Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Loi Krathong, Thailand

Krathongs made from coloured ice cream cornets

Loi Krathong, Chiang Mai 2009

Loi Krathong is one of Thailand's major annual festivals and a must do for anyone visiting the country in the autumn. The festival is a celebration of water through light, thanking water for the fertility it provides and apologising for pollution we cause by sending small floats of plants and flowers with incense and candles into rivers and other waterways. The Thai for the floats is krathong and to loi is to float them on their way. Millions of Thais throughout the country make or buy krathongs then gather at specific locations in each city, town or village that have traditionally been used for centuries to loi their krathongs. The candles seem to go out quite quickly and darkened krathongs tend to gather along the water's edge, so anyone expecting to see rivers sparkling with lights may be disappointed unless the weather is totally calm. Think giant vegetable soup with too many cooks. Households light candles at their boundaries and entrances, in many ways similar to Hindu diwali.

Kom Loi about to be released

Where the festival is so enjoyable is because it s an almighty excuse for Thais to do what they love best - eating, shopping, having fun and listening to loud music. Food and gift stalls line the streets, performances are held and processions of motorised krathongs head down streets. It is as much a celebration of modern Thai life as it is one of tradition. The best way to experience it is to throw yourself right in, while keeping out of the water. You might also need to keep your head down from the odd stray firework or quickly descending kom loi, a miniature candle-powered hot air balloon that are set floating in the sky in droves. Many have wishes attached to them. Not all manage to ascend to the heavens before they reach a tree or power cables or simply lose their upward momentum above a crowd.


The festival is not the same date every year according to the Gregorian calender because it is fixed to the 13 month lunar calendar, falling on the full moon of the 12th month. Wherever you are in Thailand at the time of Loi Krathong you will undoubtedly enjoy. I have met farang women staying in villages who have been dressed as Thai women and put on the top of krathongs in processions. Three of my favourite places to loi a krathong are Chiang Mai, Sukhothai and Ayutthaya.

Tha Phrae gate, Chiang Mai

People in Chiang Mai know how to enjoy life and bring this zest for fun to Loi Krathong over 4 days or so. Each night activity is focused around the Tha Phrae Gate and Narawat Bridge on the Ping River. Where Tha Phae gate is a laidback market full of teanagers comically posing for photos below lanterns, the River is a cacophony of noise and sound resounding to fireworks carronading from the bridge. Call into a wat on the route to the river to sign a kom loi with a wish and float it away with the help of young monks. A procession that begins at the gate converges on the river on the night of Loi Krathong itself.

Buddhist Loi Krathong ceremony, Chiang Rai

Sukhothai Historical Park

Where Loi Krathong in Chiang Mai is one great street party, in Sukhothai it is the creation of a magical, twinkling world of light and dark over four evenings. The World Heritage Historical Park is taken over with thousands of candles and lanterns on the chedis and in the ponds. A sound and light show animates Wat Mahathat with colourful lights and loud noises culminating in a firework display. The road to the park and the lanes in the park are lined with food and gift stalls.

Picnics below the lights in Sukhothai

Buddhas for sale in a Loi Krathong market

Ayutthaya may be a World Heritage Historical Park similar to Sukhothai but Loi Krathong is totally different. Here it is a brash six-day fairground and festival featuring lots of loud dance music, dodgems, shows and sound stages of boy bands. This action is concentrated in one corner near Wat Mahathat but the main loi locations are on the Chao Praya river near Wat Yai Chai Mongkol. Plenty of people loi on the ponds of the historical park too and boys tread water to either help the krathongs away from the banks or to salvage and resell them later.

Kom Loi gang

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