At first, I wasn’t optimistic about Chiang Mai’s Yi Peng festival. But a series of trip hiccups—triccups, as we’ve been calling them—we eventually arrived and nestled elbow-to-elbow, lantern-to-lantern in a bedraggled clearing with the other travellers likewise who didn’t get tickets in advance.
We were supposed to wait until seven (or was it 8:30?) and light our lanterns en masse, but, as happens with first-timers, people got overexcited, couldn’t control themselves and released prematurely.
Admittedly, Lena and I fell into that category, whispering our desires and fears to the twitching flame and launching our lanterns skyward for the heavens to sort out.
As lanterns began rising like soda bubbles, the air fizzled with excitement. Strangers lit fuses and shared wishes—many of which centred around love, happiness and impending US election results. Glowing chambers filled the sky like stars in the Milky Way, bioluminescence on the crashing waves, fireflies in the shadowed brush, jellyfish in the—
A sudden scream tore me from my hyperbole and I glanced over to see our photographer, John, writhing on the ground akin to a salted leech.
“It bit me!” he shrieked. “It fucking bit me!”
Our videographer materialized out of the crowd. “What bit you?”
John thrust his camera into his friend’s hands, the screen displaying the overexposed image of a seven-inch centipede with legs like a crab, a shell like an armadillo and an expression like Tom Hardy in The Dark Knight Rises.
Our new friends rushed to help. Within seconds, John was presented with one Benadryl, one Tylenol-3 and a cup of Jameson; he imbibed them all. A Thai-American girl explained the situation to a the driver of a truk-truk, the Chiang Mai mini-pick-up truck version of tuk-tuks, and he responded with a sound that clearly translated as “oh crap” in every language.
The Thai-American girl turned to John: “You need to go to a hospital. Now.”
The throngs were too crushing for a truk-truk to taxi all of us out of the festival, so John clambered woozily onto the back of a motorcycle taxi, the effects of the medication and booze kicking in. He later told us that the motorcyclist held his arms around his waist and yelled in Thai to prevent him from passing out.
It was another 45 minutes before we could follow, and while we felt guilty for leaving John without friends, money or his passport in what we later learned was a sketchy Thai hospital, it did allow us to glimpse the massive sky-lantern release—which proved to be one of the most incredible spectacles I’ve ever witnessed.
As I gazed upwards with a jaw like an open draw-bridge, I contemplated how many lanterns carried the same confessed fears, and how it suggested that we aren’t as alone in our private struggles as we often think.
Also, how John should’ve wished for close-toed shoes.