On the full moon night of the twelfth lunar month, the tide in the rivers is highest and the moon at its brightest, creating a romantic setting ideal for lovers. The Thai people choose this day to hold the ‘Loy Kratong’ festival, or the ‘festival of light.’ Loy Kratong is one of the two most recognized festivals in the country.
Loy Kratong is probably the most picturesque and beautiful of all Thai celebrations. ‘Loy’ literally means ‘to float,’ while ‘kratong’ refers to the lotus-shaped receptacle which can float on the water. Originally, the kratong was made of banana leaves or the layers of the trunk of a banana tree or a spider lily plant. A kratong contains food, betel nuts, flowers, joss sticks, candle and coins. The making of a kratong is much more creative these days as many more materials are available
The Loy Kratong ritual is a simple one. One needs only to light the candles and the joss sticks, make one’s wishes and let it float away with the current of a river or a canal.
On that day, thousands of people will gather beside the canals and rivers. With kratong in hands, they light the candle, put some coins in the kratong and silently make a wish, and carefully place their kratongs in the water and release them to the current.
They watch intently as the float drifts silently downstream, hoping that the candle will not go out. Its flame is said to signify longevity, fulfillment of wishes and release from sins. Altogether it is considered a romantic night for couples or lovers. Couples who make a wish together on Loy Kratong are thought to stay together in the future.
Different legends surround the origins of Loy Kratong. The most popular version is it was an expression of gratitude to the goddess of water ‘Phra Mae Kongka’ for having extensively used, and sometimes polluted, the water from the rivers and canals. It is also in part a thanksgiving for her bounty in providing water for the livelihood of the people.
Some believe the festival originates from Buddhism. They say the offering of flowers, candles and joss-sticks is a tribute of respect to the footprint of the Lord Buddha on the sandy beach of the Narmaha River in India, as well as to the great Serpent and dwellers of the underwater world, after the Lord Buddha’s visit to their watery realm. It is possible that this is derived from a Hindu festival that pays tribute to the god Vishnu, who meditates at the center of the ocean.
Others believe that the floral kratong is offered to the pagoda containing the Lord Buddha’s topknot, which was cut off at his self-ordination and is now in heaven. Another explanation is that it is a way to pay respect to one’s ancestors.
Whatever the true origin, the practice of Loy Kratong first began in the ancient kingdom of Sukhothai in the 13th century. A young queen named Nang Noppamas was believed to be the one who made a small boat laden with candles and incense and floated it down the river. The name Nang Noppamas has been associated with Loy Kratong ever since.
Today, Loy Kratong offers a unique occasion to celebrate. It’s a good time for people to make wishes and look to the future as they float their floral offerings along the waterways.
Where to celebrate
Although celebrated nationwide, Loy Kratong is particularly delightful in the provinces of Sukhothai, Chiang Mai, Ayutthaya and Bangkok.
As the place of origin of the festival, Sukhothai rightly remains the focal point of the celebrations. The festival comes with a spectacular light-and-sound show held in the ancient and traditional setting of the Sukhothai historical park.
Chiang Mai is another prime site to celebrate Loy Kratong. The festival is known in northern dialect as ‘Yi Peng.’ The largest kratongs are decorated floats, paraded through the town on trucks. The colorfully lit floats form a long glittering parade as they make their way to the river.
Meanwhile, up above thousands of ‘khom loy’ (floating lanterns) drift into the night sky. These large balloon-like lanterns are released at temples and sometimes from private homes in the hope that misfortune flies away with them.
The Chao Phraya River is one of the main waterways to celebrate the Loy Kratong festival. In Bangkok, riverside hotels organize special celebrations for their guests. In some hotels, swimming pools are turned into a temporary river for the Loy Kratong celebration.
Although Loy Kratong is an old Thai tradition, celebrated continuously since ancient times, the use of modern foam materials to make the kratong has taken its toll on the environment.
Today, instead of synthetic foams, natural materials such as the original banana leaves or even bread have been used to make the floats. In addition, kratong are increasingly being released in small canals or swimming pools to prevent pollution in the rivers. In this way, the old tradition can still be preserved while our rivers and waterways remain in pristine condition for future generations.
November full moon shines,
Loi Krathong, Loi Krathong,
and the water’s high
in the river and local klong,
Loi Loi Krathong,
Loi Loi Krathong,
Loi Krathong is here and everybody’s full of cheer,
We’re together at the klong,
We’re together at the klong,
Each one with this krathong,
As we push away we pray,
We can see a better day.