This is the festival to attend if you enjoy all the pictures of the pretty lanterns.
Held at Mae Jo University north of Chiang Mai, it’s put on not by the local government, but a Buddhist organization called the Duang Tawan Santiparb Foundation.
Plenty of food and drink available on sale before reaching the entrance. The street vendors seemed well aware of the event and were out in full force offering the usual delights of street food and beverages. A few of them catered to the inevitably non-religious and offered some beer for sale — not a huge deal, just an observation.
There was a bit of a slowdown in the process of actually entering, since no lanterns, fireworks, or alcohol was supposed to be allowed inside the event. The ones available for sale outside, apparently, were not allowed to be brought in. I didn’t see or hear any mention of why on-site (although the official website suggests the official ones are biodegradable, a point to which I’ll return.)
After people were told they weren’t allowed to bring their lanterns in, they decided to launch them by the gate. The ‘legitimate’ lanterns were only available in long, somewhat unorganized lines. That these are 100 baht each (compared to the ones outside for 30–50 baht each) raised a few other questions not answered on-site.
We arrived shortly before the ceremonies started, and spread our sheet in an empty spot. That there were no hawkers waving their wares through the crowd was another plus, and I’m glad there was either some control (or some respect) of the ceremonies.
It’s at about point when you’re reminded there are fireworks available for sale outside. At any given time, what might have been a solemn moment was ruined by a loud pop and sparkly fireworks. I’m a bit surprised the organizers allowed the street sellers to sell them in the first place…
The masters of ceremonies were too far away to see from where we were, so I went in for a closer look. Announcements were in Thai, English, Japanese, and Chinese, and they were easy to understand. There were also practice bows, which was a nice touch for people that endeavored to follow the ceremony as best as possible.
To be certain, this is intended to be a religious event for Buddha, and the devout were around. While most of the event had translations, the monk’s speech (prayer?), went on for over half an hour in Thai only. What were almost unmistakably wise words were never understood by the sizable percentage of non-Thai’s. Were this a few seconds of between speakers it might have been one thing. Worse was a disorienting, and awkward, period of silence following the monk’s speech. For five or six minutes there was no clue what is happening or going on…
The lighting of the lanterns is merely one part of the event, and one that’s held until the end. Despite multiple announcements to wait, a fair percentage of the crowd (Thais and foreigners alike) seemed uninterested in listening… To make matters worse, I didn’t see a single fire extinguisher, bucket of water, first-aid kit, first-aid tent, or anything to deal with mishaps involving fire. The torches planted every couple of meters throughout the crowd made fire quite easy to access — and all too easy to accidentally brush up against in the crowds. While I’d love to think no one was burned or hurt by an errant lantern, the question of ‘what will the staff be able to do in the event of an emergency?’ was a major concern.
The circumambulation (walking around the Buddha image) was a nice sight.
The lanterns were spectacular to be rising in the air and floating off in the distance, and the announcements were clear and easy to follow.
The wonderful display of the lights. Tens of thousands of lanterns lifting up and reaching the skies is a sight I will never forget. Not pictured is the borderline grandiose theatrics involving a central light display. Having biodegradable lanterns probably doesn’t do much to offset the vast amount of smoke set off from lighting hundreds of with some sort of fireworks.
The number of smartphones and DSLR’s was almost equal to the number of lanterns being raised.
As the event moved onto its next phase of bowing and prayers, a good percentage of folks made for the exits. This was perhaps most horrific clusterf***’s I’ve ever had in trying to leave an event. I don’t know what the problem was, but the crowd seemed unable to progress out of the sole exit with any speed. This single road out was a huge bottleneck, and resulted in more pushing and shoving than on a rush-hour subway ride.
To make matters worse, folks were lighting and sending up lanterns along the way. Multiple lanterns fell back to the earth prematurely in the middle of groups of people. Again, I’m surprised no one was hurt, or had a lantern fall on them. It could have gone badly in more than one way.
It would seem the event has become a victim of its own success. The lanterns are beautiful, but both groups (the devout and tourists) have different interests that one festival can’t handle well. In any case, the website talks about how the festival is a fundraiser (thus, perhaps, one reason why the ‘official’ lanterns are 2–3 times the price of the ones outside) — a fact that needed to be known at the festival itself.
For future years, it looks to be held in the same place every year — the outskirts of Mae Jo University, about 12 kilometers north of Chiang Mai. The exact place is an outdoor amphitheater sort of area (GPS: 18.906733,99.006168), and is pretty easy to reach from Chiang Mai.