‘Loy’ means to float and ’Krathong’ is a cup or bowl traditionally made from Banana leaves. The festival involves making your ’Krathong’ and then adding a candle to venerate Buddha and a coin to appease Phra Mae Khongkha (The Water Goddess). You then decorate your Krathong with flowers and joss sticks and after dark, float if off down the Mekong carrying away all of your bad habits and bad luck. I don’t have much bad luck, but I needed to make a big ’Krathong’ for my bad habits. But first, …… I had to eat.
Eating in Thailand is a very social thing, and they’re very social people, so it’s amazing that Thai’s are generally quite slim. I eat with Wisa’s family; Mom, Dad and Grandparents. They know that I’m European or ’farang’ as they like to call me, so they’re kind enough to cut back on the volcanic chilli content of the food. It’s still hot, but after a few days I’ll either be dead or culinarily acclimatised. After eating, we go next door to meet the Aunt and Uncle, and we eat again. Then, the cousins in the next house along the street, where we eat again. The Botmark family all live on the same street in Tha-Bo. It’s not a very long street but they inhabit every house from the top of the soi to the banks of the Mekong. By the time we reach the river, I’ve eaten so much food than is good for me but it’s getting late and I must make my Krathong.
I’m not supposed to make a Krathong because making Krathong is work for women. Screw that, I’m here to learn. I saw through a slice of banana tree for my base and a large lady called ‘Fon’ teaches me how to intricately fold the banana leaves and pin them to the slice of trunk. With a lot of help from every female member of the Botmark family, my Krathong is finally finished, and they all have a final laugh at my efforts. They’re experts and seem to think that mine will sink within a few seconds, but I reckon it’ll get all the way to the ocean.
It’s dark, so another relative cooks another huge meal and every other relative visits the house, eats and then leaves for the festival. I’ve been here for six hours and I’ve already eaten four meals. Proper meals, not snacks. Obviously they think that I’m too skinny, because as I start up the little Honda Click motorbike that they’ve loaned to me, somebody hands me a bamboo stick full of steamed coconut rice called ‘kow-ram’ … just in case I get hungry.
Down on the bank of the Mekong, hundreds of people are gathered. Each carries a Krathong and they walk in a steady stream down to the launching point. I light my candle and joss sticks, recite the only Buddhist prayer that I know and float my Krathong off down towards the ocean. For hundreds of miles upstream, thousands of people have been doing the exact same thing and the Mekong is a constant stream of floating illuminated banana boats. It’s an amazing sight, but the more spectacular event is just about to begin. (My camera stopped working, so the photograph above was actually taken in Bangkok, but cut out the building in the background and you get the general impression of what it’s like)
I always thought that the festival of Yi Peng was Vietnamese, but apparently it’s also celebrated in the far North of Thailand, or maybe it’s not the Yi Peng festival at all. Anyway, one of the most spectacular things that you could ever see is the sight of thousands of khom-fai (paper lanterns) filling the night sky at full moon. I buy a lantern made from rice paper and a wax fuel cell and join the growing crowd. It takes a few minutes for the heat from the burning fuel to fill the lantern, but once it does the lantern takes to the air. Every minute, hundreds and hundreds of lanterns take off and over the space of an hour, the entire night sky is filled with flickering flames …… you had to be there