A symphony of monks chanted as we sat kneeling on the grass. I held the wire rim of my enormous cylindrical paper lantern and waited for the cue. Finally, in one synchronized movement, a sea of hands—belonging to individuals from countless countries and cultures—let go.
I looked up at the dark night sky as thousands of glowing lanterns drifted into the distance creating an explosion of stars. I began to laugh and squeal, hardly able to comprehend the beauty that surrounded me.
A few years ago at this exact time, I would have been walking out the door to begin my day at my office job in a cold, rainy city. Instead, I was participating in a sacred tradition held once a year in Chiang Mai, Thailand. This is one of the many incredible experiences I’ve been afforded over the past six months while traveling through South East Asia and working as a freelance writer from my laptop.
Months before I arrived in South East Asia I watched a video of the famous Yi Peng lantern release inside of the temple at the Mae Jo University, just outside of Chiang Mai, and I made it my mission to be there.
Yi Peng, where participants light rice paper lanterns and send them into the sky, is celebrated throughout northern Thailand and even in parts of Laos and Burma. Chiang Mai holds the largest festival, which coincides with Loi Kratong…where candle donned lotuses are floated down the river.
Both festivals represent the beautiful art of letting go.
Last November, on the evening of the Yi Peng festival, I piled into the back of a covered truck bed in Chiang Mai and set out for Mae Jo. By the time we reached the temple there was a line of traffic that stretched over a mile.
People were packed in rows on the lawn and spilled over into the pathways. Behind the temple, groups gathered, defiantly setting off rogue lanterns before the grand release. We shuffled through crowds to find a patch of real estate and sat in silence during prayers and melodic chanting until we were instructed to light our lanterns.
I held my lit vessel and watched it inflate with hot air. When I let it go…along with thousands of others…and felt the weightlessness of the space it created. The rush as each lantern propelled upwards was indescribably exhilarating. The experience felt simultaneously personal and communal. Surrounded by music and laughter, I felt ease and joy emanate from each person around me. In the true spirit of the tradition, each of us had let something go and in doing so, we became that much more free.
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