Loi Krathong—Thailand’s festival of lights

lanterns and candlesThe lambent nights of Yi Peng

Loi Krathong in de North

As with other festivals in Thailand, Yi Peng, or Loi Krathong, is in origin a rite of the annual rice-growing cycle — monsoon Asia’s staple crop.

We celebrate it over the full moon of November, when the paddy planted several months back is ripening in the fields. By now, the rains have given way to the onset of the cool season.

Some historians say the festival derives from the Indian tradition in which Hindus flock to the banks of the rivers on the first night of the new lunar year carrying bamboo poles from which hang lighted lanterns. They float the latter on the waters in veneration of Mae Khang Kha (Mae Phra Khong Kha in Thai) — Holy Mother Ganges.

Mae Nam, Mother Water, is the Thai for ‘river’, and the Ganges, given Buddhism’s Indian roots, is thus the sacred Queen of all the Mothers of the Waters.

These festivities, the theory goes, spread to the northern reaches of the Southeast Asian Peninsula as early as the heyday of the Khmer Empire in the twelfth century CE.

Nowadays, here in Chiang Mai, and in the rest of the north, it is celebrated on a grander scale and with more éclat than elsewhere in Thailand. Over these three nights, people decorate the walls and gates, and other parts of their compounds and gardens, with candles in the form of earthenware saucers filled with bee wax (resembling jam tarts!), as also multi-coloured paper-lanterns in a variety of traditional designs.

Families and groups of friends gather outdoors, seated in a circle on woven mats to share a meal of delicious northern dishes, and to drink beer and Mae Khong — a local rice liquor coloured and flavoured to resemble whisky.

The distinctive feature of the festival, however, is releasing a krathong to float away on the Mae Nam Ping. Krathong are floatable lanterns, usually in the form of a lotus flower. The base is a disc cut from a banana trunk, around which a trimmed banana leaf is folded, then pinned in place with bamboo slivers. Next, they are decorated with dried or fresh flowers, along with a candle and joss stick.

floating krathong yai

A krathong yai floating in the River Ping.

Up till a few years ago, styrofoam discs had widely replaced the banana trunk slices, which caused serious pollution throughout Thailand’s waterways. These days, though, thanks to a widespread national campaign, most people, especially the street vendors of krathong, who make good money at this season, have reverted to using the traditional biodegradable material.

To  join the celebrations in town during these evenings of Yi Peng (‘the full moon of the second month’) along the banks of the River Ping is certainly an experience. Squibs, firecrackers, and rockets are being let off all over town in every direction—the rockets aren’t only soaring into the sky!

Having braved this barrage, once you reach the major roads leading down to the embarkment, you are likely to be caught up in the vast crowds gathered to admire the processions on the successive nights of Loi Krathong Lek and Loi Krathong Yai (‘little’ and ‘big’ respectively).

The second evening’s parade features giant krathong carried on floats with colourful representations of religious, and other themes, each with its own Beauty Queen and her attendants, on their way to vie for the crown of Chiang Mai’s Nang Nopamat — like the May Queen in Britain.

The crescendo of exploding fireworks peaks along the riverfront, but a spell-binding sight makes them fade into the background. The river seems covered by tens of thousands of flickering candles carried majestically along the current, almost as if Doi Suthep had erupted and a broad stream of glowing lava were flowing through the city.

At landing stages and other points along the banks, crowds are queuing to set their own krathong afloat on the river. As their turn comes, each person slips a coin into the lantern, then lights the candle and joss stick. Kneeling, the devotee raises the krathong to the forehead and pauses in prayer, or contemplates hopes for the coming year. Besides showing their respect to the Mother of Waters, many believe that by launching this lotus-shaped lantern, they will rid themselves of all their demerits and misfortunes of the past year, floating them away downriver.

Nearby, there are usually young kids wading or swimming around in the water who push further out into the current any krathong that seem likely to drift  back to shore, while appropriating the coins in payment for their services. It is a bad omen if the lantern does not float away, while by contrast it is an auspicious sign for lovers whose krathong float off paired-up in company.

