For two years we had planned on a big 2 month trip to Southeast Asia. And then covid hit. There was no way around it, our trip had to be postponed. Disappointed, but not discouraged, we hoped things would be better in another year and thankfully it was. Covid wasn’t over but we all just learned to live with it. This unexpected postponement only gave me more time to plan our itinerary and find more things to add to our list of must see places. A blessing and a curse.
With about 4 months until our trip was to begin I had to rearrange the itinerary when I found out about releasing lanterns in Chiang Mai. We would now spend New Year’s Eve 2022 in Chiang Mai. Releasing lanterns was an absolute must. A once in a lifetime experience and we were not going to miss it.
If you want to read about how I plan my trips click here.
Where is Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai is located in a mountainous area of Northern Thailand and is the largest city in the north. The city was founded in 1296 and was once the capital of an independent Kingdom until the 1500’s. Chiang Mai is about an hour by flight from Bangkok and 9 hrs by bus. The city is also is a haven for expats with many people from all over the world choosing to spend extended periods of time there. One visit there will explain why: there’s so much to see and do.
There are over 300 temples in and around Chiang Mai, many dating back to the 14th century as well as new ones. You really can’t walk more than 100 feet without running into a temple. It has a small town feel and is very walkable. The Old City, which is in the center of town, still retains it’s old wall that surrounds the center as well as a moat. Many of the walls are crumbling or have completely disappeared but you can still see some of the walls as well as the four gates around the center.
Releasing Lanterns in Chiang Mai on New Year’s Eve
The big New Years celebration happens at the Tha Phae Gate in Chiang Mai’s city center. There are many different New Year’s Eve celebrations throughout the city and some temples also release lanterns. But this is the biggest gathering of all and is where the largest releasing of lanterns in Chiang Mai is. The center square is decorated with Christmas and New Years decor and thousands of lights. There are food stalls, a stage with singers, dancers, musicians, and even a small carnival area for kids.
Releasing Lanterns in Chiang Mai: What to expect
You can expect the Chiang Mai square to be very crowded. You’ll be shoulder to shoulder with thousands of others wanting to take part in the celebration. As midnight approaches the countdown begins and everyone joins in counting down from 10 to 1 and then once midnight hits the fireworks start. Suddenly everyone is cheering, motorbikes and tuk-tuks are honking their horns, and people release the last of the lanterns into the sky. With all the lanterns floating above and fireworks going off, it’s a pretty magical scene.
About releasing lanterns in Chiang Mai
The lanterns released into the sky are called floating lanterns or sky lanterns. In Thai, it’s called khom loi, which means floating lanterns. Releasing the lanterns is believed to release negative energy and give you good luck in the New Year. Many people will use a sharpie to write their wishes for the New Year on the lantern before releasing them.
Where to purchase a lantern
Purchasing a lantern is a bit tricky. In the days leading up to New Year’s Eve we thought we would find everyone selling them. We looked through different markets and even asked around and no one could tell us where to get one. As we headed out to where the New Year’s Eve celebration would take place, we walked around looking through the crowd trying to find them and couldn’t.
It was early and we figured maybe they don’t actually sell them until it gets close to midnight. So we decided to to head to a small square right outside the Tha Phae Gate down Rachadamnoen Rd to have drink and listen to some live music. This is the street where the weekend walking street market is located. It was still early and we figured we had some time.
On the hunt for a lantern
Around 9pm I decided to go looking for them. We were getting worried that we wouldn’t find one and would miss our chance of releasing lanterns in Chiang Mai. Armed with some Baht, I walked through the crowds and back through the Tha Phae Gate looking for someone selling them. Nothing.
Suddenly, I started to see a few people carrying the lanterns clutching them close to their sides as they walked through the crowd. They are white and larger than I thought they would be. I stopped someone and asked where they got them and they pointed me down Tha Phae Road just outside the celebration area.
Tha Phae Road was shut down to vehicles and had became a big market with vendors selling everything from food to souvenirs. I was told there was a guy near the end of the street selling them out of his truck. Normally, anywhere else this might not seem safe but this is Chiang Mai so it was totally fine and completely normal.
So, I walked through the crowded market street for about 15 minutes glancing back and forth from one side of the street to the other looking for the lanterns. Finally, near the end of the street I saw someone selling them. I bought 2 and was on my way happy that I had secured the lanterns. Suddenly everyone was asking me where I got them. I pointed them in the direction of the truck, doing my part to help.
How much does it cost
The lanterns cost 100 baht each, or about $3.00. The cost to take part in the celebration of releasing lanterns in Chiang Mai is free. Other than what you decide to purchase to eat and drink, there is no charge to get into the New Year’s Eve celebration area.
