November 17th, 2017

Falling Short of and Exceeding Expectations: Loy Krathong/Yi Peng and the Chiang Mai Cabaret

It’s hard to avoid having expectations when you travel. You know rationally that if you set the bar low and go in expecting nothing, you’re less likely to be disappointed. (Some people on We Roam think that’s part of why we all loved Belgrade so much.) But when you start reading about a place and researching all there is to do, it’s tough not to get excited. And it’s good to look forward to things—but sometimes the actual experience is nothing like you imagined. 

Our first weekend in Chiang Mai fortuitously fell on Loy Krathong and Yi Peng, two festivals that combine to create three days of excitement. The most well-known images are of people releasing lanterns into the sky, but it also involves releasing krathongs (small floating sculptures decorated with banana leaves and flowers) into the river. There are parades and dance exhibitions and special ceremonies at temples. I couldn’t wait.

The day of Loy Krathong started well. Our workspace hosted a workshop to make our own krathongs, graciously providing all of the materials. The final products were so lovely that people stopped us on the street to ask where we’d purchased them. 

Then we headed to the river for the evening release. Everyone describes it as being magical—you place your krathong in the water, candle and incense lit, or light your lantern and lift it to the sky, and you let go of your worries from the previous year and make a wish for the year to come. It sounded beautiful, magical, serene. 

But the reality was chaotic at best and dangerous at worst. We had to fight our way down to the river to release our krathongs, the final push occurring on a dubiously constructed wooden dock with flaming lanterns flying at our heads from the bridge above. Then instead of carefully placing our vessels in the water and watching them float away, we passed them off as quickly as possible to a man standing in the river below; the people behind us shoved through before we could see our krathong’s fate.

The attempt to release a lantern was even worse. Just buying one was a struggle in itself, then the flimsy paper was ripped by the crowds pushing past. We opted not to try to launch ours, as we watched lanterns burning in trees, getting caught on power lines, and even singeing people after failing to take flight as intended.

Lantern in a tree–fortunately, the trees are very green in Chiang Mai.

Chiang Mai, for reasons none of us can fathom, opted not to close the bridge where they specifically told tourists to release their lanterns, so in addition to thousands of people with burning objects, there were cars trying to make their way through the crowds. I couldn’t help but feel anxious, seemingly surrounded by potential threats.

Taking photos in this melee was difficult, and my iPhone was actually better at distinguishing the proper lighting than my fancy DSLR. Just know that below these lovely lanterns is a battle. 


I was happy I saw it but even happier to make it home unscathed. Perhaps the festival of my dreams exists in a smaller Thai town, but in Chiang Mai, it’s too overrun for me to feel the spirit the holidays represent.

But travel giveth as well as taketh away, and my experience at the Chiang Mai Cabaret a few days later was so much more than I could have hoped.

Informally known as the ladyboy cabaret (a term widely used in Thailand though obviously problematic), the show is located in the night market, and a few of the performers stand out front in sparkly costumes and feathered headdresses to entice tourists inside.

When I see a Broadway musical, my general test is whether I find myself smiling throughout the show, and by that measure, the cabaret was a huge success. The lip syncing is generally terrible, but it just adds to the fun. The dancing is energetic, with everything from Vegas-style showgirl numbers to a Rhianna S&M impersonation that was eerily spot on, and the guys in the first couple rows of the audience get way more of a show than they pay for. 

I went with a few friends the night before my birthday, but despite the occasion, my expectations were low. The online booking function on the website didn’t work, I’d heard almost nothing about it, and the venue itself is a little shabby. But it turned out to be a hell of a lot of fun and a far less stressful night than Loy Krathong. 

Travel is always surprising, and fortunately, sometimes the surprises are good.