Loy, Loy Krathong!

For eleven months I have been anticipating the Thai festival of Loy Krathong as it is the most celebrated and colorful of all.  I have been waiting to experience and capture the four-day festival of lights where gratitude is paid to the waters that sustain life, which is too sad to be ironic right now considering central Thailand is still dealing with the aftermath of severe flooding.  The festival is also a time in which to ask forgiveness for humanity’s polluting ways as well as send off any negative feelings or angst into the night sky by releasing sky lanterns that are thought to take your problems up, up, and away.  Loy Krathong proved itself to be a crazy adventure but it was as magical and whimsical as I imagined it could be.

Loy literally means to “float.”  And a krathong is a lotus-shaped flower arrangement made of banana stalk and leaves, containing flowers, incense sticks, candles, coins and sometimes betel nuts – the latter as offerings to the river spirits.  During the night of the full moon, Thais kneel before a river or lake, pay their respects to the spirits of the water, and release their krathongs.  This can also be symbolic of releasing grudges, anger, judgments and starting life anew.

In the north, Loy Krathong is celebrated as Yee Peng where sky lanterns called khom loy are launched into the night sky.  Imagine thousands of illuminated lanterns (think cylindrical hot air balloons made of rice paper) being launched to the heavens.  Breathtaking.

As Chiang Mai is the epicenter of all cultural festivals in the north, I was on the first bus out the morning of Loy Krathong.  In Chiang Mai, Loy Krathong and Yee Peng are celebrated at the same time leaving visitors with a visual treat as candlelit krathongs float the river, sky lanterns fill the night sky and fireworks explode at every turn. Throngs of people turn out to watch the parades and pay their merits.

My friend Kevin and I set out on a wild goose chase to find the area outside Chiang Mai where it was rumored that thousands of sky lanterns would be released simultaneously on the second night of Loy Krathong.  We secured a songthaew as it started to downpour and 45 minutes later we were dropped off at the street market in Mae Jo.  We had no idea where we were supposed to be.  After asking a lot of random people on the street, walking aimlessly, and finally hitchhiking down a random road, we arrived at the gate only to be told it was canceled due to the rain.  Oh, hell no.

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I heard a loudspeaker off into the distance so I wasn’t willing to give up just yet.  The rain had stopped and Kevin and I meandered around asking people in Thaiglish what was happening.  Everyone confirmed the event was cancelled.  You’ve. Got. To. Be. Kidding. Me.   I still didn’t want to believe it so Kevin and I snuck around the security gate and wandered down a long, dark, quiet road not knowing where we were going or what we were doing.  We arrived at another gate where two Thai security personnel told us, once again, that the event was cancelled.  But I still heard the loudspeaker and anyone who has spent a moderate amount of time in Thailand knows that where there is a loudspeaker, there is an event.  The security guards must’ve seen that we weren’t giving up easily and finally pulled us aside.  One man said, “Event 50 per cent.”  “Uh, what?”  “Event is going.  50 per cent.”  “Ah, okay!”

Little did we know that we were about to walk into what would become one of the most amazing nights I have ever had in Thailand.  The event was held at the meditation center of Mae Jo University or so we think.  At the center of the outdoor stage was a large illuminated Buddha surrounded by dozens of monks.  In front of the monks were hundreds of fire lit torches and a central cauldron.  On the acre or so of land surrounding the stage stood hundreds of people – most of whom were Thai – holding their sky lanterns and listening peacefully to the monk leading the event in (gasp!) English.  He spoke in a calm monotone, “We are gathered here to pay merit.  To release negativity.  To hold calm in our minds and hearts.  And to pray for world peace now.”  He lead a collective meditation which was followed by a procession of monks, novices, the mayor and his entourage, women’s groups and hill tribe members.  It was quiet, tranquil and transcendental.

I think it’s fair to say that Kevin and I were speechless and delighted.  As two of the only white people in attendance, we both realized what a gift it was to share in this authentically Thai celebration.  Once the moments of silence and meditation passed, we were instructed to light our sky lanterns and release them all together.  The weather was not on our side that night with some slight rain and wind kicking up so the release was not as simultaneous as it could’ve been and some lanterns fell burning to the ground.  It was stunning regardless.  After the sky lanterns came the fireworks and after the fireworks came the krathongs.  Kevin and I left the event feeling restored and transformed and so glad we didn’t take no for an answer!

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