Imagine yourself sitting in a field in northern Thailand, your eyes closed, mesmerized by the chanting of Buddhist monks, followed by the calm contemplation of a guided meditation, effective even in a language you do not understand. You open your eyes to find you are surrounded by other celebrants as three thousand waist-high torches are lit. You unfurl a bell-shaped paper lantern, about 3 feet wide by 5 feet high, and hold it above the torch nearest you to light a waxed ring of wick. The lantern fills with hot air, expanding as it fills with dark grey smoke, becoming lighter in your hands. A gong sounds, everyone lets go, and thousands of lanterns rise into the night sky at once.
This is what you would have experienced if you were at the Tu Dong Ka Sathaan Lanna Buddhist meditation center this past Saturday night. About 15km north of Chiang Mai, next to Mae Jo University, this is the most spiritual and awe-inspiring event of the yearly Loi Krathong festival that is typically observed around the full moon in November. When we first started planning our Southeast Asian Adventure, this was one of only two “must-dos” on my list. Culminating in this past full moon weekend, lanterns in the sky and the sounds of fireworks have been a nightly presence since we arrived a week ago. The gates and the moat around the Old City have had displays of hanging lanterns, dragons, and elephants all month. The Thais take their 700 year old festival seriously. Seriously crazy perhaps, but serious nonetheless.
Somewhat confusingly, there are actually two festivals that just happen to be celebrated at the same time. “Yi Peng” is a Lanna festival that is held on the 2nd month of the Lanna calendar (and in fact translates as such), and the khom loi, (“floating lanterns”) are technically part of that tradition. Floating on water rather than in the air, a “krathong“ is made from a section of banana tree trunk, or bread, and is decorated with elaborately-folded banana leaves, flowers, candles and incense sticks, which is then set adrift in a river or pond. Legend has it that the festival was adapted by Buddhists in Thailand as a ceremony to honour the original Buddha with light during the growing darkness of winter. It is also said that Noppamas, a consort of the Sukothai king Loethai in the 14th century, was the first to decorate the floating raft.
We made ours on Sunday, the night of the full moon, when Chiang Mai was at the peak of its celebratory craziness. We parked our rented motorbike next to the Nakorn Bridge, on the Mae Ping river, conveniently in front of a sidewalk krathong-making workshop hosted by Lanna Commercial College. We then walked down some nearby steps to the riverbank where hundreds of people were spread out, launching krathongs, khom loi, and otherwise sitting and taking in the sights and sounds of the festival. We joined them, watching a steady stream of krathongs in the water, some very ornate, and others very simple – just a single flower and a candle in a curve of banana stalk. A man stood waist-deep in the river, shepherding the floats along, pushing them into the current if they got stuck at shore, or relighting extinguished candles. We launched a couple of sky lanterns into the night sky to join the migration overhead, and then we released our krathongs into the river with a thought and a prayer.
We moved on, walking down the closed street next to the Warowot Market, towards Tha Pae Road. When we reached the Nawarat Bridge, we found ourselves in the middle of the action as fireworks and khom loi leapt into the sky all around us, and the police were clearing the center of the streets for the oncoming parade. We watched the slow procession of floats and marchers for a time, and then grabbed some street food and settled down in a small park to eat and rest. I laid my head in Liz’ lap and watched the constant stream of golden lanterns arching into the night like spirits, revealing wind patterns as they rose, first moving south until reaching a higher altitude and switching directions to the north. The khom loi were ever-changing constellations, replacing the stars obscured by an overcast sky. Darkened lanterns tumbled downwards, their fuel spent, littering the city with the remnants of released wishes.
Ironically, the festival is believed to originate in an ancient practice of paying respect to the Goddess of Water, Phra Mae Khongkha. Between dead lanterns, krathongs held together with nails, and the multitude of fireworks set off along the banks and bridges of the Mae Ping, one wonders what the goddess would think of these respects. One thing is for sure, a festival of this sort would never happen in the United States. Open flames in paper lanterns being released all over a city and fireworks being set off in and over large crowds would be a municipal fire department’s worst nightmare.
On Monday, the last night of the festival, we got a late start due to a miscommunication. After 11p, we caught a tuk-tuk down to the Tha Pae gate and walked towards the bridge, the streets already reopened to traffic. The party was clearly winding down, but people were still lighting lanterns and fireworks. One of the symbolic acts of floating away the lit candles of krathongs and khom loi is letting go of all one’s grudges, anger and baggage. I bought a sky lantern, and embracing that spirit, launched it with the following vow, “I hereby release all of the shit that isn’t mine anymore.” The other symbolic act is one of wishing for good luck and a positive future, for which Liz took care of with a second lantern.