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In a life that sometimes feels like a never-ending parade of amazing experiences and beautiful moments, I’m the first to admit I’m grateful — and the first to admit I can get a little jaded. To shake me out of those occasional weary times, I need one of what I (and, granted, Oprah) call our “aha moments.” Moments that are so undeniably, core-rockingly special that they kind of jolt me awake out of any kind of sleepwalking I might have been doing through life.

Yi Peng was one of those moments.

Yi Peng

I’d long been interested in attending the Lanna (northern Thai) festival known as Yi Peng. Often confused with a corresponding festival that takes places around Thailand, Loy Krathong — including by yours truly — Yi Peng involves thousands of sky lanterns being launched into the air simultaneously as part of a religious ceremony. Images of the release grace postcard stands all over Thailand, and I knew someday I’d have to finally make it a priority to attend. Turns out, this was my year.

Because the date of Yi Peng is aligned with the lunar calendar, it changes every year and is kept secret until very close to the date. Recently, the festival has grown to be so popular that in addition to the free local event there is also now an expensive, ticketed and tourist-driven lantern release that is scheduled and often sold out far in advance. In 2014, this event fell on November 6th and cost over $100USD — but we weren’t interested in attending that one. Lovely and well organized as I’m sure it was, as veteran Thailand travelers we felt we could handle the local event, despite the challenges.

The biggest challenge being, of course, to figure out what darn day it was! Thankfully I have some friends in Chiang Mai, and between chatting with them and combing through Chiang Mai expat groups on Facebook I managed to find out in early October that the 2014 free local event was going to be held October 25th — at least I hoped. There wasn’t any official announcement and there was some debate, so we just crossed our fingers and basically based our entire trip up north on this somewhat dubious date.

Yi Peng 2014

Yi Peng Mae Jo University

Yi Peng Mae Jo University

I was absolutely overjoyed when I realized that one of my favorite humans on the planet, Torre, was also going to be in town and was up for joining us. These three musketeers were ready for anything.

Upon arrival in Chiang Mai, we were relieved to find confirmation that we did indeed have the festival date correct. However, there was still work to do — we had to figure out how to get to the grounds of Mae Jo University, about 12 miles outside Chiang Mai center. We saw travel agencies offering packages to that included mini bus transfer for anywhere from 500-1000 baht ($15-30) but they left very early in the day and we were wary of sharing our special experience with a bunch of weirdos (aren’t we optimists!)

We also did not want to drive our own motorbikes, though it would have been the cheapest option, as we are all uncomfortable driving in the dark in traffic. Finally, the morning of the festival, we found a tuk tuk driver willing to take us there, wait, and return us to Chiang Mai for 900 baht — a mere $9US each for round trip transport.

So we packed up our cameras, sarongs (we knew we’d need something to camp out on for the day), and a whole bundle of high expectations and made our way out to Mae Jo.

Yi Peng Mae Jo University Photo via Heather Holt Photography

We arrived around 3:30 and even at that early hour we had a bit of a scramble to find a spot around one of the float launches. With the ceremony not starting until far after sunset, after we staked out our spot, we had quite a few hours to kill. Luckily we had cameras, copious snacks, and each other for entertainment. And while one of us always stayed to guard our float launch, we took turns wandering back out to the festival grounds for a stroll. While it was indeed a very long time in the very hot sun, it was worth it for our prime location, in my opinion.

We had seen an information sheet in our hotel that had a few guidelines about how to be respectful at the ceremony, including dressing conservatively, covering shoulders, and wearing white. This launched a massive scramble around town that resulted in, if not exactly white, a very neutral colored ensemble. We were pretty pleased with ourselves for our Eat Pray Love-esque adherence to the dress code, but laughed when we arrived to find hundreds of Thais dressed in brightly colored minidresses. Ah well, who doesn’t need a new pair of tan hued hippie pants?

