Ok, so I’m going to let you in on a little secret: I didn’t know anything about Chiang Mai before we scheduled our flight there.
I’d heard of it, but honestly, I didn’t know whether it was just a province or a city or what. I just knew it was in Thailand.
The reason we chose to spend a week there was because of a celebration called Yi Peng. You’ve probably seen pictures on Pinterest of thousands of lanterns being released into the night sky. Those pictures are taken at this ceremony. It takes place at the same time as a big holiday in Thailand called Loi Krathong, in which Thais celebrate by floating candle-lit Krathongs (or small floats) down the Ping River to welcome in new beginnings as the year starts anew.
Years ago, I saw a photo of the lanterns and knew that–at least once in my lifetime–I would experience the event.
Many people would call this a “bucket list” item. I prefer Maggie Mason’s terminology instead; she calls it her “Life List.”
My life list has quite a few items on it, many of which I’ve checked off this year! The Yi Peng ceremony, however, was right up there at the top, blinking in big, bright letters: “I’m next! I’m next!”
Originally, we were only planning to go to Bali, and then maybe stop over in Singapore or Phuket, but when I found out that this celebration was happening around the time we’d be over in that part of the world, I smooth-talked Rick into making Chiang Mai a part of our itinerary.
The only hesitation was that I couldn’t find any solid information about the celebration online! After a few days of research, I found that they had 2 ceremonies. One was a tourist-focused event which costs $100 for entry and was taking place at the end of the month… on the day of our East Coast wedding celebration we had already scheduled. Well, it had sold out by the time I’d found it anyway, so that option was out.
The second event was more mysterious. The festival itself celebrates the final full moon in the 12th month of the Thai lunar year. I read that this 2nd option was a religious, local-focused event in which they spoke only Thai, but if you could time it right, it was a profound experience.
After emailing two hotels we were planning to stay at, and getting nebulous information back, I decided we would just go for it. I knew the final full moon of the Thai lunar year was happening the weekend we were planning to be there, so I just hoped with all my might that it would work out.
When we arrived, details were still cloudy about whether the event was happening or not. Locals didn’t even know about it!
I started to get worried.
I asked multiple people who spoke fluent Thai to find out more information, but even when they called the university where it was happening, it seemed like the event wasn’t set in stone.
I got more worried. I started talking myself out of it.
Maybe the locals just don’t want us there, I thought. Maybe it would be intrusive to go, not having been Buddhist my whole life.
When I told locals this, they shook their heads no. They said everyone was welcome, just to be respectful when we got there.
As I searched online about the festival, I came upon an article that described the event like an over-crowded festival not worth the trip. She wrote that it was “dangerous” because there were so many people there, and that it was shoulder-to-shoulder shuffling to get out of the arena.
My anxiety rose, and I started making excuses for why we shouldn’t go.
I’m not good with crowds. What if it’s hectic and crowded the whole event?
I heard from the people at our guesthouse that they let off lanterns in town, too. I guess we could just experience it there?
I don’t want to go into a potentially dangerous situation in a foreign country without traveler’s insurance. Maybe we should just skip it.
We had two options: skip it completely and just celebrate in the Old City, which was supposed to be beautiful as well. Or, we could venture all the way out to the University, possibly getting caught in tons of traffic, not knowing where exactly to go or what to do, all the while not being able to communicate with anyone who was there.
My fear was shouting excuses for why I should just play it safe and stay in the city. I didn’t know anything about what I was getting myself into if we went. I thought, maybe this dream wasn’t worth the hassle. Maybe I should just let it go…
I went back and forth up until the morning of the event. I had pretty much come to terms with the fact that I wouldn’t be seeing this spectacle I had longed for so many years to see. I’d probably have a pretty good time with the lanterns downtown…
And then I realized what I was doing.
I was afraid. Of the effort. Of the unknown. Of disappointing others. Never mind the fact that we came to Chiang Mai only for this reason; it didn’t matter. My brain sensed the unknown and immediately rejected the option.
It wasn’t the safe way to go. It scared me. It excited me.
Sooooo guess what I decided…
Saturday night, we worked with the guesthouse owners to rally up a group to go out to the ceremony. The owners worked out a ride, and they confirmed that the event was indeed taking place that night at around 6:30 PM.
We left at about 4:15, expecting loads of traffic going up to the university… only there was no traffic. We hit a little bit when we got right to the university grounds, but it took us no longer than 20, 25 minutes to get there. Actually, it was quite a beautiful drive through the countryside on our way.
When we got there, we were expecting swarms of people… but there weren’t. Everything was well-organized. Our driver parked and posted signs on the front of the truck that read the name of our guesthouse, then told us to come meet him there afterwards. He would simply wait.
It was very easy to find our way inside and there was no squishy-crowd syndrome at all. In fact, the paths leading into the arena had sporadic groups of students who would welcome us (in unison) in Thai and English, smiling all the way.
Guides were stationed at corners to direct guests where to go. They even handed out pamphlets in Thai and English, as well as plastic sheets to sit on so that we didn’t get grass stains! We felt so very welcome in this place that was supposed to be “locals only.”
