This week, Koh Tao celebrated Loy Kratong. And while I may currently be on the other side of the world, I touch back down in Thailand in just two weeks — which makes this the perfect time to share this memory from last year!
It’s likely that, whether or not you knew what it was or where it was from, you’ve seen a photo of Thailand’s infamous annual lantern releases. (You’d only have to casually browse the travel section of a book store, where images from Yi Peng have graced the cover of not one but two editions of Lonely Planet Thailand!)
Perhaps you’ve even heard the terms Yi Peng or Loy Kratong. Technically, Loy Kratong and Yi Peng are two separate holidays, though they typically are celebrated over similar dates and are thus are often used interchangeably by Western visitors. While the dates change annually based on the lunar calendar, they often fall in November. Yi Peng is primarily celebrated in the former Lanna Kingdom of Northern Thailand, while Loy Kratong is celebrated throughout the country.
I’ve been lucky to spend two Loy Kratongs on Koh Tao, and one Yi Peng in Chiang Mai, and they are among my favorite days of the year in Thailand. Yet to be honest I was always a little confused about the differences between the two holidays — here’s hoping this post can clear that up for one of my fellow clueless farang!
Both festivals trace their roots back to Brahmanic festivals in India, but were later adopted by Buddhists to honor both Prince Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, and in the case of Loy Kratong, Phra Mae Khongkha, the Hindu water goddess. Yi Peng is closely related to the Indian festival of Diwali, originally celebrated as a ceremony of gratitude to the River Ganges.
Chiang Mai (home of the famous Mae Joe release, which to my understanding is no longer happening), Sukhothai (where the festival allegedly originated) and Bangkok (always a party!) are all popular places for celebrating Loy Kratong. Koh Tao? Not so much. Consider this a guide if you happen to find yourself there.
On Koh Tao, the day kicks off with a parade that starts at the government buildings in Mae Haad and works North towards Sairee. I must admit I have only caught this casual parade in passing, but will make it a point to get a closer look next time I’m celebrating on the island.
That evening, things really kick off. At the Seatran pier area in Mae Haad, a large stage holds traditional dances, a beauty contest, and other festivities, and last year I went down to enjoy them with a big group of friends. One highlight of our night was when Ian spotted his elderly landlord killing it in a dance routine onstage. Another was when I spotted the oversize float I’d watched being proudly constructed at my favorite roadside food stand earlier in the week. Koh Tao is a beautiful little community when it comes together.
Loy Kratong is certainly a more casual and community-based affair on Koh Tao than the religiously rooted Yi Peng I witnessed in Chiang Mai. While we dressed extremely conservatively for the Chiang Mai version, in Koh Tao there was a wide-range of acceptability — I did choose to wear long pants though. And while alcohol was forbidden at the event I attended in Chiang Mai, the vibe in Koh Tao was much more merry-making and drinking was welcomed and encouraged by locals.
And come hungry! There’s an abundance of yummy Thai street food on offer, far beyond what you’d find on a typical night on the island.
At the beach steps away from the pier to the north, Koh Tao’s own little lantern release takes place.
The symbolism behind the release of either type of lantern is beautiful. In addition to paying respect to Buddha, these acts allow time to reflect and symbolically release personal demons, hardships, and negativity.
The term loi means “to float” while “kratong” means a lotus shaped vessel. Alongside the flowers, candles, coins and incense sticks, many Thais will cut their fingernails and hair to put in their kratongs as a symbol of letting go, and will also consider it extremely bad luck for the lantern to float back to them. Sky lanterns, or khom loi, are considered especially lucky if they disappear from view before the fire goes out.
Both are acts of spiritual cleansing and new beginnings. They are also, on a superficial level, stunning.
The dates of Yi Peng and Loy Kratong can be tricky to nail down (in Koh Tao, they are always celebrated concurrently on the official date of Loy Kratong, where in larger cities they may be held separately but within a week or so of each other, and large official lantern releases may be held on the weekend closest to the official date.)
