The small town of Mae Jo, less than 30 minutes drive from the centre of Chiang Mai city, is the unlikely location for a mesmerising annual event. The mass sky lantern release has been described as awe-inspiring, beautiful and emotional. I’ve personally witnessed some people attending the event moved to tears. It’s no wonder that so many people who have seen photos or videos of the Mae Jo lantern release wish to experience it in person. However, there is also a lot of confusion and misinformation about the Mae Jo event.
The sky lantern release at Mae Jo is not the Yi Peng Festival
The mass lantern release at Mae Jo is not the Yi Peng Festival although it is often incorrectly labelled as such on travel websites and YouTube videos. The Yi Peng Festival is a separate event to the privately arranged Mae Jo lantern release. I can’t stress this enough. The event at Mae Jo is organised by an independent Buddhist group and not by the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) or the Chiang Mai Municipal Authority.
Read more about the actual Yi Peng Lantern Festival here »
Who organises the Mae Jo event?
The sky lantern release at Mae Jo is arranged by a private Buddhist group, Duangtawan Santiparp Foundation in association with Tudongkasatan Lanna (Lanna Meditation Sanctuary). The group has a reputation for staging events that attract media coverage, but they have received criticism from some Thai Buddhists who have accused the group of being elitist and there have also been concerns about their financial arrangements.
Contact organisers via their Facebook page »
Lanna Kathina Ceremony and Floating Lanterns Ceremony
The Mae Jo sky lantern release is described by the organisers as the ‘Lanna Kathina Ceremony and Floating Lanterns Ceremony’. It happens to take place around the time of the Loy Krathong and Yi Peng Festival, but the Mae Jo event is separate. What a lot of tourists and travel bloggers don’t seem to realise is that the lantern release at Mae Jo is only part of the day’s events. The main focus for most Thai visitors is the ‘khatin’ (or ‘khatina’) robes ceremony and making merit which includes money trees being donated with some substantial amounts of cash collected.
The ‘kathin’ robes ceremonies are only allowed to take place within a one-month period from the end of Buddhist Lent (Awk Phansa). This is a chance for Thai Buddhists to make merit and the grounds at Mae Jo are filled with Thais of all ages many of whom will wear traditional Lanna-style attire. The offering of robes to monks is a religious ceremony, but it’s one surrounded by parades and food stalls and a lovely atmosphere. Those that have not donated robes can make merit by donating food and drink which is then free for those attending and participating in the morning and early afternoon activities.
Free event and ticketed event at Mae Jo
When the mass lantern release at Mae Jo first began there was just one event which was free and attended mainly by locals. In recent years there has been a huge upsurge in the number of tourists attending the free event. In 2011, event organisers responded by adding an additional ticketed event. There are pros and cons to attending either the free or ticketed event.
The free event is crowded, can be a hassle to get in and out of and the date isn’t usually 100% confirmed until a month or two beforehand. However, many will argue that these are minor inconveniences which are soon forgotten when thousands of sky lanterns are released simultaneously into the night sky. Anybody is welcome to attend the free event although it is primarily for the benefit of local Thai Buddhists. If you do go, please remember this is a religious event and dress and act appropriately. The sky lantern release in the evening is only a part, albeit a spectacular part, of the entire day.
For the Lanna Khatina Ceremony at Mae Jo, Thai Buddhists donate food and drink or give up their time to help organisers. The ceremony is a way of making merit and if you are intending to go to the lantern release and really want to make an effort to experience the local culture, you should visit the daytime ceremonies too. During the morning and early afternoon there are relatively few tourists around and it’s a pleasant time to walk around and take in the sights and sounds and enjoy the friendly family atmosphere.
In the late afternoon (3pm onwards) those who are there just for the lantern release begin to arrive and it can get crowded quickly as groups of tourists and photographers look to claim their spot for the evening.
