Travelling is a good educator. Before coming to Thailand, I had no idea abou Loi Krathong. Meanwhile, it was one of the two most important festivals in Thailand.
Loi Krathong is a festival celebrated annually throughout Thailand and certain parts of Malaysia, Laos and Burma. The name could be translated as “to float a basket”, and comes from the tradition of making krathong or buoyant, decorated baskets, which are then floated on a river.
I was insanely lucky, as I happened to be in Chiang Mai purely by chance. I had no idea about the festival, until I heard some locals mentioning it. I was ashamed of my ignorance, as so many people throughout the world made it their mission to come to CM on these particular dates. Loi Krathong takes place on the evening of the full moon of the 12th month in the traditional Thai lunar calendar. In the Western calendar this usually falls in November. This year it was November 5-7
I did go outside the city for a few days, to explore Chiang Dao and Pai, I even had an intention to stay in the countryside for the festival. I heard so many people mentioning, that CM turned into hell for the dates – that it was too crowded, it was impossible to book accommodation or see anything from behind the backs.
Exactly same information I found on the internet. Very well I thought, since I was in the middle of accomplishing the famous Mae Hong Son loop anyway. As it happens, I couldn’t buy a bus ticket to Mae Hon Son from Pa, so the only alternative was to wait a few more hours or go back to Chiang Mai. I took it as a sign, as I missed the last ticket in the most ridiculous manner. The way back to CM was as difficult, as I read it was. I read, that many people asked to stop the bus, as they felt sick. How I understood them. The roads were so twisty and steep, that very soon I started to feel sick myself. Only a feeling of shame prevented me from using a plastic bag in front of all other passengers. When we finally stopped for a 10 min break, I sprinted to the bathroom.
I arrived in CM after 5 p.m. with no accommodation booked, as my decision to come there was very spontaneous. I was worried, that it will take me ages to find anything, or it will cost me a fortune. That’s how all the myths I heard started to fall apart. First of all, I had no problem finding a place to stay. I went to the old town, the part of the city most in demand. The first guest house I walked into cost 300 baht and had a swimming pool. Very cheap already, I didn’t even want to go around, checking 150 bath dorms. I decided to stay there, as I was tired, was looking forward to jumping into the cool pool and also needed to get ready for the celebration.
Myth no2 – unbelievable crowds. Surely there were loads of people on the streets, in the end of the day, it was only natural. But never did I feel uncomfortable or unable to move in the direction I needed. Just enough people to make you feel merry and festive.
Myth no 3 – you won’t be able to see anything. I was in the epicentre of the celebration, as it was very close to my hotel. I had no idea about the parade, but when I saw carriages coming my way, I hurried in the right direction and saw everything perfectly, I was even offered to get into the first row to take better pictures.
I read online, that some monasteries conducted their own small ceremonies, and everything around got occupied hours in advance by National Geographic photographers as well as many others. It’s up to you to decide, if that’s what you want. I arrived well too late for that, and besides one can easily miss everything, while saving up their seat for hours.
What they started doing recently is charging tourists $100 or more for a VIP festival experience. It includes participating in a special touristy big lantern release. The real Yee Penguin festival with lantern release takes place a good few days before Loi Krathong. The exact dates become known very last minute.
So this touristy release consists pretty much of tourists themselves, who were silly enough to pay that much money for this circus. The tickets get sold out very quickly, though. Mainly to the buses, full of package tourists, I suppose. Come on people, it’s a festival, and festivals are free! I even read on one Thai website, that it wasn’t an authentic part of Loi Krathong, and they simply recommended to take part in the festivities just like locals did. I didn’t mind to indulge in feasting, like a simple commoner I was. There was loads of food, more that anyone could ever dream of finishing in one night. The river banks were full of happy people, enjoying various entertainments and fireworks. The streets were beautifully lit with colourful paper lantern, many houses had little tea candles flickering on their steps and nearby grounds. It was like living a fairy tale.
Anywhere I went I saw women, making colourful krathongs, using all imagination and fresh flowers they had available. I purchased one for myself, because, who didn’t want all their troubles taken away?
Thais believe, that you need to put something personal in your krathong, like nails cut-outs or a strand of hair, then all the negativity of your life will be taken away by mother-river. I specifically didn’t bite or cut my nails for a few days. I simply couldn’t afford to loose any more hair. After it had gotten dark, locals moved to the river. I was so touched to see little boys, no older that 10-11, praying with such hope, as only kids of that age could. They were so serious and solemn. I didn’t take any pictures, as I didn’t want to shove my camera into people’s faith. I was shy to lift the krathong to my forehead while whispering the prayer, as locals did. I just wished silently, that everyone I loved and cared for were happy and healthy, and let my krathong be taken away by the stream. I have to say I was a bit disappointed, that I missed this years Yee Peng festival, as it was on October 25, and I was still in Hong Kong then. It is, certainly, one of the most magic events there is, as 5 thousand lanterns get released into the air.
What I experienced during the festival was nowhere near scale-wise, but still I’m glad I managed to get a tiny slice of the cake. The paper lanterns were sold everywhere on the streets and I couldn’t resist buying one, just like hundreds of others. It incorporates the same principle as a krathong, only this time it’s a lantern you are releasing. The lanterns are huge! And difficult to operate, without burning the hell out of them. I almost burned mind, if it wasn’t for one kind girl, who came to my rescue. Everyone was looking in fascination as lanterns were disappearing in the dark sky, trying to reach for the full moon.
The parade was another wonderful thing, the sets and costumes were so elaborate, that the participants looked like gods, who came back to Earth from the sky. The ones, who followed the carriages were dressed in traditional Thai costumes. Loads of beautiful people, wearing gorgeous attires! They were king enough to stop ever so often, so that the viewers could take better pictures.
It was the second day of the celebration, one of the three. I spent the first day of it in Pai, which was only a baby version of what was going on in Chiang Mai. I’m really glad I got to experience both of them. And gladder still, that I didn’t get scared away by the crowds and got there. It was nothing like I heard, only beautiful and magical.