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The Festival of Lights – Loy Kratong

Float All Your Cares Away – By Jeff Petry

“Loy, loy kratong; loy, loy kratong,” goes the popular festival song, the rest of which most of us have no clue.  But singing the chorus over and over is always good for a smile during this most ritualistic and graceful of Thai festivals.

loy kratong udon thani

Floating kratongs in the lake

It’s telling that Thailand’s two biggest festivals revolve around water, as it is such an important and critical part of Thai society, from the fields of Isan to the great Chao Phaya River around which Bangkok was built, and on which so much traffic moves.

There are many holidays and festivals in Thailand, as everyone knows, but most would agree that Loy Kratong is the most striking, picturesque, exotic, and romantic. “Loy” means “to float” in Thai, and a “kratong” is the typically lotus-shaped base upon which candles, joss sticks, flowers, coins, and sometimes food and betel nuts are placed.

Previously, banana leaves were used more regularly for the base, or a spider lily plant, and there has been an environmental movement to return again to these natural materials, instead of the river-polluting and clogging polystyrene. Some celebrants even make their kratongs out of bread, a nice touch that feeds the fish as they gradually dissolve.

This November 10th, when the moon of the twelfth lunar month is full and bright, and the tide in the rivers is highest, friends, couples, families, and lovers throughout Thailand will make their way to nearby klongs, ponds, and especially rivers. Here they will gently float their kratongs out into the water, evoking the spirit of the sacred past under the radiating blessing of the shimmering moon above.

With the rains ended, and the cool season gently moving in, it is perhaps akin to the rebirth of spring in the milder climes of other parts of the world. The great floods that this year brought so much suffering and devastation are now past, and it is the perfect time to purge evil and bad luck from one’s life. Indeed, most of the rice in Thailand is now being harvested around this time and with it much food, and perhaps a little cash, for the coming year.

No one is quite sure of the exact origins of Thailand Loy Kratong Festival. Many believe that it is of Indian origin and based on the “Deepavalee” ritual, which is also accompanied by floating lights in an act of worship to the Brahmin gods Brahma, Siva and Vishnu, or an act of remission or absolution to the Indian Ganga or Ganges.

The Loy Krathong tradition we know today has most likely evolved from the royal rituals of the early Rattanakosin period in which several types of lanterns were set afloat in the Chao Phaya River and its waterways. The practice was subsequently adopted and adapted by Thais throughout the country.

Given the riverine culture that formed the foundation of the traditional Thai way of life, Loy Krathong evolved into a ritual in which offerings are made to Mae Khongkha, the Mother of Waters, the Thai equivalent of the Hindu goddess of water, in an expression of gratitude for providing life-sustaining water throughout the year. It is further believed that the offering are made in an act of appeasement to beg her forgiveness for the thoughtlessness and carelessness of all those who pollute the pristine water that nourishes all life.

As some believe that when launching their kratong, they are symbolically casting away life’s grief, misery and ill-fortunes, there are accounts of some placing tufts of hair or clipped finger-nails into the krathong in the hope of ridding themselves of a spell of bad luck or misfortune, or even to have nicer hair or nails. Coins are also placed in the krathong as offerings, many of which are quickly seized by kids swimming among the kratongs.

In the northern Thai provinces that were once part of the ancient Lanna Thai kingdom, the Yi Peng Northern Lantern Festival is still celebrated. Tubular lanterns, fai khom, resembling hot air balloons, are lit and released into the night sky as offerings to the Lord Buddha. With fireworks going off in all directions in the midst of the reverie, the scene is not dissimilar to that of the Do Lung Bridge in Apocalypse Now.

Watching hundreds of these loy khom floating off into the sky like so many illuminated jellyfish, mirrored by the thousands of kratongs floating down the Ping River, is a truly mystical experience, forever etched into one’s memory. If there’s one Thai holiday not to be missed, it would probably be Loy Kratong.