Chiang Mai and The Lantern Festival
If you go to Chiang Mai, try to plan your trip for November. The Lantern Festival is a unique way to appreciate the Thai culture. We went to Chiang Mai in November to see the famous lantern festival. Dates change every year but it’s usually around mid-month. We chose to stay close to the Nawarat Bridge because this is where the krathongs and lanterns are released. Krathongs are traditional objects made of bamboo used for prayer that float on the river. They are lit up and released in the water.
Krathongs release is a unique ritual. Locals set up stalls to sell krathongs and food all around the river. Choose your favorite (they have different flowers, colors, shapes, and prices). We picked a stall that requested a donation for children (you can find ways to help even when you do touristy things). Light it up, express a wish and release it in the river. There are locals immersed in the water who help to push the krathongs. Once you’re done admire the lights of the krathongs glimmering in the river from the bridge.
The release of the lanterns was allowed for two nights from 7 PM to 1 AM. Days and times change every year so remember to check. As the information online is confusing, I have to mention that there is another lantern festival at Mae Jo University but it’s not free (ticket is required and it’s expensive). You can enjoy the free festival on the bridges around the river.
We couldn’t find lanterns to buy, stalls on the street don’t sell them. We were told that some shops have them. It was fun to watch people on the bridge perform the ritual. Be aware that lanterns are big and should be handled by at least two people who hold them at opposite sides. Some flew up in the sky, others fell into the river and some others went down towards the water before flying high keeping us there attentive holding our breath and cheering. Watching the lanterns show made me think that they are a good metaphor for human life: sometimes you are not successful in what you do, sometimes instead you fly high, and some other times you fall and everything seems lost but you give it a final push and you make it, in the end.
The touristy part of the city is the area that goes from Tha Phae Road until Tha Phae Gate. There are temples, cafes, restaurants and shops selling excursions. Many places were selling activities with elephants involved like riding, bathing with them etc. Honestly, we were annoyed by this “elephants market.” We wanted to see elephants but the sanctuary tours were expensive and the last thing we wanted was to contribute to animals exploitation.
We visited a couple of temples and we liked the ones outside of the old city walls: Wat Suan Dok and the famous Wat Phra That Doi Suthep (30 min with a red cab from the downtown for a couple of dollars). Red cabs are small trucks where people sit in the back (they have 6-8 seats). They pick up people who go in the same direction if you want to take one just wave and show the driver where you want to go. They are cheap and they are a great way of exploring the city. Wat Suthep is located on the top of a hill. The shimmering golden pagoda is mesmerizing. We enjoyed the ritual of doing three rounds around it in prayer to pay respect. There were monks and locals chanting and praying. Remember to dress appropriately when visiting temples (shoulders, knees covered).
WHERE TO STAY:
Sakorn Residence & Hotel walking distance from the center, but removed from the crowd. Clean room. The staff is nice and always ready to help.
The last day we wanted to do something to help the local community and we decided to visit Viengping Children’s Home. We donated basic goods (shower gel, shampoo, rice, toothpaste). We had the chance to visit the structure and loved the kids. They come from families that couldn’t take care of them or have HIV. Volunteers are great and kids have a lot of space for activities. If you go to Chiang Mai please go visit them. And if you want to volunteer apply in advance.
HOW TO GET THERE:
Take a tuk-tuk. Hopefully, he'll know where it is. Otherwise, this is the address: 63/3 M004 Tambon Donkaewthe. Ask him to take the ChiangMai - Mae Rim road north until you see a sign Huai Tung Tao Lake and the Viengping Orphanage sign. Turn left and go about 100 meters and it will be on your left. Call them before you go.
For our return to Bangkok, we chose the train because we had read that it is recommended for the scenery. We booked online through a third party and collected our ticket at Bossotel same day 30 min before departure. Food (rice + protein) and coffee/tea are included in the price. I wouldn’t recommend the experience because the ride is too long (around 11 hours) and, in my opinion, it’s not worth your time, especially if you don’t have much.
The lantern festival is certainly one of the most fascinating ceremonies in the world. The flowers, the rituals and the lights in the sky create a special atmosphere that transports you into the heart of the Thai culture.