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Venerating The River Goddess
Thailand’s Graceful Loy Krathong Festival
Each year at November full moon, people gather by stretches of open water throughout Thailand to celebrate Loy Krathong. Small but elaborate lotus-shaped creations bearing traditional offerings of flowers, incense, candles and a coin are floated in countless numbers on streams, rivers, lakes, ponds, and even the open sea to reverence and pay homage to Mae Khongkha, the goddess of rivers and waters. Each tiny float is also believed to carry with it the dreams and aspirations of the sender.
In times past these decorative floats, known in Thai as krathong, were made of natural substances like the trunk and leaves of the banana plant, illuminated by tiny bamboo and coconut oil lamps, and decorated with orchids and other forest flowers. For a brief period in recent years, driven by the unthinking forces of modernisation, these materials were replaced by polystyrene and other man-made, non bio-degradable substances, which blocked streams, polluted natural waterways, and degraded the environment. Happily these mistakes now seem a thing of the past. Moved by a new spirit of social awareness, Thai people everywhere seem to have understood that enough is enough and are returning to their traditional ways.
The festival of Loy Krathong – perhaps the most evocative and beautiful of all Thai celebrations – traces its origins to the Sukhothai period, and more specifically to Nang Noppamat, wife of King Ramkhamhaeng, who is credited with beginning the custom at Sukhothai during the late 13th century. Regardless of the veracity of this story, most people would agree that even today Loy Krathong is at its most piquant and picturesque in Sukhothai and the North. What could be more aesthetically pleasing, and what could be more quintessentially Thai?
And yet Loy Krathong is more than just “Thai” in the sense of belonging to Old Siam. Specifically, it belongs to the Tai people as a whole, and though more elaborately celebrated in the Siamese Kingdom than elsewhere, the festival also enjoys a widespread and growing popularity amongst the Tai-speaking peoples of Burma's Shan State, China's Sipsongpanna, as well as in Laos, Thailand's close relative and neighbour across the Mekong River. As these neighbouring peoples enjoy their increasing freedoms to honour age-old Tai ceremonies, it is a fine thing that the Tais of Thailand are setting an increasingly good example in abandoning polystyrene krathongs and returning to the traditions of the past.
Strictly speaking, Loy Krathong is not a Buddhist ceremony. It harks back to spirit worship, and is deeply bound up with the age-old, life- and culture-sustaining relationship between Tai peoples and water. Honouring Mae Khongkha, goddess of rivers and waters, is also a manifestation of spirit worship.
The interdependence between human and spirit worlds, as between man and nature, although apparent throughout Thailand at Loy Krathong, is perhaps at its most poignant in Chiang Mai. This is, perhaps, only to be expected. If the spirit of Nang Noppomat still lingers, where would it be more at home than in the canals and streams of the north? Here, in the lands of the ancient Lan Na Kingdom, four of Thailand's major rivers have their source. The Ping, the Wang, the Yom and the Nan all find their headwaters in the cool northern hills before flowing south, to merge at Nakhon Sawan – the “City of Heaven” – and form the mighty Chao Phraya River, which flows through Bangkok to the Gulf.
In Chiang Mai itself Loy Krathong is celebrated with a combination of enthusiasm and dignity. As dusk falls, the wide moats which encircle the Old City walls are illuminated with flaming torches. Municipal workers, many wearing traditional clothing, run the 6- kilometre circuit of the old city walls with flaming brands in their hands, igniting coconut-oil lanterns readied for the occasion in the preceding weeks. At the same time fellow workers punt themselves down the centre of the long canals in narrow wooden craft, torches at the ready, lighting water-born lanterns and lending to the festivities an appropriately age-old air.
Meanwhile, as the night draws in, crowds of khon muang – the people of the north – gather at the temples and chedis of Chiang Mai to participate in the launching of khom loy, or floating lanterns. The sound of Chinese crackers and the brilliance of burning magnesium flares fill the night sky, whilst everywhere the sharp smell of gunpowder mingles with the sweet fragrance of incense.
Within a few minutes – by, perhaps, around 8.30 PM – incandescent, multi-coloured blooms begin to fill the northern skies as Chiang Mai municipality launches its most spectacular annual firework display. Almost simultaneously, at Sanam Luang in Bangkok, on Nakhon Sri Thammarat's Ratchadamnoen Avenue, and by the banks of Khon Kaen's Thung Sang Lake, similarly extravagant displays burst into life.
Finally, as the night grows old, people of all ages and social classes make their way to the nearest water. In Bangkok this may be the Chao Phraya River or one of the many canals. In Pattaya it may be the salty waters of the Gulf of Siam. In Chiang Mai, as often as not, the people of the north head for the city moats where, under flickering lights affixed to the city bastions, they launch their krathongs – and with them their aspirations and their dreams – on the tranquil, chocolate-coloured waters.
Yet, even as we consider the unity of spirit and hope which Loy Krathong brings to the people of Thailand, we should remember that the celebration transcends the boundaries of modern Thailand. Linking the people of old Siam with the Lao of Laos and the Shan of Burma, the Lu of Sipsongpanna in southern China and the Tak Bai Tais of Kelantan, Loy Krathong belongs to Thai people everywhere – from London to Los Angeles. It is a time to honour Mae Khongkha, and a time to celebrate the bounty of nature.