The moment I realized that I was going to be studying abroad in Thailand was an exciting decision… only made MORE exciting by the realization that I would be studying abroad in Thailand the same time as the massive, annual lantern festival, known as Yi Peng (or Yee Peng). You’ve probably also seen the photos of people releasing photos on Pinterest, or somewhere else online in some shape or form. However, I quickly learned about the significance and meaning behind this local celebration. There is more to these paper lanterns than meets the eye.

Photo by TEAN Alum Rachael Silverstein, Temple University

There are actually two independent yet coinciding festivals that occur in mid-October to early November depending upon where the full moon falls.  The first, Loi Krathong is focused around the sendoff of krathongs. These are small floats constructed from banana tree trunks, banana leaves and flowers (often beautifully decorated or designed) with three incense sticks and a lit candle in the middle. The krathongs are set onto practically any body of water in the city.  Sending them off symbolizes letting go of sins and worries from the past year, as well as sending an apology to the river for litter and pollution.  The krathongs range in size from a hand held version to ones that are basically sea-worthy vessels. I wasn’t kidding before — if you’re near any form of water, there’s probably going to be at least a dozen floats in it during this festival.

Kratong that my roommate’s mom made for me

Yi Peng (the lantern festival) is better recognized outside of Thailand than Loi Krathong but can still be a bit confusing for visitors. Even though it has become quite the tourist attraction, Yi Peng has been strongly tied to Buddhism in Thailand for a long time. It is an important time for Thais to “make merit” or pay respects to the Buddha. It is common to write down a wish or prayer on the lantern before letting it float away, and if it disappears from sight before falling back to the ground then your wish will come true.

During this weeklong period, lanterns are released from all over the city guaranteeing a spectacular show from just about anywhere.  But the massive release that makes up essentially every picture of this event you have ever drooled over happens specifically at temple grounds behind Mae Jo University in Chiang Mai.  This is the mother of all lantern releases, a bucket list topper– and I nearly missed it.  The temple sets the date of the release only a few weeks before the actual event, so if you don’t keep your ears open you could miss it. Or you could end up hightailing it over there at the last minute like me. But boy was it worth it.

The sheer number of lanterns is so overwhelming that even planes from the Chiang Mai airport are forced to stay grounded until well after the event is over.  In a city whose lights are so bright they often erase the stars; this is the one night where we have an entire sky full of our own.

This whole week you will be able to see lights floating all across the water and the sky— in addition to delicious food, nonstop festivities, and firecrackers shooting off at an alarmingly close range.  My Thailand experience wouldn’t have been complete without it.

Lizzy Southard is a student at The University of Kentucky and a TEAN Featured Blogger. She studied abroad with TEAN in Chiang Mai, Thailand this semester.