It was a magnificent sight. The calm, dark waters under the moonlight were lit by the endless concourse of drifting, twinkling candle lights - each one magically carrying with it a prayer and wish of the person who cast it off. Lanterns danced like fireflies in the sky above, making the dense blackness glow with a thousand hopes and dreams. The glittery sparks of fireworks flared nearby. People smiled, people sang, people danced.
Up in the streets, hordes of people jostled each other, fighting with their elbows for the 'best' spot for the 'best' photo. Fireworks exploded - a little too close for comfort - the sharp sound adding to the mounting excitement. Motorbikes deftly wove through people and traffic, the sounds of their motors humming in the air, only to be overtaken by the loud, cheerful Thai music pumping from every street corner. Commercial stalls lined every street, selling everything from beautifully decorated banana leaf offerings; to candles; to paper lanterns; to incense; to a plethora of tasty treats, snack foods and meals. The stalls were surrounded by so many people - both locals and tourists alike - that it seemed as though you might never actually reach them.
This is Loy Krathong.
Loy Krathong is one of Thailand’s most colourful and visually stunning festivals. The origin of Loy Krathong comes from Brahminism, from which the Thai people adapted this ceremony just after they began practicing Buddhism. An annual event, celebrated on the full moon night of the twelfth lunar calendar month, the 'festival of light’ is celebrated country-wide, and represents a close bond between Thai culture and water. During the festival, Thai's, both young and old, gather to a nearby body of water and release floating ‘krathongs’. These intrically decorated floating containers are traditionally built with a banana tree trunk base, banana leaves, and flowers. They are lit by a small candle and carry food or small coins, meant as offerings, to express apologies to Khongkha or Ganga, the River Goddess, and ask her forgiveness for having used and polluted her. The ceremony itself is symbolic of "letting go"of one's bad habits, grudges, anger, negativity and the sins of the previous year - starting fresh for the one upcoming. Some even include a "bit of their old self," such as nail and hair trimmings, as part of letting go of the past.
This was my first time experiencing Loy Krathong. A solo female traveler from Canada, I had arrived in Thailand just a couple days before the festival, and had made my way north to Chiang Mai to volunteer for the month of November with the totally fabulous fair trade company Global Groove Life. Along with two other talented and interesting volunteers, who were also staying and working with the brand, I had the absolute joy and pleasure of joining Gina and Greg Hope, the remarkable entrepreneurs behind this groovy fair trade company, and their gorgeous little family, for an inspiring and perfectly intimate Loy Krathong holiday.
The day's festivities kicked off about mid-afternoon. Gina and one of the volunteers, Jo, shopped at a local market to get the supplies for making our Krathongs. Upon their return, all of us, volunteers, family and friends, gathered in giddy anticipation on the family's porch to piece together our own unique offerings for the festival. Together, we worked diligently, cutting, ripping, and pinning together our Krathongs with banana stem bases, deep green banana leaves, and an array of fresh flowers, candles, incense, small coins, and, of course, "bits" of ourselves! The process took no more than an hour, and we each came away with our own unique and beautifully decorated Krathong for the evening's release.
If the process intimidates you, or you're in a pinch, you can also buy a beautiful and ready-made Krathong from one of the many vendors lining the streets during the holiday.
In the evening, when full darkness had descended on the city, we piled into the family car (it took two trips) and made our way down to the Ping River, to the family's own secret spot, which, I was pleased to see, was far away from the intensity of the popular tourist areas, where the jostling crowds had swelled so large you could barely walk through the streets. It was certainly more intimate here, with our little group.
One by one, from a small wooden deck perched along the quiet riverbank, we each launched our Krathongs, gently splashing the water until they caught the current and became part of the gentle stream of floating, flickering candlelight and sweet tangs of incense. We watched them float away with the others, biting our lips, praying they wouldn't sink or turn over, or all wishes be damned, until they were all but a twinkle in the distance. Mind and spirit had been cleansed.
As if anything could top that powerful experience, next up was the release of the lanterns. I was really looking forward to this part - even though the lantern I had originally made ripped, as did the replacement lantern I had bought, once I arrived by the river. Go figure! But, thankfully, the Hope's think of everything, and they had brought back ups!
The lanterns are actually a part of Yee Peng, a separate holiday that runs alongside of Loy Kathrong. Yee Peng is a more modern accent to the traditional Loy Kathrong festival, and is celebrated by releasing a hot-air lantern, usually made from rice paper (though nowadays tissue paper is unfortunately more common), up into the sky. According to Thai belief, the release of the lantern is supposed to carry away all sorrow, anxiety or troubles from which you have suffered. It is a symbol of new hopes, wishes and dreams for the coming year.
For the release of the lanterns (known as khom loi in Thai), we wanted to create a video for the company, so we held on tight to our lanterns while waiting for each one to be lit, to release them all at once into the night sky. The lantern was hot as it filled with air, and difficult to hold, but the result was worth it. The moment we let our lanterns fly was pure magic. The sky was glowing with lights, and looking above and around me, all I could see was smiles, for the promise of a clean slate, and the hope of new possibilities for the year to come. A feeling of joy and harmony was alive and buzzing in the air. As I watched in wonder, I almost forgot to make a wish myself. Quickly, I took stock of my previous year, though by this point my lantern was far out of veiw. I made a hasty wish for my future, and hoped for the best.
After the lanterns were up, up and away - and after a couple scary moments when we thought a nearby tree might actually catch fire - we finally called it a night. The Hope's returned home, and we volunteers opted to walk, and take the opportunity to further explore the festival, despite the immense crowd, on the way back.
All in all, the "festival of light" was a truly magnificent event full of joy, twinkly lights, and meaningful smiles. The Krathong and lantern release was an inspiring event. In fact, I can honestly say it was one of the most beautiful and spiritual festivals I’ve attended to date. I was really charmed by the genuine spirit of the holiday, the collective energy of the crowd, and I will have these wonderful memories created together with these great new friends for the rest of my life. I hope to return again one day, and of course, I'll be stealing that secret spot!