By Betty Gordon
© 2017 text and photos. All rights reserved.
Picture, if you will, thousands of unadorned white cylindrical lanterns, illuminated from the inside, rising silently ever higher, set against the backdrop of a full moon beaming in the autumn night sky.
Bobbing on the river’s surface are several thousand plant- and flower-laden small floats, each sporting several thin sticks of incense and a flickering candle, all being swept away by the water’s current.
Lights drifting above, lights twinkling below, it’s festival time in Chiang Mai, Thailand. One of the country’s most enchanting events is being celebrated this week, Loi Krathong (sometimes spelled Loy Krathong).
The festival occurs in the 12th lunar month, and is also observed in some other Asian countries. This year’s celebration is November 2-4, so preparations are in full swing, ramping up shortly after the end of the year-long mourning period for long-reigning King Rama IX, also known as Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died at age 88 on October 13, 2016.
When I visited Thailand with my friend Susan in 2011, the festival fell a week later in November. I had read a little about it in my guidebook, which noted that Chiang Mai was one of the best places to watch and participate, so I made sure our itinerary placed us in the northern Thai city to coincide with the festivities.
Loi Krathong takes place at the end of the rainy season, when the rice harvest has been completed. Thanks are conveyed to the Water Goddess for the fruitful bounty, while at the same time responsibility for polluting the water is acknowledged.
The origins of the festival are unknown, but some sources say it can be traced to 14th- or 15th- century India and the worship of Brahmin gods. Another possibility is that it is a Thai twist on ancient Buddhist rituals.
The symbolic floats are meant to cleanse the owner of anger and grudges, banishing the past year’s problems. Some people place a fingernail or a lock of hair on their float, to signify releasing a darker part of one’s self. Including a coin is also seen as an offering.
It’s believed that if the flame is still alight when the owner loses sight of it — among all the other flickering lights — then a year of good luck will follow.
Other components of the three-day festival include a parade with full-size floats being ridden by people in traditional costumes, a beauty pageant, folk dancing and blessings at the wats (temples).
At our city-central hotel, a dark-haired woman was sitting at a table in the lobby, cutting banana leaves and flowers, then attaching them to a round base. Some of the leaves had been elaborately folded and braided, like doing origami with plants instead of paper. The small-scale arrangements were lovely, showing off the lush tropical materials in their best light.
While sightseeing and browsing at fair-trade shops, we saw other people making krathongs, as the floats are known. Many were for sale.
One young man was sitting cross-legged on a red mat in an empty space in front of a shop, engrossed in folding a leaf and surrounded by his supplies. To his right was a pile of shiny green banana leaves of various widths and lengths. In front of him were several prepared round bases, and to his left were white, blue and pink flowers balanced horizontally on a white bowl.
Inside one of the city wall’s brick gates, we took pictures among the decorations, such as big-as-life cloth-covered white elephants, and other hanging lanterns. Vendors were setting up stalls selling a variety of food — many of them colorful rice dishes — and handicrafts made from materials such as silk and wood.
We had discussed if we should buy our own krathongs, and decided this would be best done in the late afternoon. But we got a wonderful surprise back in our hotel room: Two identical krathongs had been left for us.
After dinner, with daylight fading, we walked east toward the Ping River. The beauty pageant was in full swing, with entrants parading across a raised stage, festooned with flowers, and white fabric draped across the front.
We navigated through the crowds, gingerly holding our krathongs, not wanting any decorations to be jostled or dropped off. The closer we got to the river, the more krathongs we saw for sale, some of them stacked two or three tiers high, overflowing with thin fronds and lotus flowers. These more elaborate creations may have been entrants in a contest vying for best krathong.
At the river, we made our way down a rickety platform that jutted out into the water, where we waited in turn to move to the end of the bamboo ramp, bend down and place our krathong on the surface. A young woman helped me send mine off, while Susan did a better job of launching her own.
Many people were holding flat circular objects that looked like collapsed lamp shades. These were, in fact, the lanterns, made of thin paper supported by a bamboo ring. In Chiang Mai, the paper lanterns are considered worthy of their own festival, called Yee Peng. Like the small floats, the lanterns also embody the idea of casting off the ills of the past year. A wish is supposed to be made before sending one skyward.
The heat source used to inflate the lantern reminded me of a small can of Sterno, like you would use for a camping stove or under a chafing dish on a buffet.
Timing seemed crucial to lighting the unfurled lantern, and best done with at least two people, each holding a side, and a third trying to ignite the heat source. For some, the release appeared equally as tricky, with two sets of outstretched arms trying to coax the hot-air lantern aloft in the soft breeze. Some lanterns never took proper flight, destined to plummet stubbornly into the river. But judging from the number of lanterns overhead, success was far more prevalent than failure.
The liberation of lanterns and floats continued long after we left, until nearly midnight, if the printed scheduled was accurate.
Back in our hotel room, gazing skyward from our small balcony, we could see countless dots of light as more lanterns headed for the heavens. Unfortunately, incessant noise from street-level firecrackers was adding an unwelcome soundtrack to an otherwise magical evening.