Loy Krathong is one of the most beautiful festivals in the Thai year. It takes place over three days, with one of those days being the evening of the full moon of the 12th month in the traditional Thai lunar calendar. In the western calendar this usually falls in November. This year, the full moon was on November 10th. ‘Loy’ (ลอย) means ‘to float’ while ‘krathong’ (กระทง) refers to a beautiful flower created from a slice of a banana tree and folded leaves, decorated with flowers, a candle, and some incense. A krathong may also contain food and money. During the night of the full moon, many Thai will float their krathong down the river. The festival is believed to have its origins in an ancient practice of paying respect to the spirit of the waters, to thank the Mother River (แม่นํ้า) for her abundant, life-giving water.
The Thai festival of Loi Krathong (a festival that is shared by Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia and other Southeast Asian nations) supposedly originated in the Sukhothai period of Thai history. According to the writings of H.M. King Rama IV in 1863, this Brahmanical festival was adapted by Buddhists in Thailand as a ceremony to honor Buddha, Siddhartha Guatama. Apart from venerating the Buddha with light (the candle on the raft), the act of releasing the tiny raft is a symbolic release of all of your sins, grudges, anger and other “defilements,” so that you can start life afresh. Those who believe this, of course, hope that their little krathong does not capsize and sink within sight of the shore. (Better to trust in Jesus, I think.) Just a decade ago many krathongs were made of paper and styrofoam. Today, because of concerns about the environment, the Thai have recovered the ancient tradition of making them from banana leaf and flowers.
Today, Chiangmai is known as the center of the celebration of Loy Krathong in Thailand. Many Thai, as well as foreign visitors, make their way to Chiangmai to join the festivities. In addition to hundreds of tiny krathongs floating down the river, tiny hot-air lanterns called kohm, which are made of rice paper, are released into the air. Hundreds of kohms are released into the air and can be seen for miles. On the three nights of this festival, food vendors are out in force. There are various competitions, traditional Thai dancing, shows, special dinners and so on. Chiangmai reroutes traffic on two bridges to give those enjoying the festivities a place to launch their krathongs and kohms.
It is a stunningly beautiful sight – both the sight of hundreds of tiny lanterns floating in the air and tiny banana leaf boats, lit by candles, floating down the river. This year, Beth Roadarmel and I found the best place to watch all of this away from the crowd: the tiny bridge over the Ping River next to the Holiday Inn – just a five-minute walk from our house. We actually went to the Holiday Inn for dinner and found out that neither of us could afford it. They were asking 1,200 THB ($40) per person for a buffet on the terrace. We had appetizers in the lounge instead. The Holiday Inn was also offering banana leaf krathongs that guests could buy for THB 190 ($6.35). We walked across the street and bought the same thing for 20 THB (67 cents). We could see the river from the lounge at the hotel, but we walked out to the bridge to get the full view. It was amazing – as it always is! Of course, all these beautiful kohms fall out of the sky eventually. “Dead” kohms show up in the streets and in people’s yards the next day, but no one begrudges the merrymakers. This year, we had four land in our yard the first night and six the second night. The big red one that landed on our roof was heart-shaped, as Mom illustrates in the thumbnail photo below.