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The two Thai Lantern Festivals, Loy Krathong and Yi Peng, normally happen on the same day which is why they are frequently grouped together. However, they are actually two different festivals with different histories and legends.
Loy Krathong is sometimes called the “Festival of Light” and is focused on releasing floating lanterns on waterways. Yi Peng takes place in northern Thailand and involves the release of flying lanterns to light up the sky.
Find out more about the history and legends of Loy Krathong and Yi Peng and why they are such special events to witness in person.
The Loy Krathong Festival is a Thai national celebration and is commonly referred to as “the festival of lights”. This festival is held at the end of the rainy season during the full moon of the 12th month of the Thai lunar calendar (meaning it usually falls in the middle of November in the Gregorian calendar.)
The purpose of the festival is to free oneself from the bad luck of the previous year and welcome in good fortune for the year to come. This is achieved by taking a Krathong (a small lotus-shaped boat made from banana tree leaves or bark and decorated with flowers) and releasing it down a river or canal.
The celebration of Loy Krathong is rooted in many traditions some of which date back 800 years to the city of Sukhothai. This city is located between Bangkok and Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand and was once known as the Kingdom of Sukhothai.
During that time the King, Ram Kampaeng, was a devoted Buddhist and believed that at the end of the Thai year his people should pay tribute to the water goddess, Phra Mae Khong Ka, and the Buddha for all they had been given. So he set about creating a day of worship.
Many people who live in this area of Thailand, during the period of the Sukhothai Kingdom and today, rely largely on agriculture. The amount of rainfall and waterways that deliver this water play a huge part in their lives. So, for the festival the king chose a night with a full moon after the monsoons, meaning the rivers and canals would be at their fullest.
In Thai Buddhist culture, the importance of water and its purifying properties is also seen when people wash statues at wats (temples) or even their older relatives' feet as an act of merit-making.
Some legends say that one of the King’s consorts, Nang Noppamas, was the one who created the first Krathong in order to impress the king. During the first celebration of the full moon day of November, the king took the royal family on a cruise down the river to watch the festival.
Nappmas made a small boat out of banana leaves and placed a candle in the center. She then placed her beautifully crafted krathong on the water and it floated down the river. The king was so mesmerized by its beauty that he proclaimed that every year on this day Thai citizens should celebrate Loy Krathong in the same way.
To this day, the holiday is celebrated by floating krathongs carrying candles to honor the water goddess and Buddha. Today there are also many beauty pageants throughout Thailand in honor of Nang Noppamas for bringing Loy Krathong to the people of Thailand.
Other legends, rooted in ancient Hindu rituals, claim that the festival was created to honor the magical Nagas. Nagas are serpent-like mythical creatures that are said to live in bodies of water. They are often thought of as protectors of Buddha, but when angered they can spread disease and misfortune.
To keep the Nagas happy and in hope of receiving merit in return, devout Hindus will send offerings down lakes and rivers.
So, no matter why Loy Krathong began, we know that the festival is closely associated with water and Lord Buddha.
Yi Peng is more commonly called the “Sky Lantern Festival”. Its literal translation is the “second full moon”. This is a direct reference to the night of the festival, which is on the second full moon of the Lanna calendar falling on the same night as Loy Krathong.
Much of the region around Chiang Mai has been strongly influenced by Thai Lanna culture. With customs rooted in Buddhism and Hinduism, the Lanna culture dates back to the 13th century. At that time, the area including sections northern Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos was known as the Kingdom of Lanna.
Each year the Yi Peng festival is held throughout the ancient Lanna Kingdom. In Chiang Mai, the celebration happens alongside the Loy Krathong festival. Both these festivals are known for creating beautiful displays of lights, with the Yi Peng festival centering around flying paper lanterns.
The lanterns are commonly made from rice paper with a candle or fire starter attached to the center. The fire is able to create enough heat that the lantern becomes lightweight and will float off into the sky.
The act of releasing a lantern symbolizes releasing your bad luck and mistakes. Some think that if your lantern disappears into the night sky before the candle burns out, then you will have good luck in the year to come.
Southeast Asia has had many kingdoms, rulers, and religious influences over the centuries. The Lanna culture, for example, was strongly influenced by ancient Buddhist traditions and Yi Peng Festival is one of those ancient traditions that centers around paying respect to Buddha in order to gain merit.
Prior to the 1900s, the Kingdom of Lanna was an independent entity. After the French and British came and drew up borders their own borders, Lanna officially became part of Thailand. During this time, Thailand had many different cultures that were required to mix and live harmoniously.
The mixing of these cultures has given the region something special, a deep history that honors and respects all the cultures and religions still make up the region today. These two festivals coalescing on the same night is a great example of this cultural fusion.
The legend of Yi Peng is based on several palm leaf texts that are read during the festival every year. These texts tell the story of how a candle-carrying bird flew around Buddha. Buddha then explained that by being paid respect with the light from the candle the bird had gained merit would be blessed with great joy in the next life.
Understanding the historical context and the legends behind the lighting of the lanterns and merit-making helps travelers better participate in the festival today. Most locals are happy to have foreigners join the celebrations and are willing to teach them more about the rich cultures found in northern Thailand.
Asia Highlights welcomes the chance to help you design your perfect trip to Thailand. Whether that includes experiencing Loy Krathong, Yi Peng, another festival, or just some time relaxing on the beach. Check out some of our example itineraries below for inspiration!