Loy Krathong: Thailand’s Festival of Lights! (from BAMBI News magazine, Nov 2015)

Loy Krathong is a well-loved Thai festival that takes place on the evening of the full moon in the 12th month of the traditional Thai lunar calendar. 

The festival is marked by the floating (‘loy’) of ‘krathongs’ down a river or khlong, or nowadays, on lakes and ponds. Up in the northern and northeastern regions, fire lanterns are released up into the night skies as well, making for a peaceful-yet-spectacular festival for the eyes and spirit. The ceremony marks a way for people to show respect and gratitude to the Goddess of Water, to symbolically let go of sins, negative thoughts and misfortune, and to pray for good luck.

Various legends and beliefs surround the festival’s origins, which comes during rice-harvesting time and the end of the rainy season. A popular story attributes the custom to a court lady of the Sukhothai kingdom, Nang Noppamas, from over 700 years ago. She is said to have created the krathong and presented it to the king to float--which explains the proliferation of Nang Noppamas beauty pageants as part of the community celebrations. Other theories link Loy Krathong to Brahman and Buddhist faiths, but regardless of its origins, the custom is generally accepted as an ancient one.

The krathongs are traditionally made of banana leaves, the bark of a banana tree or spider lily plants; modern-day krathongs can also be made of bread or styrofoam. Inside are placed offerings of food, betel nuts, flowers, candles, three sticks of incense, and coins. People light the candles and incense, lift the krathong up to the forehead or, if sharing it with someone else, just hold onto it together, fill it with their prayers, and then gently release the krathong into the water. On a river, one can watch until one’s krathong fades out of sight--if the candle stays alight until the krathong disappears, it means a year of good luck(1).

In the past when it was more common for people to place coins in the krathongs, enterprising swimmers would hide patiently in the water to collect those coins. Nowadays fewer people put in coins, so these swimmers adapted themselves and switched to collecting pretty krathongs from the river instead, polishing/re-dressing them a bit to give them a new fresh look, and reselling them.

Sadly, the impact of the festival isn’t all good: in 2014, Bangkok city hall counted 982,064 krathongs in the morning-after cleanup, up 120,000 from 2013.(2) Not only is the sheer volume of trash clogging the rivers in the aftermath an environmental concern, but this was compounded by the rise of styrofoam’s popularity in decades past as a cheap and easy-to-manipulate material. In 2002, the then-governor of Bangkok sparked an argument on whether styrofoam or biodegradable materials were preferred, arguing that styrofoam was easier to collect afterwards and that biodegradable materials would sink and dirty the water!(3) Luckily, there is better awareness now of choosing biodegradable materials over styrofoam, which is more in keeping with the spirit of the krathongs as an apology to the Water Goddess for polluting her waters.

With the warm lights in the soft darkness of night, Loy Krathong is understandably one of the most romantic festivals in Thailand. In the old days, such community festivities provided young men and women opportunities to meet and find love. Even today, myths about krathongs and love are still going strong: in Bangkok, for example, it’s said that if any dating couple go to float krathong together at Chulalongkorn University’s main pond, they would break up, but singles who go there alone will find someone soon. (Admittedly, this urban myth is already a bit dated and is treated more like a joke nowadays.) In the old days, a couple would float his/her own individual krathong, and if the two krathongs floated downstream together, it was interpreted as a sign that their love would be a happy one. If the krathong float apart from each other, it was a sign that the couple would break up. The modern-day solution is ‘one couple, one krathong’ -- the couple floats one krathong to ensure that no separation would be incurred in any circumstances!

These days, the ‘festive’ aspect of the holiday tends to take center-stage, with fireworks and flying fire lanterns (by the way, in 2014, the flying of fire lanterns in 13 districts around the two Bangkok airports was banned for air traffic safety reasons, and it’s expected that this ban will continue for 2015), loud beauty pageants, as well as non-stop playing of the ‘loy-loy-loy krathong’ song over loudspeakers (plus my kids singing it for a good month afterwards until they replace it with Christmas songs...). If one can remember to take a step back from all the noise, Loy Krathong is a peaceful, meditative celebration. It’s a perfect time to reflect upon one’s life, and to quietly appreciate one’s blessings.

Where to Celebrate:
  • Anywhere with a body of water is game! If you have small children, your pool (if you have one) might be a safe choice. Main parks such as Lumpini, Chatuchak, Santichaiprakarn and Benjakiti are expected to host official celebrations, and the main pool at Chulalongkorn University is always a popular site. You can also go to boat piers and other sites along the Chaophraya River, but do be careful: the piers can get overcrowded, and it can be hair-raising to watch people--including kids--leaning over the edge in order to place their krathong gently on the water. 
  • Outside of Bangkok, Sukhothai is a popular destination to enjoy the event, as well as Chiang Mai, where Loy Krathong coincides with the northern Lanna festival of Yi Peng. 
  • If you really want to go environmentally-friendly, you can float your virtual krathong! Look for the ‘Loy Krathong’ app (iTunes) or try the online site, http://loykratong.kapook.com/

  1. This last myth is from: http://www.bangkok.com/whats-on-events/loy-krathong.htm
  2. 7 November 2014. “The morning after: 1 million krathong end up Bangkok garbage”, Coconuts Bangkok. Available online: http://bangkok.coconuts.co/2014/11/07/one-million-krathong-floated-and-ended-bangkok-garbage (accessed 30 September 2015). 
  3. 9 November 2014. “From 2002: Foam is better than biodegradable for Loy Krathong”, 2bangkok.com. Available online: http://2bangkok.com/from-2002-foam-is-better-than-biodegradable-for-loy-krathong.html (accessed 30 September 2015). 

[This article was originally written for and published in BAMBI News (Nov 2015), with inputs on the myths from my friend, SC.]


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