The lantern festival was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had in my entire life. I do not write that lightly. The image of seeing so many lanterns take flight in a single moment had a profound effect on me that put tears in my eyes and choked my throat. I cannot recommend this experience enough.
We’d traveled to Chiang Mai specifically for the lantern festival. Videos and photos had confirmed that it would be something that I wanted to experience, but I had no idea.
This festival draws people from all over the world and we were warned to go early, for traffic would be terrible. We listened and arrived at the Mae Jo University field about three hours before the lanterns would be released…BUT we didn’t know this at the time.
So we sat in the field with thousands of others, snuggled in tight, all waiting to light our lanterns that sat taunting us. Loud speakers described the meaning of the festival, in four different languages: Thai, English, Japanese, and Chinese. I half listened as they focused the audience on this being a Buddhist ceremony and reminded, in each language, to NOT light the lantern until they gave the word.
The Yeepeng SanSai Floating Lantern Ceremony is to honor the teachings of Buddha and to give him gratitude. The speaker also spoke of the lanterns releasing bad luck, so if a lantern fell on your house, it is bad luck, and another ceremony must be performed.
This ceremony began with a procession of monks who chanted and then a head monk spoke for awhile in Thai, with no translation. During the chanting of the monks, a University attendant, who would light the torches in the field, had sat near us. As the monk spoke, she held her hands in prayer, eyes closed. She looked so serene and at peace. I tried to emulate her a few times but my brain could not hold focus, there was a huge lantern waiting to be lit! My eyes opened and I began to track the lanterns filling the sky. With the lights off, their tiny flames kept pulling my attention. The full moon also added the eye to the various shapes I kept finding in the clouds (mostly dragons). Distracted, I took to filming the lanterns passing overhead, seeing them dance and form shapes.
With the conclusion of the head monk’s talk, chanting began again, and the crowd’s anticipation continued to grow. It was three hours after arriving that the torch near us was finally lit and the excitement of the crowd caused more lanterns to take flight. And so, more insistence from our translator that we NOT light our lanterns. He implored us to wait for an amazing photo. “I repeat, do not launch your lantern until we say so“, as more took flight.
With the lit torch, we were invited to sit behind it and meditate. Our announcer said that we were to make a wish for ourselves and the entire world for peace. It was a beautiful thought, so we attempted to relax and wait a bit longer to light our lantern.
When we were *FINALLY!!* told we could light the lantern, my camera was immediately out and I was snapping away, not wishing to miss a moment. But the process to light the lantern is not that easy and requires two people’s attention. First, you unfold it, then light the fuse base and wait for the lantern to fill with hot air. Two people are ideal to keep the lantern unfolded while waiting for it to fill up (which is unfortunately not an instant process). We saw one lantern burst into flames besides us, the thin rice paper swallowed instantly by the flame that touched it. So we waited patiently for the lantern to fill and then still had to wait for the go-ahead! With our lanterns full of hot air, gently pulling at our hands ready to be released, our willpower was also tugged at us as we willed ourselves to wait.
When we were finally told to release, the sound of the crowd swelled and a collective shout of joy was released. It was amazing. I hurriedly switched to video and watched in amazement as the sky filled with lanterns. The effect of having so many lanterns take flight at the same time was truly magnificent. I think it was so overwhelming that my brain was reveling and couldn’t believe I was actually experiencing it. It was truly awe inspiring. The joyful music that played continued to add to this experience.
My group of four launched 5 lanterns, one each and the last one together. The last group lantern was a nice moment joining us. It was also with that one that I remembered the wish aspect of the festival and I made my wish with the release of the lantern.
To wait so long was definitely a test in self control and many in the crowd were not up to the challenge. Now, having seen the results of *most* of the crowd waiting, I can say it was 100% worth it. I hope the image is forever seared in my mind and heart…I’m even debating a tattoo to commemorate it!
What tattoo worthy event have you experienced?
UPDATE: Few tips when attending the festival, based on lessons learned: http://fierytree.com/2013/12/01/tips-for-the-chiang-mai-lantern-festival/
UPDATE 2: Article corrected for my previous misunderstandings. 😀