Of all Thai festivals, none is so enchanting as Loy Krathong -- "to float a banana-leaf boat” -- celebrated each November on the night of the full moon, just after the end of the rainy season.
Then the night sky is clear and the waters are high, and under the bright moon people from all walks of life converge on any convenient stretch of water -- a canal or a river, a pond or a lake, the sea or a swimming pool -- to launch their krathongs and make a wish for the coming year.
A krathong is a boat that carries people’s dreams. Usually quite small, about 20 cm in diameter, they are traditionally made from banana leaves with a slice of banana tree trunk as the base. The leaves are cut into pieces, folded and pinned around the circular base, onto which are laid flowers, especially orchids, and into which are stuck a candle and joss sticks.
Celebrants go to the water's edge, light the candle and incense, and raise the krathong before their face as in prayer, making their wish. This is a serene moment, silent in the darkness, face bathed in the warm golden candlelight, features set in supplication.
Then comes the release. Kneeling and leaning forward, they place the krathong gently on the water, give it a little push and help it on its way with splashing of water, but not too much, lest the flame be doused and bad luck ensue. Traditionally, the wishmaker watches until the candle flame has floated out of sight or has been lost amongst all the others.
The custom’s origins lie in the mists of time. In a number of other Asian cultures on this night, festivities were held along the waterways and sometimes tiny boats were ceremonially launched. Some say the purpose was to pay homage to the spirits of the water – in Thailand to the water goddess Phra Mae Kongka --on which the agricultural society depended, others claim that it was a symbolic way of ridding oneself of troubles.
To this day, similar customs exist in neighbouring Burma, Laos and Cambodia, and it seems most likely that the festival derives from ancient Asian cultures. Perhaps a combination of the Chinese lantern festival and the Indian mini-raft-floating festival in honour of the god Vishnu, the custom gained a particular beauty and popularity in the hands of the Thais, who have a much-loved legend about its origins.
They say it originated in Sukhothai, the first true Thai kingdom established in 1238 AD in the north of present-day Thailand, courtesy of Nang Noppamas, a royal consort renowned for her beauty and for her skill in devising ways to divert her king. One evening, so the story goes, as the royal party was gliding down the river to watch the full moon celebrations on the banks, she presented her latest novelty: a little boat in the shape of a lotus blossom, made of deftly-folded banana leaves, with incense sticks and a candle burning in the centre. From then on, the ladies of the court vied to see who could produce the most elaborate krathong, going far beyond the simple banana-leaf creation of Nang Noppamas.
The krathong, it is said, soon ceased to be a purely aristocratic amusement and became widespread among the people. Today krathong competition is on a scale unimaginable in previous times and the celebrations are exuberantly inventive, in some cases vying with New Year’s Eve for merriment and madness, including firework displays and musical mayhem. Nang Noppamas would be appalled – or maybe she’d move with the times, who knows?
In many places, such as Bangkok’s Dusit Zoo – a park with a lake -- great gaudy battery-lit plastic creations bob about on the waters and some carry beauty queens up for election as Nang Noppamas 2010 or whenever. The zoo is a Bangkokians' favourite for floating their own krathongs and viewing elaborate competitive ones, including a huge one that is ceremonially “launched” by an elephant.
Soon after dark, citizens flock to all the public parks that have lakes -- Lumpini Park and Benjasiri Park, for example -- and by mid-evening the waters are a wonderland of flickering lights. Most people buy ready-made krathongs these days rather than make their own, and vendors sell many sizes and varieties, both of the traditional banana-leaf kind and modern styrofoam fabrications. The latter have been officially discouraged for some years now as non-biodegradable and therefore creating unsightly litter and an ecological hazard, but it’s an uphill struggle, because they float better and cost less.
The northern city of Chiang Mai is renowned for its street parade of enormous electrically illuminated floats with beauty queens atop, most resembling huge Chinese lanterns, part of the city's unique Yi Peng Loy Krathong celebrations. Houses and shops are decorated with pretty paper lanterns, but what is truly magical about the Chiang Mai celebrations is the custom of launching hot-air “fire lanterns” -- khom fai --into the night sky. Made of white tracing paper or rice paper formed into box shapes with candles inside, rising gently, the glowing lanterns fly ill fortune away. So entrancing is this custom that it is now imitated in other places around Thailand, such as beach resorts like Koh Samui and Krabi.
The grandest Loy Krathong celebrations occur in the old royal city of Sukhothai, in a nine-day sound -and-light extravaganza within the historical park, amid the temple ruins. By day, young women in period costume perform traditional dances, scarlet-clad boatmen row gilded barges across the glassy lake, flower-garlanded elephants walk the streets in procession, music rings through the air.
At nightfall, the great temple walls, soaring stupas and Buddha statues are magically transformed into a mirage of their ancient glory. Bathed in golden light, exquisitely costumed performers lay their krathongs upon the principal lake. Soon all the celebrants join in and krathongs float away on the lake and all the waterways, a few at first, each bearing a candle, burning joss-sticks and often a one-baht coin, and then hundreds of them, turning the black waters into an embroidery of light.
© 2010 Keith Mundy