Without a doubt, celebrating the New Year in Chiang Mai has been the best New Year’s celebration in my life. It was so magical that I am almost afraid to say it might be the best one I’ll ever experience in my life.
Yes, it was that incredible.
Did you know that the Thai’s celebrate New Year’s three times in a year?
Yup! Once on December 31 like the rest of the world, then during the Chinese New Year. The third celebration is during Songkran, the traditional Thai New Year.
For simplicity, they celebrate the New Year in
- December – the Western New Year
- Jan/Feb- Chinese New Year
- April – Thai New Year (Songkran)
But this post will only refer to New Year’s Eve on December 31st.
What you will find in this guide about celebrating the New Year in Chiang Mai
- You’ll learn about how to celebrate the New Year countdown in Chiang Mai
- What you can expect to do on New Year’s Eve in Chiang Mai
- How much you might be spending for the New Year in Chiang Mai
- My personal experience celebrating the New Year in Chiang Mai
The best place to celebrate the New Year countdown in Chiang Mai
You have to be at Tha Phae Gate to welcome the New Year with the rest of the Thais. Somehow, the crowd will instinctively know when it is ten seconds from midnight. Everyone will get their floating lanterns ready to release at midnight, and the crowds count down the seconds to welcome the New Year. Now that I think of it, no main person or emcee starts the countdown. Someone just starts screaming “ten,” and before you know it, the whole crowd is counting down the seconds in unison.
How much will everything cost to celebrate the New Year in Chiang Mai?
Not much! Almost all temples, including ones with a foreigner entry fee, are free to enter on New Year’s Eve. You can buy small floating lanterns starting at 30 baht ($0.91 USD/ $1.20 CAD). Of course, street food is abundant and as cheap as 30 baht for a main dish.
Here is how much we spent during the New Year in Chiang Mai:
- Floating lanterns: 90 baht for three
- Transportation: 0 baht
- Temple donation: 20 baht
- Snacks: 103 baht
- Chilli shrimp paste rice: 40 baht
- Three buns: 30 baht
- Starbucks cookie: 65 baht
Total spend: 348 baht ($10.50 USD / $13.90 CAD) for two people. 68% of that spend was for food…because we are pigs and like to eat…
Midnight during the New Year in Chiang Mai might be the most overwhelming feeling you’ll ever feel in your life
A million emotions rushed through my body during this time. Excitement, awe, gratitude, fear – you name it, I felt it. To add a context, let me explain what happened within seconds after the clock strikes midnight.
The crowds are cheering, cars, motorbikes are honking their horn, and hundreds of people let go of their floating lanterns into the night sky. Seconds later, you’ll see fireworks filling the background. Suddenly, Thais appear out of nowhere to release firecrackers left, right and center, hence, explaining my fear. I mean, how can you not be afraid when fireworks and sparklers are released just inches away from your ear? Fortunately, the Thais are super careful at aiming towards the sky and being aware of their surroundings so that no one gets hurt. But still, it’s one of the craziest and most beautiful moments I have ever experienced in my life.
Where to release floating lanterns during the New Year in Chiang Mai
Unlike the Loy Krathong and Yee Peng floating lantern festival where the main event takes place around Nawarat bridge, Tha Phae Gate is the place to release lanterns. That area is smaller and could probably fit no more than 100 people. As well, the New Year celebrations involving lanterns are smaller compared to the Yee Peng floating lantern festival.
You can also release your lanterns at some of the temples near Tha Phae Gate. Note that you can’t just release your floating lanterns at any temple. Some celebrate the New Year through chanting and meditating.
I’ve read online that you can also release your floating lanterns in unison at some of the temples, like Wat Phan Tao. A million candles (ok, maybe a few hundred) surround the temple, making it a magical sight to see.
Where to buy the floating lanterns during the New Year in Chiang Mai
You can find these floating paper lanterns from vendors pretty much anywhere around Tha Phae Gate. Most vendors will be holding these bags of paper lanterns next to their bicycles.
These paper lanterns, also referred as khom loi are of lightweight paper with a small candle in the center.
Tip: Come prepared! Bring your own lighter! We bought a lighter in preparation for the event (well, we still had one from our Yee Peng festival). Of course, we left it at home and went from 7-11 to 7-11 looking for one.
Expect flight delays during the New Year in Chiang Mai
As you can imagine, floating lanterns and planes don’t go well together. As a result, the Chiang Mai Airport cancels flights during the New Year floating lantern release. The government does the same thing during the Yee Peng festival, where they cancelled over 78 flights during the Yee Peng and Loy Krathong celebrations.
