I was sitting on my back deck the other evening, reviewing my “Thai For Beginners” text (constant review of even the basics is essential if one is not immersed in the language). The sun had gone down about an hour ago, but it was still very warm out. The book was at my 10 o’clock, my writing tablet was directly in front of me, and there was an ice-cold bottle of Heineken sitting at my one o’clock. It wasn’t a dinky little bottle, either. It was one of those big ones you get if you order a bottle for your table at any restaurant in Thailand (Heineken does in a pinch if you can’t get your hands on a Chang!) Half of the bottle was gone, and the porchlight shone through the green bottle, casting an emerald glow on my studies. 🙂
My wife, Pon, was standing on the edge of the deck at my six o’clock (out of view, of course). She had just returned home from her ESL (English as a Second Language) class. A couple of weeks prior, she had discovered a cache of old fireworks out in my workshop. The stash consisted of firecrackers, roman candles, sparklers, and things that shoot straight up into the heavens with a whirrr when you light ’em. They had been out there in the shop collecting dust and spider webs for about three years, so I was kind hesitant to let Pon set them off. We finally agreed to let her just light the sparklers. I figured that if the accelerant in these things had gone unstable over the years, at least they had little chance of doing any damage if they went south, so to speak.
Pon had really taken to those sparklers, and she lit up a few every night when she got home from school. That is what she was doing on this particular evening as I sat at the table writing out my exercises. The half-consumed bottle of beer, coupled with the 4-mile run I had just completed an hour earlier, had put me in a very mellow and introspective mood. I was finding myself looking up and around my yard, more than I was looking down at my studies.
As Pon lit her third sparkler, I got a whiff of the strong gunpowder-y smell. I turned to look at my wife, who was standing in the shadows, out of reach of the porchlight. The light from the sparks cast her face in a yellow-orange glow. She was softly singing a song. I could not hear the words of the song, but I knew that a) I had heard it many times before; and b) it was, of course, a Thai song. All of these sensory inputs; the beer, the gunpowder smell, the lights, and the warm evening, the singing, instantly took me back to last year’s Loy Krathong in Pon’s village of Bahn Bong Chang.
Loy Krathong probably needs no introduction with this group of readers, but just a brief description for the uninitiated. This is how it is described in the 1999 printing of the Dorling Kindersley Travel Guide for Thailand.
One of Thailand’s best-loved national festivals. Pays homage to the goddess of rivers and waterways, Mae Khongkha. In the evening, people gather at rivers, lakes, and ponds to float krathongs.
A Thai lady floating a krathong.
Now, I had been in Thailand during Loy Krathong before, but never had I spent the holiday way off the beaten track, with no farang (I can only assume) for miles. I had never seen another pale face while there, even when we went to the fairly large outdoor market that is only about 20 km outside of Chiang Rai. Pon had told me, on my first visit to her village, that many of the schoolchildren in that little hamlet had never actually seen a farang in the flesh. This little fact, which was kind of hard to believe, was corroborated whenever I went for a nightly run at the elementary school that is adjacent to Pon’s parents’ house. I had no sooner completed a lap around the grounds, when I was followed by about 8-10 boys (and some girls on bikes). Quite an oddity I must’ve been. After two weeks of nightly runs, and the same gaggle of kids following my footfall, my flattery at being a spectacle wore off a bit (for those people who fantasize of being famous, and being observed constantly, think twice. While my situation was nothing like that, I got the feeling that this must be what the paparazzi become like after awhile. Being famous probably isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. I loved those little kids, and never showed even a hint of annoyance, but a quiet run to myself at the end of the day is like therapy to me. Quiet and lonely it never was in Bahn Bong Chang).
Anyways, I digress. It doesn’t take a geography whiz to realize that Chiang Rai is kind of landlocked. Oh sure, there is a big river going by, and a small pond dots the landscape here and there. But for the majority of the people living in the countryside, there is no body of water in which to float your krathong. At least I never saw anything to prove otherwise. What they did have, however, was something else that floated in another way entirely. Here it is:
Forgive the blurriness; I tried to find the right setting on my digital camera, but it wasn’t happening. What you’re seeing is a group of people that have a large plastic silo-shaped balloon. The balloon is open at the bottom just like the hot air balloon that people ride in. These guys hold the balloon over an open flame and fill it with hot air. They then release it and it floats way way way up in the sky, with the fire trapped inside! It looks really cool. Especially if it floats past the full moon (which is always in the sky during Loy Krathong).
This picture was actually taken in Bahn Bong Chang on Loy Krathong. The moon is behind a tree.
Pon and I rode her father’s motorcycle to the wat to watch everybody light off fireworks, and to see them raise those balloons. Unfortunately, there were a couple of people who had imbibed a bit too much of the local spirits. They took to shooting roman candles off at each other and into the crowds. There were also a couple of close calls with some boomers, which we call M-80s in the US. One, I think, even singed the hair off of my lower leg! So we hopped on the scooter and went back to Pon’s house to light sparklers (thus the impetus for me writing this particular entry in the first place).
Back at Pon’s house in Bahn Bong Chang.
It truly was a great evening. Everybody obviously enjoyed themselves immensely. I liken it to the 4th of July here in the States, but with a bit of a religious twist to it. Earlier in the day, we had accompanied Pon’s father to an altar. He took a cooked chicked and a bottle of the village homebrew (akin to moonshine, I think). He put the chicken on the alter, along with a cup of the alcohol. He said some words and we prayed. Later on in the evening, Pon lit a row of candles in front of a small Buddha image in the house. Then we went to sleep with the sounds of boomers in the distance.
Isn’t it amazing how just a few sensory cues can send you vividly back to such wonderful memories. I could close my eyes on my deck the other evening and almost relive last year’s Loy Krathong as if it were happening all over again. I hope this entry evokes memories of your own speical Loy Krathong. Enjoy.