Loy Krathong is generally regarded as a Siamese holiday whereupon people attempt to let go of the sins and angers that they have held over the previous year as well as give thanks for a year of prosperity. The holiday has travelled to many nearby countries and is well-known in Asia, but is not quite as well-known in the West.
Commemorated on the first full moon of the 12th traditional Thai lunar month – November 11 this year – Loy Krathong is traditionally observed in Thailand by uncountable candlelit flotillas that are sailed across high tides. The Thais call these floating little lanterns krathong which very coarsely could be translated to “little float” or “little raft”. (There is no exact translation.)
Until recently, many people fashioned their krathong by hand, and on top you would usually find a candle, three sticks of incense, a small offering of food, sometimes a coin or, in the old days, an errant betel nut. In more recent years, however, it has become increasingly common to see street vendors make a few extra baht by offering these little boats for sale.
Common sources sometimes claim that Loy Krathong is a southwestern Thai or upper-central tradition, but it might be best if we simply allow everyone to believe their local legends as Loy Krathong has a very personal meaning to most people who live in Thailand.
The holiday was originally celebrated with little more than small water offerings. The original idea was to sacrifice an illuminated water raft once a year onto the water goddess Phra Mae Kongkha. A prayer of sorts was often made shortly before sending the little vessel out on the water, and the hope was that the offering onto Phra Mae Kongkha would wash away the sins of the last year as well as make amends for water pollution.
However, the holiday is sometimes now celebrated with much more dramatic means. Flame-lit sky lanterns or dramatic fireworks might also be on display, depending on where you find yourself within the kingdom. You might be interested to learn that some Thai communities reserve certain firework displays and colours solely for this particular holiday.
In the north of Thailand, the Thais have sky lanterns which they call khom loi, and these are more of a recent addition to the holiday. Tens of thousands of these khom loi make an awesome spectacle to behold and also provide a rare opportunity for the youth of today to set down their phones.
Kite construction has proved to be a popular social as well as family activity, but the khom loi are not without their critics. Modern airline pilots have an understandable distaste for flying jet-fuelled aircraft past unannounced flaming balls of high-altitude hazard. Each year, an untold number of commercial flights have either found themselves entirely cancelled or abruptly steered around flaming obstacles.
Back on the ground, some Thais believe that Loy Krathong really got its start during the Sukhothai period when a consort of one of Thailand’s more famous ancient kings floated the first candlelit raft. The name of this woman was Nang Nopphamat, and modern street legend holds that she was a very beautiful consort of the Sukhothai King Si Inthrathit.
Yet just how much fact there may be versus fiction is somewhat difficult to know. Much of our English language understanding of Nang Nopphamat hinges on two very obscure 19th Century books which were probably written somewhere between 1807 and 1835. In addition, some Thais feel that Loy Krathong is actually significant because of a Thai fable that claims that all of the krathongs will be scooped up by nagas (mythical serpent-like creatures) and brought to the Lord Buddha in Heaven.
Regardless, the legend of Nang Nopphamat endures, and it is quite common for beauty pageants to be held during the Loy Krathong holiday in Thailand. Tourists would be well advised to enquire how the holiday is being celebrated in their particular area.
In addition, it is interesting to note that Loy Krathong is also celebrated in nearby countries, and each of these countries has a unique way of marking the occasion. In Cambodia, they host live boat races during their version of the Loy Krathong holiday and they also have torch-lit evening processions. In Myanmar, hot air balloon contests are popular, as are Buddhist robe weaving competitions.
It is important to note that the holiday has a unique name in each culture. But still, it might be fair to suggest that every wish, prayer and quiet “thank you” to a deity comes bearing the unmistakable hallmark of someone’s individual name, and every one of us will offer our own words this Loy Krathong.
Some of our more traditional Thai farmers might silently thank the goddess of the water for another year of productivity. Meanwhile, the urban youth of Bangkok’s busy neighbourhoods might sheepishly let go of a few dark secrets as they float their krathong for good luck, and first-time tourists to Thailand are bound to bring buoyant well wishes from far-off lands.
This November 11, Thailand will celebrate one of its more popular and picturesque holidays. In the end, Loy Krathong stands apart from all other holidays because candles have always been involved with some of the most undeniable enigmas about human nature, almost as if to say to us: candlelight not only empowered mankind to define darkness but it endowed him with the spiritual incandescence to defy that darkness, too.