Category Archives: Loy Krathong

ลอยกระทง (Loy Krathong)

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:

air krathong!!

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).

full moon in Bahn Bong Chang
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).

Loy Krathong at Bahn Bong Chang
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.

Buddha by candlelight

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.

Lyrics for Loy Krathong

I know it seems strange talking about Loy Krathong in April, but I noticed on the statistics that so many people are looking for the lyrics for the song. As we don’t have the lyrics in the blogs, I didn’t really want them to feel disappointed. So, here they are:

November full moon shines
Loy Krathong, loy Krathong
and the water’s high in the river and local klong
Loy Krathong is here and everybody’s full of cheer
We’re together at the klong
Each one with his krathong
As we push away we pray
We can see a better day

The name of the festival can be spelled in different ways – sometimes you see loi, and sometimes you see kratong. The festival usually takes place during the full moon in November (sometimes end of October). This year it is on 16th November. Naturally I will be writing more about this nearer the time.

Loy Krathong, the real deal

Hi again, folks!

Previously I talked about Loy Krathong as described in the literature. Now I will tell you my first-hand experiences. To what degree they are identical, you decide. But I have to warn you: if you already have nice illusions and would like to keep them, do not read any further!!! Read the previous one instead.

The unforgettable day
I spent most of the daytime with my sister, playing computer games, because she said it’s not worth going out yet. The real action, she said, starts happening in the evening. So, at around 6-7 we tried to decide where to go to float our Krathong. Being in Bangkok, the logical choice was the Chao Phraya river, so after having dinner, we went there.

Celebrations have started already at the local City Hall. We watched the Miss Noppamart contest and the exhibition of magnificent Krathongs for the competition. I took pictures of each Krathong. The first- second- and third prize winners were the most beautiful, obviously, but the others looked nice too.

At eight, after we looked at everything, we decided it is time to float our krathong. It was a nice one: a mid-sized lotus-shaped floatie masterfully crafted from banana leaves and stem and a variety of colorful flowers. A candle and three incense sticks completed the artwork. (Needless to say, I didn’t make it – we just bought it at a nearby shop. )

Unfortunately, by eight the place became incredibly crowded. The first shock came to us when we got to the shores of the mighty Chao Phraya. The river was nice, as always: stars and a reddish full-moon flickered on the surface, as a gentle wind disturbed the water. I thought “finally, I’ll get to see whether it feels like the way written in those books”. I felt quite excited.

My excitement turned to shock and disbelief when I saw that thing on the shore. A boat – and many others already in the middle of the river. Though I saw what other people were doing, I hesitated. “No way – this cannot be! We were supposed to gently float our krathongs at the shore, watching as the hundreds of tiny lights are slowly carried away!” But, seeing my sister’s example, I set my doubts aside and followed her, as police shoved people into the little dinky like herding cattle to the slaughterhouse. Once inside, the smell of the boat reminded me of that too.

We rode about five minutes when the boat stopped. People lighted their candles and incense sticks and flocked to the side of the boat. Once again, I looked doubtfully at the high railings. “How the heck are we supposed to let our krathongs float through that?” I asked Nongsao. But if you know how practical Thai people are, you won’t be much surprised to find out that they just flung their krathongs into the river, much like a frisbee.

I tried my best to lean over the railing as much as I could, and told sis to hold me tight when I felt like almost falling into the dark, murky water. I let the krathong slip from my fingers, and with a soft “plop” it went… I crossed my fingers and hoped that it won’t sink – it felt quite heavy in my hands! – but it floated, though the weak flame of the candle couldn’t take the abuse.

My relief was short. The krathong floated towards the back of the boat, where water was gushing out from the side (I don’t know the right term, but hopefully you know what I’m talking about if you’ve seen a boat before). The currents carried the krathong directly under the flowing water, so it got doused pretty roughly. So that was it for the incense sticks too.

By that time, the Krathong was nothing more than flotsam, swimming downstream along with other garbage on the river. And that’s how I felt it too. We didn’t make an offering to the water goddess; we didn’t float our sins away; neither did we send any wishes with it. We just polluted the river, plain and simple. I was very disappointed and disillusioned.

I can give you, as an advice, the lesson I learned from this experience: if you have a beautiful vision of something that seems to be real, and one day you will have the chance to experience it for real – run as far away as possible! Don’t do it, or you will risk a bad trade: your imagination for the cold reality.

Of course, it’s easier said than done. In fact, I am about to violate my own advice again – but I was always such a fool! Hopefully, some of you are smarter.

Oh, I forgot to tell you what happened afterwards: we got back to our places on the boat, then we started our return trip to the shore. Though it only took about five minutes to head out, it took about three times as much to get back. We got in a true Bangkok-style traffic jam on the river, so we were sitting ducks, choking on exhaust fumes. An appropriate ending to this misfortunate “celebration”.

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.