Getting caught up in the hoopla of Loy Krathong is inescapable on November’s full moon night (November 28). The nation heads en masse to canal, river or swimming pool to loy (float) krathong (vessels) and with them bid adieu to suffering, grudges and bad luck before the New Year comes. Among the myriad festivals held in the country, it’s widely considered one of the most beautiful and magical.
However, while anyone can take part, there are some truths you need to know before you understand it. Firstly: its origins. If you’ve seen the gorgeous TAT posters depicting Loy Krathong in Sukhothai or Chiang Mai, you might think they’re its rightful homes. However, the truth is it didn’t originate at either or even here in the Kingdom. Rather, this practice is thought to have been around for millennia in Southeast Asia and owe its origins to India. In some ways, namely the floating of lamps along the rivers, it bears a striking resemblance to the Hindu festival Diwali.
Secondly, it’s deeply entwined with our animist beliefs. Water and earth are major elements in animist belief systems, so it’s not surprising that we Thais call rivers mae nahm—the mother of water. Following on from this, the main reason that we float krathong is to pay respect to our Goddess of Water, Phra Mae Khongkha. It is for that reason that your krathong should be bio-degradable, as we want to honour her, not pollute her. Acceptable ones should be made of banana trunk, leaves, flowers, paper and even bread (so fish will love you back too). Candles, incenses and coins are often added, and if you really want to go overboard with the float-away-the-past symbolism, you can put nail or hair cuttings in them too.
Thirdly, Loy Krathong’s date is tied to the story of Lord Buddha’s life. As this has it, he was invited down to the Underwater World and there taught Dharma to the King of Nagas (water serpent). Afterwards, Lord Buddha left his footprint on the sandy bank of India’s Nandamahanathee River. Loy Krathong is also said to honour his deed which was said to happen around this time of the year.
It is also based on the traditional Thai lunar calendar, like so many Buddhist religious days are. Two weeks after the night of the full moon in November (the 12th traditional Thai lunar month) the Thai Lunar New Year falls. Confusingly, this has nothing to do with Songkran, which is based on the solar calendar; but essentially, all you need to know is that we’re nearing the end of the lunar year and that it’s time to start anew.
Easier to get your head round is the fact that some of Loy Krathong’s legends are made-up. Common to celebrations nationwide are beauty contests featuring ladies made up like as Nang Nophamas, a courtier and poetess who helped inspire the festival by making pretty lotus krathong. But who was this legendary beauty? Though I don’t want to rain on any beauty pageants, the truth is that she is a fictional character that appeared in a book during the reign of King Rama III. Her purpose: to be a role model for women who wished to become an exemplary civil servant.
Another Loy Krathong tradition is music, namely a traditional ram wong (circle dance) ditty that was written in 1955 and has since become the standard for the event. You can expect to hear its catchy refrain (“loy loy kratong, loy loy kratong”) ringing through the cool evening air umpteen times during the night.
Away from these origins and time-honored customs, you should also understand that Loy Krathong is now many Thais’ answer to St. Valentine’s Day, only with a few twists. Think about it. It takes place in the evening and goes on into the wee hours. The air is usually cooler, the river banks brimming, and the full moon shining high in the sky. Krathong with twinkling candles bob on the water, many couples even floating one together. Up in Northern Thailand and even in Bangkok these days, khom loy, or floating lanterns, are also lit and set adrift in to the dark night. Given this collision of romantic elements, it’s no surprise that some young lovers consummate their love, and that for many its significance is now more physical than spiritual.
Last but not least, don’t forget that while these meanings, myths and cross-purposes are more muddled than the Chao Phraya River, Loy Krathong is meant to be entertaining and, above all, sanuk. So just go with the flow.