The Yi Peng Festival

A photo of friends getting ready to release their lantern at the Yi Peng Festival in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Written by ian robert knight

Travel Photographer, Bangkok

There are some things in life that are impossible to adequately explain in words. You need to physically be there to properly understand the scene that appears in front of you. The Yi Peng Festival is one of those events.
Thailand is well known as being a visually stunning place. With it’s golden temples, beautiful people and exotic culture, it’s nearly impossible to come away from a visit to the country without countless memorable photographs. But there is one festival that takes place every year in November that is so beautiful, it can bring visitors to tears.
A photo of praying monks at the Yi Peng Festival in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Monks lead chants during the ceremony
Photograph by Ian Robert Knight
The Yi Peng Festival takes place on the night of the full moon every November, so the date changes a bit every year. The literal translation of the words ‘Yi Peng” means ‘second month’, and November is the second month of the Lanna calendar, used in northern Thailand. The dates change, but they are fairly predictable.
The Yi Peng Festival has been the subject of some confusion over the years. This is due to the many competing festivals that take place around the city of Chiang Mai. There are free events, and there are ticketed events. The Tourism Authority of Thailand organizes many free events that are quite worthy. The large mass lantern release that takes place on the grounds of the Lanna Dhutanka Meditation Sanctuary is a ticketed event, and the one that I am writing about. Although the tickets can cost several hundred dollars for good seats, I think it’s well worth the money for the experience.
A photo of thousands of lanterns released and floating upwards, at the Yi Peng Festival in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Thousands of lanterns float upwards.

Photograph by Ian Robert Knight

The festival that takes place on these grounds attracts thousands of guests, from all over the world. Each guest becomes a participant of the spectacle. Upon entering the sanctuary, guests receive food and drink offerings and a small commemorative gift. When you reach the assigned seats, guests are given a lantern that they will launch into the heavens when the time comes. The evening lasts for several hours, and includes a long period of chanting and praying. Hundreds of orange-robed monks participate in the annual ceremony, and it’s broadcast in Thailand and around the globe.
A photo of circumambulating monks at the Yi Peng Festival in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
A photo of a group of novice monks at the Yi Peng Festival in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
A photo of a senior monk at the Yi Peng Festival in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
At one point during the ceremony, a large group of monks circumambulate the grounds, with lit candles. It’s fascinating to watch, and wonderful to photograph. Later, VIP guests are invited to join the monks and participate in the circumambulation, candles in hand. As the event comes to a climax, guests are invited to launch their lanterns, and make their wishes.

The large lanterns can take a while to light, and when they are released, they float slowly upwards into the sky. At one point, there will be thousands of lanterns floating up, and hundreds of people moved to tears on the grounds below. It’s a truly beautiful sight to witness. The lantern, if it disappears into the night, before the flame burns out, is said to erase a person’s bad luck. I think being able to witness this event, let alone participate in it, is evidence that the person has good luck.

As the event comes to a climax, guests are invited to launch their lanterns, and make their wishes.
A photo of friends getting ready to release their lantern at the Yi Peng Festival in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
A photo of people floating kratongs at the Yi Peng Festival in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
A photo of friends preparing to release their lantern at the Yi Peng Festival in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Photography Tips

Although the main event takes place at night, most of the photos can be taken with handheld cameras. There is quite a lot of ambient light in the area, and shooting with a high ISO should allow you to take great photos. You can improve the quality of the images by underexposing the shots, so the blacks remain black, and the bright flames of the lanterns are not blown out.

In general, you’d want to keep your shutter speeds reasonably high, so that the lanterns are not blurry as they rise (unless that’s what you want to do). Using higher ISO’s would make this happen. For blurry/artistic images, or if you’re using long lenses, a tripod would come in handy. The venue does not ban tripods, so feel free to bring yours.

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