Candles in the Sky: A Near-Disaster at the Yi Peng Festival

We told the driver to take us to Mae Jo University in Chiang Mai. We showed him the tickets to confirm he knew where this massive, world-renowned sky-lantern release was taking place, this picture-perfect marvel of northern Thailand’s Yi Peng festival. In the photos of this particular event at the university, we saw thousands of sky lanterns released all at once, flying upward in a sea of hopes and wishes. We couldn’t wait to get there.

We agreed on a price, then climbed aboard the rickety but ever-popular mode of transportation, the tuk-tuk. The festival and lantern release was scheduled to start at 8:30 p.m. and it was only 5:30, so we had plenty of time to make the 20-minute ride.

After a speedy but quiet journey, we arrived at a river lined with people, children, street vendors and, of course, lanterns. Dozens of buses, motorbikes and pedestrians packed the narrow dirt road. We wove dangerously in and out of traffic, trying to find the entrance gate. Upon our arrival, the security guard looked at our gate passes suspiciously but welcomed us and let us through.

We should have gotten worried.

Next we came across another gate guarded by three lovely Thai women. One of them took our tickets, but her smile quickly turned into a frown; in broken English, she informed us that our tickets were for another lantern event about 20 kilometres away, nowhere near Mae Jo University, but instead at some place called the Northern Study centre.

All I could think: “WTF.”

After a brief debrief of our options (do we stay and find a spot outside the gate? Do we have time to make it to our festival?), we decided we had to find another tuk-tuk and boot it to the correct festival in time for its major release. We had the tickets, after all.

Upon arrival at the right festival, we were instantly blown away. It was absolutely worth every second that we spent panicking to reach it. Blue, yellow and red paper lanterns were strung strategically from every tree limb, casting a cheerful glow on the activities below; food vendors lined the park, offering delicious dishes from mango sticky rice to glass-noodle pad Thai; there were dancers and performers and a Thai band playing slow, dreamy jazz music.

yi peng lantern release photo

A mother and daughter gaze up at the majesty. (Outpost / Ryan Mariotti)

All this set the mood perfectly for the epic main event, an event that hundreds of thousands are lucky enough to witness once a year.

Rows of chairs circled the main stage on which seven Buddhist Monks chanted a prayer. Once the prayer was complete, we were told it was time to light our lanterns, which the event organizers handed out when we entered the area. The energy of the crowd was at a level I’ve never experienced. I was buzzing with adrenaline as I lit my lantern with a tiki torch. I wasn’t sure what hopes and wishes my personal lantern release should have signified, but I settled on peace, health and happiness for everyone in my life.

Paper lanterns like glowing orbs were set into the heavens along with the wishes and dreams of everyone in the crowd. Up they went as an offering to the late Thai king to celebrate his death the previous year. I cried a little, seeing and feeling the love and hope around me. I cried when I saw the children with eyes the size of saucers, full of curiosity and wonder for what they’ve just seen, and when my new friend Rick wished for health, wealth and good grades.

It’s amazing how strangers of all religions and social beliefs can come together as friends and bond through a once-in-a-lifetime experience like that. I gazed into the night sky watching as the wind accepted the lanterns, promising to deliver them to their heavenly destination.

Watch the Trailer