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Bangkok celebrates the Loy Krathong holiday like it does most of them — with the cracking of fireworks, the blasting of music and a carnival-like atmosphere along the Chao Phraya river. Here’s a taste of being swept up by one of Thailand's most enchanting holidays, Big Mango style.
The historical origins of Loy Krathong are murky, but the most popular legend tells of a woman by the name of Khun Nang Nopphamat who is thought to have lived during the Sukhothai-era in the 14th century. It’s believed she created a lotus-shaped offering with a candle and floated it downriver in an effort to capture King Ramkamhaeng’s heart, as one version of the story goes, or to pay homage to the Buddha, as another tells it. The story of Nopphamat is probably a tall tale crafted by King Rama IV in the 1800s, but that hasn’t stopped Thais from emulating her every year on the full moon of the 12th month of the Thai lunar calendar, when rivers and canals swell and moonlight blankets the sky.
The Thai word for these floating, candlelit offerings is krathong, and loy means ‘to float’. Some krathong are made from banana leaves or hollow slices of banana trunks while others consist of bread, which is eaten by fish and turtles. Some are no more than a single lotus bud with a tiny candle. Others are the size of a wedding cake and are elaborately decorated with flowers, fruit, betel nuts and incense. Large boats are even done up with pulsing lights and hundreds of flowers to form giant krathongs.
Loy Krathong is also known as the festival of light, with glow sticks, fire crackers, sparklers and all manner of twinkling decor adding to the theme.
The custom of making floating offerings more likely originated from Brahmanic and/or animist traditions, and one of the main purposes of offering a krathong is to appease the goddess of water, Phra Mae Kongkha. Loy Krathong is also a time to let go of the old and unwanted — krathongs are accompanied by a wish to leave behind any negativity from the previous year and replace it with good fortune in the coming one.
Practically every temple in the city offers some sort of festivities, but those along the river like Wat Arun, Wat Kalayanamit and Wat Yannawa are especially hopping. The glowing spires at Wat Arun were awe-inspiring, but to offer a krathong here we had to fight through a crowd, light the candle and make a wish in hasty fashion before handing it off to a naval officer for them to send down the river. We understand — safety first — but it took most of the magic out of it.
We found the vibe at Wat Yannawa to be more relaxed and friendly, although still very lively too. Here the faithful offered bank notes on a series of strings that stretched from a high temple building to a low wall, which signifies the connection between the Sangha (community of monks) and laypeople. Loy Krathong has — like most Thai holidays — been enmeshed into Thailand’s Buddhist traditions.
Riverside Asiatique night bazaar also holds elaborate festivities, and Sathorn express boat pier was mobbed thanks to Asiatique’s free shuttle boats departing from there. After fighting the lines just to get into the BTS station closest to Sathorn pier (and Wat Yannawa), Saphan Taksin, we were relieved to go in the opposite direction towards Lumpini Park.
Lumpini is one of the only places in Bangkok where you can easily and gently push a krathong into calm water. It’s a more serene spectacle here than along the river, but due to the park’s small stillwater lake, krathongs get stuck around the banks; if you really want last year’s baggage to float far away, Lumpini is probably not the best choice. Still, the park was easily accessible and festive but not uncomfortably crowded.
We then headed for the vicinity of Memorial Bridge, where thousands congregated to light khom loy, or flame-powered lanterns that float in the sky rather than on water.
The premise with khom loy is pretty much the same as krathong — wish, light and float. They look like tiny gold dots from far away and a night sky full of khom loy is a beautiful sight indeed, but they’re actually quite large, making this a ‘more-the-merrier’ sort of offering. It’s a sweet way for a couple, family or friends to make a collective wish and watch it float up to the heavens. At Loy Krathong 2014, however, the authorities tried to ban khom loy for safety reasons, so head up to Chiang Mai if you're set on seeing them.
With our krathong and khom loy successfully in the water/sky, we strolled onto a crowded Memorial Bridge, its green iron bars illuminated by multiple swirling spotlights. The bridge was packed with revellers, many lighting sparklers and setting off fire crackers that packed very little “fire” but no shortage of “crack!”
As expected, Bangkok brings its unending mega-tons of energy to the table for Loy Krathong, offering a dizzying experience that's exciting, crowded, beautiful, loud and peaceful, all at once. If we can’t make it to Sukhothai or Chiang Mai next year, we’ll probably head into the canals of Thonburi or down to Amphawa, where a quieter atmosphere pervades the festival. Until then, float on.
By David Luekens
Last updated on 10th March, 2015.