A New Beginning
How often do you get the chance to wipe clean the slate and start again?
In Thailand you can do it every year.
There are many important Buddhist festivals and celebrations in the Thai calendar, as well as the crazy Thai New Year celebrations of Songkran when everyone gets thoroughly wet during epic water pistol battles and as part of the mayhem of pick-up trucks laden with barrels of iced water, crazy people with buckets and a misguided notion that Songkran is all about drenching as many people as possible.
And then there is Loy Krathong – a gentle, family-based festival on the occasion of the full moon in the twelfth lunar month – usually November. It tends to coincide with the end of the rainy season and is a time when people pay respect to the Gods of the Water thanking them for providing enough water for the crops for the year ahead. It is Thailand’s “Festival of Light”. It is a time when we can say thank you for the good things of the past, when we can ask for forgiveness for any misdemeanours and for a blessing on our lives in the future.
This year was a special year for Loy Krathong.
The full moon was in fact a so-called “supermoon” as it reached the closest point to Earth in its orbit – and will not do so again for almost twenty years – so the evenings were almost as bright as the days, and the lights of the magical Wat Phra That Doi Suthep twinkled down on the city from their location some seven hundred metres above Chiang Mai.
The event was also special as the nation was still in mourning for HM the Late King, who died in October. While the one-month period of strict mourning had passed, the Kingdom is observing a twelve-month period of mourning to pay tribute to the man whom history will know as King Bhumibol Adulyadej the Great – or perhaps King Rama IX the Great. This meant that there were no fireworks permitted and the gaudy and noisy sky rockets that normally accompany Loy Krathong, and the fireworks often attached to hot air balloons were not permitted this year – letting us return to the fact that this is meant to be a quiet time of thanksgiving.
In the Old City of Chiang Mai, thousands of candles lined the six-kilometres of the inner walls of the city moat. There were quiet processions featuring elaborately decorated floats and beautiful young dancers.
Throughout the Kingdom people made (or bought) “krathongs” – small circular floats with candles, flowers and incense – that are launched on rivers and canals and lakes with the wishes and prayers of the people. Traditionally the krathongs are made from a slice of a banana tree trunk and decorated with flowers and other things. Recent years have seen the unfortunate introduction of polystyrene bases that are incredibly unfriendly to the environment, but there has been a counter-swing too, with people now making krathongs with a bread base, that as it disintegrates, it feeds the fish and does no harm to the environment.
According to the English language newspaper Bangkok Post (www.bangkokpost.com) there were 661,935 krathongs collected from waterways across Bangkok on the first day of Loy Krathong this year. Of these 617,901 were made from natural materials that could be decomposed or recycled and the remainder – some 43,000 – were made from synthetic materials. We can multiply those figures by three or four or five to estimate the number of krathongs set sail across the nation.
In the north – in Chiang Mai – we have a double whammy chance for a new beginning.
Yes – we pollute our rivers as efficiently as the good folk of Bangkok – but we add aerial pollution – or salvation – to the festivities, with the mass release of tens of thousands of hot-air balloons or “khom loys”. The “Yee Peng” festival here is perhaps even more spectacular than the krathongs elsewhere. Everyone buys the lanterns (three for one hundred baht) which are made from fine rice paper and slivers of bamboo – but also with fine wire and a fire-source, neither of which is friendly to the environment or small animals. They then fire them up and set them free, hoping that as the flaming tribute soars aloft the dreams and hopes and prayers will also be carried to the waiting gods.
Sinking of the Titanic
In my first year living in Chiang Mai, I came home from work and found that my housekeeper / gardener had made me a lovely little krathong. I duly strolled down to the beautifully decorated launching pier – elaborately folded coconut tree branches, candle-lit rice paper hanging lanterns, flowers and multiple candles along a temporary bamboo jetty perilously tottering on temporary piles driven into the mud – and lit my candles and incense sticks.
Kneeling down, and with a prayer or two, I gently set the krathong on the waters and watched it slowly drift downstream, carrying my wishes and hopes and dreams.
It floated ten metres, hit a submerged tree branch and sank.
- Oy vey!
