Happy Loi Krathong

24 11 2008

Chiang Mai, Thailand

When we asked to leave the meditation center early, the Abbot accused us of leaving just so that we could see the festival in Chiang Mai. That wasn’t true at all, but we figured, hey, while we’re out…. And so at night we headed down to the Tha Pae Gate in the center of town and joined the festivities in celebration of Loi Krathong. Much like the festivals in America, this one had a parade with a bunch of really elaborate floats. Of course the only difference was that all of the floats had something to do with past Siamese kings or Buddha with the occasional beauty pagent winner thrown in for good measure. The gate area was strung with so many lanterns, it looked like the open air square had a roof. The vendors were out in full effect selling clothing and art as well as yummy foods like the traditional roti sai mai, sugar crepes with condensed milk.

The floats are pretty interesting, but not the main event. As with all Asian holidays, it wouldn’t be a real celebration unless you are blowing something up or lighting it on fire. You don’t have to leave your hotel room to know that it’s Loi Krathong, you just have to listen. Every five minutes or so you can hear the crackle and bang or occasionally the low whistle and pop of fireworks. This is a major difference from what it is like during non-festival periods when you only hear fireworks once or twice a day. These people really love their fireworks. Of course we love fireworks too, but we have tons of regulations regarding their distribution and use. The first time a seven year old kid threw a bunch of fireworks at my feet and gave me a heart attack, I realized that the Thais do not have these regulations. The fifth time a young kid threw a bunch of fireworks at my feet, I wished that the Thais had these regulations. I had a unique culture shock moment when I watched some kid holding a roman candle, casually observing the sparks shooting out of one end and a minute later watched the kid throw the thing on the ground and grasp his hand when it started to shoot out the other end (i.e. towards him). All the while his father was standing behind him, as though his presence could keep the exploding gun powder in line. As much as I wanted to condemn these actions, I just thought the Asian people had gunpowder several centuries before we did, so it’s not my place to judge how they use them.

Paper lanterns and fireworks litter the sky.

Paper lanterns and fireworks litter the sky.

The unique aspect of Loi Krathong that I think most people enjoy, though, are the paper lanterns. A small fire ring at the bottom is lit, providing hot air to the interior of the cellophane balloon. After about a minute, it’s ready to take off. Some people also attach a string of sparking firecrackers to the bottom of it so that it produces even more awe. Of course for the table of people who had one of those firecracker strings fall on them after coming untied it inspired a different kind of awe. When you look up in the sky it’s looks like a bunch of firey stars floating in the distance. It’s so beautiful and romantic. Not quite as beautiful and romantic the next day when the downed lanterns are scattered throughout the city, but I still say it’s worth it.

Lighting one of the big paper lanterns

Lighting one of the big paper lanterns

The signature event comes at the end of the night when people walk from the center of town down to the river banks to release their krathong floats. These are traditionally little boats made of banana leaves, bamboo and coconut with a small candle and some incense sticks in the middle which are lit to appease the water spirits. Perhaps we were a little too far upriver, or we just didn’t wait long enough, but we didn’t see many little floats in the water. Most of the floats that got to us were hard to see because their candles had gone out. What we did see was a little boy with an inner tube swimming in the water and checking each float for anything valuable that someone may have put on it. Pretty crazy when you consider that the Mae Ping River is so polluted that it probably ranks just under toxic waste. Whatever people put on those floats, I sure hope it’s worth it.

Happy Loi Krathong!

Happy Loi Krathong!

Click here for more pictures from Loi Krathong.

– Loi Krathong comes on the night of the full moon in mid-November. Chiang Mai is supposed to be one of the best cities to check it out. Just make sure that you book your hotel early as they tend to book out.
– There are actually three nights of festivities, but the big event is on the last night. Just make sure you check the tourism website to make sue your here on the right days.
– You can buy krathong floats and paper lanterns all over the city, but try to buy the smaller paper lanterns and the floats that have no metal or plastic in them. Most of the floats end up in the bottom of the river or float to the villages down south and the lanterns just end up in the garbage. If you want to be eco-friendly, it’s just as much fun to watch.




One response

24 11 2008

It’s a wonder the whole place hasn’t either blown itself to bits or burned to the ground. If someone were a pyromaniac, how could anyone tell?

Have you thought about looking into a fire extinguisher franchise over there? Maybe smoke alarms too.

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