The Chiang Mai Loy Krathong Festival

Many sky lanterns in the sky Chiang Mai Loy Krathong Festivall
Sky lanterns at Doi Ti

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The most popular festival in Chiang Mai

The Chiang Mai Loy Krathong Festival

Loy Krathong is the most famous festival in Chiang Mai. The Chiang Mai Loy Krathong Festival in 2023 takes place on November 27, 28, and 29. November 28 is the full moon day. These dates are tentative.

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. According to the lunar calendar, the festival takes place on the evening of the full moon of the 12th month. 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 famous festival in North Thailand. It is a nationwide festival, but Sukhothai and Chiang Mai are the most popular destinations to observe the Loy Krathong celebrations. In Chiang Mai, the festival is also known as the Yee Peng Festival.

Table with flower arrangements Chiang Mai Loy Krathong
Krathongs for sale

The Essence of Loy Krathong in Thailand

Loy Krathong is a festival that takes place in the evening which makes it very different from Songkran, the other popular event in April. Songkran, my favorite festival in Thailand, is a daytime affair. The essence of Loy Krathong is in its name: “loy” (Thai: ลอย) means “to float” and krathong (Thai: “กระทง”) is a slice of the trunk of the banana plant, decorated with flowers and banana leaf. A candle and one or two incense sticks are stuck into the krathong. Floating this beautiful, expertly handcrafted floating flower arrangement on rivers and waterways is what the festival has been about since its inception.

Most Thai people have once in their life learned how to make a krathong. You don’t have to make a krathong yourself anymore though. In the course of the afternoon on the first day, people set up tables close to the Ping river and other waterways and sell their handmade krathongs for a small amount. The price of krathongs usually is 20 or 30THB, which is not much of you see how much time people must have spent making them. In the last 50 or 60 years, colorful parades and sky lanterns have been added to make the festival more attractive for visitors.

Women in traditional dress Chiang Mai Loy Krathong
Candle dance at the Three Kings Monument

Krathongs, Parades, and Sky Lanterns

The three main activities of the Chiang Mai Loy Krathong festivals nowadays are the floating of krathong, several parades, and the release of sky lanterns. That is the right order as the floating of krathong is the oldest activity. Before the 1960s Loy Krathong was only about the floating of krathong on rivers and waterways. Tourism authorities introduced parades in the 1960s.

The sky lanterns were not introduced earlier than the 1990s and have since then become the most popular and eyecatching aspect of the festival. This kind of paper and bamboo balloons are known as khom Loi (โคมลอย). Most photos of Loy Krathong show these illuminated balloons against a dark sky. It attracts many people to the festival, especially in Chiang Mai. 

Tourists releasing sky lanterns
Loy Krathong sky lantern release

Loy Krathong in Chiang Mai in 2023

What will the Chiang Mai Loy Krathong Festival look like in 2023? Will it again be the exciting, magical, and mesmerizing event, that it once was? Now that the days of the pandemic seem to be numbered, the festival this year probably will resemble the edition of 2019.

Each year the Chiang Mai branch of the Tourist Authority of Thailand publishes a detailed program of the festival but does that only a couple of weeks before the festival. Before the beginning of the pandemic, the program was more or less the same every year. Fantastic parades take place every day of the festival after dark, mainly at the east and south sides of the moat and on Thapae Road. On November 27 there should be the lantern parade. November 28 is the full moon day. On November 29 the parade takes place. 

colorful float Loy Krathong Chiang Mai
Float of the Loy Krathong parade

The Ping river is the best place to go

After the parades, we recommend you make your way to the Ping River between the Iron Bridge and the Nakorn Ping Bridge. Prepare yourself for crowds, especially on the Nawarat Bridge. I don’t expect Loy Krathong in 2023 to be as crowded as it was in 2019 so it should be ok. Along the Ping River, there will be food stalls and stalls where they sell krathongs.

In 2022 authorities banned the release of sky lanterns to the disappointment of many people.

 

People at the riverside
People releasing a krathong

The tentative program of Loy Krathong Chiang Mai in 2022

The Chiang Mai Tourist Authority will keep us probably waiting until a couple of weeks before the festival but this is my prediction:

Monday, November 27, 2023

After dark, there will be a candle dance performance at the Three Kings Monument in the old city.
Next will be the magnificent Lantern Parade, which will start on the east and south side of the moat and make its way through Thapae road to the railway station. The release of Krathongs will take place along the Ping River.

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

This is the full moon day. After dark there will be a “small krathong” parade, that will start on the east and south side of the moat. It will make its way through Thapae Road in the direction of the railway station as well. People will crowd around the Ping River and release krathong.