Releasing Lanterns in Chiang Mai
Around 10:30pm we started to make our way back into the crowd to find a spot to release the lanterns. We wanted to secure a spot and we needed to be away from trees and buildings. Standing in the middle of the crowd of people, we saw nobody else around us with lanterns. Were we in the wrong spot? Is there a designated area to release them?
Looking up, we could see a few lanterns floating around the sky coming from the South of Tha Phae Gate. I decided to walk towards that area to investigate if that was where we needed to be. It was. Everyone with lanterns were gathered right outside the gate by the river. I headed back to let everyone know where we needed to be and we left the square and walked the 150 feet or so towards the river.
We totally expected that releasing lanterns in Chiang Mai would happen around midnight at the same time. That wasn’t the case. People were starting to set them off around 10:30pm. A few here and there. And then more and more. So we decided that we needed to set one off.
We had no clue what we were doing and since we had 2 lanterns we figured we would go ahead and set off the first one as a practice run. We were glad we did. It allowed us to figure it out and take photos and videos. And then we had chance number two and more photos and videos of the release.
How to release the lantern
Very carefully! First, the lanterns are made out of rice paper. They’re very delicate. It’s not that hard to accidentally tear your lantern while carrying them or set it on fire while trying to release them thus ruining your whole experience.
- Carefully unfold the lantern. This definitely takes two pairs of hands. Releasing lanterns in Chiang Mai is not a one person job.
- Once you’ve unfolded the paper, one person will hold the paper up while the other person lights the coil.
- At the bottom of the lantern is a rolled up coil and you just start lighting it. It will take a few minutes for it to catch on fire so keep at it. If you need to, you can help it along by making a few tears in the coil. This whole process will take a few minutes.
- Once the coil has caught fire, you wait. It will take another 3-5 minutes until the lantern is ready to be released. At this point you can both hold the paper up while the coil continues to burn.
- Don’t release the lantern too early. This will cause your lantern to fall back to the ground and probably catch fire. You will know the lantern is ready to be released because you’ll start to feel a slight tug. The lantern will let you know when it’s ready.
- When you feel the tug, it’s ready. Slowly lift it up and let go. Be ready to catch it if it doesn’t quite make it up. Just hold on to it and wait another 30 seconds to a minute and try again.
Tips and Tricks for Releasing Lanterns in Chiang Mai
Purchase a lighter. This might seem like a no brainer but we encountered many people asking to borrow ours. Try to get one a few days before at any of the local 7-11’s.
It might not make a lot of sense considering you’re in a crowd of people all trying to set off fires up into the sky, but be sure to check your surroundings as you prepare to light your lantern and release it. Check to make sure you’re away from trees, buildings, and electrical poles.
Be careful to watch your surroundings as others are lighting their lanterns. It’s very easy to be so involved in your own lantern lighting that you don’t notice a falling lantern. My husband actually got a burn on his neck from falling wax from a lantern. Nothing major but it did leave a mark for a few weeks.
If you have long hair, tie it up. That would be a very unpleasant experience.
Watch for falling lanterns. What goes up, must come down. And not all lanterns make it. Sometimes the lanterns are released too early, before they’re ready or a lantern gets tangled in a tree or electrical pole and eventually falls to the ground.
Other Lantern Release Events
Just in case you aren’t able to take part in releasing lanterns in Chiang Mai on New Year’s Eve, there is another opportunity. In November on the 12th full moon of the year on the Thai Lunar Calendar, there is a Light Festival known as Yi Peng. It doesn’t happen on the same date every year so you have look at the lunar calendar to figure out when it will happen.
There are also other lantern releases in other parts of Asia so just do a search and maybe you’ll find one happening on your next trip! If you happen to be in Chiang Mai in November or for New Year’s Eve, take part in it.
Thoughts on Releasing Lanterns in Chiang Mai
If you have the opportunity to take part in releasing lanterns in Chiang Mai, do it. It’s not a chance you get to come across very often. A few things struck us while participating in this event. First thought was this is not safe. There are thousands of people next to you, including kids. There are buildings, electrical poles, electrical wires criss-crossing the streets, trees, and food stalls. And we’re setting a paper lantern with fire up into the sky. What could go wrong?!? But then you look around and just give in and take part.
The other thing that really struck us was the collective unit you all become with these strangers around you, everyone releasing lanterns in Chiang Mai. You’re all helping each other out taking in the instructions from those who have released a lantern and then helping out those who hadn’t done it yet. Everyone around you watches each others lanterns being released and as it successfully starts to make it’s way up, the crowd cheers.
At times, a lantern floats into a tree or electrical pole and the crowd gasps and in unison releases a big awwwwwwwww. Then, maybe 10-30 seconds later the lantern manages to set itself free floating up into the sky and everyone lets out a big cheer. It really is a site to see and take part in.