Trying to research the Chiang Mai Lantern Festival turned up a lot of misinformation. As a result we were a little worried that we might not get to enjoy it during our trip to Thailand. Luckily, the festival is harder to miss than it is to find. Here’s what you need to know to find the lantern sendoff, keep safe, and avoid getting scammed.
What is the Chiang Mai Lantern Festival?
The Lantern Festival in Chiang Mai, Thailand is called Yi Peng (though I have seen it spelled Yee Peng). It’s a multi-day celebration that involves the hanging of colorful lanterns all over the city. But that’s not what you were trying to research is it? You wanted to do one of those lantern sendoffs. Don’t worry, that’s exactly what we’re going to talk about here.
If you are interested in Yi Peng, just walk around the old town looking at the lanterns. They are especially dense near temples, municipal buildings, and the gates of the city walls. You can spot them during the day, but they are illuminated at night.
The lantern sendoff happens during the Lantern Festival, but it is not a Thai tradition. It’s purely a tourist activity, and they haven’t been doing it for all that long. There’s no shame in it, though. We did it, and it the highlight of our trip. It also gets you walking around the city, so you’ll see all the other stuff happening on your way there and back.
What’s With All the Confusion?
So in 2017, the city “cancelled” the public lantern sendoff – an announcement whose wording has been exploited by private companies trying to profit from the confusion. In reality, all that was cancelled was municipal participation in the event.
The sendoff on the two main nights of the festival seems to be basically unstoppable, and government even diverts air traffic in anticipation of the mass turnout.
Unfortunately, a quick search will bring up lots of websites trying to sell you very expensive tickets to mass sendoffs. Don’t buy them. It’s not a scam in the most common sense (as far as I know). The tickets do get you a spot in a field, far from the city with a bunch of other tourists and you will get to send off a lantern and probably get a pretty good picture. There’s usually also a meal and some kind of dance performance.
But it’s just not necessary. The sendoff near the old town is free to attend, easy to find, and doesn’t trap you in a field in the middle of nowhere, keeping you from enjoying the rest of the festivities that night. Instead of one single dramatic photo opp where everyone launches one lantern, you can be part of an hours long eruption of light that sends a river of fire across the night sky.
When is the Chiang Mai Lantern Festival?
This year (2019), the Lantern Festival is on November 11th and 12th. As far as I can tell, as of this writing (early October) the official schedule of events is not out yet, but if you are mostly interested in the sendoff, then your best bet is the 12th. During our stay, that was the night of the big parade, which really brought out the crowds (and the lanterns).
There were also lanterns being released the night before, just not quite as many.
Where is the Chiang Mai Lantern Festival?
Haha, it’s in Chiang Mai, Silly. Seriously, though, most of the action happens in and around the old town. You’ll see lanterns all over the place, especially near the tourist attractions, but if you are looking to get right into the mix, then head for the Tha Phae Gate (Google Maps).
Note: On the night of the Lantern Festival, be ready to travel on foot and carry small children. The streets near the hot spots will be mobbed with people, so cars, bikes and strollers won’t be moving much.
From the Tha Pha Gate, make your way to the Narawat Bridge (Google Maps). You can go ahead and get directions on your phone if you want, but it’s a straight shot down Thaphae road, and you can just follow the constellation of lanterns that will be rising up into the heavens. The Narawat Bridge is where most people send off the lanterns, though some people also enter the grounds of Wat Buppharam (Google Maps) and send them off from there.
The bridge will be incredibly crowded, but that’s exactly what your looking for if you want to maximize lantern density in your photos. It’s not coordinated like those ticketed events. Instead of hundreds of people sending off one lantern each at the same time, it’s thousands of people releasing a constant flow of lanterns. We sent off three of them.
Once the official schedule has been announced (last year we found it on the Tourism Authority of Thailand Website), make sure you look up what time the parade starts. Last year we got really lucky and made it to the bridge, sent off our lanterns and took our pictures before the parade started. Then walked back to the old town as the floats passed us, snacking on street food as we went.
Is the Chiang Mai Lantern Festival Safe?
Yeah, it’s basically safe. We went with a three year old girl and never felt nervous. Just hold on to your kids like you would in any crowded place. Oh, and I suppose people are playing with fire, so just keep an eye out for the occasional falling lantern (and don’t hold it sideways before you launch it or this might happen).
If you aren’t sure how to light your lantern safely, just watch a few people, and see how the ones who get it in the air do it. Note that they are big and you will probably need two people to light one. That’s no problem, though, because lighting lanterns is fun and a stranger will probably be happy to assist.
What Do You Need to Bring?
Bring a few hundred Baht, a lighter and a camera. That’s all. You can buy lanterns ahead of time if you want (we did just to be safe), but you can also buy them in the streets on the night of the sendoff. There’s plenty of food and water to be purchased cheaply near the river, and the less you are carrying, the easier it will be to get around.
If you are really excited about taking photos (like we always are), here’s the gear we carried:
- Camera: We used a our Nikon D810. It’s a little more than necessary, but our other camera, a Fuji XT100 has a fixed focal length and we wanted the flexibility of a DSLR. After a few years we’ve gotten used to the extra weight. The high resolution doesn’t hurt anything either.
- Lens: For our closeup shots we used our 24-70mm lens, since the shot needed to be wide enough to include the family and the sky full of lanterns. When photographing the sky, I often used our 70-200mm lens because it makes distant lanterns look a bit bigger. (Here are some more reasons to use a zoom lens.)
- Video Light: We didn’t want to use a flash, partly because it might be annoying to other festival goers, and partly because if it misfired at the wrong moment, our one shot at a perfect image would be missed. We used a video light instead, which had the added benefit of being a bigger light source without a cumbersome lightbox or umbrella. We bought ours in China, and I can’t find it on Amazon, but this search result shows some similar looking ones. I like it because it fits nicely in my camera bag‘s laptop compartment.
- Your knowledge of photography and exposure: If you don’t trust your camera’s automatic settings to get a good shot but you’re nervous about using manual mode, consider reading my e-book, Easy Manual Mode Photography for a quick, math-free guide to taking creative control of your exposures.
The Chiang Mai Lantern festival is easy to find and enjoy, so don’t get stressed about a good time. If you found this helpful, you might want to check out our other articles about Chiang Mai, or see where else we’ve been by visiting our destinations page. Oh, and don’t forget to sign up for my semi-weekly newsletter, so you’ll remember to come back for more articles later.
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