Ban with krathong.

Ban launching his krathong.

A few years ago, a friend of mine from Isan (Northeast-Thailand) came to see me in Chiang Mai during Yi Peng, on his first visit to the northern capital. Though it is also celebrated in his home province, the northern festivities are renowned as the most elaborate throughout the country. So he was really looking forward to enjoying Loi Krathong in style.

That evening, near the Nawarat Bridge, he bought from a street vendor a krathong of a style I’d never seen before. It had a wooden base and a elaborate coloured paper ‘superstructure’ — a sort of pavilion. Beautiful as it was, it did not prove to be well-designed.

After my friend had launched it, a swimming kid , while extracting the coin, touched the upper edifice, whereupon the krathong promptly capsized and sank. My friend was so dismayed by this dire omen that he did not say a word for the next two hours.

Local legends and myths abound as to the symbolism of Loi Krathong. One old chronicle ties the ritual to a cholera epidemic in the ancient Mon kingdom of Hariphunchai (present day Lamphun), nearly a thousand years ago. According to this account, in 1050 CE, several hundred years before the founding of the first Tai states at Sukhothai, Chiang Mai, Phayao, and elsewhere, the citizens of Hariphunchai fled the ravages of the epidemic, taking refuge in the Mon city of Hamsavatinagara in presentday Burmese territory. Upon their return from this flight after six years absence, they made an annual offering of thanksgiving to their former hosts downstream by releasing rafts bearing food, drinks, and other gifts. Although often quoted in Thailand, this tale seems highly unlikely. What is noteworthy here, though, is that similar rituals are known among other peoples as widely separated, for instance, as the Moken (‘sea gypsies’) of the Mergui Archipelago, and certain tribes in Brazil!

But to return from this detour, here in the north, lights are not only released into the waters but also into the sky. The launching of brightly coloured, paper, hot-air balloons is an integral part of the celebrations, and on some occasions the glimmering lights of hundreds of them can describe a vast arc across the starry sky. Called khom loi in Thai (‘floating lanterns’), they are sometimes made in the form of cubes with rounded edges, several metres across. Their mass launchings from near the Municipal Hall, the Tha Phae Gate, or even some temple compounds, is a spectacular sight.

To inflate a khom loi, take a kerosine-soaked rag fixed  around the end  of a bamboo pole. After igniting it, position this torch under the vent of the paper balloon held aloft by others. Once it is full of hot air, an assistant can attach a firecracker, and light the touchpaper. At a word from the leader, everybody lets go together. The khom loi whooshes upwards fifty metres or more before its ascent slows and it begins to drift with the wind. The firework distantly crackles, and a coloured streamer unrolls like a tail to help stabilize the flight — balloons sometimes capsize and come ignominiously spiraling down emitting a trail of foul black smoke. Others catch fire, their flaming, fluttering descent constituting a real fire hazard. Whether a success or a failure, each launch is enjoyed by the chaffing onlookers.


A decorated candle.

The khom loi, though not made elsewhere in Thailand, are an intrinsic part of the celebrations throughout the north. They are released in homage to certain relics of the Buddha; the turban he discarded and the hair he cut off on entering the ascetic path that would lead to his eventually becoming the Enlightened One. In Buddhist belief, Indra — the God of the Sky — caught  these as the young Prince Siddharta Gautama cast them up into the air. The god then carried them off to a high level of the many heavens, where, in veneration, he interred them in a chedi. This scene, the renunciant prince hacking off his flowing mane of hair with his own sword, with Indra hovering in anticipation nearby, is depicted in murals in many of the local temples.

Over the past few years, though, it has become a common practice to launch similar hot-air balloons at all kind of other celebrations during the course of the year. From the streets of the town, they always  make a brave display — a string of pinprick reddish lights drifting across the starlit celestial dome, even over the face of the moon — although the navigators and pilots of the planes they float past may view them differently.

©SJON HAUSER: text and pictures