The cold November wind sweeps into Chiang Mai, taking the place of the last monsoon rains. Winter is here. With it comes a steady flow of visitors— some drawn by the enchanting prospect of seeing Chiang Mai in its winter beauty. Others have come to witness a different kind of beauty— the beauty of Loy Krathong.
Loy Krathong is a Thai festival that has long been a part of the majesty and charm of the Lanna culture. In ancient times, river festivals were held annually as a display of gratitude to the rivers and waters that fed the earth. Legend has it that Loy Krathong originated during one such festival that took place over 600 years ago in the Sukhothai Kingdom. At this particular festival, Nang Nophamas, daughter of a Brahmin priest serving in the Sukhothai Court, made a krathong (float) out of a large lotus and offered it to the king and royal family of the Sukhothai Kingdom. Nang Nophamas told the king that the purpose of floating the krathong would be not only for enjoyment, but also as a means of showing gratitude to the river for the water that it provided. In addition, it would be a way of asking the forgivenes of Pra Mae Kong Kha, legendary goddess of the river, for dirtying her waters. And so the time honoured festival of Loy Krathong began. Since then, it has been celebrated annually by the Thai people and remains one of the most beautiful traditions.
In the North, Loy Krathong is better known by the name ‘Yee Peng’. ‘Yee’ means ‘two’, and ‘Peng’ means ‘full moon’. According to the ancient Northern Thai calendar, Loy Krathong takes place during the second month on the day of the full moon. Thus, Yee Peng.
In Chiang Mai, Loy Krathong is a large-scale festival and lasts a whole three days. During the first two days small krathong are floated and there are also krathong contests in which everyone is welcome to participate. Krathong show a similarity to the legendary lotus float made by Nang Nophamas for the king of Sukhothai. Most krathong have a circular base of a floatable material such as foam or banana stalk. Three joss sticks and one candle are placed. in the middle. On the krathong there are layered petals which look similar to the petals of a lotus and can be made from paper, plastic, or banana leaves. At present, however, people are encouraged to use natural materials instead of foam and plastic in order to help prevent further water pollution.
Besides krathong contests, there are also boat races at noon of the first day of the festival. Racing these longboats requires the skilful paddling of over 10 crewmen. Rhythm is a necessity and unity essential. Boat racing used to be a popular sport in Thailand but is now becoming more and more scarce. Perhaps it is due to the present day decline of using the river as a mode of transportation. At any rate, the sight of these long boats straining neck to neck for the finish line, gliding seemingly effortlessly through the water, is certainly well-worth watching.
Another activity which takes place during Loy Krathong in Chiang Mai is the release of giant sky lanterns. According to Northern culture, releasing these balloon type lanterns into the sky is a way of releasing one’s bad luck and sorrow. The local people release these lanterns both day and night from their homes and temples. Lt is said that wherever a lantern lands, the sorrow and bad luck of the one who sent it will fall upon that place.
City officials organize a sky lantern contest on the first day of the festival. The lanterns competing in this contest are made with several different colours and in several different shapes. After the contest is over the lanterns are released into the air, creating a lovely sight of colours and shapes back-dropped by the azure sky. It’s a beautiful memory that isn’t easy to forget. However, all these sights and sounds are just the preliminaries, and, as with many other festivals, the Loy Krathong Festival saves its best for last.
On the last day of the Loy Krathong Festival, the long awaited giant krathong are brought out and paraded through the streets. These giant krathong have ladies on them representing Nang Nophamu, the legendary founder of Loy Krathong. In the parade there are also many performances and dances. This impressive show of beauty and grace is an excellent representation of the Lanna Thai cultur. The parade makes its way from Wat Phra Singh, across the old city, down Thapae Road to the Ping River. Here the giant krathong and Nang Nophamas contest winner is announced, much to the suspense of the onlookers.
Besides the main Loy Krathong Festival activities organised by city officials, many temples also host activities during this time. In addition many households decorate their houses beautifully with candies and tiny lanterns. Fire crackers and fireworks are set off randomly and almost unceasingly. Lf you are interested in taking part in the Loy Krathong Festival, krathong can be bought at almost anywhere where there is activity. These krathong can then be floated on the river or moats. Thai Buddhists light the joss sticks and candle in the middle of the krathong and pray, thanking the goddess of the river for the water and asking forgiveness for dirtying it. Couples also float krathong together, praying for a love that will last forever. The krathong are then laid onto the river and are soon carried away to join thousands of others. In the darkness of the night, it is as if the river has turned into the sky with a starry host of its own.
When it is all over and the krathong and sky lanterns have been swept off into the darkness, all that is left is the silver moon, the sleepy river, and the memories of three days of fun — the boat racing, the sky lanterns, the parade, the smiles, and the laughter. And then, when the darkness gives way to the shining sun, it is goodbye to another Loy Krathong Festival. Goodbye, at least, until the time comes once again to bear witness to this ancient tradition of the floating krathong.