Monthly Archives: November 2004

Thoughts under Full Moon

Hi everone – it’s been a while.

Lots of things happened since my last blog entry, but those stories are for later. Today I will write about the celebration that’s almost here; festive mood is in the air. No, I’m not talking about Christmas, nor Thanksgiving, but Loy Krathong.

Loy Krathong – these two words evoke strong feelings of untold memories. Two years ago, when I watched the full moon while shivering in the cold American winter, I would have given just about anything to be in Thailand for the celebrations. Now that I’m actually here, and the full moon night is getting closer, it becomes increasingly obvious that I am too late. For me, this party was over before it started. The real festivities are over; the Krathongs have been floated away, the promises have been made. Latecomers like me can only listen to the echoes of the last song lingering in the air. How does the saying go? “We cannot step into the same river twice.” The celebration that’s being held around this time every year may bear the same name, but it is not the same, and never will be.

A dear friend of mine asked me the other day what Loy Krathong is. The question caught me by surprise – I guess I’ve been reading and talking about it for too long, and take the knowledge for granted. So let me use this opportunity to talk about one of the most famous Thai festivals.

The full moon night of the twelfth lunar month is the time for Loy Krathong. Loy (ลอย) means to float, Krathong (กระทง) is a lotus-shaped basket or cup, traditionally made of banana leaves and stem. Today styrofoam Krathongs are also popular, though their environmental impact is debated. But really, anything goes for a Krathong; whether it’s a simple cardboard designed by first-graders, or a luxurious miniature floating palace by a multinational company, doesn’t matter – as long as it can float and can hold candles/incense sticks, it’s a Krathong.

Thais have all the reason for merriment: by this time the rainy season is over; the hard work on the farms is done: after ploughing the fields and sowing the seeds and planting the rice seedlings, people can finally rest. Also, during this full moon night water elevation is high, making it easier to send the little floats away by the klongs and rivers.

All kinds of festivities go on during the day: Krathong contests Miss Nopphamat beauty queen contests (I will talk about her in a minute), games, singing and dancing, along with the loud sound of firecrackers; these all make one very lively festive day. However, what makes Loy Krathong special is what’s happening after the sun dived below the horizon.

People bring their Krathongs to the water (any kind of water will do – even ponds! But ideally, it should be floating water). They light the candle and the three incense sticks, make a wish and set the Krathong on the water, watching as the flow gently carries their sins away, along with their good wishes.

That’s what happens – ideally. What’s most likely to happen is that little kids swimming downstream of the water seize the Krathongs, destroying the beautiful creations in seconds. Why? Searching for coins that are placed in the Krathong, along with other small things such as a piece of nail, hair, or a mouthful of betel (in the old days – though I doubt the kids are looking for any of the latter!).

Besides the money-hungry little pests, another thing that may happen to Krathongs is the stronger currents may capsize the less stable ones. This, as you might imagine, means bad luck to the owner. In fact, the fate of Krathongs is given lots of importance, particularly in the case of couples. It is said that if their Krathongs float together, they will have a happy, harmonious relationship. However, if the two Krathongs separate, their way will separate too. In the very unlucky case of a Krathong sinking, it is the sign of impeding discord and disaster in the relationship, the interpretation goes.

I don’t know about you, but I would feel uncomfortable having to trust the reason of my life to the hydrodynamics of a home-made floatie stumbling in a little pond. But Thais apparently like to live their lives on the edge, or perhaps they trust luck and fate more than I do.

Let me briefly go over the history of Loy Krathong before closing this entry. Really briefly though; this blog is already a bit too long for one read.

Traditionally, Thais originate the celebration back to the Sukhothai period. One day, as the legend goes, King Phra Ruang and his court went for a picnic. One of his consorts named Nang Nopphamat made beautiful little lotus-shaped floaties on the river for the enjoyment of the king. She also composed recitations and songs to be sung for the occasion. The king liked this very much, and from then on this became an annual festival.

There are many versions to this legend, but this is the underlying theme. So there are Miss Nopphamat contests, and Sukhothai is still one of the centers of Loy Krathong celebration.

The less romantically inclined historians have a different explanation: they see elements of the famous Indian Diwali Festival in Loy Krathong. It may very well be that the first Krathong floated down the Ganges River… not a far-fetched idea, considering that Thais also “borrowed” the Indian Ramayana epic and turned it into the Ramakien.

Whatever its historical roots, Loy Krathong is one of the must-see festivals in Thailand. I hope that all of you will get to see it one day. Just make sure you get there in time.

Living in a goldfish bowl

One of the jobs I have to do at the school is to look after the foreign teachers. This term we have four new teachers fresh off the boat. The teachers are staying in a townhouse belonging to the school. Their contract is only for this term though a couple of them will probably stay longer.

Whenever we have a group of new teachers I have to do an orientation meeting with them. The idea is not only to help them fit in at school but also to help them survive in the local community. One of the first things I tell them is that their life here will be like a goldfish in a bowl. There will be no privacy for them at all and literally everyone will know their business. Both inside school and outside. As there aren’t too many foreigners walking the streets in Paknam whatever they do and however they dress will attract attention.

Unfortunately for them there is no distinction between school and home life. How they act around the townhouse, even in their own time, will reflect back on the school. In the past, the school administrators have asked me to tell some of our teachers to dress more appropriately and also not to go to some of the nightclubs near the school. A task I am not always that happy to do. After all, in Western society, what you do in your free time is your own private business.

In Thailand, teachers get a great deal of respect in the local community. (Unluckily they don’t get much money). As a consequence, we have to set good examples of being model citizens to not only our students but also to just about everybody else. It doesn’t really matter if we are Thai or not. in fact, it is probably worse that we are not Thai. Any mistakes or blunders we make are usually magnified out of proportion.

A good example of this in practice comes from an excellent book by Phra Farang. This is a Westerner who came to Thailand to become a monk. He makes a comment in his book that if there were two monks sitting on a bench smoking and one was Thai and the other was Westerner, then Thai people would give two very different reactions. The Thai person they would ignore. However, seeing the Westerner smoking would shock them.

When I first came to live in Paknam I was probably the only foreigner here. I certainly never met any others while I was walking the streets. Everywhere I went I felt eyes following me. After I had started to learn some Thai I could then hear them talking about me as I walked by. I didn’t know who these people were but they all knew me. This made it rather difficult to get angry with someone when they push in line at the local 7-Eleven. This person could be a parent or someone who knew a teacher at school.

This brings me back to the foreign teachers we have now. When I was at the school I never knew of the “secret service” that was working away in the background. Now I was starting to hear “gossip” of everything these foreign teachers were doing. They went to a local swimming pool and sunbathed on the deckchairs. They went to a restaurant on the other side of the river and drank lots and lots of beer. They walked down to the market holding hands. They invited a girl back to the house. They went to watch a movie at Central City Bangna. It was just incredible how much news was finding its way back to the people at the school.

I will write later about the do’s and don’t I give to the new teachers for living and working in Thailand.

The electricity bill

I think I know now why most people don’t use air-conditioning units in Thailand. The electricity bill for the first full month, when we only had one air-conditioning unit turned on, was 1668 baht. However, this month it was a whopping 4367 baht! This was mainly due to the homestay people we had at the house. They had the air-conditioning turned on at night as well as during the day. One of them was here for two weeks and the other will be here for nearly a month. In addition, we had the air-conditioning turned on in the office during the day. Ouch, that bill hurt. It is a pity that this bill wasn’t more like the water bill. That one only cost 160 baht! Obviously we are going to have to make an effort this month to cut down on the use of electricity.