When the moon fills out in the twelfth lunar month of every year, Thais take to the waterways nationwide to "loy" (float) their "kratong" (banana leaf vessel laden with flowers, incense and candals). Although Thais and especially Bangkokians, celebrate the likes of Halloween and Christmas, Loy Kratong is a festival that remains observed in a genteel way that celebrates the more traditional Thai way of life.
In the northern province of Chiang Mai, the festivities along canals and rivers are complemented with the launch of thousands of candle lit paper lanterns into the night sky. Just as kratongs are believed to float away ill fortune, paper lanterns also carry away any negativity and grief from a person's life.
The festival is not a national holiday, but one that provincial governments celebrate by the organization of events and activities, such as kratong-making contests, beauty pageants, fireworks, and traditional performances. Loy Kratong is observed by people from all walks of life, and visitors who travel the country in November will find themselves in the midst of the most romantic festival in the Kingdom. Though the tradition of setting afloat kratongs and launching lanterns carries a symbolic cleansing ritual, the original purpose of Loy Kratong was to pay respect to Mae Khongkha, the Goddess of Water, at the end of the rice harvesting season. The act is meant to show gratitude to the Goddess for the provision of life-giving water, as well as to seek forgiveness for pollution and other man made sins.
2011 is a year where an excessive amount of water has caused Thailand to suffer from the worst flood the country's seen in half a century. Many provincial celebrations have been cancelled, and the old capital of Ayuttaya, which was one of the more severely hit provinces, has instead planned a massive clean up day on November 10th, the would-be day of joviality. With the full moon approaching and with it high tidal levels, Loy Kratong festival's dual purpose of paying respect and seeking redemption to the double edged sword of life sustaining and livelihood destroying water has never been so pronounced.
The history of Loy Kratong is not known for certain, with many scholastic accounts swaying towards its Indian origin. A similar Hindu festival widely celebrated in India is Dipavali, the festival of lights, in which lanterns are floated to honor the Trimurti, the Hindi divine trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. Other theories point to Buddhist heritage, suggesting the rite was to noon Phra Uppakhut, a devout disciple of the Lord Buddha, and another to pay respect to a footprint found near the sacred holy river of Narmada, believed to have been left there by the Lord Buddha himself. One of the most romantic stories, albeit with the least historical proof, is that the origins of Loy Kratong can be credited to a King's consort during the Sukhothai period by the name of Nang Noppamas, whose name is lent to the traditional beauty contests that are held to this day.
Whatever the origins may be, Loy Kratong is a reminder of the power of nature. The recent floods in Thailand have been blamed on an unusually wet monsoon season caused by global warming and overdevelopment. Small eco-friendly changes have been made in the Loy Kratong festivities -- such as using banana leaves or bread to make the base of the kratong in lieu of styrofoam -- but when it comes to man versus nature, the latter usually wins. Perhaps, in the last line of the traditional Loy Kratong song translated below, global citizens should take heed and make some 'eco-merit'.
Loy Kratong Song (translation) "On the full moon of the twelfth month, The water fills the riverbanks. All men and women are having fun on Loy Kratong day. Float the kratong Float the kratong together and ask the darlings to come and dance. Dancing on Loy Kratong and making merit will make us happy"
By Jules Kay