Yi Peng 2014

Yi Peng Thailand

Yi Peng Mae Jo University

Yi Peng Photography

Though we’d bought our own balloons back in town, guards stopped us at the entrance and told us we could not bring them into the lawn. Whoops. Turns out you can only release the official, supposedly eco-friendly lanterns sold inside for 100 baht (about $3). We were interested to see that tons of people just hang out outside the official area so they can drink, make merry and release whatever darn lanterns they want — but we were happy to go the official route this time around.

No lie: much to Heather and Torre’s amusement, I may have fallen asleep and took a nap sitting cross legged on our sarong sometime around sunset. Did I mention there was some really hypnotizing music on and we’d spent all day in the heat?

Thankfully, there was a flurry of activity to knock me back awake.

Yi Peng 2014Photo on right via Heather Holt Photography

Yi Peng PhotographyPhoto via Heather Holt Photography

Yi Peng Mae Jo University Photos via Heather Holt Photography

Yi Peng PhotographyPhoto via Heather Holt Photography

Yi Peng 2014Photo via Heather Holt Photography

Yi Peng PhotographyPhoto via Heather Holt Photography

Things started kicking off right before sunset, as Buddhist chanting and prayers began and a nasally voice came over the loudspeaker to explain the processions in both English and Thai.

Yi Peng 2014Photo via Heather Holt Photography

Yi Peng PhotographyPhoto via Heather Holt Photography

Yi Peng 2014Photo via Heather Holt Photography

Yi Peng Mae Jo University Photo via Heather Holt Photography

Yi Peng 2014Photo via Heather Holt Photography

Yi Peng PhotographyPhoto via Heather Holt Photography

You’ll notice that Heather took almost every single photo in this post, and I am so grateful to her for that. She’d been on a self declared “camera hiatus” up until then (as a professional photographer, she certainly deserves one every once in a while!) and so when I saw how fired up she was about firing shots off here, I was able to really relax and just submit to the sensory overload without worrying about documentation.

Though I did, admittedly, get a little hypnotized by a light-painting experiment with some of the loner lanterns being set off from outside the gate. If you ever want to try something similar, just slow your shutter speed way down and play away! It took me about a million outtakes to get these results.

Yi Peng Chiang Mai

Yi Peng Chiang Mai

Yi Peng Chiang Mai

And then finally, finally, it was our turn. There were to be three strictly timed releases, and we listened carefully to the instructions coming over the loudspeaker. The lanterns are made with a thin rice paper stretched over a bamboo frame, from which a fuel cell is attached. The poles gridded around the lawn each contained a candle for lighting the fuel cells. Having set off lanterns before, we already knew the drill — the secret is to get the middle lit, and then hold the lantern down to the ground to trap hot air and create enough tension and lift for the lantern to float up up and away.

We were instructed to fill our balloons with feelings of love and good hope for our loved ones, and my heart swelled like our lantern as I thought about my mom, my dad, my sisters and all my other people around the world.

Yi Peng 2014Photo via Heather Holt Photography

Yi Peng Chiang MaiPhoto on left via Heather Holt Photography

Honestly, I don’t know if there is a writer alive who could bring justice to that moment with words. While writing this post I went back and watched a bunch of crappy cell phone videos I took — nothing worth sharing here — but they brought me back, and so they brought me to tears.

In the midst of the overwhelming euphoria and surreality, there were moments that grounded us right back in Thailand — lanterns getting caught in nearby trees and incinerating the defenseless branches, waylaid lanterns landing on soon afire heads of hair, a man proposing in the midst of the madness.

Yi Peng Chiang MaiPhoto via Heather Holt Photography

Yi Peng Chiang Mai

Yi Peng Chiang MaiPhoto on left via Fearful Adventurer

Thailand Lantern Festival

I couldn’t believe we got to do it two more times! The magic didn’t wear off in the slightest.

