The Festival of Lights — Loi Krathong in Chiang Mai

“It is an aesthetic pleasure to see many krathongs with their flickering candle lights bobbing gently up and down borne along the silent and placed waters under the light of a full moon. Of course, I speak of this in the days when there were no motor boats and outboards to disturb the peaceful waters with their waves and unpleasant sounds,” wrote Phya Rajthon Anuman of Loi Krathong in the “Journal of the Siam Society,” (Vol 38 Part 2 Jan 1951).

Loi Krathong Lanterns

Loi Krathong Lanterns © Chartchai Meesangnin

The small floats—krathong—are made prior to the three nights of the full moon of yi peng, the second lunar month in the northern Thai calendar and twelfth month on the regular lunar calendar.

To make the krathong, villagers slice the trunks of banana trees to make the floating base, and cut and fold the leaves into triangular shapes, which they pin with slivers of bamboo onto the base, creating the appearance of an elaborate flower much like the bloom of a lotus. The krathong are not complete until they have been decorated with flowers, incense and at least one candle.

Loi Krathong Offerings

Loi Krathong Offerings © Kevin Miller

On the three nights of Loi Krathong, people make their way to rivers, streams, canals and even ponds, light the candle and incense, raise the krathong with both hands to their foreheads, offer a prayer, and then place the krathong in the water, gently propelling it into the stream.

Regarding the origins of this custom, it was none other than King Rama V (Chulalongkorn r.1868-1910,) who wrote in his book ‘Phraratchapithi 12 duan’ (Royal Ceremonies in the Twelve Months of the Year) that: “Loi Krathong has nothing to do with any recognized ceremony or rite. It is merely a matter of rejoicing in which all the people take part and is not only for royalty; moreover it is concerned with neither Buddhist nor Brahmin ceremony.”

King Chulalongkorn also wrote how Loi Krathong had some connection with the floating of lanterns by the Kings of Sukhothai, and how this was described “ornately in a book written by Nang Nophamat, a beautiful and learned lady of the court of King Phra Ruang of Sukhothai’s capital.”

According to King Chulalongkorn, this daughter of a Brahmin priest described how she had introduced new kinds of floats in the shape of big lotus flowers and other styles for the king to float in the running stream when he “went for a picnic on the river to witness the people enjoying themselves during the water festival at night.”

The book that King Chulalongkorn describes is not a book in the western sense, but a manuscript. As to its provenance, it has become the fashion for young Thai historians to question much of the past received from the court historians of the late 19th century, and it is uncertain whether it was a creation or a copy of an older work.

That Loi Krathong falls at the end of the rainy season, and, depending on the lunar cycle, that it falls at some time before the harvesting of the rice clearly indicates its origins as a propitiation to water spirits so important to a culture based on wet-rice cultivation. Perhaps it is an invocation for the rains to stop to allow the rice to ripen, just as Songkran in April is partly an invocation heralding the rains.

Loi Krathong is considered an offering to the Goddess Mae Khongkha, the mother of water. Khongkha finds its Indic root in the word Ganges, but in Thailand it refers to water in general. The commonly held reason for the custom is that by making an offering back to the water spirit, local people are seeking remission for having taken and used the waters.

It is as well that this absolution for using—perhaps polluting might be more appropriate usage in these times—the water also extends to the air. Large balloons made of tracing paper are attached to bamboo hoops and inflated by hot air from a wick of burning paper and paraffin wax held by wires in the middle of the hoop. These khom loi float skywards, drifting in airstreams that seem to complement their water-bound counterparts.

Loi Krathong Hot Air Ballons

Loi Krathong Hot Air Ballons © KLJ Photographic Ltd

Khom loi take a different form in the daytime, when they are usually launched on the morning of the day of the full moon (Nov 2). These balloons are much larger and are filled with a thick, sooty smoke from a burner on the ground, the smoke retaining heat long enough to lift the balloon to great heights.

Reaching a suitable height after launch, the well-crafted balloon will release a long tail with a stream of fireworks, sometimes dropping sweets, paper flowers and model airplanes that glide back to the ground leaving trails of colored smoke as the balloon continues to soar. Such balloons are released all over the city, but the best place to see them is at a competition held on Wang Sing Kham Road in front of the municipality offices.

It is at night that the city really comes alive. At dusk people light prathip, small lights made of candlewax in a shallow earthen saucer, and place them along the walls and entrances to their homes. The entrances themselves are decorated with pratu pa, or forest gates of cut bamboo trees forming an archway above the entrance.

Thaphae Gate is particularly busy during the nights of Loi Krathong, especially during the Nang Nophamat beauty contest. The parades no longer pass through the gate, but they all pass down Thaphae Road.

