zero aste loy krathong festival

Huge footprint behind Loy Krathong in Chiang Mai

Every year, around November, people get together for the spectacular celebration of Loy Krathong, in Thailand. 

Who hasn’t seen enticing images of thousands of floating lights or beautiful flying lanterns filling up the skies? 

This year, the No Footprint Nomads were lucky to be in Chiang Mai. 

Still, we couldn’t help seeing the dark reality behind the scintillating event: what the media doesn’t show are the consequences of the massification of this festival and its impact on the local environment.

We wanted to be part of this important symbol of Thai culture but, at the same time, doing it in the most conscious and earth-friendly way. 

A challenge indeed, but here are some ideas you can apply this year to celebrate Loy Krathong sustainably.

Read more about zero waste travel with our guide

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From all festivals in Thailand, Chiang Mai's lantern festival - Yi Peng - in November is the most impressive

Loy means “to float” and Krathong is a small basket traditionally made of banana bark and banana leaves and decorated with flowers, incense, and a candle. 

The festival, which coincides with the full moon of the 12th month of the traditional Thai lunar calendar (around November in the Gregorian calendar) attracts thousands of visitors from around the world to experience the spirit of renewal and hope that the festival entails (or just to enjoy some wild partying on the streets).

One of the most spectacular places to participate in the festivities is in the ancient Lanna kingdom’s capital Chiang Mai, where people gather along the river banks to float their elaborate krathong and pay respects to Mae Kongkha or Mother of Waters. 

It’s a time to thank for the abundance and ask for forgiveness for the pollution of the watercourses, which has increased in the last few years.

Loy Krathong coincides with another festival, the Yi Peng, celebrated mostly in northern Thailand. People launch paper lanterns, the khom loy, white hot-air balloons made of rice paper and a fragile bamboo structure. 

The night sky gets full of these brilliant spots of light, as people gather around Nawarat bridge, close to the famous Night Market, the main point for khom loy launching.

November in Thailand is also a month of mild weather and the end of the wet season, perfect conditions to be in Chiang Mai spending your holidays. By the way, if you are in Chiang Mai don’t forget to check our food guide.

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The tradition is to launch your krathong and ask for wishes

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The dirty 4 impacts of Chiang Mai's Festival of Lights and Loy Krathong

This year’s festival program can be seen here. Make sure you prepare yourself beforehand as the streets get crowded.

Last year, we headed to the old town, where most festivities took place. We did not need much time at the festival to find many environmental hazards:

  • clogged waterways and a threat to wildlife

Not so common nowadays, but still around in some places, the use of krathong made out of styrofoam has been an issue local authorities have been trying to tackle. Unfortunately, the material of which the krathong is made is not the only environmental concern, as hundreds of thousands of these baskets clog rivers, lakes, and streams and create a massive cloud of floating decomposing leftovers and a threat to wildlife.

  • risk of fires

Launching the khom loy is an exciting thing to do, especially when you see yours joining thousand of others flying the black sky lit by a pregnant full moon. Nevertheless, it is a flammable object that has caused several problems to property and people. People are often forgetful of the dangers of these flying hazards.

  • litter everywhere

In every Thai celebration, food is an obvious presence, as heaps of street food vendors populate the streets. Still, it’s a depressing scene to watch when the festival ends and there are mountains of litter everywhere you look. And it’s the disposable plastic that concerns us the most because it’s not recyclable and ends up polluting rivers and soil.

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Loy Krathong is a time for praying and asking for forgiveness for the harm caused to nature.

4 ways to celebrate and release light lanterns with less impact

There are ways to be part of a celebration, having all the fun you can get and still avoid a heavy footprint. This year, try these 4 tips to be more sustainable during Loy Krathong and Yi Peng festivals:

1. DIY your krathong out of natural materials or buy an environmental-friendly version

Making your own krathong is a great way to immerse yourself in the local culture and appreciate the meaning of the festival. You can use the traditional banana bark and leaves or go even further and make a bread krathong to be eaten by the fish. Try avoiding metal pins to stitch the leaves together and opt for wooden sticks that do the same trick. If you are not into DIY, then look for the many vendors along Ping river and the main temples and choose wisely.

Chiang Mai Holistic, close to Nimman Road and Chiang Mai University, normally offers a workshop to build your own krathong using only biodegradable materials.

Bread krathongs can be found at some supermarkets (I found an option at Tops supermarket). Also, ask for that option from street vendors.

2.  Choose wisely where to launch your krathong

Many Thai people, who are aware of the environmental issues caused by the masses of krathong in local rivers and lakes, have decided to launch them in private pools. If you have a pool, ask your hotel or your condo if you can host a private event there. If you still want to feel the vibe of the festival, participating as an observer is still a great way to respect the local culture and environment.

3.  Be responsible when launching the khom loy

These fragile paper ballons use a fuel cell or candle that, once lit, inflates the balloon with hot air, making it fly. Make sure you do this away from any trees, electric poles or crowds, as the khom loy can get trapped in tree branches or electric wires and burn. The incandescent ashes might fall over the crowd and cause burns, so be very careful. A great place to do this is at Wat Chai Mongkhon, a temple south of Nawarat bridge and, therefore, quieter.

4.  Take your own zero-waste kit with you

Craving some Thai food while at the festival? Then, indulge in one of the many street food stalls. But, beware of the plastic trap and say no to disposables by bringing your own kit of to-go container or plate, cutlery, napkin, metal straw and water bottle. Just show the vendor the container to put the food and say no to any plastic bags or plastic cutlery they offer. You need to be quick with this because they will put everything in plastic bags.

Read more about our zero waste travel kit

Being a No Footprint Nomad is about traveling with awareness. Sometimes, it means to refrain from being part of less friendly touristic attractions or events. Doing your research beforehand and saying no will go a long way towards reducing your footprint and preserving the pristine nature and culture we all want to experience.

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