Thailand Lantern FestivalPhoto via Heather Holt Photography

Yi Peng Mae Jo University

Thailand Lantern Festival

Later, pulsing with adrenaline and trying to form words to describe our experience, we concluded that the only thing we could compare it to was coming down from drugs (and by that, mom, I mean what my friends have told me coming down from drugs feels like, obviously). We laughed, we cried, we had the shakes — nothing can prepare you for the natural high of witnessing Yi Peng in person. Thousands of lanterns released into the night sky like giant pulsing jellyfish, each one filled with good energy for friends and family around the world.

Yi Peng 2014Photo via Heather Holt Photography

And the night ended with a bang — literally. Passionate fireworks filled the now-black sky, a stark contrast to the lazy balloons still making their way upward.

Thailand Lantern Festival

Thailand Lantern Festival

We’d been warned endlessly about the journey back into town. In the end, it took up about two hours to get from our spot on the lawn back to our hotel — much of that was simply making our way back through the festival grounds, which was also prime snack refueling time. And actually, I didn’t mind the time in transit — it gave me time to reflect and to absorb, and to soak up a few more hours with these two special ladies.

This was truly one of the most amazing days of my life and I can’t think of two women I’d rather have shared it with. Thank you, Torre and Heather. I know I’ve shared this quote before, but I can’t help but share it one more time again.

It’s hard to stay mad, when there’s so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I’m seeing it all at once, and it’s too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that’s about to burst… And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it, and then it flows through me like rain and I can’t feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life.

Yi Peng 2014Yi Pengaparazzi!

I will do everything in my power to make it to Yi Peng again in 2015, and probably, like, I don’t know, every other year for the rest of my life as long as I live. Will you join me?

What festivals around the world have left you feeling euphoric?

. . . . . . .

UPDATE: I have received countless emails asking for the specific dates of future Yi Peng festivals, or advice on how to determine those dates. As stated in the beginning of this post, there is no easy nor definite way to determine the date ahead of time. My best advice is to keep an eye on Chiang Mai expat groups on Facebook, and to keep your travel plans flexible. With close monitoring I was able to suss the date about a month ahead of time, though there was a lot of debate and misinformation out there. There is no official announcement! Hence, there is no way to know with absolute certainty if you’ve arrived on the right date until you’re standing in a field with thousands of other lantern-holders.

If you can’t live with that kind of uncertainty, your best bet is to book around the paid, ticketed tourist event. Best of luck!

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148 Comments...
  • Susan
    February 10 2015

    Wow. Just wow! These images are so stunning. Beautifully captured, Alex! (I know those nighttime exposures aren’t easy!) I put Yi Peng on my list a while back and when I saw your Photo of the Week of the festival a few months ago, it just solidified my desire to attend. I’m impatient and I’m not a huge fan of sitting around in the heat without a pool or ocean steps away, but mark my words I will make myself see this!

    • Alex
      February 11 2015

      It is worth it! If you don’t have interesting companions, maybe bring a book 🙂

  • Francesca
    February 10 2015

    Yi Peng is top of my bucket list and this post will make it a lot easier to organise when I finally get my bum to Thailand! Also I love Torre, I’ve read her book so many times 🙂
    Francesca recently posted..A disappointing day with Capture Cairns

    • Alex
      February 11 2015

      She’s absolutely a brilliant human. I couldn’t have been happier she was there!

  • Christie
    February 10 2015

    Wow, what an incredible experience! The photos capture the festival so perfectly. A couple of years ago in India I went to Uttarayan Kite Festival which ended in a similar display of thousands of lanterns in the air. There is something so, so magical and somehow humbling about watching them all slowly drift away. Naturally, being India, a plane took off right through the lanterns drifting above – I was so worried something bad was going to happen!
    Christie recently posted..Surprised by Sukhothai

    • Alex
      February 11 2015

      I’ve never even heard of that before! Off to Google… 🙂

  • Amanda
    February 10 2015

    I really, really want to go next year (especially after seeing your awesome pictures) and am hoping that it’s around the same time next year since I’ll be in Thailand for TBEX! See you there 😉
    Amanda recently posted..What I Never Leave Home Without: My 6 Packing Essentials

    • Alex
      February 11 2015

      I’m hoping the same! Can you say blogger field trip?!

