Friday, November 17, 2017

Illuminated Nights--the Loy Krathong Festival

                                            by Jim Goodman

Big Krathong pr9cession 1993
       Most of the festivals in the Chiang Mai calendar year are primarily religious affairs.  They celebrate important Buddhist events like the Buddha’s first sermon, his birthday, the enrollment of boys in the monastery, the opening and closing of the retreat season.  The night before Buddha’s birthday devotees ascend on foot to Doi Suthep Mountain to be at the temple there to honor the Buddha when dawn arrives.  Otherwise the activity is mostly restricted to prayers and offerings at the temples.  Some stalls will offer food instead of flowers, candles and incense, and there may be traditional musicians playing a while in the compound.  In general, though, the atmosphere is reverent and sedate.
       The one festival in which the opposite mood rules is Songkran, held in mid-April at the peak of the hot season.  While the program has some religious elements, the general activity consists of three full riotous days of people throwing water on each other.  There are stage shows after dark, when the water-throwing is supposed to cease, though a lot of foreign tourists don’t seem to know that.
        In contrast to all the other annual events, the Loy Krathong Festival combines the religious and the secular, accented by spectacular evenings of lamps, lanterns, fireworks, stage shows and processions.  Held for three days and nights around the full moon in November, when the rains have practically ceased and evenings are refreshingly cool and everybody seems to be I a good mood.
making a krathoin
krathongs in the river
       A krathong is a little leaf boat, about 20 cm long, made by wrapping folded banana leaves around a section of the tree’s stalk.  As the festival arrives Chiang Mai people start making bunches of them for sale to participants.  When they have gotten all the leaves in place they add flowers, incense sticks and a candle.  Beginning the night before full moon and continuing through the night after full moon, people take the krathongs to the riverside, light the incense and candles and place them carefully in the water to join the succession of other krathongs floating down the Ping River
Loy Krathong nights on the river
       Thais believe that by doing this they send away all bad luck and disappointment of the year.  In Chiang Mai, Loy Krathong coincides with the city’s own Yi Peng Festival, which honors the river goddess.  Part of the motive in sending pretty little krathongs down the river is to beautify it and impress the river goddess.  At the same time they implore her to take the waters back, reduce their level, make the rains stop, it’s time for our harvest.  The krathongs, lanterns and the illuminated shore and sky are meant to be a proper send-off to the river goddess.
       Placating the river goddess is not a Buddhist concept, of course, but an animist one.  Yet Buddhism has never succeeded in eradicating superstitions or animist notions from the Thai psyche.  But more properly Buddhist activities are also part of the Loy Kratong program.  Some of these are part of every full moon day, which is a particularly auspicious day in the Buddhist year, along with new moon and the 8th day of the lunar month. 
       For Loy Krathong, however, the sermon for the occasion is one from the Jataka Tales, which narrates the lives of previous incarnations of the Buddha.  This one is about Prince Vessantara, who gradually gave away all of his possessions to the poor, exemplifying the virtue of selfless charity.  Thais know the story well.  It is also depicted on the wall murals of the viharn at Wat Bupharam.  Yet these Loy Krathong sermons are still well attended and the sermon, the krathongs on the river and the grand procession of decorated floats are the three parts of the festival program that have remained unchanged for the thirty years that I have been in Chiang Mai.
Loy Krathong boat races, 1990
       Every year city authorities publish the festival schedule of events.  In recent years, other than the Vessantara sermon in the temples, the activities are all at night.  When I first observed it in 1988 longboat races were held in the daytime, between the Nakorn Ping and Nawarat Bridges over the Ping River.  The long, narrow boats, with dragon-headed prows, held 23 rowers and another on the rudder.  After some rowing practice the crews paired off for a race that terminated north of the second bridge.  Winners paired off afterwards until a champion finally emerged.
       The other daytime event was the krathong contest held the first two days in the compound of the city’s Municipal Office, on the river next to the Muang Mai market and the American Consulate.  These krathongs were much bigger and more elaborate than the simple ones people bought to float on the river.  The awards were given the second afternoon because many of them would be carried as part of the second night’s Little Krathong procession.
women in the first night's procession
men in the first night's procession
       The boat races disappeared from the program in the late 90s, but the krathong contest continued longer.  The city scheduled one this year, but either it was canceled or nobody entered, for the Municipal Office lot was empty each day. 
       The festival always begins with an official ceremony and speeches and a classical Thai dance performance.  In the past this was held at Tha Pae Gate, though in recent years it has shifted to the square in front of the Three Kings monument.  Various kinds of lanterns, big and small, fill the area, in the shape of stars, begging bowls, baskets and wheels. 
women with krathoings, first night's procession
       Made of paper, but usually around a bamboo cylinder to protect them from igniting from the heat of the candle mounted within, they are also hung from posts along the procession route and strung across temple courtyards.  One type spins around from the generated heat, revealing portraits on its sides of the twelve zodiac animals or other pictures.
       In past years, the first night’s procession was on foot.  Participants dressed in classic Lanna clothing and some in each contingent carried tall poles with long, thin, woven cotton banners called tung in Thai, or brandished big lanterns.  The second night was the Little Krathong procession.  Back then it was hand-carried, even if it was so big several people were required to carry it.  The third night was the float procession, with men and women in traditional clothing and jewelry riding on spectacularly decorated floats on flatbed trucks.
lantern procession
