November 17th, 2013
Yesterday was the Yi Peng festival, aka Festival of Lights, the whole reasoning of my trip to Thailand. I saw photos of this festival years ago and ever since had this inner lust to be one of thousands that gathered to release those paper lanterns into the sky; to give respects to Buddha and let go of the negativity in my life. This ritual is deeply rooted into the Thai culture and I wanted to be a part of that.
The big lantern release took place at Mae Jo University, about 20 minutes outside of Chiang Mai city. I was told the release was at 8pm and the ceremony started at 6pm. Getting details on the event was more difficult than getting a taxi in New York at rush hour. I had read many different articles on the event and believed there was a full mediation and chant ceremony before the release. Hearing about the horrible traffic and the mass of people coming to this I wanted to be early and get the full experience. So Lauren and I actually got to Mae Jo at 2pm. They barricaded off the small road that went to the university so you have to walk about 20min from the main road. Its’ really cool because it was filled with many food vendors, and people selling other random goods. SIDENOTE. Don’t buy lanterns before you get into the university, the greeters at the front will take them from you, they sell lanterns inside. We got there very very early. After picking out a place to sit and buying new lanterns we waited, waited 6 whole hours. We ended up seeing a few different friends we had made in the 2 days we had been in Chiang Mai. They told us how bad the traffic was getting there.
Around 7:30pm they finally started the ceremony, I had learned there was no long peaceful meditation and chanting. I honestly was mentally and emotionally disappointed during the ceremony, people were being so disrespectful, walking around, taking pictures, there were even people on their cell phones. I had expected more, I thought it was going to be life changing. It wasn’t until the actual count down of the release when I checked back in and appreciated the visual brilliance that was taking place. The heat from the lanterns and the hope from every person there was simply mesmerizing.
I had a personal reflection after snapping as many photos that I could when the announcer made the count down to the words “release”. That sometimes I worry so much of capturing a moment I forget to live in it. To soak up every ounce of the present, the smell, sound, sight. To truly be where my feet are. I had waited for this moment so long, spent hours upon hours, along with money to get myself here and I almost feel as if I missed half of it. So my advice to a fellow traveler going to Yi Peng is put the camera down and let yourself simply be there, because once I finally did that I realized how incredible this festival really is.
Leaving the University was one of the most dreadful things I’ve ever experienced. The small road was so over crowded that it was all a complete standstill. Thousands of bodies pressed together trying to move forward was impossible. Lauren and I ended up following a couple local boys lead and jumped one of the fences. We walked parallel to the road all the way out, of course we hit three more fences we had to jump and all had barbwire. The traffic was crazy, we magically found the driver we had all day and got out of there as quick as possible. Surprisingly we somehow beat most of the crowd. We were dropped off at the Iron Bridge in Chiang Mai. It was the most happening spot in the city, people were doing fireworks right off the bridge and occasionally you’d see people running and yelling, (I quickly found out that meant, “get out of the way”, in Thai.) Half of the fireworks would spin back and explode on the bridge. We ventured across the bridge and into the heart of the city to celebrate one of the countries biggest days with the local people.