  • Katie
    February 10 2015

    what an amazing experience!! I was wondering if it would be worth the hassle and clearly it is. Loved all of Heathers photos!! Especially those night shots. The one of you guys on the lawn looks like the guy in the background is snapping a photo of you too – haha!
    Katie recently posted..Acorn Squash Quesadilla Recipe with bonus Curtido de Cebolla

    • Alex
      February 11 2015

      I’m sure he was taking one of himself — I’ve never seen so many selfies in my LIFE! It was really something to see, ha.

  • Laura
    February 10 2015

    These photos! I have always wanted to attend a lantern festival like this – it looks as awe-inspiring as it sounds. Hope to make it there one day 🙂
    Laura recently posted..Learning Korean: Resources for Beginners

    • Alex
      February 11 2015

      Make it happen, girl 🙂 You’ll love it!

  • SO damn magical! I am really hoping to get there this year (depending on the date) so hopefully I can meet you there 🙂
    Katie @ The World on my Necklace recently posted..An unplanned hike in Cape Town’s mountains

    • Alex
      February 11 2015

      I think there will be several bloggers anxious to hear how it aligns with TBEX! Fingers crossed!

  • Caihley
    February 10 2015

    This looks like such a wonderful experience! I will actually be taking the leap and doing a bit of solo travel in Thailand this fall so hopefully I can figure out the date and attend myself. Also a little shoutout of thanks to you and your amazing, helpful, inspiring blog! You and your blog are actually a large part of what has made me commit to a trip and finally make it happen. So a very heartfelt thanks to you!! I am still months away but I am already so happy with my decision and can’t wait for the adventures ahead!

    • Alex
      February 11 2015

      Caihley you made my night! Thank you so much for all that love! You are going to have the time of your life — I’m honored to have been a part of the planning stage 🙂 Rock on girl!

  • Leah
    February 10 2015

    Excellent photos, Alex and Heather! If words can’t do it justice, I think photos come pretty close.

    Funny story about the year I went…the monks were doin’ their thing, chanting up on their big white podium deal, when one of those illegal lanterns, shaped like–and I shit you not–an ANGRY BIRD fell down out of the sky and hit one of the poor monks mid-chant. I laughed WAY harder than was appropriate for pretty much the rest of the night.

    Ahh, memories.
    Leah recently posted..The Top Ways I Save Money on Travel

    • Alex
      February 11 2015

      Bahahaha. Oh, Angry Birds. The national avian of Southeast Asia.

  • Jena
    February 10 2015

    This post brought tears to my eyes. Years ago I attended this with my best friend, new travel and local friends. At the time I did not realize how blessed we were to be invited and taken to the festival by a dear Thai friend.

    You are absolutely right in saying their are no words to describe it.

    I remember my best friend and I having some tension between us for some time. During Yi Peng when the lanterns were first released she looked at me with tears welling in her eyes. All our wounds were healed. It brought us, old friends back together and new friends closer.

    What a powerful festival I am so happy to see you experience.

    Thank you for always sharing.

    Much love

    • Alex
      February 11 2015

      That is a beautiful story, Jena! What a cleansing and bonding experience that must have been.

  • Adelaide
    February 10 2015

    These photos are gorgeous! I want to go to this one day soooooo bad! It looks so incredibly beautiful!
    Adelaide recently posted..Have We Lost Our Ability to Talk to Strangers?

    • Alex
      February 11 2015

      It was — I wish for all my loved ones to experience it someday!