When we got to the arena, we found the crowds we had expected, though they weren’t unruly at all. I whispered under my breath to Rick that it looked like a Buddhist Woodstock. Everyone was seated on on either side of a long walkway reserved for the monks’ procession. I was quite surprised to see that MOST of the people there were foreigners. In fact, all the announcements were made in several languages for everyone to understand!
Rick walked up to a stall to purchase a lantern and we got situated in the middle of the crowd. It was difficult to see the stage, but we could hear just fine, and the English announcements were very easy to understand.
As the ceremony started, a hush went over the audience. People from all countries were eager to learn the correct was to “kraap,” or bow. They taught us step-by-step over the loud speakers each movement and when to perform it.
Then, the monks entered and began a deep, reverberating chant as we were asked to still our minds before releasing the lanterns with meditation. A high monk gave a sermon about the life and teachings of Buddha in Thai, but just to listen to his voice was grounding and soothing. Even when some of the tourists started getting restless (it was a long meditation to be fair), I tried to sit and concentrate on stilling my mind. I was soaking up this experience by trying to participate as wholly as I could.
When the time finally came to start lighting our lanterns, you could feel the excitement ignite throughout the crowd. The announcers talked us through how to light our lanterns properly while more university volunteers walked through the audience and helped people. We were one of the lucky groups to have a helper light our lantern for us.
As we stood there in the warm orange glow, holding our lantern high with all the thousands of patrons in the arena, every ounce of the fear I’d felt about coming to this place had washed away. It all felt right.
As a group of thousands, we held our lanterns overhead while wishing the world peace and calm like we experienced during meditation. I was closing my eyes to better concentrate on my wish when music started flowing through the speakers, and the announcer yelled, “Release your lanterns!”
And we did. All of us.
Looking up at the thousands of glowing paper lanterns rising together, carrying our wishes for harmony, was a feeling unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. To be in the midst of so many wishes, so much peace and joy was so moving I couldn’t keep myself from both laughing and crying at the same time. It was everything I’d hoped it would be and more.
The release continued for the next half hour or so as most people had multiple lanterns. Smiles lit up every face. Strangers hugged. Foreigners and locals alike rejoiced together, communicating in joyous nods and offers to take pictures of each other.
Leaving was crowded, sure, but nothing like the “dangerous, shoulder-to-shoulder” madness that was described in the deterring blog post I’d read. It was well-managed, and full of happy, peaceful people. We found our car without trouble, though we did have to wait a whopping 10 minutes for our driver to come back (he’d been eating dinner… the nerve ;)).
Getting back took a little longer than getting there, but only about 30 minutes. It was nothing like the traffic I’d expected.
All-in-all, the experience went as I’d hoped it would (well, better actually) before I started making up excuses as to why I shouldn’t go.
To think that I would have missed this dream of mine because of fear is astounding to me as I look back on it. The soul reason we went to Chiang Mai was to be a part of this release, and I almost missed it because it wasn’t a sure thing.
How many times have we all skipped out on dreams and opportunities because we’re not sure how it’s going to turn out?
How many times do we let chances pass us by because we are scared of doing the work to make it happen?
I know this is true for all of us, whether it’s a big dream that you want to make a reality, or a little risk that comes up spur-of-the-moment.
Before I launched The 30×30 Project last year, fear stood in my way like a brick wall. It threatened me with horribly mortifying possibilities and screamed of the failures that would almost surely happen. Pushing through those fears took effort, and creating everything that made it possible took even more.
The payoff for persevering, both in the case of 30×30 and for this event, was beyond what I could have dreamed.
The reward you’re after is waiting to be claimed just on the other side of the unknown.
Risk-taking is an essential part of a fulfilling life. Without adventure, without venturing into “dangerous” grounds, how will you ever be able to explore other realities? How will you ever be able to expand your own?
Fear tends to manifest when we come upon something that’s really important to us. Anything that creates change in our lives, or that we have not experienced before will most likely produce fear as well. To avoid these fear-provoking experiences, we create excuses to keep us in what we know; to keep us from changing.
The whole point of life is to experience it, just like I said in the last post. To avoid fear is to avoid any experiences you have not yet had. Where’s the fun in that?!
Don’t avoid fear; use it as your guide to go after what really matters to you. Be grateful for the sensation. Sit with it. Know it for what it is.
It will be uncomfortable. You will feel anxious and your mind may scream at you to stop, but if it’s what your heart and soul cry out for you to do, and it’s aligned with love, you can walk through it. If you do, the payoff will be worth it.
The next time you think to yourself that it’s not worth the effort, I urge you to reconsider. At least take the time to ask yourself, “Isn’t it, though?”
Those items on your Life List deserve to be crossed off. You deserve those adventures in your life! You deserve to experience your story fully, with all it’s trials and tribulations. Most importantly, you deserve the payoff… only you won’t reach it if you don’t get through the fear first.
Today, I urge you to make your own Life List. In the comments below, tell us:
What are the top 5 items on your Life List?
Want a gold star for the day? Start mapping out exactly what you can do to accomplish at least one of the items.
I hope that the act of writing out what you want serves as a step toward its realization, because you deserve to light up just as bright as those lanterns.
Here’s to your bright life.