How to release a floating lantern during the New Year in Chiang Mai without setting anyone’s hair on fire
You might laugh at the thought, but the possibility of setting someone on fire is very real during the New Year! So make sure to read the instructions and don’t take this section lightly!
- Check to make sure you are free of trees, buildings and electric poles
- Light the coil at the bottom of the lantern. If the coil doesn’t catch fire, make small tears in your coil so that it becomes easier to light up
- Extend the lantern and hold it on the ground while you wait for the air to fill the lantern
- Hold onto your lantern for a few minutes until you feel a slight tug. That means the lantern is getting ready to be released
- Slowly lift it from the ground, make a wish and release the lantern
Going to the temples to make merit during the New Year in Chiang Mai
While the restaurants, night markets and the rest of the city feel like a big party during this time, the mood is different in temples. As midnight approaches on New Year’s Eve, the Thais will listen to monk chants and prayers for good luck in the upcoming year. You’ll see a ceremonial white thread or sai sin tied to the Buddha image before being passed to the monks for merit. The merit is then symbolically reflected through the thread as it reaches the Thais who are sitting and listening to the prayers.
More on the sai sin
The sai sin are white cotton bracelets that are usually tied around the wrist. These threads are typically blessed in advanced by a Buddhist monk and are supposed to provide protection and good health. The yarn is white because it represents purity in Buddhism.
Not only will you see these white threads worn at the wrist, but you’ll sometimes see grid-lines of white string tied to the main Buddha statues during the Thai holidays. The sai sin is also used in other ceremonies in Thailand, including weddings, funerals and blessing ceremonies. Traditional weddings in Thailand will have the thread connected around the couple while friends and family wear the sai sin as bracelets. During some Thai funerals, the white thread will be tied around a person’s head three times to wish the deceased luck and protection in their next life.
During large ceremonies, the ball of string is first tied around the Buddha image before being passed to the monks. The audience will then receive thread that is strung around their fingers or looped around their head. The chain of white thread links everyone to the monks and the Buddha image.
Other ways to celebrate the New Year in Chiang Mai
Honestly, Chiang Mai is the place where there is something for everyone! If making merit or releasing lanterns aren’t your thing, that’s ok! Because you can still do the following to celebrate the New Year:
Experience live music at the North Gate
Hit one of the many clubs and pubs for a huge party on New Year’s Eve: there’s a crazy party scene in the Ninman area. Whether you are looking for upscale dining, hipster places or bars, there is plenty of music and people to party with
See everything from Doi Suthep
If you would like to get a different perspective of the New Year, you can visit the Doi Suthep. Keep in mind though that tour buses cannot go up Doi Suthep in the days leading up to the New Year and the days after the New Year. That’s because there is a want to keep the mountain free of tourists and manage crowds. If you are an expat already living in Thailand, you can also figure out a way to get up to the mountain.
Watch the festivities around the Ping river
Seriously, it’s like the biggest street party of the year in Thailand.
Fancy and expensive dinners at hotels
You can find western style celebrations in places like Le Meridien Chiang Mai or the Shangri-La
What is the transportation situation like during the New Year in Chiang Mai?
As you can imagine, transportation is cray cray during the New Year. In short, good luck finding transportation to get to your destination. You will also have to be careful as road casualties increase during this time of the year due to alcohol consumption.
Where to book accommodations during the New Year in Chiang Mai
Following the last paragraph where I wrote about the cray cray traffic and lack of transportation that happens around this time, it is best to book your accommodation within walking distance from Tha Phae Gate. Stay within the Old Town square if possible. Chiang Mai is pretty small, and if you had to walk from one end of the gate to the next, it will take 40 minutes (assuming normal walking speed). This walking time has been tried and tested one too many times by yours truly.
What should you wear during the New Year in Chiang Mai?
Wear white if you can and make sure you cover your shoulders and that you wear something that hits the knees at the very least. There’s a good chance you’ll be entering temples, and even though it is dark, the dress code still applies. The Thais will not scold you if you are not appropriately dressed but it a way of showing respect to their culture.
Is it hard to find food during the New Year in Chiang Mai?
Um no, Chiang Mai is a big time foodie city, especially for street food and for dessert. You won’t starve, and those big elephant pants are sold on the streets for a reason. So that you can hide your food baby.
Where can I toilet facilities during the New Year in Chiang Mai?
Toilets are few and far in Chiang Mai so use the bathroom before you leave your hotel and limit your water intake! If you are around Tha Phae Gate, you will find a long wait for bathrooms around popular brands like Starbucks and McDonalds.
