Considered the most charming of all Thai festivals, Loy Krathong offers beauty, romance and renewal. But what exactly is the event, how did it start—and where should travelers experience the celebrations?
“It takes an endless amount of history to make even a little tradition.”—Henry James
Thailand loves festivals. Its relish for pageantry made it the world’s fifth-largest festival hotspot in 2008, according to Euromonitor International. And tied to national identity—therefore deserving its “sa-ngob (serenity) description”—Loy Krathong is probably the kingdom’s most charming celebration.
While the West generally associates full moons with sinister werewolf transformations and the like, the East sees its brightest nights as auspicious. The full moon of the twelfth lunar month signifies the end of Thailand’s main rice harvest. It is time to thank the Water Goddess Mae Nam Kongka (Mother Ganges) for her year’s supply—while symbolically setting misfortune adrift. This period of renewal sees couples wholeheartedly embrace romance.
Loy means “float,” while krathong refers to the trademark lotus-shaped receptacles that are floated in riverways and even at beaches across the country. These days, individuals, villages or provinces enter floats of myriad shapes and sizes—even motorized models—for competition. They all end up stocked with offerings of betel nuts, flowers, joss sticks, candles and coins then ritually launched onto canals, rivers and lakes nationwide. For couples, it can be an anxious time wondering if their respective floats will snuggle together or drift apart.
Supplementary activities depend on the location. Any combination of processions, musicians, and marching bands, dancers, costumed theatrics and fireworks may accompany proceedings. Most Thai festivals feature beauty-pageant face-offs in honor of Nang Noppamas, allegedly a 14th-century lovely who pioneered the event.
Some claim the festival derives from a Hindu tribute to the Vishnu. Others, including Thai King Rama IV (writing in 1863), base it on the Brahman Deepavalee ritual. Thailand’s official version teaches that royal consort Noppamas pioneered the krathong for the King of Sukhothai 700 years ago.
However, in The Great ‘Loy Krathong’ Myth! (2007) Stephen Cleary argues that the “legend” was invented by the Department of Fine Arts for an 1850’s novel. The available evidence suggests Loy Krathong descended from Cambodia’s Loy Khom (Float the Lantern)” festival in the mid-eighteenth-century Ayutthaya era.
WHERE: SUKHOTHAI… Hailing heritage
The first Thai kingdom is where Loy Krathong supposedly originated. Thais accordingly consider the World Heritage-listed Sukhothai Historical Park the most significant location for Loy Krathong. They really go to town with a spectacular light and sound show following a procession of oversized krathong from 17 Northern provinces. Locals also reprise bygone folk dancing and costumed theatrics to evoke Sukhothai’s renowned cultural traditions.
WHERE: BANGKOK… Avoid the melee
The metropolis only affords a single day to Loy Krathong, compared with five days elsewhere. Human traffic overcrowding the capital’s canals and riversides can spoil the fun. Santi Chai Prakarn public park and the Chao Phraya River from Krungthep Bridge to Krungthon Bridge resemble rush hour on New Year’s Eve. Lumpini Park offers more sedate going (disregarding kids swimming out to retrieve coins from the floats). To guarantee avoiding the crush, however, any of the five-star riverside resorts conduct civilized festivities—though you will have to pay for the honor.
WHERE: CHIANG MAI… Raising lanterns
Chiang Mai offers double the festival fun. Loy Krathong blends into the local Yi Peng revelry. The latter sends negativity skyward in Lanna-style khom loi lanterns. The sight of hundreds of fluorescent, jellyfish-like lamps gracefully floating overhead creates a magical atmosphere. Added to illuminated waterways, buildings, trees and gardens citywide, this makes the historic city a real crowd-puller during the festivals.
WHERE: MALAYSIA: Cross-border appeal…
Loy Krathong celebrations cross Thailand’s southern border to Kelantan in Malaysia, where celebrations focus in the Tumpat area. The festival reportedly draws lots of tourists, so is generously promoted by the ministry of tourism.
Eco-grumble: Foam krathong harm the environment, so natural materials are preferable. Eco-responsible revelers increasingly head for small canals, even swimming pools, to avoid polluting rivers.
In Bangkok: November 21, 2010; nationwide: November 17–21, 2010