Loi Kratong in Thailand - Much More Than Just a Holiday

songkhran festival in Northern Thailand Loi Kratong begins to weave its magic at dusk when kratongs, lights and lanterns transform night into day. Flickering candles drifting out across the water create an aura of romance that is irresistible.

Shimmering reflections light the sky as the heady aroma of incense fills the air and invigorates the spirit. A mystical silence hangs as each person prays and thinks their private thoughts while watching their offerings drift out of sight. For the longer the candle burns, the better the next year will be.

One Thai legend claims that when a boy and a girl launch a kratong together they will be lovers in this life or the next life.

This most picturesque of all Thai festivals is held annually on the full moon of the 12th lunar month (November) and is an apology to "Mother Water" for polluting. Traditionally, the people use leaves to fashion kratongs or small boats which are decorated with joss sticks, flowers and a lighted candle. A coin is usually added as an offering as kratongs are eased into waterways.

Legends vary as to Loi Krathong's origin. Most agree that the festival started in Sukothai about 800 years ago as a sort of Thai Thanksgiving. By paying respect with the incense and offering, the Thais are asking forgiveness of "mother river" for their pollution. And by floating away the kratongs they are floating their sins away.

Loi Krathong varies, but is generally a one to three day holiday that may include parades, fairs, fireworks and parties. It is a singular experience to hear a string of 3,000 firecrackers go off nearby. Or even more so to see a beauty contest where the contestants are clad in traditional Thai dress rather than swim wear.

Houses may be decorated with palm fronds, colored paper and lanterns. Loi Krathong is also a day of merit making as Thais make offerings at Buddhist temples.

Ready, Set, Launch!   Oops!

Northern Thailand has a unique addition to the Loi Krathong festival. It is the Yi Peng festival which includes launching "khom loi" later in the evening.

The khom loi is a small hot air balloon made of coarse translucent paper and approximately the size of a large trash bag. The bags are often white but may be colored and decorated. Three or four strings support the "candles / engines" that hang perhaps half a meter below the "bag."

The engines are made by soaking rolls of toilet paper in wax or paraffin preparations. Then the roll is sliced crosswise into sections about 3 cm thick and a wick is added. The engine also serves as illumination. Strings of sparklers may be attached below the engine.

Launching a khom loi is no task for a novice. It is common to see several people trying to cooperate in the effort since the bag has to be held steady and deployed while the air inside heats up. During that process the engine may go out, the wind may change, a string supporting the engine may break. Or someone might hold on when he was supposed to let go, or the thing may tangle in overhead lines or hang on the edge of a roof.

It is not too uncommon to see the khom loi go up, or down, in flames while all onlookers and launch committee laugh at their attempts.