As Thai festivals go, Loy Krathong is probably the second most well-known and popular after the new year Songkran festivities. It is also arguably the most picturesque and romantic, filling waterways and skies up and down the country with floating krathong and lanterns. But how much do you know about the origin of the festival, and where should you celebrate it in Bangkok?
Like many such festivals, there are several tales as to the history of Loy Krathong, which takes place on the night of the full moon of the twelfth lunar month, usually in November. In 2016 Loy Krathong is on Monday 14 November, while celebrations will also take place on the days before and after – though they are expected to be more muted than usual in the wake of the death of King Bhumibol. While the most common story is that the festival originated in the era during which Sukhothai was the capital of what is now Thailand, other writings suggest that it came about in the early days of the Bangkok period as a way of honouring the Buddha. Small floating vessels known as krathong, released on rivers, lakes and ponds, contain a candle used to pay respect to the Buddha, while the floating nature of the krathong itself symbolises letting go of hatred and anger.
Certainly this is a theme of Loy Krathong that remains today – couples or families floating their krathong hope that, in so doing, they will wish away the bad things that have happened in the past year and usher in good fortune for the next year. For this reason, those celebrating Loy Krathong will often place a few fingernail or hair clippings on the krathong when they float it away. Another purpose to the Loy Krathong festival is to pay respect to the river spirits, and specifically Phra Mae Khongkha, the Goddess of Water, and therefore a few small coins are usually nestled into the krathong along with the nail and hair clippings.
Krathong are usually made from polystyrene or the more environmentally-friendly bread, which is biodegradable and in most cases eaten by fish anyway. Coconut shells are also used to produce krathong in certain parts of the country, while the traditional method was to use pieces of banana tree trunk. In the north of Thailand, and the culture capital Chiang Mai in particular, Loy Krathong coincides with – but is distinct from – Yi Peng, a festival of the northern Thai Lanna culture. On set days during Yi Peng, thousands of hot air lanterns are launched into the night sky and result in a spectacular view. Among popular spots to release these khom loi lanterns is Mae Jo University, near Chiang Mai, where a mass launching takes place a week or so before the nationwide Loy Krathong celebrations.
While Sukhotai and Chiang Mai are popular Loy Krathong destinations, Bangkok is also a great place to celebrate the festival. The many ponds and other waterways in the city’s public parks usually become the focal point for friends, lovers and families to launch their krathong – watching the route that a krathong takes is a popular way for couples to predict what the future holds for their relationship.
The mighty Chao Phraya river, too, is at the centre of the action – the pier at Rama 8 Bridge, in the Banglamphu district of Bangkok, is this year’s official centre of celebrations, but Saphan Taksin pier (connected to the Skytrain’s Silom line) is typically packed with locals and tourists watching krathongs and decorated barges float down the river. It is also a great spot to catch the impressive fireworks display that the local government puts on each year.
Meanwhile, the pier within Wat Yannawa temple – just next door – is open for krathongs to be released onto the water, and you have the opportunity to make merit in the temple at the same time.
Loy Krathong Sukothai photo by Tourism Authority of Thailand; Yi Peng Mae Jo photo by Takeaway via Wikimedia Commons; all other photos by Chris Wotton.