Chiang Mai is famous for big, colorful, extravagant festivals. They can last several days and attract huge crowds from abroad and from all over Thailand. Hotels fill to capacity, traffic slows to a crawl, train tickets to and from Chiang Mai sell out weeks in advance. Thousands of people get involved in decorating the city, putting up stages, setting up competitions, float parades and lots of entertainment.
The season kicks off in November with the Loi Krathong festival, a three day event, which has its origins in making offerings to the water spirits by placing little floats in the river. Leaves are sewn together to form little floats, filled with flowers, incense and candles. Before they are placed in the water, people pray and make wishes which are supposed to be granted by the spirits of the water.
Another part of the festival is the releasing of fire balloons. Again people make wishes before they send up the balloons into the night sky which fills up with hundreds and thousands of soaring lights. The wind sometimes plays havoc with the burning lanterns and every year some buildings burn down when the fire balloons fail to rise.
Big fireworks paint the sky at night with colorful illuminations. On top of that tens of thousands of people shoot off fireworks in all directions, meaning that little rockets and firecrackers are constantly whizzing by your face. Especially the kids are happily involved, and accidents are bound to happen.
During the day there are balloon competitions. The teams sew together giant balloons and send them up into the sky. Many of them release fireworks while they are rising. During all this exciting activity there is the deafening sound of announcers who never stop talking for a second and broadcast their comments through huge speakers at top volume. If they ever run out of things to say, they blast music out of the speaker towers again at top volume just to make sure that there is never a quiet moment.
The Ping river of Chiang Mai has its share of fun activities during the festival. There are inner tube races, stages with artistic performances, and dinner boats gliding by. After sunset the river is lit up by thousands of little floats with burning candles and wafting incense. Vendors and spectators line the river banks by the thousands to watch, profit from and participate in all the events.
There is also an unusual diving competition. Once there was a war between Thailand and Burma. It was decided that the outcome would be determined by divers who would stay under water as long as possible. If the Thais would win, the Burmese army had to leave. One Thai diver tied himself to a rock at the bottom of the river and sacrificed his life for his country. He was the winner since he stayed under water permanently and the Burmese left. This event is commemorated during the Loi Krathong festival by divers who compete how long they can stay under water. This year the winner managed to hold his breath for over three minutes.
Dancing and singing competitions take place with beautifully dressed women performing on a huge stage. Thais love to sing and many of them are quite talented and have beautiful voices. Many Thai women are naturally very graceful which they express in their traditional dances which are beautiful, gentle, and flowing.
The biggest event at night is a parade of beautifully crafted and decorated floats, all with different themes. Along with the truly spectacular floats are processions of traditionally dressed dancers, drummers, martial artists, fire dancers, and groups representing various aspects of life in Thailand. The procession lasts for several hours and winds its way through the heart of Chiang Mai while burning balloons light up the sky, fireworks crackle, and countless loudspeakers blast messages and music, all in a symphony of noise, color, excitement, extravaganza, and amazement.
Loi Krathong is one of the most colorful and spectacular events in Thailand. It is celebrated in other areas, but nothing comes close to Chiang Mai’s event. This festival alone is worth a visit to Thailand.