  • Miquel
    February 10 2015

    Wow what beautiful photos! I hope the laterna they use really are eco-friendly. When I was in Chiang Mai on New Years eve many people were releasing lanterns, and although it was beautiful watching them go up, it was pretty sad watching them all fall back down around the city.
    Miquel recently posted..Sister Reunion on Koh Tao

    • Alex
      February 11 2015

      Yeah…. I’m as rah rah green travel as the next girl, but sometimes you’ve got to say screw it, this once a year cultural event is worth the impact it has on the Earth. We can always clean up, right? 🙂

  • Amanda
    February 10 2015

    This has been on my bucket list for a couple years now – and this makes me want to go even more! It looks incredible.
    Amanda recently posted..Why I DIDN’T Quit My Job to Travel

    • Alex
      February 11 2015

      Let’s make it happen, 2015!

  • Chalsie
    February 11 2015

    That looks like such an incredible experience Alex! Thank you for sharing it. I was just talking to a friend about exploring South East Asia later this year, so maybe we’ll try to fit it around Yi Peng…
    Chalsie recently posted..Photo diary in Suzhou, China

    • Alex
      February 11 2015

      If you want to guarantee it, you can always head to the ticketed event! If not, you’ll just have to stay flexible. Both work 🙂

      • Chalsie
        February 11 2015

        I’m pretty happy to stay flexible. But will definitely keep an eye out for dates. If you find out any details, please let me know! 🙂
        Chalsie recently posted..Photo diary in Suzhou, China

  • Maddy
    February 11 2015

    These pictures are breathtaking! That one of you that you used for the cover shot – if you ever need a new profile pic, make it that one! You look so happy and the lanterns are so gorgeous.

    I hope someday I can make it to this festival – it just looks like a life-changing experience!
    Maddy recently posted..Get Your Moto Runnin | WEARABLES

    • Alex
      February 11 2015

      You know what, I might just make it my new one 🙂 I love traveling with Heather — she takes so many of my profile pictures, ha!

  • Sarah
    February 11 2015

    these pictures are SO beautiful!
    I’ll actually be in Chiang Mai in October this year, let’s hope it’s gonna be around the same date again. I’d love to see this for myself 🙂
    Sarah recently posted..A DESIGN HOTEL FOR A HOSTEL BUDGET: SUPERBUDE St.PAULI

    • Alex
      February 11 2015

      Keep an eye out! I think this one was actually unseasonably early — typically I believe it is more into November.

  • Karlijn Travels
    February 11 2015

    Such a gorgeous post, both the writing and the photos! I hope I make it to the festival one day!
    Karlijn Travels recently posted..Een onrustige nacht in een tent bij Mount Everest

    • Alex
      February 11 2015

      Thank you so much! A great collaboration 🙂

  • I have heard to this festival before, but never in such great detail! Thank you so much for sharing your experience and for inspiring so many of us to try and venture out to Yi Peng this year. I did a bit of googling and found that the festival will be held around end of November this year. Does this sound right? It’s a month after TBEX… I don’t think I’ll be able to make it, but I would sooooo LOVE to!
    Oksana | Drink Tea and Travel recently posted..Local’s Tips for Visiting Surfers Paradise

    • Alex
      February 11 2015

      Hey Oksana, if you are finding a date this early it is most certainly for the paid tourist event — something different than what is shown here. The date for what we went to will probably not be released until October 🙂

  • Janice Stringer
    February 11 2015

    Fantastic post Alex,
    The only time i’ve had anything to do with sky lanterns we nearly set out tree alight!:-)
    Janice Stringer recently posted..16 Funny Things My Daughter Said to Me, Growing Up.

  • Sonja @ Breadcrumbs Guide
    February 11 2015

    Alex, these photos of yours and Heather’s are truly inspiring! Have you considered writing a post on how to photograph Yi Peng? It seems like a challenging environment and one of those times where it’s really important to get it right the first (or third) time! Or maybe you could convince Heather to guest post 🙂
    Sonja @ Breadcrumbs Guide recently posted..Machu Picchu Mountains: Getting Up and Away