You might think after the debacle that was Laos, I would give up on buses for a little while. Instead, I hopped right back on one a short 4 days later. Another 15 hour bus ride. Let me just say, I keep living and I keep learning. This trip, I learned never to take the economy bus again. No toilet, no blankets, and worst of all, zero leg room. Easy ride for all of the tiny Asians. Not so comfortable for us tall Americans. It felt as if my ankles would snap or my knee caps might fall off. Never again.
Amelia and I went to Chiang Mai this weekend. Chiang Mai is almost as far up north in Thailand as you can get. The last three hours of the drive, I was holding onto the seat for dear life. If I could pick out the most winding road I have ever seen, this would be it. It felt as if the bus driver was going 100 mph around the mountainous turns. All that came between me and the jungle tree tops was a very tiny guardrail. Pretty view, but I saw my life flash before my eyes at least twice. Finally, I felt my body stop tensing once my feet touched the ground, knowing there was a good reason that I decided it was necessary to travel all the way up to Chiang Mai on this certain weekend.
The weekend of November 16th was Loi Krathong, or more commonly known to us as Lantern Festival. Loi Krathong is a ceremony in Thailand that connects multiple beliefs, mainly Buddhism and Hinduism. It takes place every year on the full moon in November and the lanterns and floats are the largest part of the ceremony. This is something that I had seen pictures of many times and always thought the photographs were beautiful, but never knew much about it. When I realized that this festival was held in Thailand, I decided it was a must, as this would be a once in a lifetime opportunity.
Once we arrived in Chiang Mai, we tried to figure out all of the details, since scheduling was difficult to find online. Scheduling happened to be difficult to come by once we were there as well. Everyone we talked to, Thai or tourist, gave us different dates, different times, different locations, and all we wanted to do was see the lanterns! Eventually, we got ahold of some coworkers staying at a hostel down the street and they confirmed that the lantern ceremony that we had specifically gone to Chiang Mai for would luckily be that night. Their hostel was running a few songtaos to the festival for only 150 Baht, which was the best price we had gotten all day.
We took the songtao through heavy traffic to Mae Jo University, where the festival was being held. When we got to the entrance, there were so many signs. No alcohol. No food. No bare knees/shoulders. No fireworks. No lanterns. Wait, no lanterns?! Thank goodness Amelia read ahead of time that lanterns bought outside the festival were not allowed, or else we would have been scammed by the hundreds of people selling them right next to the gate. We followed the mass of people, bought our lanterns inside, then ran to quickly find a spot to sit.
Before the actual ceremony, we had a “practice run.” Someone who spoke English was there to let us know how to bow the correct way, what to say, how to light the lantern, and when to light the lantern. After the directions were given, we had about an hour of a Buddhist ceremony. We were surrounded by lots of people who had a deep connection of some sort to Loi Krathong. We were facing a stage filled with monks in bright orange. We had a cloudless sky with lanterns being set off here and there from outside of the ceremony. Now, I may be one of the least religious people you know (whether you know it or not), but there was something about this ceremony leading up to releasing the lanterns. Peaceful. Quiet. Spiritual. Calming. These four words may sound silly coming from a non-religious person, but I think that this may have been the first time I have ever felt these things all at once, and I have a feeling it may never happen again. I don’t mind that this was probably my biggest moment of spirituality, because it was one of the most amazing and unreal experiences that I have had to date.
When the ceremony ended, it was time to light the lanterns. Lighting one lantern was a three person job. Amelia, Lorna (a new friend from the UK who we adopted for the weekend), and I went at the first one. More difficult than you would think!! I held onto the first lantern that we lit and let it go with the wave of other lanterns floating toward the sky. I will never ever see anything like this again in my life, unless I happen to go back for another Loi Krathong. Here I am four days later getting emotional just thinking about it. It is hard to explain exactly how I felt throughout this night, but I know that when I was surrounded by a sky filled with lanterns, I was giddy. Happy. Joyous even?! Smiling from ear to ear and on a high for the rest of the night. Maybe even the whole next day.
As if the weekend couldn’t get any better, I took the VIP bus home. V. I. P. I walked on and almost cried when we sat in our seats. I had so much room for my legs that I could stretch them all the way with no difficulty. The seats reclined practically to a bed, which you would think may be annoying when the person in front of you reclines, but not on the VIP bus!! Room for all! This was great for sleeping since we took yet again another overnight bus. I got a warm blanket. I got a water bottle. I got a bag of chips. I got a bag of cookies. There was a toilet. Not a squatter. An actual clean toilet. We stopped twice and got complimentary dinner both times. We arrived to Chon Buri at the correct time. I know how I’m traveling from now on!
This weekend was probably one of the best I will come by in Thailand. Not only was the Lantern Festival absolutely breathtaking, but Chiang Mai is such an amazing city. It has lots of tourists because there are a lot of jungle activities to do up there, so there are people who I can communicate with easily. The food was really great. I had my first ever banana pancake. I had no idea what Jack Johnson was making such a fuss about all these years!! To die for. There is also great shopping in Chiang Mai. I was slightly on a budget this trip, but will be diving right in next time I head back there, which happens to be soon because there are also elephants in Chiang Mai. Yes I came to Thailand to teach, but another big seller for me was that I could adopt an elephant for a day, and I will be doing so in three weeks!!