Country 16: Thailand | This post is part of my 30×30 series. Read more here!
Planning a trip to Thailand? There are two very Thai festivals that might pop up on your radar. One is Songkran, the Thai new year. It’s a riotous celebration with people flinging, shooting, dumping, and dunking water onto everyone and everything. There are plenty of reasons to visit Thailand during Songkran. But I’m going to make a case that you choose to visit Thailand for Loy Krathong instead.
Why you should visit Thailand for Loy Krathong
First of all, what is Loy Krathong?
Loy Krathong (or Loi Krathong) is the Thai festival of lights. It’s celebrated on the night of the full moon of the twelfth (Thai) lunar month, usually in November.
There are a number of different origin stories for the festival. My favorite three are:
- The launch of the krathongs is meant to appease Mae Khongkha, the water goddess, to avoid flooding and bring in a healthy rice harvest
- Or to honor Buddha, in a Brahmannical tradition, with light and positive energy
- Or, in the most romantic take, as an homage to a young Thai princess who sent her lover a tiny boat lit with candles every evening to show her love
However it began, Loy Krathong was one of the most beautiful nights I experienced in Thailand. I credit even it with changing my relationship with Bangkok.
How is Loy Krathong celebrated?
The name, “Loy Krathong” translates roughly to mean, “to float a basket”. The festival is marked by the creation and floating of small boats traditionally made of banana tree trunks and leaves, and decorated with flowers, candles, food and, odd as it sounds, the occasional hair or nail clipping (it’s meant as a sacrifice). When you bend to float your basket on the river or water source, you release the bad energy and negative thoughts and begin afresh. You can also make wishes for luck and good fortune, especially in love.
When I was teaching English in Thailand, my school marked the occasion in full flamboyance, even providing a traditional outfit for the foreign teachers. I wore a long green silk skirt, known as a “chong kraben,” and a white shoulder wrap or “pha sabai.” Everyone was dressed to impress in Siamese finery—especially for the school’s beauty pageant, known as the “Noppamas Queen Contest.” Noppamas was the consort of the Sukothai king Loethai. It’s claimed that she floated the first krathong, though the reason why is still unclear. While the real pageant competitions are girls-only, at my school, boys and girls from 3 to 12 took turns walking the catwalk and wai-ing (bowing) to the judges and parents.
The Loy Krathong Song and Dance
At least once on the day you’ll hear the Loy Krathong song, which, even after learning it nine years ago, still plays at random in my head. The song is accompanied by the traditional Thai Loy Krathong dance. All the dancers parade slowly in a big circle. They swirl their arms out of their waist, making a small circle with their fingers and thumbs (think of the OK symbol) and finishing with a quick flick of their wrists.
November full moon shines
Loy Krathong Loy Krathong
and the water’s high in the river and local klong [Thai word for canal]
Loy Krathong is here and everybody’s full of cheer
We’re together at the klong
Each one with his krathong
As we push away we pray
We can see a better day
Where can you celebrate Loy Krathong?
There are celebrations in all the major destinations in Thailand. Chiang Mai, Phuket, and Sukhothai, where the festival supposedly originated, are some of the largest.
I celebrated in Bangkok, where the mighty (and murky) Chao Phraya is utterly transformed. My krathong floated free at the foot of the Rama VIII bridge. You’ll find a lot of Thais and farangs (foreigners) releasing their krathongs there too. Try and watch your krathong as long as you can; there’s a Thai proverb that says the longer you can see the light, the happier the following year will be for you. The Chao Phraya also hosts a competitive parade of real krathongs. Actual boats sponsored by different government agencies and companies parade in ostentatious string lights and bright neon.
You’ll find plenty of music and street food to enjoy, so grab a seat and watch people launch khom loi (sky lanterns) into a pitch black night while the river fills with bobbing krathongs and the bustle of Bangkok fades away.
If you visit Thailand for Loy Krathong, you have one of the most picturesque, atmospheric, and romantic nights possible in Thailand.
Dates of the next few Loy Krathongs
- 2018: Thursday, November 22
- 2019: Wednesday, November 13
- 2020: Sunday, November 1