But around 5 pm I made a break for it. The big sky lantern launch was in a few hours and i just had to go!
So I ventured downstairs just as 4 French girls were getting instructions on arranging a ride from the Thai lady who owns our guesthouse. The event is at Mae Jo University, about 13 km out of town and about 10,000 people attend! So I joined up with them and we negotiated a songtheaw for 100 baht each and off we went.
A songtheaw is a little pickup truck with a cabin on the back. There are two benches facing each other. The girls were laughing and talking vey animatedly...in French of course. We did make some polite talk at first with them struggling with English. But it hit me how much I was longing for a good conversation.
The 13 km only took about forever. It was a diesel truck and very smoggy in the back and of course it was rush hour and as we got closer there was more and more traffic. But finally the driver dropped us off in front of the University...great! we're here!
But no. We had to walk for at least half an hour until we were locked into a slowly flowing mass of people funneled onto a narrow lane lined with vendors selling food, drinks and lanterns. Ahead we saw lanterns going up into the dark sky and it really is a wonderful sight. It was a good hour away from the launch and what we were seeing was people sending up the lanterns they'd bought along the path, as these are prohibited from being brought in! I had two of these myself and the French girls had bought one each.
No worries, there was a large group of people to join, and we were able to borrow lighters. It was absolutely magical even at that point. My lanterns were about 4 feet tall and I was helped by a group of Canadians, Scotts and an older Thai man who knew how to actually light the thing.
He told us to choose what we wanted to let go off, along with the lantern...he suggested an ex-husband or wife!
We had to wait until the heat built up or it might crash, or go into the stream next to us. It got very hot holding that thing! A few lanterns had drifted up into the trees and were stuck there. I guess that means you're stuck with you ex, or whatever.
Once all our lanterns were launched we rejoined the crush of people trying to get in, and by now it was much worse. The mob was barely moving at all and I began to despair that we'd even get to go in. But eventually we got to the outskirts and climbed up on a temple building with about 500 Thai.
This was enough for the French girls, and they had the cell phones to contact our driver. I had been in mortal fear of getting separated from them, because I had no idea of how i'd get back. But they were being too wimpy and finally I said "Fuck it" and ditched them, pushing my way into the mass of humanity on the field.
I should mention that all this time beautiful Buddhist chanting and prayers was going on. Mae Jo is a Buddhist university and this was, indeed, a religious ceremony, offered free to honor The Lord Buddha as they kept reminding us.
So I jumped into the melee just as it was time to stand up and light the sky lanterns. There were countless flaming candles mounted on stakes in the ground to light them with. The whole idea is for everyone to go at once, as much as possible.
I was assisted by three Thai girls in pretty silk outfits (I think I'd crashed one of the VIP areas!) and just as my lantern was starting to catch, the first mass release began. Of course I'd seen photos and videos of this....that's why I'd spent 3 hours getting there. But nothing prepared me for the sheer magic, wonder and joy of the spectacle. I think I kept shouting "Oh my god!".
And it just kept going and going and going. If there were 10,000 people, there were even more lanterns. Everyone was so excited and happy and just when it couldn't get any better they set off fireworks....real 4th of July style fireworks.
And once most of the lanterns had been launched there was a big prayer with more chanting. We were asked to sit and I was in the midst of friendly, well to do Thai people (VIPs?) and I joined them in the prayers and bowing and such. Although I had no idea what the words were, it was really moving for me.
Finally it was time to find my French comrades and amazingly there they were! We were all so happy as we began the trek back.
As yo u might well imagine, getting out of there was much much worse than getting in. Everyone had arrived over the course of maybe three hours and now everyone was leaving right now.
I've never been in anything like that crowd. At one point we were roughly in the middle of a row of about 40 people wide that extended maybe a quarter mile and really wasn't moving much at all.
Eventually we got to the end of that, turned a corner and there was the even narrower lane lined with the food vendors...and yes, people were stopping to buy. Chaos. Madness.
By the time we got to the road the chaos had turned a bit nightmarish, for now there were cars, mini-buses, songtheaws and a river of scooters. Only the river wasn't really moving. But the engines were all running and the people had to weave around the vehicles, and we still had about a mile or two to walk!
Around this time I was with one of the girls, Lawrence, and we realized we'd lost the other 3. She kept calling them and they'd try to compare landmarks, but I never did see them again. Nearly to the road they called and said they were in the songtheaw but the driver wouldn't or couldn't wait. They ditched us!
But amazingly, just then another songtheaw pulled up and we were invited to join a group of Australian kids (chaperoned by two harassed looking older women). They just scooped us up and took us to the bridge on the Ping River where even more festivities were going on.
At first I was a bit stoked to be with some English speaking people, but turns out I could barely understand the kids! Sounded like jibber jabber. But Lawrence and I had a nice dinner on the banks of the Ping (Pad Thai from one of the vendors), watching the spectacle.
Eventually I got home! Emerson said something about everything having its price and it was costly getting to and fro, but man o man so worth it!