Chiang Mai is well-known for its two important festivals: Songkran, Thailand traditional New Year and the annual winter fair called Yi Peng, better knows as Loi Krathong, celebrated on the full moon of the twelfth lunar month, which usually falls in November.
In the North, when the cool winds blow through the hills and forests, and the fields of rice - heavy with grain - catch the golden rays of the evening sun, it's time for the eagerly awaited harvest. Yi Peng, the annual winter fair, celebrates this harvest and all the good things associated with it. Yi in the northern dialect means "two" while peng is equivalent to "phen" or "full moon" in the central Thai dialect. Thus "Yi Peng" means "Full moon night of the 12th lunar month".
On Yi Peng night, the full moon send cool rich light across the night skies. Romance and magic fills the air, highlighted by the lanterns and krathong (traditional banana leaf float) floated on the sacred Ping River by the locals. The Yi Peng Festival of Chiang Mai is said to have come from the Brahmin belief of floating away evil, or in worship of the god Shiva who is said to reside in the middle of the ocean.
There are also others who believe that the festival was held to commemorate the belief that Lord Buddha left his footprints on the banks of the Nammatha River on the night of the full moon in the 12th month. Thus, lanterns were floated in the waters in worship of the Buddha's footprints.
Villagers of rural Thailand also maintain that the festival is held to show penitence to the river goddess. The lives of the villagers are dependent on the river, they use the water for drinking, washing, making a living, and for disposing of refuse. Therefore, they make an annual show of respect and gratitude to the river by floating a krathong holding lit candles, incense. The people of Chiang Mai also float lanterns into the sky during the festival, believed to have been derived from Burma when Chiang Mai was still a vassal state of that kingdom. The "sky lanterns" have become a specialized art, unique to the north.
The lanterns are made of "saa" paper or colorful cellophane, glued onto a bamboo frame in a shape the maker desires, usually rectangle or cylinder. Hot air or gas is let in at the bottom to lift the lantern into the air. Firecrackers are sometimes attached to the lantern, giving off a battery of cracking explosion when the intern is floating.
"Saa" lanterns contain a small fire lit inside, and these are breathtaking as they float off into the dark sky in numbers. Another kind of lantern is the smaller version made of cellophane on a bamboo frame with lit candles inside. These are hung around temples and houses. Some gates are decorated with twigs, leaves, or coconut branches, on which such lanterns are hung. This tradition is called making a "Jungle Gate". As you look over the Ping River on Yi Peng night, you'll see three distinct types of floats - "krathong sai", "krathong lek", and "krathong yai" or "krathong luang".
"Krathong sai" the simplest version, is made of sliced trunks of banana tree decorated with candles stringed together, numbering the same as your age or more. Floating away this krathong is equivalent to floating away your bad luck. "Krathong lek" is made of banana leaves decorated with flowers, looking similar to a lotus blossom. Couples often float each of their krathong lek together, a gesture seen by the local folk as very romantic.
"Krathong yai" is made by the Chiang Mai municipal office as part of the Nang Noppamas procession. On the eve of Yi Peng, the procession goes through the main thoroughfares of the city, and eventually ends at the Ping River where crowds of people are waiting to watch the spectacle. Seated within the krathong is Nang Noppamas who has been selected from the numerous northern beauties. A contest is also held to pick the most beautiful krathong.
Loi Krathong will be celebrated throughout the city especially at the Tha Phae Gate from 6p.m. to 10p.m. Yi Peng will be held on November 8 and can be observed behind Maejo University at San Sai District, about 12 kilometers from the city proper. An estimated 1,000 lanterns are expected to be released.