22nd January 2019
By Courtney Ridgel
Loi Krathong is one of the most well-known Festivals in Southeast Asia and has been documented everywhere from National Geographic to Instagram many times over. It had long been on my wish-list and last November, I was lucky enough to be in Chiang Mai to see Loi Krathong for myself.
A monk giving this couple a blessing for Loi Krathong
Loi Krathong is beautiful and holds a great historical, religious and cultural significance to the Thai people. This festival typically falls in November, on the full moon of the 12th lunar month (which is November 4th this year) and Thais celebrate both this festival as both a Buddhist holiday, and as a chance to give thanks to the Ping River and the Water Goddess. The festival is celebrated by releasing the iconic paper lanterns into the sky, and floating ‘Krathongs’ or small boats with leaves, candles, flowers and incense downriver. The largest celebrations take place in Chiang Mai and are typically accompanied by a grand parade and street parties.
Krathongs are typically made from banana tree wood, flowers, leaves, incense and candles
Krathongs come in a variety of styles
One thing that became immediately obvious to me was that there are things you notice in person that you can’t necessarily tell from photos posted on the internet. I was very glad that Journeys Within had made the arrangements for me as there are there are many factors worth considering in planning a Loi Krathong experience:
Lanterns floating high above Chiang Mai and the Ping River
Because this festival is beautiful, it has also become very popular among other travelers, particularly in Chiang Mai. This means that Chiang Mai will be very crowded during this time of year. You can expect to see the streets full of people, and traffic moves very slowly. Keep this in mind as all travel times will be longer than normal, especially when traveling to and from the airports – plan ahead and leave early. As I was traveling with Journeys Within, I didn’t have worry about this, and could just relax and enjoy my time in Chiang Mai.
People crowd the river’s edge to launch their Krathongs
The same goes for restaurants – most restaurants don’t take reservations over Loi Krathong, and the ones that do will be very busy and full. Many of them hire college students to help out with the rush, so the service and English-speaking skills may not be entirely perfect. This isn’t really a downside – sitting down for slow dinner at a restaurant on the river can be a wonderful way to pass the evening as you’ll have a great view of both the lanterns and the Krathongs, and often live music to enjoy. Some restaurants even have stairs down to the water so you can launch your own lanterns and krathongs on the spot after dinner, and Journeys Within can make this happen for you.
The Riverside Bar & Restaurant features live music and a wonderful view of the river
Only a few restaurants will take reservations over Loi Krathong
Expect the flights traveling in and out of Chiang Mai to have delays or changes in flight times. Keep an eye on this, as the airlines may not give you much notice, if any and Google doesn’t always keep up. The reason for this is that there are concerns about the floating lanterns getting caught in the jet engines during certain times of the day, particularly in the evening, so they try to work around the peak balloon-launching hours. Fortunately, my Journeys Within guide monitored my changing flight schedules closely and made sure that I arrived at the airport at the proper time.
A woman launching her lantern into the sky
Hotels will likely fill up and prices will be more expensive over Loi Krathong, so it is best to plan ahead if you can to take advantage of the best deals. Journeys Within has contract rates with many partner hotels, so you’ll likely be able to get a better deal than you would trying to book the same hotels on your own during this period.
Waiting for my turn to float my krathong downstream
I insisted on striking out on my own (against the recommendations of my guide), intending to seek the heart of the action, and boy did I! This can be a wonderful adventure if it is what you are looking for, or it could ruin your whole evening. The streets of Chiang Mai, particularly those close to the river, turn into a street party and it can take hours to wind your way through the foot, motorbike and car traffic. The whole scene is a bit reminiscent of a super-sized college party with very strange food options and a lot of drunken revelers playing with fire (literally). If this is your scene – go for it! For families with younger kids or for older couples, I’d recommend sticking to the riverside restaurant option I mentioned above. Alternatively, there are also river cruises available, some of them with a dinner option. Keep in mind that the fireworks are launched over the river, so be prepared for a front-row seat. Certain hotels in town, such as the Sala Lanna which is right on the river, also have rooftop bars where you can enjoy a cocktail and take in the view without navigating through the crowds in the streets.
The streets of Chiang Mai turn into a giant party
The most beautiful Loi Krathong photos with thousands of lanterns being released all at once actually take place in Mae Jo, outside of Chiang Mai, and this event, known as the ‘Mass Sky Lantern Release’ is put on by an independent Buddhist group. There is a free event, intended largely for locals, which encompasses a robes ceremony and money trees. This event is also extremely crowded and transportation to and from the Mae Jo can be a challenge due to the traffic. There is also a ticketed lantern release designed for tourists, and transportation is included with the cost of the tickets (which are expensive and need to be purchased in advance as there are a limited number of them). That said, the ticketed event does not include many of the traditional cultural and religious elements of this holiday, so it loses authenticity, and once again, the travel time can be extensive. Otherwise, festival-goers in Chiang Mai proper release their own personal lanterns whenever the mood takes them. This means that the scene is still beautiful and the sky has many lanterns twinkling like fireflies after dark, but the effect is not the same – there is no sudden rush of lanterns being released – just one or two at a time. Most of the locals feel overwhelmed by the crowds these days so they just head home to be with their families.
Inside the city of Chiang Mai, lanterns are released one or two at a time
One very neat aspect of Loi Krathong that is often overlooked is the fact that this is indeed a religious holiday, meaning that the temples around Chiang Mai are particularly active on this day, and you’ll see locals visiting to hear the chanting, bring donations and receive blessings. I was able to observe several hundred schoolchildren rotating through stations to learn from the monks on a field trip, and Tien, my guide, translated for me. It was a really unique and unusual window into the world of Buddhism in Thailand.
A local schoolgirl looks up from her lesson from the resident monks to make a new friend
Schoolchildren learning from the resident monks on a field trip
If Chiang Mai doesn’t fit into your travel plans, you can also celebrate Loi Krathong at one of Thailand’s beautiful beaches. The celebrations are not as extravagant, but you can make a very romantic evening out of releasing lanterns at the beach and floating your Krathong out to sea. For a different kind of experience, you can also head to Luang Prabang’s Festival of Lights, which also falls in November.
My krathong floating downstream
My lantern floating away into the night sky
Overall, the best advice I can give about visiting Loi Krathong is that I strongly recommend working with a travel specialist (Journeys Within) over going it alone. Journeys Within guides make all the difference in navigating this festival and providing an outstanding experience. I’ve seen firsthand that their extensive local knowledge is invaluable, and they can point in you in the right direction for your personal travel preferences so that you can take everything in and not be overwhelmed by the crowds. Additionally, Journeys Within guides are a life-saver when it comes to keep track of unexpected flight changes and navigating traffic delays so that you don’t miss any of the highlights. If you are planning a visit to the Loi Krathong festivities, check out our Loi Krathong Tour for Couples & Loi Krathong Tour for Families tours!
Guests watching the lanterns from their table
Lanterns drifting in the sky behind a temple