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The Chiang Mai Loy Krathong Festival
Loy Krathong (ลอยกระทง) is a festival that is celebrated in Thailand, Laos and some other places in Southeast Asia that have a Thai or Tai heritage. The festival takes place on the evening of the full moon of the 12th month according to the lunar calendar. Every year this is a different day, which causes a lot of confusion.
Loy Krathong usually falls in November. It is without a doubt the most popular festival in North Thailand. Sukhothai and Chiang Mai are the most popular destination to observe the Loy Krathong celebrations. In Chiang Mai the festival is also known as the Yee Peng Festival.
Dates of the Loy Krathong Festival
In Chiang Mai the Loy Krathong Festival lasts three days. The first day is the lantern festival, the second day is the full moon day aka the day of the small krathong and the third day is now the day of the Loy Krathong parade. On every day there are usually beautiful parades in the evening.
The Thai Tourist Authority is notoriously late with confirming the dates of Loy Krathong and with publishing the detailed program. In 2020 authorities cancelled the festival because of the Covid-19 pandemic. At this moment we are waiting for news about the festival in 2021.
The history of Loy Krathong
Loy Krathong is not a national holiday in Thailand, unlike for instance Songkran. In the Directory for Siam and Bangkok of 1914 it is not even listed as a festival.
The history of the Loy Krathong Festival is somewhat obscure. Some people claim that the tradition of Loy Krathong originates in Sukhothai and was first organized by a court lady called Nopphamat. Others believe it was a Brahmanic festival that was adapted by Thai Buddhists to honor the Buddha. Anyway, the ritual of Loy Krathong is about paying respect to the Goddess of the Water showing gratitude for the use of water, and ask for forgiveness in the ensuing pollution. People float a “Krathong” in the river to get rid of misfortune and bad things that happened in the past and asking for good luck in the future.
What guidebooks said about Loy Krathong
The Royal State Railways of Siam published the guidebook “Guide to Bangkok with notes on Siam” by Major Erik Seidenfaden in 1927. I am the proud owner of the third edition, published in 1932.
In his book Seidenfaden wrote: “A rite much celebrated in former days but unfortunately falling in abeyance, is the Loy Krathong. This ceremony is probably of Brahmanic origin, the idea being to appease the genii of the waters by offering small floats made of bananas, bamboo or light wood or vessels made of plantain leaves or paper, wherein are placed offerings of food, cakes and sweets, flowers, incense sticks, tapers, dolls and dolls’ canoes, etc.
These are set adrift on the river while the favour of the water spirits is invoked. In Chieng Mai and along the Mekong River this custom is still very much alive and to see the river on a quiet starlit night decked with hundreds of these small lighted vessels drifting slowly with the current is a most fairylike spectacle.”
The Evolution of the festival in Chiang Mai
Margaretta Wells wrote the first guide book of Chiang Mai. Her “Guide to Chiengmai” was first published in 1962. She wrote this about Loy Krathong” The full moon in November, which seems fuller than any other moon, brings “Loi Kratong” or the floating of a little basket made of leaves. This is to appease the spirits of the waters by offering food, flowers, incense, clay figures and lighted candles. The little boats can become very elaborate. Often a school will spend considerable time and effort making a boat of unusual design, then march to the river bank to launch it. But the most charming sight still is the many simple little leaf Kratong bearing light and good will to the spirits of the water, floating off in the darkness and disappearing around a bend in the river.”
Roy Hudson described it like this in his guidebook “Hudson’s guide for Chiang Mai and the North”, published in 1970: “The evening approaches and family groups make their way down to the river, moat or nearby stream”…”They will have made a Krathong, or bought one on the way.” At the water’s edge, they will lit the candles and float the Krathong. They push it gently and watch it glide away into the darkness, carrying with it all the wishes of the family for the following year. He doesn’t mention either parades or sky lanterns.
Authorities modify the Chiang Mai Loy Krathong Festival for tourism
In the 1960s the Thai Tourist Authority, in cooperation with local authoritites, started to introduce new festivals and amend existing ones to attract tourists.
American scholar Ronald Renard described the changes authorities made to the Loy Krathong festival. First they added a day to the festival. This day became known as “Loy Krathong Yai” featuring a procession through town with large floats. This day followed the first full moon day which became known as “Loy Krathong Lek”, the day of the small krathong. Later they added another day to the festival, before the full moon day. This became the day of the lantern festival.
