A thin, crescent moon hung in the sky above Nan a couple of weeks ago, sneakily attempting to conceal itself between us and the sun. Since then, a consistently clear night sky has been overhead no matter where we’ve traveled, and the moon has slowly waxed towards November 25th. Now here we are – the twelfth and final moon of the Thai Lunisolar Calendar. A moon that’s just begging to be significant. Enter Loi Krathong: the most peaceful gathering of pyromaniacs imaginable.
Tourists flood into Chiang Mai every year to watch the ascent of flaming lanterns. The influx is possibly one reason why a significant free-to-attend event put on by the locals was cancelled this year. Instead, a new tourist-oriented event was created by a private Buddhist group, with foreigners paying 100 USD for a ticket. Chiang Mai also banned the lanterns during the lead-up to the festival, as it posed a risk to flights. The exception to this ban was the main festival night of November 25th, when it was perfectly acceptable to set things on fire and release them into the sky.
Not that any of this matters much to us. We’re not in Chiang Mai – we’re in Phayao – and have been for the past few days, learning about the festival, the processes, the lanterns, the cute little ice-cream cone boats… Phayao is a lovely place, set next to a large lake with a mountainous backdrop that provides a wall for the sun to set behind. This is the fourth time we’ve visited Phayao; it’s a place that appeals to us immensely (and is where we had a giant waterfight). There are tourists at the Loi Krathong festival here, of course, but far fewer that in Chiang Mai – and they don’t have to empty their wallets to be part of the proceedings.
Hundreds of stalls line the lakeside path, selling everything required for a successful festival:
The standard lanterns come in several sizes ranging from small to large. They’re white, and made out of waxed paper or oiled rice paper. Novelty lanterns are also available, from Angry Birds, to decapitated Doraemon heads, to Minions (I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – Minions are huge in Thailand right now), to weird-looking bear and pig things. The prices range from 20 baht to 60 baht.
The part that you set on fire is a slow-burning, waxy brown disc (that’s my technical name for it), which is pinched in four places, allowing the flattened, pinched areas to be easily lit. Once the four fires are lit, you hold the lantern for 2-5 minutes (depending on how large it is), letting it fill with hot air. Finally, you send it off to join the others in the sky. Some lanterns have fireworks attached, and make little explosions as they fly. Some lanterns catch on fire after they’re released, burning up as they fall to earth. One lantern landed in a palm tree above a stall selling coconut pancakes. It sat there on fire for a few minutes before going out. Another lantern (one with fireworks attached) crashed into the power lines and threw off sparks and flames. Sometimes people would light the attached fireworks before there was enough hot air to properly lift the lanterns, and the heavy crowd would scream and duck for cover as multi-coloured fireballs exploded around them.
After the fuel on the brown discs has worn out, the lanterns drift back to earth, falling in crumpled heaps in gutters, trees, and the lake.
Krathong are little decorative boats, and continue with the fiery theme. This time, however, they’re pushed into the water. As is usually the case with these things, sending it off brings good fortune to the person who released it, and some people put a small amount of cash on board beforehand to boost their chance at happiness. They come in many creative designs, and are mostly biodegradable. The one I set adrift was made of ice-cream cones and stale bread rolls. Caroline’s was a decorative floral arrangement.
When we released our krathong into the river, we noticed a man with a head torch wading waist-deep a few metres out. He was picking up people’s offerings, checking them, then placing them back down. We didn’t think much of it at the time, but it turns out he was stealing the cash.
The header picture of this post is a top-down view of the lake the morning after.
I’d never heard of these. If they were ever available in New Zealand, they were banned before I was born, or their existence was well hidden from me. Caroline said they were common in Malaysia, and that I would probably like them. She was correct. Pop pops are little exploding balls. You throw one on the ground and it makes a small bang with a spark. The possibilities are endless.
The fireworks available were kind of like one-shot roman candles. You hold a stick (aim away from face), light the wick, and shoot a stream of sparks at whatever you’re pointing the stick at. They don’t bang or shriek, they just make a kind of “pffft” sound. Perfect for toddlers.
With practically everything being flammable, lighter sales were high. One lady let us borrow her lighter which had the thing removed that controls the flame height. The towering flame added another degree of thrill to the proceedings.
There were plenty of other activities going on. The main road through town had been blocked off and a huge market, usually around only on the weekend, had been set up to sell food, knock-off clothing, and cell phone accessories. One section of the festival had an arrangement of decorative lanterns, which we think may have been part of a design competition.
If you’re still reading, here’s a a couple of videos of us releasing our lanterns:
And here’s the official Loi Krathong song! Various versions of this song play constantly during the festival.