Fortunate Travel Timing in Chiang Mai: Loi Krathong and Yi Peng

When you travel, sometimes you get lucky. We didn’t realize how fortunate our timing was when we purchased our plane tickets to Thailand months ago. We finally arrived in Chiang Mai just in time for the traditional Thai celebrations of Loi Krathong and Yi Peng.

Chiang Mai Lanterns for Yi Peng

Chiang Mai Lanterns

Both of these events celebrate the full moon. While they are tied to two different Thai calendars, these celebrations often occur in November and always happen at the same time in Chiang Mai. Loi Krathong is a national celebration while Yi Peng is celebrated in Northern Thailand and especially in Chiang Mai. Wikipedia explains them best! Our arrival in Chiang Mai was a fortunate coincidence.

Chiang Mai Parade Loi Krathong

Parade in Chiang Mai for Loi Krathong

At first glance, I would describe Yi Peng as a more interactive “Fourth of July”. Yi Peng is best known for the paper lanterns that are released into the sky. The lanterns are also supplemented by fireworks, firecrackers, and pretty much anything else that explodes or makes noise. Tourists and locals take turns launching thousands of these lanterns. It is considered good luck to launch one and you can write your wishes for the the coming year directly on it. Some people also interpret the lanterns as a way to discard your worries and fears. Either way, it sure looks cool!

Molly and I wanted to give this a try. We found a temple near the center of the city where lantern after lantern were launched to illuminate the sky. We entered to watch for ourselves.

Chiang Mai Lanterns from Temple

Time lapse picture of lanterns launching from a temple in Chiang Mai

In the temple yard we found orange-robed monks helping locals and tourists alike to launch their own lantern. With the help of a monk we managed to launch our own lantern without issue. We watched it sail over the temple to join the migration of light.

Like Yi Peng, Loi Krathong also deploys fire in a celebratory fashion. In this case it takes place on the water. A ‘krathong’ is a small floating disk that is usually made from a piece of banana stalk. It is decorated with flowers, a candle and some incense and floated down rivers and canals.

Krathongs for sale at the market

Krathongs for sale at the market

Like the lanterns, you are supposed to make a wish before you release your krathong. We stood on a bridge over the river and watched the flickering candles drift with the currents. Launching lanterns and floating flower-encrusted boats created a colorful nighttime atmosphere in Chiang Mai. As long as you avoid the fireworks and firecrackers exploding all around you, you will be just fine!

Chiang Mai Loi Krathong Parade Pic

Loi Krathong parade proceeds down the street

The festival didn’t end there. Massive parades, performances and fireworks compliment the main activities. In the end, it was impossible to see everything that was happening in Chiang Mai while we were there. Events happened simultaneously all over the city for the celebrations. The quiet city was transformed into a festival without sleep during our whole time there. Even when we got on the night bus back to Bangkok, we could see the lanterns floating in the distance.

Lanterns in the sky Chiang Mai Yi Peng

Lanterns in the sky over Chiang Mai

When it comes to traveling, you can spend hours and days planning the “perfect” vacation destinations. You may even show up on your perfectly planned time only to be disappointed. Doing your homework is important but don’t let planning stop you from actually diving in. Sometimes the best activities show themselves when you aren’t looking for them and when you least expect it.

I wont forget Chiang Mai and the thousands of lanterns of Yi Peng anytime soon. “Long life and happiness.” What’s on your lantern?

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A Vegan’s Perspective of Elephant Nature Park

Molly and Dan with Medo.

Molly and Dan with Medo.

Elephant riding, tours, training, and feeding are big business in Chiang Mai, Thailand. If you are ever in Chiang Mai and consider “doing something with elephants”, please only consider Elephant Nature Park and do your research.

Elephant Nature Park is a sanctuary for retired and rescued preforming and working elephants. I learned a lot in my time there and thought I would share it with you guys so when you are in Chiang Mai you can make an educated decision on spending time with elephants in Thailand.

Elephant Nature Park doesn’t just care for their 36 elephants, they also have over 130 dogs that they care for that live on the santuary’s land.

This well-behaved guy really just wanted some people food! He is sitting on a stool!

This well-behaved guy really just wanted some people food! He is sitting on a stool!

There is also a herd of water buffalo that heard how nice it is there and took up residence.

