October 29th was a rollercoaster of a day. We'd heard from one of the girls that a lantern festival was happening somewhere near a university, but after a bit of research by her boyfriend, it turned out that it was a fairly closed religious festival and that the monks were not keen on tourists going along to it. We had also heard that a more open event was taking place by the Three Kings monument. After a bit of thought we decided to go to the monument. There were lanterns there but after investigation with some locals it turned out they were in preparation for the "main" lantern festival on November 10. Dilemma! Further soul-searching abounded and we decided to risk it and head to the festival at Mae Jo university. I thought it would be worth checking with Dao (hereafter known as Magnificent Dao) at the Libra; it turned out that she had already organised 3 bus loads of people to go there! Tourist-free festival my arse. Magnificent Dao leapt into action, flagging down a songthaew (red pickup taxi thing) and negotiating a 200 baht return journey for each of us - Gilly and I, Hayley, James (an English guy Hayley met on a cooking course) and Nevo, an Israeli guy we struck up a conversation with in our guesthouse at lunch.
The journey was an exercise in frustration. We got about 1.5 miles away from the entrance and hit masses of traffic, mainly songthaews full of farangs (foreigners) and dozens and dozens of bikes and scooters weaving in and out of them, slowing things down. It was about 7pm and had got dark, and we needed to stay in the songthaew in order to find out where he was going to park in order to get back to him when we left. There followed a torturous journey around lane after lane of grass paths as the driver was directed from one traffic helper to another. We could see the lanterns being released into the sky a mere 300m away but were helpless to get closer. We finally ended up in a pitch dark field, and had to work our way back to the festival entrance. Fortunately Nevo had brought a torch, but it didn't stop my ankles being made a meal of by whatever biting things we were walking through in the field.
It was worth it though; once we got to the festival, we were treated to a breathtaking show of fire. Thousands of torches lit the ground, their flames being used for people to light lanterns to release. Jaunty music was piped out of huge speakers, and the area was covered with people, Thai and farang alike, taking pictures. The atmosphere was one of both calm and awe, with monks and non-monks alike mixing to light lanterns. It didn't feel like we were intruding at all, indeed it seemed like tourists (and their cash) were expected and welcomed. I love playing with fire so was more than happy to take the opportunity to buy, light and release two lanterns with Gilly, and watch them join the multitude of others in the night sky.
The festival music stopped at about 9:30 so we found our way back to the songthaew with some acrobatics over a gate which was previously open and now locked, and went back to the guesthouse road. We grabbed some great food from Chiang Chabaad Cocktail Bar, just round the corner (massaman curry for me, yellow curry for Gilly) and turned in for the night, relieved that we hadn't missed a fantastic evening.