Paid event (tickets only)
Tickets for the paid event have to be purchased in advance; there is no entry on the night without a ticket. The ticket price (approximately 100 USD) includes round-trip transfers and food. Tickets are limited so it’s less crowded, but there is no daytime robes ceremony so you do lose some of the local character although tourists still get to experience the sky lantern release with the monks in attendance.
Tickets can be purchased directly from the event organisers or from selected travel companies in Chiang Mai.
Dates of the sky lantern release at Mae Jo
The free event, which includes the robes ceremony during the day, is held within 30 days of the end of Buddhist Lent (Awk Phansa). The date of the free event varies according to the hosts, but you can see from the examples below that this is usually held on a Saturday a week or two before Loy Krathong/Yi Peng night. In recent years, the paid ticketed event at Mae Jo has taken place on the first Saturday following Loy Krathong.
See dates below for examples:
Loy Krathong/Yi Peng night: November 14
Chiang Mai Yi Peng Festival: November 13-15
Sky lantern release at Mae Jo: to be confirmed
More details of the 2016 Chiang Mai Yi Peng Festival and lantern release at Mae Jo »
Loy Krathong/Yi Peng night: November 25 (Wednesday)
Chiang Mai Yi Peng Festival: November 24-27 (provisional dates)
Sky lantern release at Mae Jo (free event): No free lantern release at Mae Jo for 2015. See full details here »
Sky lantern release at Mae Jo (ticketed event): November 25. See full details here »
Loy Krathong/Yi Peng night: November 6 (Thursday)
Chiang Mai Yi Peng Festival: November 5-7
Sky lantern release at Mae Jo (free event): October 25 (Saturday)
Sky lantern release at Mae Jo (ticketed event): November 8 (Saturday)
Loy Krathong/Yi Peng night: November 17 (Sunday)
Chiang Mai Yi Peng Festival: November 16-18
Sky lantern release at Mae Jo (free event): November 16 (Saturday)
Sky lantern release at Mae Jo (ticketed event): November 23 (Saturday)
Loy Krathong/Yi Peng night: November 28 (Wednesday)
Chiang Mai Yi Peng Festival: November 27-29
Sky lantern release at Mae Jo (free event): November 24 (Saturday)
Sky lantern release at Mae Jo (ticketed event): December 1 (Saturday)
Yi Peng Festival v Mae Jo Lantern Release
Both events are wonderful to experience in person. The Yi Peng Festival is easier to plan for because dates are known well in advance whereas that isn’t the case for the Mae Jo lantern release.
From a personal perspective, I enjoy the proper 3-day Yi Peng Lantern Festival and Loy Krathong celebrations in Chiang Mai more than the stage-managed mass lantern release at Mae Jo. Don’t get me wrong, the lantern release at Mae Jo is fantastic and I can understand why it is on so many people’s bucket list. If you have the opportunity to attend the Mae Jo lantern release you should definitely go, but try to make time too for the main Loy Krathong and Yi Peng Festival in Chiang Mai which is a colourful mixture of street parades, religious activities, fireworks, floating krathongs on the water and sky lanterns in the sky.
Buying sky lanterns at Mae Jo
The event organisers only allow sky lanterns that have been purchased inside the event grounds. The ‘Dhamma Chai’ lanterns that are on sale from the organisers are more expensive (around 100 Baht) than lanterns you can buy elsewhere. However, they are specifically designed for the event by Tudongkasatan Lanna and the Electricity Authority of Thailand (EGAT). Made using a bamboo frame and recycled paper, they adhere to fire regulations and won’t short-circuit power lines if they land on them. Organisers say money raised from the sale of the official ‘Dhamma Chai’ lanterns supports humanitarian and religious activities. If you buy lanterns from outside you will not be allowed to bring them into the event grounds.
Need to know
If you’re attending the lantern release at Mae Jo for the first time, forget any romantic notions you may have about being the lone foreigner amongst a sea of Thai people. Hundreds of tourists attend the free event. Whilst most overseas visitors to the lantern release are respectful of local culture, there are a minority that seem to forget where they are.
