Today is the full moon of the 12th month in the traditional Thai lunar calendar. As such, the evening is being celebrated as Loy Krathong here in Thailand. Held throughout Thailand and Laos as well as a couple of small areas in Myanmar, Malaysia, and the extreme southern portion of Yunnan in China Loy Krathong is perhaps my favorite one-day holiday. It is at the very least the most colorful.
The Thai word loy (or, “loi”) is translated as “to float”) while a krathong means a “floating boat” or “floating decoration”. The krathong are traditionally made from a thick slice from the trunk of a banana tree or a spider lily plant. Some modern versions are made from bread but increasingly, Styrofoam krathong are sold which pollute the rivers and take years to decompose. They are decorated with elaborately folded banana leaves, incense sticks, colorful flowers, and a candle. A small coin is sometimes added as an offering to the river spirits. Fingernails or hair clippings are also occasionally added to the krathong as a symbol of letting go of past transgressions and negative thoughts. The primary purpose of floating krathong in rivers, canals or ponds on the full moon night is to thank the Goddess of Water, known as Phra Mae Khongkha in Thailand.
Most large organizations, corporations and government offices in the region create larger, elaborate krathong and their are many local competitions to determine the best of these. Most communities will hold at least one “Noppamas Queen” beauty contest. This is to honor a consort of the 13th century Sukhothai king Sri Indraditya, who, according to Thai mythology, was the first to float a decorated raft. These pageants attract young girls, adults, and katoeys alike.
According to an 1863 account written by His Majesty Mongkut (Rama IV, best known in the West via Anna Leonewens’ novel Anna and the King of Siam and the musical The King And I), Loy Krathong was adapted by Siamese Buddhists from a Brahmanical festival to honor the Buddha. The candle venerates the Buddha with light while the krathong’s floating symbolizes letting go of all one’s hatred, anger and defilements.
In many Thai communities, people also enjoy launching khom loi, or Lanna-style sky lanterns, into the sky. These are made from a thin fabric such as rice paper, stretched over a bamboo or wire frame, to which a candle or disc of paraffin wax is attached. When this is lit, the resulting hot air is trapped inside the lantern and provides enough lift for the khom loi to float up into the sky.
For the first few years that I lived in Thailand, I loved to watch the streams of lit lanterns rising into the dark sky while sitting on my balcony. However, this aspect of the celebration is now being increasingly banned as the sky lanterns are a hazard to passing aircraft and can cause damage if they land on buildings or vehicles. Bangkok passed a particularly severe ordnance in 2014 following the military coup which states that “violators may face execution or a life sentence or serve a lighter sentence of 5 to 10 years in prison…” Fireworks displays have replaced the khom loi in a number of places.
On 10 November 2011, Thailand Post issued a set of four stamps and a souvenir sheet honoring “Traditional Festivals”. Two of the stamps specifically depict Loy Krathong as celebrated in Sukhothai (along with the Candle Festival) and Tak while a third shows the northern Thai (Lanna) festival known as Yi Peng which coincides with Loy Krathong. This is the origin of the khom loi lanterns sky lanterns and locals decorate their houses and gardens with khom fai, intricately shaped paper lanterns which take on different forms including those carried hanging from a stick (khom thue) and those placed at temples which revolve due to the heat of the candle inside (khom pariwat). The most elaborate Yi Peng celebrations are in Chiang Mai, the ancient capital of the Lanna kingdom, where they are held concurrently with Loy Krathong. The final stamp depicts the Illuminated Boat Procession in Nakhon Phanom.