I’ve always found the specific date by keeping an eye on local expat groups in Koh Tao and Chiang Mai, but often these groups are closed to tourists. Ask at your local guesthouse or dive shop, or check the website Thaizer, which is a great resource on Thai holidays and events.
I anticipate I will receive some questions on the sustainability of this event. What goes up must come down and that means that the sky lanterns eventually return to earth and the kratongs eventually sink into to the ocean. My advice is to look for khom loi made of biodegradable rice paper and bamboo and kratongs that are made of natural materials like bread and plants as opposed to plastic or styrofoam. Better yet, make a kratong yourself so you can be confident that every component is eco-friendly! Also consider sharing one kratong and one khom loi among multiple people.
There are some people that won’t be satisfied with even those efforts, and they are entitled to that opinion. But I draw on the response I give to cries of waste at Burning Man: sustainability has to be sustainable, and I don’t believe its feasible to ask a country to give up their natural human instinct to gather, to honor tradition and to their celebrate culture. If you are bothered by the waste produced at Yi Peng or Loy Kratong, I invite you to join one of the island’s regular underwater clean up dives or beach walks for trash, or to volunteer at one of the island’s eco-focused charities.
No, Koh Tao will never be on a list of the most popular destination to celebrate Yi Peng or Loy Kratong. But if you want to get away from the crowds and see a small and joyful celebration alongside locals, expatriates and tourists from around Thailand and the world, Koh Tao would be happy to have you.
While I’ve done extensive research and spend significant time in Thailand, I will always be but a guest in the country, and thus an imperfect messenger of its traditions and religion. Any mistakes in interpretation are my own and I’d welcome corrections of any inaccuracies!
Thailand has so many beautiful customs and rituals. I cannot wait for you to show them to me IRL! =)
Me neither! Send me the spreadsheet I know you’ve started 😛
How exciting! I love this alternate take on a popular festival 🙂 x
Thanks! Sometimes it’s nice not to fight the crowds 🙂
Yi Peng is one I would LOVE to attend, but I’m not sure I’ll ever make the right timing. I love what you said about sustainability, and it’s so true – you do what you can without sacrificing all of it. Beautiful pictures!
Thanks Marni! I love finding ways to be green that feel good actually add to life rather than take away. They are definitely the easiest ones to convert other people to 🙂
Low-key sounds pretty good! Loy Krathong in Chiang Mai was absolutely insane, fireworks whizzing by your head and loud bangs blowing out your eardrums every few minutes. It was like a war zone!
I’ve heard that! I have to say, I don’t mind that Koh Tao usually keeps our holiday celebrations to one day. Go big… and then go home and go to yoga the next day, lol.
The more you know! I had never thought much about the differences between the two festivals, but both are gorgeous. I would love to make it back to Thailand for the celebrations one day.
Also, this: “sustainability has to be sustainable, and I don’t believe its feasible to ask a country to give up their natural human instinct to gather, to honor tradition and to their celebrate culture”, is wise and brilliant. Very well put.
Thanks Kate! I know the sustainability concerns about this festival are important but I just can’t imagine letting go of something this beautiful and meaningful.
Another interesting and informative post with really beautiful photographs.Your love of Koh Tao really does shine through.Love your engaging,articulate and intelligent writing. And in your tone of voice there is something different, changed – matured, I’m not sure…
P.S. My daughter surprised me by turning up home last night. She’s been living on Koh Tao for the last 8 mths. This Mumma is a happy one!!!
Aw, how sweet Janice! I always want to surprise my parents but I can’t keep a secret 😛 That’s lovely though, I’m so happy for you!
These pictures are so beautiful! I’ve never seen heart lanterns before, but I love them!
So cute right? At the Mae Jo release all lanterns are regulated so they are the standard size white version. It’s fun to see some silly ones!
I made a kratong in Phuket earlier this year – cool to see the whole festival that surrounds it 🙂
That was such a fun experience, learning to make them! So glad you got to do the same tour 🙂
So beautiful <3 This makes me want to see more of Thailand. My friend is half Thai and got married last year in Koh Samui and it coincided with Yi Peng so the wedding party floated kratongs midway through the night- how gorgeous is that!
