Written by Keith Mundy
Thailand is renowned for the beauty of its traditional culture, and Loy Krathong is a supreme example. Of all the Thai festivals, none is so enchanting as this, celebrated each November on the night of the full moon.
With the rainy season just ended, the night sky is clear, the waters are high, and it’s time to loy krathong – literally, ‘to float a banana-leaf boat’. Under the bright moon, people from all walks of life converge on any convenient stretch of water – a canal or a river, a pond or a lake, the sea or even a swimming pool – to launch their krathong and make a wish for the coming year.
A krathong is a boat that carries not people but their dreams. Usually quite small and round, about 20cm in diameter, krathong are traditionally made from banana leaves, flowers, a candle, and joss sticks. Celebrants go to the water’s edge, light the candle and incense, and raise the krathong before their face as in prayer, making their wish. This is a serene moment, silent in the darkness, faces bathed in the warm golden candlelight, their features set in supplication. Then comes the release. Kneeling and leaning forward, they gently place the krathong on the water, give it a little push to help it on its way with splashing of water – but not too much, lest the flame be extinguished and bad luck ensue. Traditionally, the wishmaker watches until the candle flame has floated out of sight or has been lost amongst all the others.
Historically, several other Asian cultures celebrated this full moon night of the twelfth lunar month, with festivities held along the waterways, and small boats ceremonially launched. To this day, similar krathong customs exist in Thailand’s neighbours, Burma, Laos, and Cambodia; and it all probably began as a homage to the spirits of the water on which agricultural societies depend. But no celebrations are as elaborate as the Thai ones, and Thais have it that the custom originated in Sukhothai, the kingdom established in AD 1238 in the north of present-day Thailand. Thai legend claims that it began with one of the king’s consorts, Nang Noppamas, renowned not only for her beauty but also for her skill in devising ways to divert her royal master. At one such full moon festival, she presented her latest novelty: a little boat in the shape of a lotus blossom, made from deftly-folded banana leaves, with incense sticks and a candle burning in the centre.
Thai women are particularly fond of this fiction, often dressing up as a Sukhothai beauty in shimmering silk sarongs on Loy Krathong night. Young people tend to turn it all into another New Year’s Eve – with fireworks and thumping music.
Lanterns in the sky
The northern Thai city of Chiang Mai is renowned for its street parade of illuminated floats featuring huge paper lanterns, with beauty queens smiling amid the glowing fantasy. Called Yi Peng Loy Krathong, the city’s celebrations include houses and shops hung with pretty paper lanterns; and the dream-like custom of launching hot-air ‘fire lanterns’, called khom fai, into the night sky.
How to make a krathong