How to organize an amazing experience for Loy Krathong
Thai people love celebrations and festivals. Their country has more major festivals than new moons – but, out of all their events, the Loy Krathong festival of lights is truly one of the largest and most beautiful festivals, as well as a Heaven for travelers and photographers. In this post, I offer some tips for an amazing experience that will allow you to celebrate Loy Krathong in two of its most iconic locations – Chiang Mai and Sukhothai – while also enjoying the beautiful Yi Pen festival of lanterns. No, you do not need a twin to be in two places at once, nor the Hermione’s Time-Turner from Harry Potter(it would certainly be handy, however) …
What is Loy Krathong and why should you go celebrate it?
Loy Krathong, the festival of lights, is celebrated annually across Thailand and in some of its neighboring countries (part of Laos and Myanmar). A Krathong is a piece of banana trunk decorated with beautiful flowers, banana leaves, candles, and incense sticks. The word Loy means “to float”, so Loy Krathong translates as “to float a basket”. These days, many Krathongs are made of bread (making river fish happy) or even of Styrofoam (a strange way to ask for the goddess’ forgiveness for polluting the water… hopefully, these are now getting prohibited).
The beautiful tradition of floating a Krathong on the river has many different roots, and the facts on how the festival originated are unclear.
As an agriculture-based country, the people and rivers have been closely linked for ages. The festival marks the end of the rainy season, so the Thais thank the water goddess Phra Mae Khongkha for granting them plenty of water during this period (and perhaps also to celebrate that this heavy rain is over until the next monsoon in July). It’s also about asking for forgiveness for using and polluting the water (unfortunately, there’s a lot to forgive in some places). Each candle has a prayer or a wish attached to it in order to let go of one’s misfortunes down the river and welcome a new beginning, washing away the sins of the past year and making wishes for the coming year.
It is not a religious holiday, but many Thais pray to the water goddess Mae Khongkha on this occasion. Candlelit floats are also released to honor Gautama Buddha and goddess Ganga, goddess of water, for good fortune and to wash away one’s sins. This links back to the tradition of the river Ganga in northern India, in which pilgrims believe that bathing causes the remission of sins and facilitates the liberation from the cycle of life and death.
You can read my blog article on the Holi festival of colors for a related topic
Of course, visitors are also welcomed to float a Krathong (and many do). This could become handy in the very unlikely (but always possible) event that some of you have done something they need forgiveness for – another reason to go if the above was not enough…
So, when and where should you go?
Various places in Thailand are great to celebrate the Loy Krathong festival for an amazing experience and for photo opportunities if you are a photographer (or if you just want to be a star on Facebook or Instagram with your amazing holiday shots).
Because I’m a good boy (trust me on this), I’m offering a sequence that will allow you to see the Low Krathong festival in its two most iconic locations during the same trip, without the need for a heartbreaking choice between the two. This will also allow you to celebrate a wonderful third event as well, the Yi Pen in Chiang Mai, as a bonus (I told you, I’m a good boy, seriously!).
So, here is what I recommend:
- Start your journey and celebrate the Loy Krathong in the beautiful city of Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand. You’ll have the privilege of celebrating the famous Yi Peng lantern festival the evening before Loy Krathong. More details below, but Chiang Mai is famous for its flying lanterns and you’ll also see many floating offerings there.
- Wake up early the next day (yes, I know you went to bed very late, but…) and get down to Sukhothai, 185 miles south. A bus or train will get you there in +/-5 hours if you have more time than money. Investing in a taxi to get there faster and more comfortably is also an option that remains reasonable cost-wise (+/-110 $ more if you are alone, less if you’re a pair).
- Sukhothai is the believed birthplace of Thailand and Loy Krathong is celebrated for four days and nights there. As such, you’ll get to enjoy it a second time, in an amazing, ancient historical city (UNESCO World Heritage site), with very different experiences and photo opportunities and the option to assist in the beautiful light show in the historic park. More details below but just a picture of the park during twilight as a teaser.
If you do not want to bother with transitioning between 2 cities, your best alternatives are:
- Choose between Chiang Mai and Sukhothai, as these remain the best places to celebrate Loy Krathong. Chiang Mai offers many other landmarks nearby, and planes from Bangkok are very cheap and comfortable, so that might be the best plan B, in my opinion.
- Bangkok can be a good place to celebrate Loy Krathong, on the banks of the Chao Phraya River (I would recommend the Wat Arun temple area), or around some of the public park ponds (Lumpini Park, for example). Some of the luxury hotels on the riverside will also organize celebrations, but it depends on whether this is what you are looking for…
- Tak, with its long floating lines on the river, or Samot Singkhram, with its illuminated rafts, are two famous places, as well.
