Most visiting photographers to Thailand usually spend time looking for exciting places to photograph and interesting things to do in Bangkok. If you love photography then make sure to head to northern Thailand, where the Yi Peng festival in Chiang Mai in Thailand is fast becoming popular with photographers, who will love the challenge of photographing thousands of lanterns being released simultaneously into the night sky.
Chiangmai is a fabulous destination for photography because it is also close to Doi Inthanon National Park, which is a stunning national park with many natural Thai landmarks and where you can take photographs of stunning Wild Himalayan Cherry Blossom trees too.
Yi Peng Festival
Yi Peng is held on the full moon of the 12th month of the Thai lunar calendar, usually in November.
The celebrations are usually held on the Saturday night of that week.
As the exact date of the event is not known until a few weeks before, it’s difficult to plan for.
It’s also hard to find reliable information before booking tickets and accommodation to travel to Chiang Mai.
In researching the event, I relied on old forum posts and websites that were not very informative.
There is an event which charges $100 (US), this is mainly aimed at the tourist crowd, while the more “authentic” experience is free and for the locals and held the weekend before the publicised event.
Yi Peng is held at the same time as the Loy Krathong festival, which is when lanterns are lit and placed in baskets and floated on the water.
The Loy Krathong celebration is right through Thailand, held during the 12th month of the Thai lunar calendar when there is a full moon.
The Yi Peng celebrations in Chiang Mai takes place around the south entrance moat, which means at this time of the year you’ll get to experience two festivals at the same time.
Lucky for me, a few photography mates happened to be in Chiang Mai for the festival.
Top travel photographers Colby Brown, Daniel Nahabedian and Michael Bonocore, were able to pool resources and crowdsource accurate information about the festival.
Colby and Daniel have also lived in the area before so I was lucky enough to tap into insider knowledge!
Getting to Yi Peng Lantern Festival
Chiang Mai in November is warm and hazy.
As my hotel is a bit of a hike from the city centre, I decide to hire a scooter, which is cheap and easy to do.
Most of my time is spent photographing the temples in the centre of town and the lovely sunset at Su Thep temple.
Central Chiang Mai is bustling with tourists who have flocked here to experience the Yi Peng festival. The Wats are packed with bodies and far too crowded.
In the evening before Yi Peng, the locals gather around the south entrance to the city to let off fireworks and lanterns with New Year blessings scrawled on them.
It’s fun, it’s noisy and it’s a nice time of year to be celebrating.
Yi Peng Festival Events
The largest celebration is held at the Maejo University, north of Chiang Mai, on a Saturday night.
We work out the easiest way to get there is by scooter.
Judging by the heavy traffic heading out of town, we are reassured that we are heading the right way on highway 1001.
The trip is like the sum total of every car and scooter I had seen all week!
Eventually, we get to the college, with the help of Google maps and the occasional conversation with anyone that looked official.
We arrive at what we think is a reasonable time.
It’s about 4.30 pm in the afternoon but it’s already obvious from how far we have to park the scooters, there are a lot of people here already.
A steady stream of people is shuffling towards the entrance.
There are locals selling food and lanterns along the path but take a tip from me and don’t buy any lanterns on the way into the event as they will be confiscated at the entrance.
It seems like ages before we get inside the grounds.
Every vantage point for photography is already taken.
We conclude that all these people must have arrived around about lunchtime!
Now that’s keen, for a lantern launch scheduled for 7.30 pm.
The Buddhist monks on the stage perform a ceremony before the lanterns.
We wander around and find a spot in front of the pavilion where dozens of photographers have already gathered.
Occasional lanterns are being released and all the ones that were confiscated at the entrance.
I notice that from the direction they are floating off that they are heading straight up and over my shoulder.
I decided to try my luck on the other side of the stage.
I have seen my fair share of firework displays around the world but nothing I have ever seen compares to the spectacle of thousands of lanterns being lit and simultaneously released into the night sky.
It is truly jaw-dropping.
The moment the lanterns are released and all moving in unison being carried away by the wind happens quickly.
The grandness of the spectacle is imprinted in my mind.
Photographing the event is challenging as the lighting switches from pitch black to lots of bright light when the lanterns start moving at varying speeds and distances from you.
The effort to leave the event is also messy. It will test your patience.
If you’re there with friends, it’s a good idea to agree on a meeting spot outside the field, in case you get separated.
The event is one I would highly recommend.
Make sure you do your research to end up in the right place at the right time and you won’t be disappointed.
1- Book Your Accommodation Early
The busiest time of the year to visit Chiang Mai is when the Yi Peng festival is on as thousands of visitors flock to the city to see the spectacle.
At this time of year, hotel room rates usually shoot up and rooms are hard to come by, so if you plan to visit Chiang Mai during the Yi Peng lantern festival, make sure you book well in advance.
2- Look For Uncrowded Spots
The main festival activities occur near Nawarat Bridge and Thapae Gate, which means both these spots are usually very crowded.
So, if you want somewhere less packed, head to Wat Chai Mongkhon.
This small temple offers a more tranquil experience where you can watch the monks and locals release lanterns into the air and krathongs onto the river.
3- Lanterns Are Difficult To Photograph
Lanterns and krathongs are difficult to photograph in low light as they move fast and the crowds can make it difficult to get in the right spot.
Put your camera in continuous shooting mode and fire away as you will probably have to dump most of your photos.
If you have a DSLR camera, use manual settings with a high ISO of over 2000 and test the settings to see what works best. You could try 1/25 shutter speed, f stop of 4 and +1 exposure.