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Thailand's famed festival of lights causes headaches for pilots

Visitors grew 30% last year, highlighting issues with lucrative celebration

Floating lanterns in Thailand's Yee Peng festival have been blamed for house fires and canceled flights.   © Reuters

BANGKOK -- Thailand's famed floating lantern festival has long been an object of magical imagery, but the increasing scale of the event is drawing blame for property damage and canceled flights.

Yee Peng is celebrated annually on a full moon in either October or November. The festivities are also a valuable source of revenue for local economies.

The festival generates between $14.4 million and $19 million in economic benefit, said Kenichi Shimomura, senior project manager for Southeast Asia at German consultancy Roland Berger.

Yee Peng, in which many lit lanterns are released into the night sky, is particularly popular in Thailand's northern province of Chiang Mai. Last year, the number of visitors who entered the province for the festival jumped 30% to roughly 130,000. This year's celebration in Chiang Mai will be held Oct. 31 to Nov. 1.

The increasingly expansive festival has led to trouble. Local newspapers have reported the day after the celebration that fire from the lanterns burned houses to the ground. Other articles report outages caused by fire-damaged power lines.

"Most people are concerned about lanterns because they can cause a fire," said Kannikar Petchkaew, a freelance interpreter who lives in Chiang Mai. "If they fall on the roof, they easily ignite. Every lantern festival, some people stay home so that they can put out the fire."

Some packed events take place near urban centers.

"It appears they have not taken into consideration the risks associated with releasing a large number of lanterns," an executive at a local travel agency said.

The festival also has impeded air travel. Last year, 160 flights were canceled or rescheduled due to the potential of floating lanterns obstructing flight paths.

Chiang Mai officials have designated areas where lanterns can be released. Unauthorized gatherings outside the zones will incur fines or jail. Yet problems persist despite the tougher enforcement.

Yee Peng is part of Thailand's larger Loi Krathong festival. The holiday got its start in the 13th century when a queen made a lantern out of banana leaves and floated it on a river, according to Thailand's tourism authority.

Floating lanterns are said to date to the 18th and 19th centuries. The festival of lights was the inspiration for a romantic lantern scene in the Disney movie "Tangled."

Yee Peng started to expand in 1995, when Chiang Mai hosted the Southeast Asian Games. Floating lanterns were released during the event, which Thai citizens groups have said prompted the growth of the festival.

Before the Southeast Asian Games, many areas limited the festivities to just one or a few lanterns released at Buddhist temples, the citizens groups say.

Nowadays, 40,000 to 60,000 lanterns are released over two days. The beautiful scenery has benefited the region economically, a vital issue given how the coronavirus pandemic has damaged Thailand's tourism industry. Yet questions remain over how to rein in the free-ranging cash cow.

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