Chiang Mai

09:00 Alyson Tart 0 Comments

When we were planning our trip to Cambodia and Thailand, I kept hoping, hoping, hoping that our trip would overlap with the Loy Krathong Festival. This is the famous lantern festival, known to most only because of the gorgeous photos with thousands of laterns lighting up the sky. The hard part about visiting is that the dates aren't released very far in advance, as they are based off a lunar calendar, so it could be completely up to luck if you make the festival.

Our luck? The festival was the week before we arrived!! However, for tourists like us, they also do an international festival with a set date which coincided with our trip - unlike the normal festival, there are tickets which sell out months in advance and had sold out when we booked our tickets.  I put my name on a waiting list and hoped for the best.

Even without the festival, Chiang Mai, home of the Yi Peng (or Loy Krathong) festival, was full of excitement during our days there. On the first night, we wandered the streets, which were full of people, parades, singing and lights! We found our way to the river and purchased some floating lanterns, made wishes and set them free.  The night was raining, making it hard to keep the lanterns lit and making slush of the ground. We set up shop at an outdoor beer festival to take it all in.

Our friends were leaving the last day, while we were continuing our stay by another night. We decided to wake up early for a bit of a cultural exploration and took a tuk tuk out to see Wat Prathat Doi Suthep. In addition to the temple being beautiful, it is situated on top of Doi Suthep mountain, giving great views over the city, so we got an early start hoping to catch the sunrise over the city.

We arrived to a nearly empty temple clouded in fog with the only other early risers being the monks; all this combined created an almost mystical aura to our visit.  We wandered the site hoping for the fog to clear, but eventually decided the weather wasn't in our favor.

We made a pit stop on our way back into Chiang Mai to another small temple on the river.  Being a year later, I can't recall what it was called and an online search doesn't bring up much.  It was a quiet, peaceful temple though, still in use, but having fallen victim to the elements in some places.  The small river next to it added a symphony of babbles and gurgles as we walked around finding more and more statues around the park. Finally it was really time to hit the road so that our friends could hit the road to the airport.

That evening we decided to skip the celebrations in order to better explore Thai food with a cooking class. For our first stop, we hit the markets to find the fresh ingredients we would need for all of our recipes.  The markets were busy, filled with people shopping for their evening meals, and full of unusual fruits and veggies. I had my eye out for the famed durian fruit (said to reek of fish and is banned from many hotels and planes), but it was out of season so I was either fortunate or unfortunate depending upon your stance on the smelly fruit.

After our shopping, we headed back to the site to cook up our evening meal. It was quite the feast! We started with spring rolls, headed over to soup (coconut and tom yum), then made our main meals (pad thai and stir fried hot basil). For our dishes, we even made our own curry, grinding up fresh green chilies to make the paste. With our enthusiastic grinding, Paul managed to get some in his eye, rendering him out of commission for the rest of the grinding, and making me a bit hesitant to finish up the job! The finished product was worth it though - so delicious. We tried recreating the pad thai at home once we got back, only to find it just wasn't as good. Was it our cooking or the lack of farm fresh ingredients? I'd like to think our cooking wasn't to blame!

Finally, on our last day in Chiang Mai, we got the tickets we had been waiting for! I had heard we had gotten tickets, but didn't want to believe it until they were in our hands.  We wandered around the city through the early afternoon, but I couldn't wait to get to the ceremony. 

The festival is a huge cultural event, a rite for people to pay their respects and let go of anger, resentment and frustrations. Throughout Thailand, people release the "krathong" on the river, but in Chiang Mai they release the famed lanterns lanterns.  The true ceremony is overseen by the monks at Mae Jo University, with thousands and thousands of participants.  For those that miss the true ceremony, they arrange an international event.  This is focused on the release of the lanterns, although there are some speeches and information given in advance. However, you could tell everyone was restless and waiting for the big event. After sunset and a prayer, the first lantern was lit and the flames were passed along to the back of the area, every moment the sky becoming even more crowded with the lanterns.

Despite the commercialness (and even inauthenticity compared to the real event), it was moving and magical. I can only imagine sitting in on the real deal.  After we lit our first lanterns, we stood back to take it all in before lighting a few more lanterns to send our wishes and prayers up.  As the lanterns slowed, excitement began again when the fireworks started.  It made a beautiful display against the backdrop of a sky lit with lanterns. I don't think I could have asked for a better ending to our time in Thailand and it's an image that is etched forever into my mind - how could it not be?

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