Thailand’s spirituality is a wonderful mixture of Animism, Hinduism and Buddhism. These come together in the temples and are usually mixed up in the major festivals, such as Loi Krathong when floating rafts of flowers are placed in a river, lake, pond or other water.
You probably know the story of how the Festival of Loi Krathong was invented by a lady of the Sukhothai court named Nopphamat. However, this is not true. The story originated in a poem written in the early Bangkok period, far later than 600 years or so implied in the story. So who did invent this festival? According to King Monkut, Rama IV, writing in 1863 it was a Brahmin festival that the Thais adapted to pay homage to Buddha. The light of the candle venerates the Buddha whilst the floating away of the Krathong is meant to take away life’s frustrations, anger and bad luck that has accumulated over the past year.
But that’s not all! The Krathong also is used to pay homage to Phra Mae, the water goddess. So we have a Hindu Brahmin ceremony that has been adapted to pay homage to Buddha and at the same time appease the animistic water goddess.
In case you don’t know a Krathong is a floating base made of and bamboo leaves or bread. They used to be made of polystyrene but thankfully this material is becoming less and less popular due to its lack of biodegradability. Bread is becoming more and more popular because it will also feed the fish which should generate some merit.
On top of this floating platform, bamboo leaves and flowers are arranged making a beautiful bouquet. In amongst these miniature gardens is a candle and an incense stick. A coin is usually included and sometimes people will put nail clippings or a lock of hair to indicate that the person intends to jettison their negative thoughts and think more positively in the future.
It is very easy to buy ready-made Krathong which look wonderful but it is far more fun to make one’s own. If you take part in the ceremony you need to beware of some of the traditions.
If you and your partner place your Krathong in the water at the same time, watch to see whether they float apart or come together. If they head towards each other you can be sure of another rewarding year. If they float apart you should start looking for another partner.
Personally I always find the ceremony emotional. I imagine all the bad things in my life floating away and I do find the ceremony useful in that for a few moments I experience a calm and wholeness that normally takes a long period of meditation to achieve.
Should you decide to float a Krathong with a bread base you need to be aware of one, fairly obvious fact. The bread will feed the fish but if you are at a temple or other pond where catfish and other large fish are kept, they can devour a Krathong in a matter of seconds. Instead of a scene of tranquil beauty the view looks like a major ship wreck.
It is wonderful to see a mass of Krathongs coming together, their candles burning and giving light and the smell of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of incense sticks, heavy in the air. As so often happens the Thais have managed to create a wonderful festival by adapting and combining features from different regions and religions.
In the North, in Lanna country, they have their own special ceremony which happens to take place at the same time as Loi Krathong. This is the Festival of Yi Peng. This is the main festival when the sky lanterns (Khom Loi) are let loose. Although this festival developed separately from Loi Krathong and is more about making merit than paying homage it does appear to be becoming part of the Loi Krathong Festival
We are lucky to be able to take part and enjoy these festivals. They are spectacular, emotionally satisfying, fun and much cheaper than Christmas.
First I must apologise for not writing sooner. I allowed what I thought was a slight illness, I mentioned it last time, to get out of control and turn into Pneumonia. I lost December and January and have been playing catch-up ever since. However all is now well, as am I, so we now intend to publish a letter every two months. This is the one for March so the next will be published in May.
I have just come back from Bangkok and on the plane I started looking back over my time in Thailand and remembering many of the amusing, sometimes embarrassing, things that have happened to me.
I remembered my first trip Chiang Mai. I had only been in the city for four days and had hired a motorcycle in order to see around the town. I decided to explore the area around the Night Market on foot and to find a place have some lunch. There, in the middle of a long line of parked motorcycles was a small space in which I could fit my trusty Honda Dream. Imagine my horror and shock when I returned after lunch to find that my motorcycle had been chained to about 30 or 40 other motorcycles. One incredibly long chain went through the wheel of every motorcycle and was secured by one single padlock. I had not realised that red and white stripes painted on the curbside meant that no parking was allowed. Neither, presumably, did the other 30 or 40 riders.
I spotted a piece of paper attached to the saddle which meant nothing to me as it was entirely in Thai but I recognised that it must be some kind of parking ticket. What was I to do? I could not read what it said therefore I could not do what was required of me in order to free my motorcycle.
I spotted a policeman and I had heard that the thing to do with policeman in Thailand was to bribe them. A bribe would no doubt quickly release my machine and allow me to be on my way. I felt fully equipped to negotiate my freedom as I had already completed three days of the AUA, book 1, Thai course.
“Sawadee krub” I said with all the unwarranted confidence of a beginning AUA student. A Gallic shrug of the shoulders coupled with a waiving of the piece of paper indicated to the policeman that my language skills had run out and that I did not know what to do next in order to free my trusty steed.