The giant herd of water buffalo that live at Elephant Nature Park

The giant herd of water buffalo that live at Elephant Nature Park

Dan and I originally tried to volunteer for a week at the park but they were all booked up through mid-December. If you can, I highly recommend volunteering for an extended period of time. We were just day helpers and I personally felt that we were mostly visitors (and in the way of the people actually helping) and not so much helpers.

Dan cleaning Medo in the river.

Dan cleaning Medo in the river.

But to get to the important information: Asian elephants are smaller and tamer than their African cousins. In fact, if “broken”, Asian elephants can be trained to do all sorts of things for human entertainment. There are 3,000-4,000 “working” elephants in Thailand. What happens to those elephants when they can no longer work or carry tourists or paint pictures with their trunks?

That’s where Elephant Nature Park comes in. They provide a home, family, and food for “retired” elephants for the rest of their natural lives. There is no other elephant sanctuary in Thailand and there are an awful lot of working elephants. For the elephants at Elephant Nature Park, being rescued by Lek (the founder of the sanctuary) is the best possible thing that could ever happen to them. It should be noted that an elephant is worth a lot in Thailand. Obviously, elephants that cannot work are worth less, but this isn’t like a chicken that fell of the transport truck in the USA (worth nothing to the “farmer”). These horrible people who abuse the elephants still want compensation; and Lek does often pay for the elephants she rescues.

Lek and her children. The love there is palpable.

Lek and her children. The love there is palpable.

One of the things I did not know before spending time at Elephant Nature Park is that Asian elephants, after being trained, become like domestic animals. They cannot be sent back in to the wild as they no longer know how to care for themselves. This is really why Elephant Nature Park is so important! There is no where else for these beautiful creatures to go after they are no longer “useful”.

And since they are domesticated, but still huge (unlike your dog, for example) getting them to do the things you want involves bribery. Instead of punishing the elephants with bullhooks to get them to do what they want, Lek’s trainers uses bribes of the food variety. Each elephant has a trainer (mahout in Hindi) with him or her all day, and if an elephant needs to go from one end of the park to the other, for example, the mahout first tries voice commands and then if that doesn’t work: fruit.

Hungry elephants waiting for their morning fruit. Impatiently...

Hungry elephants waiting for their morning fruit. Impatiently…

Ultimately, the work that Elephant Nature Park does is vitally important as there is no where else for these elephants to go where they will be safe from harm and cared for for the rest of their 70-80 year lives.

Baby trying to steal fruit out of mom's mouth. Silly baby, you don't even have teeth yet!

Baby trying to steal fruit out of mom’s mouth. Silly baby, you don’t even have teeth yet!

My biggest problem with the sanctuary, as an ethical vegan, was that the elephants were “putting on a show” for us visitors. We fed the elephants fruits and veggies twice while we were there (in the wild their natural diet would generally consist of grasses and leaves) and got to crowed around them and take pictures with them at another point. They weren’t just left alone to be elephants. In some small way they are still working for their dinner. But things like riding the elephants is strictly forbidden at Elephant Nature Park.

And I obviously have a problem with paying for the elephants as well, as it encourages the people who use these elephants to continue, knowing that they get a reward even after their elephant can no longer work. But I don’t know how else Lek would be able to convince the “owners” to give up their old, blind, injured elephants.

A majestic elephant at Elephant Nature Park

A majestic elephant at Elephant Nature Park

Of course, it is obvious why they allow the volunteers to interact with the elephants at Elephant Nature Park. The tourists want to spend time with the elephants, not just watch them from afar, and it costs Lek $250,000 a year to run Elephant Nature Park. The money from visitors is desperately needed. So I was a bit conflicted. I know these elephants are used to spending time with humans, and they certainly were not showing any physical signs of stress, but it still felt off to me as an animal activist.

Panorama of Elephant Nature Park

Panorama of Elephant Nature Park

All of the behaviors I saw from the elephants, and their interactions with their trainers and visitors indicated to me that they are happy and well cared for. So, I am certainly not saying “don’t visit Elephant Nature Park”, I am just trying to examine all of the sides of the issue. In case you can’t tell from the pictures, we had a fantastic time with the elephants despite some hesitation. You should come to your own conclusions, but Elephant Nature Park is certainly the best option for these domesticated elephants that I know of.

Ultimately, I agree with this sign that I saw at Elephant Nature Park: