Joyful and warm, Loy Krathong is a unique festival held throughout Thailand to celebrate the end of the rainy season. Report from Bangkok.
Bangkok spent the day in anticipation and, most probably, in the hope that the incessant rain showers would finally stop. Loy Krathong was the only thing on people’s lips in the roadside cafés at breakfast time. They spoke about the previous year’s festival, which had been washed out by floods, and about their wishes for the coming year… And again at lunch, at these very same cafés, it was all everybody talked about, mostly while watching the sky imploringly, or with simple resignation. And yet, despite these doubts about the weather, makeshift florists busied themselves in front of every shop and on each street corner, carefully preparing the krathongs.
There were no longer any clouds in the sky above Bangkok that evening, except for the fleeting smoke from Bengal lights and fireworks which the more impatient had set off here and there. Then, beside the river, a wild and distant crowd snaked opulently towards the brown water. It’s the same crowd one finds on Sundays or on feast days, unbothered by traffic jams, who go out with their families, all generations included, on the banks of the Chao Praya river, the great river of Bangkok, towards Wat Yannawa, the neighbourhood temple.
At the temple square, the krathong sellers await the crowd around the corner, while incantations are recited into microphones over and over again and, often, the word chok di is repeated, in other words “luck”. Then, while everyone pushes further towards the river, other temple traders can be found, to such an extent that the thronging crowd becomes a wave moving in all directions, and it becomes difficult to penetrate or follow. This is where stallholders selling chicken thighs, skewered sausages, ice-cream, locusts, roasts, grasshoppers and other crunchy, crispy insects, cooked to perfection, gather.
One must enter the main square in order for the whole spectacle to shift into focus. In the middle there lies a white coffin, and the deceased is surrounded by family members as well as religious believers simply passing by, and the prospect of drawing closer, or even touching the coffin’s wood, seems to enthuse the crowd. Myriad monks of all ages bustle about, many of them waiting for the believers to stuff banknotes into small copper jars. A kind of washing line runs from the floor to the very top of the temple’s roof. Small monks decorate it with the notes offered by the believers, forming a sort of garland. The connection between Buddhism and money can never be emphasised enough.
Wishes for the future
Closer to the river, thank God, the mood changes. Once again it’s the warm, light atmosphere of the moving, carefree crowd – but only up to a certain point. The whole aim of this festival is to set things straight – to start anew. Loy Krathong is held during the full moon of the twelfth month of the Thai lunar calendar, and a offering is made to Phra Mae Khongkha, the goddess of water, by placing a krathong in water: a small piece of the banana tree of about twenty centimetres in length and in the shape of a lotus, and decorated with flowers, candles and sticks of incense.
Loy Krathong originates from the Indian Diwali festival. And if in Bangkok it seems a bit quaint, warm and calm, a shade innocent even, which may lead one to believe that it doesn’t even compare to the magnificence of its great Indian cousin, it remains a real institution in Sukhothaï. In the main capital of the Kingdom of Siam, as well as in Chiang Mai or in other towns, the festivities include floats on the water, all rivalling one another in extravagant splendour, as well as beauty queens competing with their poses, and krathong competitions.
Wherever you go, however, Loy Krathong is the festival where wishes are made for the future, which is why lovers feverishly flock to it. Sometimes the krathong they spent so much time making together, and then ceremoniously lit by flicking the lighter with trembling hands, goes psshh as it lands in the water when they turn around. It’s then very beautiful to witness these couples who are a bit bothered, but who would prefer to laugh about it. The most important has been accomplished, since all their bad deeds are now gone, floating down with the stream and all they have to do is move forward.
Much time is also spent watching those placing their offerings into the water, or releasing fish bought at the market, to undo a mistake or for good luck, and the others, the needy, who stand to one side, dive into the water to pick out the coins with which others weighed down their krathongs for even more good luck. When the fireworks explode in Bangkok’s sky amongst its glass towers, how many expectant faces turn towards these green and blue lights, like a curtain call – in their way marking the beginning of something new, of a new year perhaps? How many ask themselves where they will be next year for Loy Krathong?
Article and photography: Jean-Matthieu Gautier. Previously published in the Enfants du Mekong magazine No175.