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

After dark, there will be the “big krathong parade, which will start on the east and south side of the moat as well. The parade will also make its way through Thapae road to the railway station. Along the Ping River, people will release krathongs.

colorful flower arrangements Loy Krathong Chiang Mai
Krathongs for sale

Other Chiang Mai Loy Krathong events

Nowadays the festival in Chiang Mai is more about the release of sky lanterns than the floating of Krathongs. More than ten years ago the last free mass release Loy Krathong event took place near the Mae Jo University, north of Chiang Mai. Authorities don’t allow this event anymore. Since then a growing number of privately organized events have popped up. These are organized by hotels, local authorities, and organizations. You will see them advertised. 

They usually take place at a location outside Chiang Mai and include dinner, cultural performances, a local market, and the release of lots of sky lanterns. Most of these events are well organized and worth visiting. One event I want to mention is the release of sky lanterns at the statue of the monk Kruba Srivichai in Lamphun. We have had good experiences with this event and hope it will be held this year.

People releasing sky lanterns at Doi TI Loy Krathong Chiang Mai
Loy Krathong sky lantern release at Doi Ti

Loy Krathong elsewhere in Thailand

The Loy Krathong festival is very big in Sukhothai in Central Thailand, the place where some people claim the festival originated. Looking at images on some websites 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 key and 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 only a handful of sky lanterns.

Bangkok is probably the least place in Thailand to enjoy Loy Krathong although some people might have a different opinion.

Women sitting on a boat Loy Krathong Chiang Mai
Loy Krathong in Lampang

The history and background of Loy Krathong

The first mention of the festival

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. It probably has been celebrated for at least 150 years, If not longer. J.Antonio wrote this in his Guide to Bangkok and Siam, issued in 1904:

“On occasions of this festival, the Menam and other waterways present a really remarkable appearance after nightfall, covered as they are with thousands of miniature ships, rafts, etc., each brilliantly lighted up and bearing offerings to the goddess of water. Some of the model craft are of considerable size and the scene is a most picturesque one. The festival usually takes place in October and November.”

This is the first mention of the festival I have found up to now.

Woman selling flower arrangements
Krathongs for sale

The background of Loy Krathong

The background of the Loy Krathong Festival in Thailand 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 asking 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 ask for good luck in the future.

Loy Krathong in old guide books

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.”

Colorful float Chiang Mai Loy Krathong
Float at the Loy Krathong Parade

The Evolution of the festival in Chiang Mai

Margaretta Wells wrote the first guidebook 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.

Lanterns on a bridge
Lanterns on the Iron Bridge

Changes in the Chiang Mai Loy Krathong Festival

In the 1960s the Tourist Authority of Thailand, in cooperation with local authorities, started to introduce new festivals and amend existing ones to attract tourists.

American scholar Ronald Renard described the authorities of the change 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.

Temple with lanterns
Wat Sai Moon Muang during Loy Krathong

The introduction of the Sky Lanterns

The mass release of Sky Lanterns (khom loi) was introduced probably in the early 2000s in North Thailand. 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 dinner, cultural performances, and an organized release of sky lanterns.

Tourist releasing sky lantern Loy Krathong tour North Thailand
Loy Krathong Sky Lantern release

Controversies over Loy Krathong in Chiang Mai

Krathongs of styrofoam

Styrofoam is a sort of very light, floatable plastic that was invented in the 1940s. In Thailand, people use styrofoam boxes to package food and styrofoam cups. Some time in the past people started to use styrofoam as an easy substitute for the slice of the trunk of the banana plant.

You can’t recycle styrofoam, which apparently takes 500 years to decompose. Hundreds of thousands of styrofoam krathongs started to block waterways or became an eyesore so authorities decided to ban the use of styrofoam. People then went back to the old ways using the banana trunk slices.

colorful flower arrangements
Krathongs for sale

The ban on the release of Sky Lanterns in 2022

In 2022 authorities banned the release of sky lanterns in Chiang Mai. The first mass releases of sky lanterns took place near Mae Jo University, north of Chiang Mai. The date didn’t coincide with Loy Krathong. Since then the release of sky lanterns has become increasingly popular and started to become hazardous for air traffic. Authorities had to step in and restrict the release of sky lanterns.

Colorful lanterns
Lanterns at Lamphun

Overcrowding on the Nawarat Bridge

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 releasing sky lanterns with open fire. The police didn’t seem to be in control of the situation. It took me 20 minutes to cross the bridge from one side to another. I imagined that this was a possible scenario for a stampede, a very unpleasant experience indeed.

The igniting of fireworks in crowds has also been a source of complaints. Some people decided to celebrate Loy Krathong in quieter, more traditional places such as Lamphun and Lampang. Anyway, it will take some time before crowds come back to Chiang Mai.

Women sitting on the pavement
Women taking part in the Loy Krathong parade

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. Most 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

Several Wikipedia pages