New Years Eve in the Old City of Chiang Mai is quite a different experience from your typical NYE, for me it was. You might be used to house parties where everyone is drinking and having fun, or heading out to see “the fireworks”, wherever they happen to be in your city. Or it could mean going to some organized party or themed event, where everyone dresses up silly and makes merry for the night.
In the case of seeing the lanterns getting lit in Chiang Mai’s Old City, it was a case of dodging candle displays on the ground, which were scattered in amongst the sea of hundreds of people. Looking up and seeing hundreds of large lanterns slowly sail off into the distance.
It was also looking up and seeing people mobilize to put out lanterns that’ve sailed back to earth because they’ve caught fire. It was seeing the night markets, cars still trying to travel down people infested roads, drinks, random fireworks and crackers lit by Thai people and generally a big old load of unorganized, free-for-all merriment.
Night Markets stretching kilometers
Something that amazed me where the night markets. If you don’t know what night markets are, they’re stalls set up in the street, selling everything a tourist might want: clothes, food, souvenirs, ice-cream, massages, fake tattoos and other such things. Most of it is actually quite good. I bought myself a silk shawl (made in Thailand!). I’ve found that a shawl is the best travel companion and you can read about why I find it so useful in my post what’s the one thing I can’t travel without?
A really amazing thing about these night markets is that they were endless, literally streets and streets and streets big. Not little back streets: they’d blocked off the main roads in quite a large area of Old Town near the gate entrance. This is two lane mega night markets!
Despite the markets being so big it was still easy to get around, in fact I think their size helped thin out the crowd. Don’t get me wrong, it was still busy, but I rarely had to bump shoulder to shoulder. I’m unsure when they open, but I got there about 7pm and they were starting to pack up around 11pm as everyone headed to the main gate for the lanterns.
Monks chanting and traditional prayers
The New Year is an important time for Thai people, and they have traditions that go with the passing of it, ancient traditions. One of these is to prey for your family and for yourself. In fact many old Thai people will prey non-stop for about four hours as midnight passes over. They will chant the same thing over and over and over. This usually happens between 10pm and 2am, or so one Thai local told me. I think it’s really nice to do that.
There are temples beautifully lit up and decorated, and monks do chant in them with large Thai crowds joining them or listening outside. There is another strange custom, and I never found out why, but people would give a donation of 100B ($4USD) and then put it in a plastic sleeve and hang it from the roof of the temple, with a piece of string tied to the bottom of it. Then during the chanting the people sitting on the floor of the temple would reach up, grab the string and either hold it in their hands, or wrap it around their heads as they preyed with the monks. Perhaps it has something to do with good luck or good fortune. You can see the monks chanting at Wat Phantao, if you want it’s quite okay to sit in the temple, just observe the rules (no singlets, short tops, shoes etc).
Back in the day, and we’re talking about the ancient past up until as recently as about 20 years ago, people would light a small lantern in their garden or on the street, make a wish, and let it go. The idea being that the wish would come true as you let the lantern go. That practice has become mainstream in Chiang Mai, except now it’s a boat load of tourists doing it with lanterns five times the size. It’s pretty, funny and dangerous.
Many Thai people don’t do it. Don’t get me wrong, it is a very pretty sight seeing them float away, and rather funny hearing the big cheers as a particular group of people have managed to set their lantern off. But as you might guess some lanterns catch fire and come falling back to earth, in all their flaming glory. Every year houses catch on fire and unfortunately this year two houses did. Still, people will still do it. A Thai person told me of this before I went to the festival, so I decided not to try and fly any myself. If you do decide to participate in it just realize that your lantern might be the one that does something arsony. It doesn’t seem to worry most people, or they don’t know about it.
There are still hundreds of people letting off lanterns, and it truly is a magic sight as you see them sail off. Some people would even attach (somehow) sparklers to the bottom too, so you see this lantern sail off from amongst the crowd as it burns a bright white light, rather than the warm orange glow of the flame. This’d be a good way to see yours as it floats away too.
Fireworks up close
While I was at the gate the crowds were massive, real shoulder to shoulder stuff. It was a great festival vibe. The was no official clock but there was a countdown that sort of just started out of no where. Everyone counted down and a lot more lanterns got let off on the tick over. Thai people started letting off fire crackers and mini (and not so mini) fireworks too.
It was fun and a little bit dangerous to experience this, it was certainly the first time I’ve seen fireworks directly overhead, up-close and personal. After the count down people kept on about there business: letting off more lanterns, leaving the area (most people started doing this), finding a bar or food, or going home. I went home as I was exhausted from wandering around all evening. If you’re looking for more booze remember it’s illegal to sell alcohol past 12am in the shops, so buy it before and plan ahead. You’ll have no issue in the bars though.