When I am overseas, I try and make a point of not being a slave to the guidebook, but occasionally it cannot be helped and I find myself lured in by a flowery write-up or artfully lit photo and on a bus to somewhere quite out of my way just to see a particularly good waterfall or something. This was evidently due to happen at some point here: for the past two months, I had been preoccupied by the front cover of the Thailand Lonely Planet guide. The bible of the dreadlocked masses’ 2009 edtion is adorned with a photo of blissfully happy people launching huge paper lanterns in what seemed to me to be an excessively picturesque manner. This, the caption briefly informed me, was the Yi Peng festival held in northern Thailand in October or November each year. Further research unearthed online writeups of the festivities which dwelt lovingly on the majestic sense of awe that accompanied the sight of thousands of floating lanterns drifting upwards into the night. The phrase “like a school of luminous jellyfish” put in an appearance. When it became apparent that the festival would happen over the long weekend granted to us poor indundated (or yet-to-be-indundated) Bangkokians, I knew that come hell or high water (and of course there was plenty of the latter) I was going to be up in Chiang Mai letting off skylanterns. So thus it was that while back down south central Bangkok was busy Not Flooding in the most frenzied, dramatic and media-friendly way possible, I was squeezed in the back of a pickup truck with sixteen couchsurfers and a baby, trying to locate the right filed in the right suburb of Chiang Mai to set the sky on fire.
The Yi Peng lantern release ceremony is usually held at the same time as the Loi Krathong festival, on the first full moon of the twelfth lunar month (this year it was a couple of weeks earlier). It is a time to make merit and do homage to the Buddha, and the release of the lanterns is associated with releasing the cares and worries of the past year, and bringing good fortune for the future. The whole affair is an brash mix of ceremony and spectacle; plenty of people are there to gawk and take pictures observe, and foreign visitors are heavily catered to by English announcements over the sound system, and hordes of green-shirted marshalls on hand to shepherd hapless tourists through the procedure of unfolding and lighting the lanterns. At the same time, the lantern release is only the culmination of a long ceremony of prayer and offerings, especially the robe-offering ceremony, where lay buddhists bring new robes for the monks, and the vast majority of attendants were Thai families there to make merit.
Clutching our lanterns, we were shunted into a vast field filled with metal burners laid out in a grid every two metres (I couldn’t help thinking that British health and safety officials would have a fit). As darkness fell, the ceremony began: the prayers, the chanting and the processions. A lot of people find this hugely spiritually moving; I have to say that in the middle of the crowd, unable to see exactly what was going on, I mainly felt confused. According to the brochure stuffed into my hand by a marshall, the key to successfully releasing the lanterns was “meditating in order to relax body and mind”. I have never been terribly good at this at the best of times, but kneeling in a field at dusk with cramp in my legs and doing duty as a mosquito buffet meant that my mind was in a particularly poor state – I was slightly concerned this meant I would set fire to my lantern.
Then suddenly the burners were being lit, and the field seemed briefly on fire; then a mass of confusion as ten thousand people, not all of them terribly expert, fought to unfurl their (not inconsiderably-sized) lanterns without catching either lantern or clothing on one of the open flames. This was accomplished in a terrible hurry, and we stood, breathless, grimly hanging on to our buoyant lanterns and waiting (and in my case screaming at my camera, which had, as is its wont, picked the worst possible moment to unilaterally go on strike).
I don’t even remember what the release signal was, but suddenly ten thousand lanterns flew, carrying with them an extraordinary burst of exultation from the crowd. It was one of those rare instants of collective feeling, rarer still for being one of sheer joy, and together with the sight of the luminous beacons rocking and dancing into the sky, it was almost overwhelming . The lanterns continued to rise as people sent up their second and third (some with illicit sparklers and firecrackers attached), but the main flock drifted up and arced across the sky, fading into thousands of tiny points of light, as though we had suddenly brushed past a stray arm of the Milky Way. It was an astounding, and above all, peaceful sight, and no words or photographs of mine can do it justice, but I could have lain watching the lanterns for hours. I don’t know if for me it was necessary spiritual, but the feeling of fierce happiness shared with thousands of other people was such that I could well believe for an instant that all our cares had been carried up to heaven with the flames.
Back in Bangkok, where the flooding threat has receded, so I'm now happily making my way through all my emergency supplies. Dinner is going to consist of tim tams and pringles with marmite for quite a few days.