The Loy Krathong falls every year the night of the 12th lunar moon
In the Gregorian calendar, this is during the month of November.
The celebrations should, therefore, be on November 1st in 2020 and November 19th in 2021,
You should double-check this a few months before the event, as some years, the cities might take a day or so of freedom in terms of the moon schedule.
Yi Peng in Chiang Mai is the evening before.
A few tips for a great Yi Peng and Loy Krathong celebration in Chiang Mai…
Independently from the Loy Krathong celebrations, there are countless landmarks to explore in the Chiang Mai area that I’m not going to detail here. At the minimum, however, make sure you spend half a day seeing the beautiful Wat Phra That Temple, in the Doi Suthep mountains near Chiang Mai.
You can look at a few more shots of this gorgeous place in my Chiang Mai gallery
I will just focus on a few spots that you should not miss during Loy Krathong and Yi Peng. Chiang Mai will celebrate the Yi Peng lanterns the evening before the Loy Krathong processions. The light of the lanterns, like the Krathong on the river, represents a brighter future and taking some distance from the darkness.
There are two different options that you need to choose from (yes, this time you need to make a decision, sorry):
- Joining an organized (some paid, some free) lantern release event around the city. The largest is in the Lanna Duthanka Buddhist Center in Mae Jo University, but they are a few other possibilities. You’ll need to arrive well ahead of time.
- Joining the amazing Yi Peng ceremony at the Wat Phan Tao Temple and then getting down to the riverbank to launch and look at others launching their lanterns (there might be some time restrictions to double-check due to airplane safety – the airport sometimes closes for this event!)
Both options are great, but clearly the Wat Phan Tao ceremony is absolutely amazing and by far my favorite choice, with thousands of colorful lanterns in the temple, and the young novice monks lighting the lanterns at the end of the ceremony.
Following the ceremony, enjoy fantastic and fresh street food in downtown Chiang Mai and be ready to join the crowds of Thais and tourists to light your own lantern.
…and/or enjoy more endless opportunities for photos.
Enjoying yourself? Even went to a fun party afterward? Great…
Remember that you’ll need to wake up early tomorrow morning to take a bus, train, or taxi to Sukhothai…
You have now arrived in Sukhothai – well done, you won’t regret it! A few tips for you …
So, now another amazing (half) day and evening begin for you in the ancient city of Sukhothai. This wonderful UNESCO World Heritage site was the capital of the first independent Thai Kingdom over the course of the 13th and 14th centuries. Countless well-preserved and restored monuments can be found in the 27 square miles of the park, and they are decorated (and illuminated at night) during Loy Krathong, adding to the natural beauty of this place.
There are many amazing celebrations during the day and a clear schedule available in English online.
So make sure you take the time to see those.
in particular, the large and colorful procession with countless dancers in beautiful traditional costumes is fantastic!
You might even meet a Thai prince and princess on an elephant (no, this is not an alternative mode of transportation to come down from Chiang Mai…).
The Loy Krathong celebrations, amazing street food, great music, and families having picnics around the park are all fantastic, so just go around and enjoy. You can also book a ticket to the fabulous light show in the evening. It is really worth it. If you’re a photographer, there is (or at least there was) tolerance for a discrete tripod, but you need to strategically pick a seat so that you are not on the way of other people enjoying the show (a seat near the alley in the middle section, close to the front rows is a good choice…)
Last but not least, a few additional operational tips: You should sleep in one of the many pensions around the historical park in Sukhothai (and not in the new city). These often-simple pensions are great, and Loy Krathong is not the time to lie by the pool of a hotel chain. Both for Chiang Mai and Sukhothai, make sure that you book your accommodation well ahead of time, however, as everything fills up rather quickly…
Additionally, for Sukhothai – if you paid attention – I mentioned 27 square miles for the park… so rent a bike! Often pensions have bikes as well.
Beyond the celebrations, sunrise is an amazing moment to photograph the beautiful historical temples and monuments, with a much quieter Zen atmosphere. The historical park is normally still closed at twilight, but the guards are friendly (if you talk nicely to them – or with your hands and smile if English does not work). They will let you in (with your bike) for an amazing and peaceful photoshoot.
You can look at a few more shots from that fantastic ancient city and the celebrations in my Sukhothai gallery
I hope this has engaged you to go and enjoy this wonderful country and its amazing locations during this special time of the year.
Don’t hesitate to connect via my website or email if you want to know more about how to be in two places at once…