… I might have cried had I been Jewish and seeking refuge in Yiddish expressions instead of the less polite Anglo-Saxonisms that slipped from my troubled lips. So much for my karma in the coming year. Time to curl up and lock the doors and pull down the blinds and do battle with the winged demons and Harry Potter look-a-likes that were likely to dive from troubled heavens into my little cottage.
Instead, I scurried home, fired up my khom loy and watched as it drifted up, up and off into the night sky until it became just a faint spark in the distance.
- One down, one up. Hall will live to see another day!
A lot of hot air?
At Mae Jo, a NE suburb of Chiang Mai, there is a Buddhist temple that arranges a spectacular mass release of hot air balloons each year. I saw some people launch khom loys that wobbled and drifted in the evening air and got stuck – rather like Charlie Brown’s kites – in khom-loy-eating trees. Unlike Charlie Brown’s trees that simple snagged the kites and released them in due course in autumn, these khom-loy-eating trees ate them and were consumed by them … and the flames reached higher and higher …
- Oy vey!
… the Thais may have screamed as they became aware that many many many hours of merit-making with their neighbourhood monks had just become necessary if they were to avoid reincarnation as cockroaches.
[Actually, the event at this Wat is quite beautiful, as the mass launching of balloons is preceded by several hours of hypnotic chanting by the monks. Chanting is a big part of Buddhist rituals and features at all special events and especially at funerals. I have attended several funerals of Thai and non-Thai friends where the monks chanted prayers for the dead person. Following the death of HM the late King, teams of monks in Bangkok chanted for many days for the King’s safe passing.]
The hot air balloons are spectacular … but they offer a danger not only to khom-loy-eating trees, but also to passing aeroplanes.
Several years ago I was in Bangkok for an education trade fair during the Loy Krathong period. My mobile telephone buzzed me to say that Thai Airways had changed my flight to Chiang Mai to an earlier time for safety reasons. After a mad scurry to pack up my little display and to get to the airport, my new flight left on time … drinks and nibbles were served … and then our descent into Chiang Mai started.
I know that a seagull sucked into a jet engine can do a lot of damage.
Certainly, the seagull will suffer some damage – vaporisation is perhaps a nice euphemism – but the engine may also suffer. How can it cough out those bones that lodge in tickly throat-like parts of the jet engine?
As we dropped down towards the Chiang Mai airport, we could see thousands of hot air balloons drifting past us, past our wing tips, past our screaming jet engines, past our windows. It was a beautiful, wondrous, frightening sight … as some of us wondered what would happen if a floating balloon with a small burning fire at its base decided to go where no seagull had ever dared to go – and had never been able to tell the tale to its feathered friends afterwards …
- Airbus 777 score: 0
- Hot air balloons score: 777
This year Chiang Mai International Airport cancelled almost twenty flights and rescheduled almost forty other flights to avoid admitting of impediments to the marriage of true hot air and avgas flights lest the tempests be shaken and ever-fixed mark never be found – with belated thanks to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 … and with thoughts of high-fried seagulls and jet engines eating rice paper and bamboos and thin wires.
The Loy Krathong festival more or less marks the start of Chiang Mai’s high tourist season: the rains have gone, the countryside is lush and green, the skies are clear (OK: drifting hot air balloons excepted) and the temperatures have dropped to a very friendly 310 C by day and 180 or 190 by night.
Thanks to the government’s efforts to limit “zero dollar” tours by Chinese tourists, incoming loud gaggles of Chinese have dropped from about 13,000 per day to 4,000 per day. The “zero dollar” tourist pre-paid everything in China to travel agents, arrived in Thailand and Chiang Mai in hungry hordes but as every tour and every hotel room night and every meal had already been paid in China, nothing was contributed to the local economy.
So with wonderful weather, with visitors who actually want to be part of our culture (and not “If this is Tuesday it must be Chiang Mai” visitors), and with an opportunity to make a new beginning, Loy Krathong is, for me, just about the very best time of the year – and makes me feel so proud to be a (very small) part of the traditions and life of this ancient kingdom.
- Events: November 2016
- Text © Christopher Hall 2016. All images from Internet
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