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.