There have been many festivals that I have attended during my years of stay in Thailand. Each festival brought a new experience to the table and it was extremely enjoyable for me to explore the different traditions and cultures the people brought forth. Each and every festival brings a completely different feeling and trend of beliefs. I honestly lost count of the many festivals I have attended and taken part in, but there is one that stood out very significantly. The lights festival! Or as the Thais more commonly refer to it as Loy Krathong Festival. It is one of the biggest and most vibrant (literally, every single city is bathed in lights) festivals that every part of the country indulges in.
The basic nature of this festival is to light lanterns and let them go either in the sky or in a body of water. In most of the cities, they prefer to make Krathongs (boats made of natural material) and place lit lanterns on them then proceed to set them afloat on any body of water like a river or pond. “Loy” means to float so that’s why some cities use water bodies as the space for their lanterns. However, other cities like Chiang Mai light their candles and leave them to float in the air.
I attended this festival twice for two years in a row in 2 different cities one of which Chiang Mai and the other Bangkok. It usually happens around the month of November to celebrate the end of the rainy season. However, different people have their different reasons for celebrating their festival. Actually, the festival is meant as a form of worship, and each and every one who lights their lantern and sets it free, does it for a special religious reason.
One of the most magical things about the light festival is the krathongs that the people fashion. In old cultures the people used to fashion them out of banana tree leaves and trunk. However, in recent times most like to make them out of bread. In this way it decomposes quicker and the fish can feast on it as well. It is meant to be a humble and environmentally friendly offering to their God.
The krathong is meant to sail away and the person setting it free lets their worries and “dark side” free along with it. I really loved this approach towards worship as some of the people I met during my time celebrating this festival mentioned a couple more factors as to why they practice this ritual of theirs. Some mentioned that the waters of Thailand have deep roots back to their forefathers and ancestors and they hold a very strong importance in their culture. Thus upon freeing their krathongs they also commit to thanking the Water Goddess for the abundant rains that have finished and also apologize for polluting her waters.
A practice that I loved every much and have never seen in any of the other multiple countries I have visited; the apologies as well as the sanctity of this whole festival really calmed my heart.
The lanterns on the other hand are only lit with candles and in Chiang Mai; the residents like to float them in the sky on a full moon night. The most exceptional thing about this festival is that apart from the other tens and tens of festivals which are celebrated in Thailand annually; this one is the calmest. I didn’t find any ruckus, commotion or loud noises. In fact, due to the religious importance of this festival I only found it noisy before the ceremony started. Because, the crowds were gathering and buying their kathrongs and clamoring to light their candles and be prepared for the grand release: there was some commotion at the beginning.
But as soon as everyone took their positions, held their lanterns or kathrongs in place and the floating ceremony started; there was a peaceful quiet everywhere. The moon was big and its light was only small compared to the yellow flickering lights of the candles. Each and every person with a lantern had their eyes closed in a sort of silent worship. The experience was wholly cleansing and calming for me.
The Festival’s Dates
Something I noticed from my personal experience and hearing about it from others, is the change of dates of the festival. There is no fixed date for the festival and so it changes every year. However it does occur in the month of November but I only came to know about the dates from a friend of mine a week beforehand. On my first visit, the festival came on the 21st and 22nd days and then the next year when I went, I attended the festival on the 13th and 14th days of November. However, it will be hard to miss the event as everyone starts talking about it and every city buzzes with excitement and preparations.
In order for me to take part in the festival, all I had to do was be aware of the venue and place to go. Upon my first time participating in this festival I arrived royally late as I underestimated the crowd that was gathering. Believe me when I tell you, the entire city comes out to light their lanterns and set them to float in water and air. The festival began around 8pm after nightfall and I foolishly reached there at that time exactly. I couldn’t light any lantern on any boat on that year because of the awful jostling and crowd.
Next year I was luckier as I was told by one of the citizens to arrive there well before 4 pm and claim your spot. That’s what I exactly did and on that year I could fully enjoy the peace, quiet and true beauty of this humble and beautiful festival.
Disney Traditions (Yi Peng Festival)
When I first laid eyes on the many photos on the internet of the Loy Krathong festival it felt quite familiar to a big extent. When I visited Chiang Mai and watched as each and every citizen lifted their lanterns up to the sky, I remembered that one scene from the Disney movie Tangled. As a kid whose favorite movie was Tangled, this festival as well as the experience was altogether riveting and unique in its own way. It felt like I was practically living out a scenery from the film and it will forever be one of my favorite memories in Thailand.
Usually the “grand release” as it is called, happens after 9 pm and goes on till 1 am after midnight. The whole city sleeps and the many lights from malls and traffic diminishes to a small amount. There are multiple spots around the city which organize the sky lantern releasing event (it is called Yi Peng festival in Chiang Mai as it is a bit different than the actual Loy Kathrong festival) and they charge a fee. However, I did not head over there as I preferred to be around the river once the grand release began. The reflection of the lights on the water only adds to the surreal experience and it is usually calmer and wider around the river. I could easily move around and pick my spot as well as change places every now and again. It is truly one of the most heart-warming and giddy feelings to watch the numerous lanterns serenely float upwards as their yellow lights flicker beside the moon’s reflection in the ever-rippling waters.
However, I got to know later on by some of the retreating members after the ceremony was over; that there was another way to watch the ceremony and it is by nipping onto any rooftop near the river. In that way one gets to avoid the crowd while still savoring and enjoying the view of the festival. From people setting their kathrongs onto the water body to others setting them free in the sky; it is an altogether peaceful and entirely sacred event. Also makes a pretty, romantic date if you’re willing to go the extra mile for your significant other.