave. So we picked up litter on our own. We picked up 13 dead lanterns and two bags of trash.
I like to think that although we contributed to a mess, we cleaned up more than the mess we made.