The festival of Loi Krathong (also sometimes spelt as Loy Krathong) is arguably the most beautiful festival in Thailand – and Thailand has a lot of festivals! Taking place once a year on the evening of the full moon in the 12th month of the Thai lunar calendar, or known to you and me as November in the Western calendar, Loi Krathong is a picturesque celebration that is celebrated across the whole of Thailand as well as in parts of the neighbouring countries of Burma (Myanmar) and Laos.
But what is Loi Krathong and what does it mean? Loi is the literal spelling in the Western alphabet of the Thai word ‘to float’ and a krathong is a word used only for the floating rafts or containers that are used for this festival; it is not used to refer to anything else in the Thai language. The main part of the Loi Krathong festival involves floating these rafts, or krathongs, down rivers and canals, on ponds and lakes and even in the ocean.
A krathong is normally around 20cm in diameter and was traditionally made from spider lily plants or from layers taken from the trunk of a banana tree. Nowadays, to make it easier to create a krathong, they are either made from bread, which of course is eco-friendly and will disintegrate in the water and be eaten by fish, or from Styrofoam, which is often banned as it takes years to decompose leaving the rivers and canals polluted and clogged. Coconut can also be used. The krathong will be beautifully decorated with folded banana leaves, a candle, flowers and sticks of incense. Some people also place a coin on their krathong as a monetary offering to the river spirits.
There are a number of reasons behind the festival and for launching a krathong. Letting go of the raft symbolizes letting go of negative thoughts, grudges and anger and some people also place nail clippings or a lock their hair on the float to further symbolize this feeling of ‘letting go’ of the past. When launching their krathong, people will also make a wish for good fortune, good luck or some other personal reason or aim. Loi krathong is also about paying respect and giving thanks to the goddess of water, Phra Mae Khongkha , who is the Thai version of Ganga the Hindu goddess of the holy River Ganges. The candle on the krathong is lit to offer respect to and honour the Buddha.
So when did Loi Krathong originate and who is responsible for coming up with the idea of creating these beautiful floats ? Well, this is where it gets tricky because there are two different theories as to the whys and whens of how Loi Krathong came to be celebrated. One version believes that it is an ancient Brahmanic or Indic ceremony which was originally held for people to pay their respects to three gods: Phra I-Suan (Shiva), Phra Narai (Vishnu) and Phra Phrom (Brahma). Thai civilians would make paper lanterns which were lit by candles and then given to the royal family, high-ranking government officials and other wealthy people to display in their homes (or palaces!) Since Thailand is now a deeply Buddhist country, one hundred and fifty years ago the ruling king at the time, King Mongkut (Rama IV), urged the people of the Thai Kingdom to change Loi Krathong into a Buddhist ceremony and to pay their respects to the Buddha instead.
In this later Buddhist version of the festival, paper lanterns were still created but this time they would be distributed to the local temples and given to the monks instead of to the rich and powerful.
In the second version of how Loi Krathong came to be it used to be claimed that the festival originated from the period of the ancient Sukhothai Kingdom, which lasted from 1238 to 1438. A lady of the court named Nang Nopphamat, who was a consort of King Loethai, was said to have created the very first Krathong from banana leaves which she made in the shape of a lotus flower and presented to the king. However in more recent times it has emerged that this was a novel written sometime during the first half of the 19th century, in around 1850, and Nang Nopphamat (sometimes also spelt Noppamas) was actually the main character and was created as a means of offering behavioural guidelines to women who wanted to become civil servants. To further discredit this version of events, in 1863 His Majesty King Rama IV wrote that Loi Krathong was a Brahmanical festival that had been subsequently adapted by Buddhists in Thailand as a ceremony to honour the Buddha.
Nopphamat has leant her name to some of the festivities however, and these days, as with many Thai festivals and celebrations, beauty pageants are a big part of Loi Krathong day. Known as a ‘Nopphamat Queen Contest’, local beauties (or locals who think they’re beautiful!) will compete whilst wearing stunning traditional Thai dresses, to be crowned the most beautiful of that year’s festival.
In many cities the local government, large business corporations and other organizations or clubs construct much bigger krathongs that can actually hold people. These spectacularly sized krathongs can be admired floating down the mighty Chao Phraya River which runs through Bangkok. All over the Kingdom, town and cities and even villages will also set up stages where local performers will showcase traditional Thai dancing, as well as holding the beauty contests.
Harking back to the days when Loi Krathong first began as a paper lantern festival, these days it is also common practice to release paper sky lanterns. These lanterns, known as khoom fay, or khoom loi (floating lanterns), are made from thin paper with a bamboo frame and have a small candle or fuel cell inside. When the candle is lit the hot air trapped inside the paper casing creates lift which rises inside the lantern and lifts it into the air.
One reason why khoom fay lanterns are so widely synonymous with Loi Krathing now is because the Northern Thai people, the Lanna, light khoom fay lanterns all the year round when celebrating a festival or special event. In the North of the country a festival called Yi Peng is celebrated on the full moon of the second month in the traditional Lanna calendar. The Lanna calendar and the traditional Thai lunar calendar are different and Yi Peng actually falls on the same date as Loi Krathong, therefore in the North, particularly in the city of Chiang Mai, Yi Peng celebrations and Loi Krathong traditions have somewhat merged into one. Khoom fay lanterns have also grown in popularity in the rest of the country and are now an integral part of Loi Krathong.
