Pretty much the first thing I did when I arrived in Thailand, even before I got tattooed by a monk, was to book accommodation in Chiang Mai for a few days which were a whole month away. normally I don't book somewhere to stay until I've arrived, but I wanted to make sure I had a roof over my head during the Loy Krathong and Yee Peng festival period. The famous sky lantern release (Yee Peng) is an event I have wanted to attend for years, and was definitely the topmost item on my list of things I was most excited to do in Thailand.
Mere hours after I'd booked and paid upfront, the announcement of the King's death came, and it came with even more bad news - the ban of entertainment for 30 days, along with the cancellation of any festivals - including Loy Krathong and Yee Peng. I was obviously pretty upset, but it was quite moving to see how seriously the Thais took the death of their beloved King. Plus - now I had an excuse to return to Thailand again in the future!
Over the next few weeks, there were several rumours that the festival would potentially still be going ahead. The moment I got the news that it was definitely going to be on, I was on my way up to a mountain village and although I was initially ecstatic, I also had a sudden realisation that I would have to rush back the next morning to get a bus to Laos in time to sort my Indian visa in time to get back to Chiang Mai in good time for the start of the festival. I was going to be massively pushed for time, and obviously my knack for finding bad luck in certain situations meant the resulting outcome was that it didn't really go to plan...
A rushed couple of days later, safely back in Chiang Mai I made my way to Wat Arun - the temple where one of the opening ceremonies was being held. I arrived fairly early and feeling pretty pleased with myself I got a spot quite close to the front. Just half an hour later, the place was crowded, hot and sweaty. I could feel mosquitos biting me, and a sudden influx of Chinese tourists meant that most of the photos I tried to take ended up being of the back of a head, as what felt like hundreds of Chinese arms kept darting up with huge cameras and knocking everyone else's arms out of the way. I don't think my mouth has ever been as dry as it was that night, and I was on the verge of a full blown tantrum, so when one of the guys I'd been chatting to said he was making an exit to get a drink, I followed without hesitation.
Liam and I spent the rest of the night chatting, and arranged to meet up again the next day for the festival. It made the world of difference having a companion in the unorganised chaos that is Loy Krathong - especially when it's a companion with a great taste in music, giving you so much to talk about that you don't have time to get claustrophobic.
I have to admit, the festivals were neither the 'calm and relaxing moments' or the 'perfect photo opportunities' that I'd always imagined them to be. 'Loy Krathong' literally translates to 'floating baskets' and funnily enough, involves floating candlelit 'baskets' down the river. Whilst this sounds cute and pretty, what it actually involves is hundreds of people, laden with cameras and phones, pushing into each other on a muddy, slippery river bank, in an attempt to release their little floaty things without losing a flip flop to the mud, or a camera to the river. It's a bit of a free for all, and I was very conscious the entire time that any moment could be my last 'dry' moment, and one wrong step would ensure that I was no longer the proud owner of a phone or camera. A lot of the 'krathongs' are built with no form of wind shelter for the candles, so the flames go out almost instantly, and to be honest, it looks nothing like the photos you see...
'Krathongs' sent on their merry way, and our feet safely back on firm ground, it was time to release our lanterns. It was a god-given miracle that the flimsy, handmade tissue paper/wire combinations were still intact to be fair, considering we'd had to buy them hours in advance and carry them round with us all night, whilst the whole of Chiang Mai seemed to be filled with crowds of people of the barging variety...
The lack of organisation (or at least readily available information) about this event was pretty atrocious. Of course, everybody wants the 'picture perfect moment' of themselves releasing a lantern, whilst hundreds more lanterns decorate the sky behind them, and whilst we'd heard rumours of a mass lantern release at 9pm, we weren't sure if they were simply just rumours or where a mass release would even happen if there were to be one. It also seemed that the majority of people were gathering on a specific bridge to release lanterns - it can't have been an 'official' spot as it was a horrendous location, considering that it was narrow enough to be overcrowded as well as being surrounded by trees and electrical wires.
Liam and I spent a while watching (mainly Western tourists) screw up their lanterns - either by accidentally catching them on fire, or releasing them under a tree, only to get caught up in the branches. After a short time, it became apparent that even if there was supposed to be a mass release, nobody seemed to know about it and our best bet to get a half decent photo would be as soon as possible, so we found a spot that wasn't obstructed by wires or branches, and successfully set off our lanterns.
On my way home that night, I walked past another bridge that was filled with people releasing their lanterns. It was a lot less crowded, had hardly any tourists and as a result seemed a lot less chaotic. There was to be another lantern release the following night, so we decided to give that spot a go instead - and what a difference! If you ever intend to attend Loy Krathong or Ye Peng festivals, try and find yourself a spot that lacks tourists - the experience is much more pleasant! (And there are fewer failed lantern launchings!) There was even a lovely riverside bar with an incredible live band. They had infectious smiles and an indescribable style - it was great!
If I'm being totally honest, the festivals themselves were a slight anti-climax. The photos that you see online are actually from the Mae Jo Lantern Release, which is held at the same time as Loy Krathong/Yi Peng, but instead of being a free event, tickets sell for up to $300 a time. It was of course a magical experience, and a lot of fun - I'd definitely still recommend checking the events out. (Though if you're looking at photos of Mae Jo, and you're going to be disappointed if there aren't quite as many lanterns as that, you're maybe better off forking out the $100- $300 for a ticket to go to what I imagine is a slightly better organised affair!)
The best part for me was meeting a friend for life - If you're ever in Thailand in November, get yourself to Chiang Mai, cram yourself into an overcrowded opening ceremony, moan like crazy about absolutely everything, and find yourself a Liam!