Wow, that sounds gorgeous! What beautiful wedding photos that would make for <3
Love that you addressed sustainability here. Annoyingly that’s always where my mind goes. I think your suggestions are spot-on — a balance of cultural sensitivity and practicality. As a fellow festival lover, I don’t want to live in a world where we don’t gather! So it’s just about coming up with ways to minimize the impact of our gatherings.
I feel ya Becky! I can’t help but think those thoughts too… but I like to think they help us innovate 🙂
Ugh I love how emotional and spiritual Thailand is! I stumbled upon the water ceremony at Tirta Empul once. Totally life changing!
Have to say I LOVE your tidbit about the beach cleanups. Had absolutely no idea they did that!
Yes they are actually a very regular occurrence on the island thanks to the initiative of both independent island conservation groups and several of the eco-friendly dive schools. It’s a beautiful thing!
Good to know that these dates change annually – I would love to plan a trip based around them so I could experience these celebrations when visiting Thailand in the future! 🙂
Unfortunately I’ve learned it can be tricky to nail down some of these dates far into the future! Hopefully you can plan a nice long trip so you have a better chance of catching some of the celebrations 🙂
Thailand is home to so many beautiful festivities. I especially like how much fun these events seem to be. Water fighting, lighting lanterns… I wish we would celebrate these festivities closer to home. However, a trip to Thailand is never a bad idea either 🙂
I think a lot of these celebrations would be/already are illegal in the Western world, ha ha. I’m grateful the reigns are a little lighter — at least in this category — in Thailand!
It’s interesting to see what the celebrations are like on your island, it actually looks nice and chilled out. I just celebrated my first Yi Peng/Loy Krathong festival here in Chiang Mai and while it was mostly beautiful, it was a lot more hectic than I expected on the main lantern releasing nights. On one bridge in particular people were cramped on, setting off lanterns in dangerous proximities and letting them go too soon so that they crashed into people. Trees were also on fire. It wasn’t quite what I expected. The Mae Jo release did go ahead this year in the end, I avoided it because of the expense and because it seems like a tourist-only rather than a local event. However, I think that they use eco-friendly lanterns at Mae Jo and you have to keep set distances apart, so in hindsight I can see the benefits of celebrating there rather than in the Old City.
I’ve heard Chiang Mai can get a bit hectic for Loy Kratong! The year I went to Mae Jo was, I believe, the last year that a free release was held there in addition to the expensive paid one for tourists. Such a shame it is no longer available without a pricey ticket, as it was magical.
This looks like an amazing festival, with a great message! I think I would appreciate the mini celebration on Kao Tao compared to the huge blowouts elsewhere!
I do love our small island scale for this one <3 Gutted I missed it this year!
I love your photos, particularly how clear your night shots were! What kind of camera do you use? Also, I agree with you about the sustainability. We need to be sustainable as a human race, but we also need to celebrate and have traditions. I thought the suggestion of doing something to help clean up was great considering a lot of people I know who complain about other people not adhering to their standards of sustainability also don’t do anything to help.
Thanks Karlie, I agree and I think it’s great to find ways to direct our concerns into action. As for the cameras, check my obsessions page — my gear is listed there!
I visited Chiang Mai last year. Wanted to go for the yipeng festival but did not make it because it was normally at the end of November. Now i see Koh Tao is another alternative to visit. Beautiful lantern and imagine having the celebration at the beach!
In my opinion, everything is better at the beach 🙂
I love your post, it’s so inspiring! Loy Kratong is definitely on my list. I hope my girlfriend and I will be there this year in November to celebrate my birthday as well 🙂 I’m also absolutely stunned by your pictures, awesome job! Thank you for this amazing post and have some calm writing days.
Thanks Tom! Hope to be writing more Thailand festival posts soon… stay tuned for Songkran!