My attempted bribe was politely declined. Eventually, with the help of passers-by and the policeman’s English, which was far better than my Thai, I understood that I needed to go to the police station and pay a fine, after which my motorcycle would be unlocked. But how to find the police station? How to find my way around Chiang Mai at all? What is worse, how would I find my way back from the police station to my motorcycle. The solution seemed to be to hire a Tuk Tuk which would take me to the police station, wait and then return me to my Honda Dream.
A satisfactory negotiation was concluded with a passing Tuk Tuk driver who agreed to take me to the police station, wait and then return for the sum of 100 baht. The driver duly deposited me at the bottom of the stairs at the police station and indicated I should ascend into the fineing part of the police station. I entered a large room full of about 150 people, all gloomily waiting to pay their appropriate fine. There was obviously some system but I had no idea what it was. I resorted to paper waving once again and some helpful person seized my white paper and placed it on a spike, on a desk, behind which sat a ferocious policeman. So far so good, except that within about five seconds another 10 or 15 pieces of paper had been placed on the spike by other finees.
I now realised I was in serious trouble as I had no idea what was on my paper or indeed, which piece of paper was mine. Neither did I know the number of the Bike. I realised it was now likely that I would have to wait until the end of the day, when there was only one piece of paper left and presumably 30 feet chain holding my poor motorcycle down.
A helpful fellow Thai inmate and a surprisingly friendly policeman quickly worked out which was my piece of paper by which time Sanuk had begun to rear its head. In any situation if there is the possibility of having some fun, the Thais will seize it. Here was a hapless foreigner in the same miserable position as themselves except that he was obviously a blundering idiot. They had source of amusement in a very un-amusing situation.
Eventually I was called in front of a policeman who sat with others behind a desk. The crowd was hushed as they waited to hear what he would say to me. “Fine 1,000 baht” he stated firmly and loudly enough for everyone to hear. Suddenly the air was sucked out of the room as 150 people gave a sharp intake of breath. 1000 baht? Everyone else was only fined 200. This is Thailand, I thought, and they are taking advantage of me. I decided the only thing to do was to go along with it in order to get out of this horrible place as quickly as possible. Then I noticed that the policeman was beaming at me. His smile seemed genuine and he seemed greatly amused “but for you, discount, 200 baht” he announced. Suddenly the air pressure increased and ears popped as everyone let out a forceful sigh of relief.
I had heard about Sanuk and now I saw it in action. Everyone started falling about laughing.
I then moved along to the next policeman who took my money. Then on to the third who gave me a receipt. He then stated in broken English, “Gate three”. I understood what he meant but I had done four days at AUA and knew that the Thai word for Gate it was “Pratu”. I looked at him blankly as though I could not understand what he said whilst his colleagues were all laughing and saying he was a very clever to be able to speak English. By now we had an audience of 150 people hanging on our every word. I repeated “gate” as though I had not understood him. He looked at me again and repeated hesitantly “Gate three”. I looked quizzical and then feigned a sudden understanding and exclaimed “Ah pratu saam”. The laughter of everyone, including myself and the policemen, was hysterical.
Sanuk is a wonderful aspect of the Thai character that can make the most miserable circumstances bearable. This had livened up what would otherwise have been a rather boring afternoon. But then I realised that my problems were not over.
I was convinced that the Tuk Tuk driver would not have waited for me for such a long time. I resigned myself to hours of meandering around unfamiliar streets looking for a motorcycle, identical to thousands of others. But he had waited. What an excellent fellow he was. He quickly returned me to my motorcycle and I was so relieved I gave him 100% tip.
What an amazing experience. I did not feel that such an adventure could be repeated anywhere else in the world. I had experienced Sanuk first hand and realised it is a very important and delightful part of the Thai character. It is not dissimilar from the British, stiff upper lip attitude of creating humour out of hardship and such an attitude can make a fairly mundane, miserable life more tolerable. I felt that the experience was well worth the 400 baht it cost.
I returned to my studies at AUA the following day and was delighted to realise that the logic of the language is often incredibly straightforward. For example, Naam is basically the word for liquid or water so Naam Plow means clean drinking water, Naam Pla is fish sauce and Hong Naam means water room or bathroom.
There comes a time when learning a new language, where instead of translating in your head the words pop straight out of your memory and onto your tongue. The words that pop are not always entirely correct and mistakes can create Sanuk for all concerned. Probably about day 11 of my AUA course I was asked what I wanted to drink by a waiter in a small local restaurant. I confidently replied “Naam Pla”. This caused great consternation as none of the staff, or indeed the other customers, could understand why wanted to drink a bottle of fish sauce. This error was magnified a few days later when I actually asked for a “Hong naam kuat nung” in other words I had asked for a bottle of bathroom. Now, many years later, when I return to the restaurant they still ask me if I want a bottle of bathroom or perhaps we should call it toilet water.
Oh what fun, we can have in Chiang Mai. I am glad to be back.
© Colin Jarvis