The introduction of the Sky Lanterns
The mass release of Sky Lanterns (khom loi) was introduced probably in the early 2000s. The release of sky lanterns has always been part of the festival but the introduction of a mass release of sky lanterns at Mae Jo University profoundly changed the festival. The spectacular pictures of this event started to attract many people. The internet and social media played an important role in the worldwide spread of the popularity of Loy Krathong in Chiang Mai.
A couple of years ago they stopped organizing the mass release at Mae Jo University, allowing private companies to organize smaller events that include a dinner, cultural performances and an organized release of sky lanterns.
The Sky Lantern Festival
Most activities of Loy Krathong take place after dark and close to the Ping River. So that became the Loy Krathong Festival as we know it now, a festival where the release of sky lanterns sometimes seems to overshadow the floating of krathongs. A khom Loi (โคมลอย) is made from a thin fabric, such as rice paper, stretched over a bamboo or wireframe, to which a candle or fuel cell is attached. After you lit the fuel cell, the resulting hot air is trapped inside the lantern and creates enough lift for the khom loi to float into the sky.
Some people also call the festival the “Sky Lantern Festival”. Most photographs you will find if you Google “Loy Krathong Chiang Mai” show masses of sky lanterns in the night sky. It is a spectacular sight that attracts many tourists.
The Lantern release has become another significant source of confusion in recent years. Still, on many websites, you will find information about a mass lantern release at Mae Jo University. This event has not taken place for at least five years already.
Problems with the Sky Lantern Release
In recent years authorities have limited time and place of the sky lantern release. The way they have communicated this to stakeholders and the general public has caused a lot of confusion and irritation. Nowadays the release of sky lanterns is only allowed on the 2nd and 3rd days of the festival between 1900 and 0100 (one hour after midnight). In 2020 this will probably be on October 30 and 31. Releasing of lanterns within and around the Chiang Mai International Airport, i.e. areas along the route for departure and landing of the planes, is not allowed.
Sky Lanterns along the Ping River
Most tourists flock to the Ping River between the Nakornping Bridge and the Iron Bridge to observe and release sky lanterns. In 2019 I witnessed large crowds of people on and around the Nawarat Bridge. It was a scary situation with people jam-packed trying to cross the bridge while others were lighting a fire to release lanterns. The police didn’t seem to be in control. It was a scenario for a stampede. People also have more and more criticized the release of sky lanterns because of pollution and the danger of open fire.
Chiang Mai Loy Krathong events
Nowadays the festival in Chiang Mai is more about the release of sky lanterns than the floating of krathongs. There have been a growing amount of organized sky lantern releases. These take place usually outside of Chiang Mai. Around the colossal statue of Kruba Srivichai at Doi Ti, near Lamphun, there is an event. There are also events at Horizon Village, Doi Saket district, and near the Mae Jo University. It is hard to keep track of these events, but we can warmly recommend the Doi Ti event. The organized activities usually come with a dinner and a local market.
Loy Krathong in other destinations in North Thailand
Loy Krathong is very big in Sukhothai, the place where some people claim the festival originated. Looking at images on some website it definitely looks very spectacular with the historical park as the backdrop. The festivities in Sukhothai feature cultural performances, a sound and light show and impressive fireworks. I have never experienced Loy Krathong in Sukhothai but it must be amazing. Please note that there are no sky lanterns during Loy Krathong at Sukhothai.
In 2017 I went to Lampang to see how they celebrate Loy Krathong. It was pretty low keyand I didn’t see any tourists. The festivities took place along the Wang River and in Ban Chiang Rai road, opposite Wat Chiang Rai. There was no parade but a procession of decorated vessels with women in traditional dress. Cultural performances took place on a stage next to the river. In Lampang I observed the release of a handful of sky lanterns
References for this article
I have experienced the Loy Krathong Festival at different locations in Thailand such as Bangkok, Phitsanulok, Lampang and Chiang Mai, of course. Much of this article is based on my own experiences over the years. I have consulted the following books and articles:
Erik Seidenfaden, Guide to Bangkok with Notes on Siam, Royal State Railways of Siam, Bangkok, 1932
Margaretta Wells, Guide to Chiengmai, Bangkok, 1962
Roy Hudson, Hudson’s Guide to Chiang Mai, Chiang Mai, 1970
John Hoskins, Chiang Mai & Northern Thailand, Hong Kong, 1984
Ronald D. Renard, The Image of Chiang Mai: the making of a beautiful city, Journal of the Siam Society, 1999
Loy Krathong Tours
We have a couple of Loy Krathong tours on our website such as the Loy Krathong tour. This tour features not only the Loy Krathong festivities but also sights such as Wat Doi Suthep and Lamphun. You will also make a relaxing ride with a traditional bicycle taxi (samlor). All our tours can be customized, of course.