- Dress respectfully and cover knees and shoulders. Many Thai people in attendance will wear white or traditional northern-Thai style dress.
- Don’t bring lanterns from outside the venue.
- Be respectful at all times, but especially when people are praying and when monks enter the grounds to begin the ceremony.
- Loud-speaker announcements (in Thai, English, Japanese and Chinese) will let you know when the time is right to light and release your lantern. Of course, you’re not obliged to buy or release a lantern and you can simply watch others if you wish.
- Be prepared for the weather. Blue skies and hot afternoon sunshine can give way to torrential evening downpours.
- No smoking.
- No alcohol.
- Food is permitted to be brought into the grounds and there are vendors inside and outside before and after the event.
- Children under 13 are not allowed at the lantern ceremony.
- Switch your phone to silent during the meditation and chanting ceremony.
- After the event is finished crowds funnel through a small exit which gets very congested. Walking routes are poorly lit and a small torch comes in very handy.
What time is the lantern release?
Timings of the free event vary from year to year, but the kathin robes ceremony normally begins around 13.00-13.30. For the lantern release ceremony, monks take their place on the raised semi-circular stage between 5.30-6pm and a Buddhist ceremony involving meditation and chanting takes around an hour to complete. The procession of senior monks and those who have sponsored the kathin robes ceremony is usually some time after 7pm and is accompanied by more meditation and praying ahead of the first lantern launch which takes place at approximately 7.15-7.45pm. A second launch is arranged shortly after. By 9pm the crowds are starting to drift away, but look out too for the floating of krathongs on the waterways nearby.
If you arrive at the event grounds after 5pm you may find many of the best vantage points already taken. Between 3-4pm seems to be the optimum arrival time for those that just want to see the lantern release rather than the kathin robes ceremony.
How to get there
The event takes place at Lanna Dhutanka temple which is located behind Mae Jo University in the Sansai district of Chiang Mai province. Use the Google map below for precise directions.
From Chiang Mai city, green songthaews go to Mae Jo from Waworot Market (locals call this market Kad Luang) close to the Ping River*. The scheduled one-way fare to Mae Jo during the day is 20 Baht. The driver will probably guess where you are going without you saying, but let them know so that they can drop you off at the closest drop-off point to Mae Jo University. From the main road you will still have approximately a 2km walk to get to the event grounds. Follow the crowds and/or signs.
*(At the time of writing songthaews to Mae Jo are running from Chang Puak bus station to the north of Chang Puak Gate.)
Coming back it is a bit of a free-for-all. Parking restrictions and road closures mean you will have another long walk back to the main road where songthaews (all colours) queue up to take people back to Chiang Mai city. Expect to pay anywhere from 80 to 150 Baht per person to get back into Chiang Mai city.
If you are with a group of people you could hire the songthaew as a private taxi, but you’ll need to agree a rate in advance. Be sensible when haggling over prices; drivers are obviously going to charge higher prices than normal to compensate for the traffic and waiting time. You can try negotiating directly with a songthaew driver or book one via most tour offices in Chiang Mai.
Taxis from central Chiang Mai to Mae Jo don’t operate on a meter basis, but instead have set rates which will vary depending on the taxi company used. You can book a taxi via most tour offices in Chiang Mai or call Chiang Mai Taxis on 053 262878.
Much like taxis and songthaews, tuk-tuks can be hired to take you to Mae Jo and back. The price you pay will depend on the driver, your negotiating skills and how many of you are trying to squeeze in the vehicle.
Independent travellers may scoff at the idea of joining a tour group, but it does take away much of the hassle involved in getting to and from the event. Ask for details at any Chiang Mai tour office.
If you’re confident and competent enough to drive an automatic motorbike, this can be a convenient option. There are numerous motorbike shops around Chiang Mai with the average daily rental rate for a small motorbike with insurance around the 250 Baht mark. Plan your route using the map below.