Loi Krathong people

Loi Krathong People © Frank Douglas

The first of these is the Lantern Parade (hae khom), which consists of small floats (in all parades floats compete for best float illustrating the theme of the year) illuminated from lights inside lanterns. After passing down Thaphae Road, the lantern parade turns into Chang Khlan Road (the road through the Night Bazaar), where participants perform their final dances in front of the judges.

Loi Krathong People

Loi Krathong People © Frank Douglas

The night of the full moon is the turn of the Small Krathong (krathong lek) parade, which is followed the next night by the Large Krathong Parade (krathong yai). Both parades go east along Thaphae Road, before turning northwards on Praisani Road along the west bank of the river and passing the judges stand in front of the municipal building at the end of the route.

Loi Krathong People

Loi Krathong People © Frank Douglas

Though participants are marshaled much earlier, the parades don’t usually start moving till around 7 pm.

Floats sponsored by the city’s major institutions may feature over one hundred people dressed in traditional costume, holding banners or lanterns. Dancing women, musicians, young men beating drums with elbow, fist and knee—all may herald the brightly illuminated float and beauty queens perched thereon, and the retinue of support trucks carrying generators and drinking water. The organization required is considerable.

Girl in Loi Krathong Parade

Girl in Loi Krathong Parade © Frank Douglas

The parades find their progenitor from what Rajthon describes as the royal Loi Krathong: “In the old days the royal Loi Krathong was on a grand scale called krathong yai or big krathong. Some of the princes or ministers of state each made a krathong… so big that they could accommodate in each of them a number of artists playing musical instruments or performing comic and practical jokes. The designs of the krathong were various, giant lotus flowers, junks and what not. Each owner competed with the others.”

Rajthon was writing of the days in his childhood at the turn of the 19th century, and he mentions how the royal krathong was discontinued. It is certain, then, that the practice of parading krathong was revived in Chiang Mai as part of a move to promote tourism.

Rajthon also wrote how children played with fireworks, which, he said, “we light sometimes in the same spirit as we light candles as an act of worship.”

Loi Krathong People

Loi Krathong People © Frank Douglas

In Chiang Mai, the cacophony of firecrackers and rockets whooshing in all directions along the riverbanks would seem to obliterate any spiritual significance, unless it is to be found when mortars opposite the municipality periodically thump, sending sparking balls skywards to burst in heavenly flourishes over the seeming bedlam of parades pressing through the throngs of people below.

There is no way to witness the spectacle without being a part of it, for it is impossible to go near the river (or cross it) except on foot. To avoid jostling in the crowds and, if the authorities have not asserted greater control, the firecrackers detonating by your feet, look at the parades early in their formation and then try and find a restaurant with a view.

While the scene on the riverbanks may resemble something like the Do Long Bridge scene from Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola’s seminal movie about the Vietnam War, almost any part of the city is a fitting place to contemplate Rajthon’s meaning when he said: “Apart from aesthetic pleasure, I cannot see any other reasonable explanation than that anything pertaining to spirits is often done at night in order to give it an atmosphere of mystical effect.”

Loi Krathong People

Loi Krathong People © Frank Douglas

The main events of the 2011 Loi Krathong festival in Chiang Mai are scheduled 8–11 November. Events are staged in the evenings at both the Three Kings Monument and Thaphae Gate (on the east side of the moated old city) throughout the festival. Roads along which parades will pass are closed.

8 Nov.
18hrs on: Official opening at the Three Kings Monument on Prapokklao Road in the middle of the old city within the moats.

9–11 Nov.
Entrances to temples, houses and organizations are decorated with pratu pa, “forest gates.”

9 Nov.
19:00hrs on: Nang Nopphamat Beauty Contest, Thaphae Gate. Lantern Parade. From Thaphae Gate to the Night Bazaar (Chang Khlan Rd.)

10 Nov.
09:00hrs on: Full Moon. Hot air balloon competition in front of the municipal offices on Wang Sing Kham Rd. Hot air balloons are released from many other places such as from temple compounds on the same morning.

19:00hrs on: Small Krathong Parade (Krathong Lek) east along Thaphae Road to the municipality on Wang Sing Kham Road.

11 Nov.
19:00hrs on: Large Krathong Parade (Krathong Yai) east along Thaphae Road to the municipality on Wang Sing Kham Road.

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Text by Frank Douglas © Frank Douglas – All Rights Reserved.

Photo ‘Loy Krathong Lanterns’ by Chartchai Meesangnin © Chartchai Meesangnin – All Rights Reserved.
Photo ‘Loy Krathong Offerings’ by Kevin Miller © Kevin Miller – All Rights Reserved.
Photo ‘Loi Krathong Hot Air Ballons’ by KLJ Photographic Ltd © KLJ Photographic Ltd – All Rights Reserved.
All other photos by Frank Douglas © Frank Douglas – All Rights Reserved.
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