Releasing a khoom fay sky lantern is a symbol of good luck – and again, just like setting your krathong afloat on a river or canal is to rid oneself of misfortune and past ills – releasing a khoom fay lantern into the night skies also means you’re letting go of your woes and anger. Of course, don’t forget to make a wish too!
So what exactly can you expect if you book a holiday to Thailand at this time of year? Firstly, the weather in late November is great for a vacation. The rainy season has finished and the hot months of March, April and May have yet to begin. In fact November through February is considered to be the ‘cool’ season, although for anyone visiting from Europe or anywhere that has a cold winter will still find the weather delightfully warm. In fact in general the best time to visit the Kingdom is during these four months. In Bangkok the temperature can be anything from 18ºC to 32ºC though it normally hovers around the late 20’s. If you’re heading to the North or Northeast you can expect a cooler climate with temperatures going as low as 8ºC to 12ºC first thing in the morning and the days sometimes being around the 20ºC mark. In this part of the country nights can be quite chilly and up in the mountains the temperature can even drop below freezing. In the Southwest, for examples on the islands of Koh Samui and Phuket temperatures will be warm – usually around 26ºC or 27ºC, although in some parts of the Southwest, November can be rather wet and rainy too. Further up the Gulf of Thailand, coastal towns such as Hua Hin and Cha-am will be both warm and dry with no rainfall and temperatures somewhere around the late 20’s or even 31ºC or 32ºC.
So, taking into account the weather in different parts of the country may have a bearing on where you want to go to experience Loi Krathong. Another thing to keep in mind is that it is celebrated slightly differently in different areas. In 2013 the festival officially falls on the 27th of November, the night of the full moon, but in some places, for example in the Northern city of Chiang Mai, the celebrations last for 3 full days and run from the 26th to the 28th of the month.
If you’re in Bangkok not only will the weather be warm and dry but If you want to experience a neighbourhood style Loi Krathong head to one of the local districts where the canals (called ‘Khlong in Thai’) meander through and watch the festivities there. Or if you want to join in with the crowds and see the most spectacular celebrations, head for a spot along the Chao Phraya River.
A good place to enjoy Loi Krathong in Bangkok is the river front in the Banglamphu (also spelt Banglampoo) district, not far from the backpacker area of Khao San Road. Head for the small, green Santichaiprakan Park which sits on the corner of Phra Sumen and Phra Athit and runs right down to the water’s edge. You can’t miss the park – look for the white 18th century Phra Sumen fort which is one of the last two stone watchtowers remaining in the city: there used to be 14 of the forts all placed at strategic points along the old city wall, acting as look out towers to guard against foreign invaders arriving by river.
During the Loi Krathong festival crowds of locals (and quite a few tourists) flock to this pleasant little park. Stalls selling krathongs will be set up along the pavements and the stall owners will be making more krathongs as fast as they can sell them! One nice thing is that even though this is an ancient Thai tradition and one that honours not only the Buddha but the Thai water goddess, the Thai people are friendly and don’t mind in the least if you purchase a krathong and join in.
Take your krathong through the park and down to the water’s edge and here you’ll find a small sectioned off area of the river where ancient trees are partially submerged in the water. Dropping your krathong directly over the edge into the Chao Phraya will most likely end in it sinking or being swept away by the current or in the wake of a boat, but placing it here gives it chance to float safely away, taking your bad memories of the year and any grudges you might be harbouring with it. Don’t forget to light your candle and incense first though.
Be careful when placing your krathong into the water here as it will be dark and can be muddy and slippery. If you don’t want to risk it find one of the entrepreneurial youngsters – local boys of around 10 years old – who’ll be standing knee deep in the water as they will be more than happy to float your krathong for you for a small fee of around 10 baht!
After you’ve made your wish and watched your krathong jostle for space among the hundreds of others, wander down to the main river edge to admire the passing giant krathongs and colourfully lit boats. Also in the immediate area will be a stage for traditional dance performances and perhaps a Nopphamat Queen Contest too if you’re lucky. The park itself is also nice to wander around on Loi Krathong evening as it’s decorated with lanterns and fairy lights, adding to the festive atmosphere. This is also a good opportunity to people watch and mingle with the Thai people on their special evening. After you’re finished soaking up the atmosphere here, leave the park and turn left onto Phra Athit Road. Walk along it for about 5 minutes untill you reach the end of the street and a cross roads. Turn left onto the bridge that crosses the river and you’ll be amongst more people lighting and releasing their khoom fay sky lanterns. As they lift off into the air the lanterns make a beautiful sight and a look up into the night sky will reveal hundreds of tiny points of light getting further and further away as people all across Banglamphu (and indeed the rest of the city) let their woes and their wishes fly away.
There are plenty of restaurants and quirky bars where the local cool Thais hang out along Phra Athit and Phra Sumen roads too and you’ll be spoiled for choice if you want to go and grab a bite to eat or a cold drink afterwards. And if you want to party, head towards Khao San Road where the music pumps until the small hours and tourists and locals alike will be spilling out of the bars and into the streets, drinks in hand.
If you choose to come to Thailand at this time of the year and get to witness Loi Krathong, you won’t be disappointed. Not only is it the prettiest of celebrations but it encompasses the best of Thai culture and the Thai people’s love of fun and enjoyment too. You’re sure to have an unforgettable time and some wonderful memories of your Thai Loi Krathong.