You’ve seen the photos: hundreds of floating fire lanterns lighting up the sky as small banana leaf boats with flowers, incense and candles drift down the rivers. This is Loi Krathong. If Songkran is Thailand’s wildest holiday, Loi Krathong is certainly its most beautiful.
Loi Krathong celebrations draw visitors en masse to Chiang Mai © Tanachot Srijam / Shutterstock
The ancient festival’s origin story varies. It is believed Loi Krathong was adapted from the Hindu festival, Deepavali, which celebrates the spiritual triumph of good over evil. Now, Loi Krathong has grown to mean different things for different people. Some mark the festival as a chance to pay homage to the Goddess of Water after a fruitful harvest season. It's also a festival for Thai Buddhists to give respect and thanks to the Buddha, as well as being the time to release past ills and welcome in future fortune for the new year ahead. Chiang Mai has embraced Loi Krathong fully, holding large events and welcoming visitors over a span of a few days, making it one of the best destinations in the country to take part in the festivities.
Loi Krathong 2018 officially takes place on 23 November this year, but in the 'Rose of the North', where Loi Krathong has fused with the traditional Lanna (northern Thai) Yee Peng festival, festivities will start on 21 November. Here’s where to celebrate.
Decorative krathong, or floating banana leaf boats, are sent out to river to pay respects to the Goddess of Water © pongsak suwanmanee / Shutterstock
Wander from Pratu Tha Pae to the river
While people celebrate throughout the city, you’ll find the highest concentration of festivities from Pratu Tha Pae (the east gate of the old city) along Tha Pae road to Narawat Bridge and the Mae Ping River. As the sun sets, Tha Pae closes for colourful parades and people walking to the river to light off their khom loy (lanterns) and float their krathong (decorative flower floats).
Wat Phan Tao is a serene place to take in Loi Krathong scenes in Chiang Mai © Alana Morgan / Lonely Planet
Light oil lamps at Wat Phan Tao
As most people flock to the river, a small wooden temple in the centre of the old city quietly attracts a smaller crowd. Arguably one of the most atmospheric Loi Krathong settings in town, the monks of Wat Phan Tao decorate the temple grounds with colourful northern Thai-style lanterns and set out hundreds of oil lamps for a mesmerising scene that photos just can’t do justice.
Make reservations early at a riverside restaurant
Be warned: Chiang Mai is packed during Loi Krathong. Anything requiring reservations, even an afternoon cooking class or massage, should be booked well in advance. This is especially true for accommodation or riverside dining. To snag a spot at a picturesque riverside restaurant, such as Service 1921, Riverside Restaurant & Bar, River Market or Good View, to watch the krathong floating by during dinner, you’ll want to book now!
Marvel at the mass release in Mae Jo
No matter where you are in Chiang Mai, you’re sure to see people lighting and sending off khom loy and decorating their homes and temples in paper lanterns and flickering candles. Over the years, a mass lantern release at a meditation centre in a suburb called Mae Jo has taken the internet by storm with thousands of khom loy released at once. Due to its popularity, the event is no longer free, with a limited number of tickets released with a starting price of about $100. While tickets for this year are already sold out, if you have your heart set on seeing thousands of lanterns take to the sky at once, you can still get your own transportation to drive and park close to the event site, look up into the sky and wait. It’s not quite the same experience you’d have within the grounds, but still impressive.
Novice monks release a lantern during Loi Krathong in Chiang Mai © SantiPhotoSS / Shutterstock
Check local listings for events and activities
Oddly, it can be surprisingly difficult to find clear information on special events and activities, such as parades, beauty contests, dance performances or krathong-making workshops, until right before the holiday. To stay in the know, check event calendars and articles from local outlets, like Chiang Mai CityLife (chiangmaicitylife.com) or the Tourism Authority of Thailand (tourismthailand.org), leading up to Loi Krathong.
Find a rooftop retreat
Experiencing Loi Krathong for the first time is magical, but for those who don’t want to get stuck in the crowds, sometimes it’s best to escape to a rooftop to ride out the evening. From high above the traffic below, you’ll still be able to see glowing paper lanterns lazily floating into the sky, especially when facing towards the river. Several Chiang Mai hotels, such as akyra Manor Chiang Mai, have rooftop bars open to the public, in addition to other rooftop bars and spaces like at Maya Lifestyle Shopping Mall.