How to stay safe during the New Year in Chiang Mai
Since you are dealing with fire in a very crowded area, you have to take precautions to avoid being set on fire. I’m half joking, half not. So many paper lanterns never made it to the sky and would get caught on trees and electric wires before crashing to the ground.
While everyone is careful not to set their fellow lantern friend on fire, you should still be aware of your surroundings.
Here are some useful tips to have a safe time during New Year’s Eve
- Tie your hair, because fire and hair do not make a good combination
- Look up and make sure you are not releasing your lantern under something! I can’t tell you how many times I saw people releasing lanterns underneath trees without a care
- Be wary of falling lanterns of fire. Yup, some don’t make it to the sky, and they come crashing down
- Make sure to release a lantern properly and check your surroundings so that you don’t hit anyone by accident
What it was like for me to celebrate the New Year in Chiang Mai
Celebrating the New Year in Chiang Mai was a complete accident. In fact, I had no idea that the New Year was such a big holiday in Thailand. I checked into my apartment two weeks before the New Year and needed time to settle down. Because I had changed my itinerary many times during my year of travel (was supposed in Taiwan during the New Year!), I did not know what to expect for this holiday season.
After having a once-in-a-lifetime experience celebrating the Loy Krathong and Yee Peng floating lantern festival in Chiang Mai, you can only imagine my excitement when I realize that the once-in-a-lifetime moment is going to happen a second time!
Exploring the city festivities on New Year’s Eve
The year I celebrated the New Year in Chiang Mai was extra special. That’s because New Year’s Eve fell on a Sunday, which means there’s the Sunday night market to attend. As well, there was a full moon happening on the same night.
What happened on the day of New Year’s Eve in Chiang Mai
We left our apartment at around 6 pm to slowly make our way to Tha Phae Gate. Along the way, we stopped by temples to check out the beautiful lanterns and decorations. The Thais wore white and made their way to the temples in preparation for the chants and meditations.
We continued to make our way to the Sunday night market where we grabbed food and watched live performances. It was cool to see a full moon acting as the backdrop for the Sunday night market.
In total, we spent six hours wandering the streets, looking for lanterns and finding a place to release them. Our chosen spot happened to be inside a temple because it was less crowded. Once we released our lanterns, made a prayer and a donation to the temple, it was time to head back to Tha Phae Gate. We arrived at the area at around 11:20 and found a place on the ground to sit and wait for midnight.
Once the minutes inched closer to 12 am, the crowds started lighting their lanterns
Someone started the countdown, and we watched in awe as everyone released their lanterns right at midnight. Appreciating the beauty of the paper lanterns lasted oh, not more than a few seconds before I found fireworks flying just inches above my hair. No joke! All these Thais suddenly stood up and started shooting fireworks left, right and center!
At the same time, the city had a beautiful fireworks display along the Ping river. The fireworks show was happening all while the lanterns were floating up in the sky. Yes, within mere seconds, there was a mass lantern release, firecrackers and small fireworks flying past my ear. As if that wasn’t enough overwhelming of the senses, official fireworks from the city started lighting up the night sky!
Once all the lanterns faded into the night sky, the crowds started to disappear and it was time for us to go home.
Or so we thought.
Along the way home, we passed by a temple only to realize that the midnight meditation was still happening! So we joined and sat there with the rest of the Thais who were making merit for the New Year. I was so lost in meditation that I lost track of the time and stayed there until 2:30 am.
After releasing the floating lanterns, I made my way to Wat Chedi Luang where I listened to monks prayers before heading home at 3 am. I had no idea what they were saying, and yet I felt at peace. I felt at home.
New Year’s Day in Chiang Mai
The next day, we decided to visit a few temples. Bad idea since it was super busy, but fun nonetheless. There were so many locals praying at temples and doing rituals. While super crowded, it was still fun to watch them do their prayers. Where possible, I joined in on the festivities and completely blended in. I’m sure most Thais do not see me as a foreigner, but rather, a local who gives this dumb look whenever they speak to me in Thai. Some picked up that I am not from Thailand, but that made no difference anyway. They included me in their celebrations and blessed me with water anyway. They treat me as if I am one of their own and welcome my curiosity. Now you know why I love Thailand so much.
Other travel tips for celebrating the New Year in Chiang Mai
- Tha Phae Gate and Tha Phae Road closes down for traffic at around 6 pm
- Bring a lighter and marker for your lanterns
- Most shops close on New Year’s Day so plan accordingly
- Book travel insurance!
- Rent a wifi device or get a SIM card