       Participants in these processions marched in contingents representing various companies, banks, schools and other city organizations.  Most dressed in old-style Lanna clothing, the women wearing classic northern textile designs, like a parade of traditional fashions.  Their hair tied up in buns and decorated with jewelry, they carried krathongs or lanterns, while the men filed along hoisting the poles with the dangling tung banners.  A large, wheeled drum accompanied some groups, with shirtless men taking turns pounding it.
       Throughout the 90s the processions all began at Wat Phra Singh in the western part of the old town, advanced along Ratchadamnoen Road, passed through Tha Pae Gate and proceeded down Tha Pae Road to just before the bridge.  Here they turned left, passed along the river and terminated at the Municipal Office.  Nowadays they begin in front of Tha Pae Gate, but otherwise follow the same route.
Big Krathong rider, 1993
Big Krathong rider, 1990
       The first night’s procession did not involve any vehicles other than the drums on wheels.  Each contingent consisted of at least twenty men and women, all dressed their best for the occasion.  On the second night’s Little Krathong procession folks carried krathongs much bigger and more complex than the small ones sold by the riverbanks.  Some of these later wound up placed in the river.  As the years went on, though, people no longer carried them, but placed them in trucks.
       The grandest procession was, and still is, that of the Big Krathongs, of huge, fanciful krathong displays mounted on long, flat truck trailers.  Both the men and women riding these dress in the most ornate costumes of all.  Some wear the garments of centuries ago, their hair buns adorned with crowns and tiaras, plus lots of rings, necklaces and bangles.  The floats feature sculptures of lotuses, nagas and other mythical creatures, demons, birds and elephants, sometimes with three heads.
Big Krathong procession, 2017
       This procession, usually of a couple dozen floats, could take hours to complete.  In the past, at the terminus of the route, people lifted two or three of these floats into the river.  They floated downstream, with the riders still aboard, only as far as the first bridge before hauled to the side.  But it was quite a climax to the procession.  Unfortunately, like the boat races, that was also dropped from the program long ago.
       At the turn of the century the city added another attraction to the festival by staging a ‘sound and light show’ on the riverbank opposite the Municipal Office.  The stage show featured skits of players in ancient costumes, carrying noble ladies in palanquins across the stage, classic dances and loud, recorded music.  Fireworks shot off behind the stage, but there were fireworks from other points all along the river as well.  The stage occupied the most popular area for launching krathongs, which sort of interrupted the main festival activity.  Besides, Loy Krathong already was a ‘sound and light show.’  After two years, with little attendance, the city dropped the show from the program.
       While the processions are in progress, now as in the past, other activities take place along the route and on the riverbanks.  The yard of the Governor’s Mansion, just before the bridge at the end of Tha Pae Road, is full of food stalls.  One can buy snacks, rice or noodle meals, grilled meat, dried fish, sushi and more exotic specialties like gilled chunks of goat, sheep, rabbit, wild boar, ostrich, deer, crocodile and scorpions.  Behind the stalls stands a Ferris wheel, just like at a circus.
Big Krathong on the Ping RIver 1990
Big Krathong on Tha Pae Road, 1993
       All along the river are piers from which people place their krathongs in the water.  Food, drink and snack stalls line the sidewalks.  In between the piers folks shoot off small fireworks or light sparklers, while on the third night a series of skyrockets burst into the sky in multiple colors.  And for about a dozen years now the illumination includes the addition of sky lanterns.
       More like a hot-air balloon in the way it operates, the sky lantern is a wire-frame paper cylinder about one meter high.  Fixed to the bottom is a small tray containing cotton soaked in kerosene.  The user lights the cotton and then holds the lantern steady while the flame heats it up, which normally takes about a minute.  When enough heat has been generated inside the lantern, the holder releases it and it goes floating high into the sky.
like a traditional fashion show
       Problems can arise, especially if a breeze suddenly comes along.  If the lantern is released too early, it could tilt and catch fire, slam into a tree or crash into the river.  But considering the thousands of people sending sky lanterns aloft, that doesn’t happen very often.  Most of them successfully join the other launched lanterns in a stream that speckles the heavens.
        The lanterns are usually white, which makes them pale orange in the sky.  A few are red or blue or have faces painted on them.  The best to watch are the ones that have a long tail of sparklers attached.  Once they ascend they start leaving a trail of glitter below them that follows them high into the night sky.
       The sky lanterns can also interfere with aircraft.  A few years after their introduction the city decided to restrict their use to two nights only and canceled all flights from 7 p.m.  When they burn out the lanterns fall back to the ground, on roads, in gardens and people’s yards and that has caused complaints.  This year the government announced the day before the festival that sky lanterns and fireworks of any kind were prohibited under pain of 60,000 baht fine and three years in jail.
sky lantern lift-off
sky lanterns along the river
       Either Chiang Mai got a special dispensation or the city simply ignored the decree.  Authorities had already canceled 78 flights.  To ‘uncancel’ them would have been just as much trouble, since the airlines had already readjusted.  Newspaper editorials denounced the sky lanterns as not being a traditional part of Loy Krathong and a nuisance.  They also slammed the post-festival rubbish problem in the rivers.
       I doubt that Chiang Mai people see it the same way.  This year the festival was as enthusiastic as ever.  Sky lanterns filled the sky for two nights and fireworks characterized the third night, though not as many as in the past, for it was individuals setting them off and not part of a city show.  And no one muttered about the mess to clean up next day.  That’s always been a familiar aftermath, one they’ve dealt with for centuries.  For local folks, Loy Krathong will always be worth the trouble.  It’s the most beautiful event of the year.
taking a break during a procession traffic jam,  2017
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