Enjoy Thailand's Festival Of Lights
The sky was full of flickering, moving lights, and the atmosphere was vibrant. Smiles spread across every person's face as they craned their necks to look upwards at the glowing dots floating ever higher. There were friends and families from all over the world who had come together to see this magical sight. A stillness settled over the city of Chiang Mai as we watched in silence and celebrated our new beginnings.
This was the Loi Krathong Lantern Festival in Thailand and I was lucky enough to be in Chiang Mai for it, a city renowned for this unique celebration. The timing couldn't have been more perfect! Before arriving in Thailand I hadn't even heard of Loi Krathong, and now I tell anyone and everyone how incredible it was to be a part of something so special, something that only comes around once a year and holds so much importance in Thai culture.
The History of Loi Krathong Lantern Festival
The festival takes place on the eve of the full moon during the 12th month in the traditional Thai Lunar calendar. This is usually November in the western calendar. There are various accounts of how and why the festival started, but it is thought that it was created by Buddhists in Thailand in order to honour the original Buddha, Siddhartha Guatama.
To understand this festival it is important to explain its meaning – the word ‘Loi' literally means ‘to float' while the word ‘Krathong' stands for the lotus shaped vessel that floats on the water, usually made from a banana tree stalk or even bread. The Krathongs are decorated with banana leaves, candles and flowers and then they are left to float down a river on the night of the full moon. This act is symbolic of letting go of all anger and grudges and starting over afresh, and many people believe that it will also bring good luck and happiness.
And the floating lanterns? Well those seem to have come from another festival that happens around the same time called Yi Peng, a time to make merit. During Yi Peng thousands of lanterns are lit and let off into the sky, creating a moving, flickering mass of lights gracefully floating through the sky of northern Thailand. Having the opportunity to take part in two cultural and spiritual festivals on the same night was really something quite astounding.
The family who ran the guesthouse I was staying at in Chiang Mai gave us a lesson on how to create our own Krathongs to take to the celebrations that evening. We were taught how to cut and shape our banana trunks and then came the art of leaf folding and decorating with petals, candles and incense sticks. Let me tell you, it's not as easy as you might think to turn a banana leaf into something pretty! But it was great fun to get involved with this family and learn all about the history and meaning behind these floating candle creations we were busy making.
As night fell, off we went into town to hunt out the best celebrations. And boy, did we find them. Hidden away down a side street, there was a huge opening right by the river, with music, tables, drinks and food stalls aplenty. We milled about for a bit, checking out everything that was on offer, making our way through the throngs of people, before settling down at a table with some delicious food and drink and just soaking up the atmosphere. Everybody was in high spirits as they walked down to the water and took their turn at letting off a lantern or pushing their candle onto the water, letting go of the past and looking to the future.
It was really something quite magical, and as I lit my candle and watched it float away down the river, I remember thinking how lucky I was to be allowed to be a part of it.
If you're thinking about heading to Thailand during your gap year, check out our Thailand country guide for ideas on what you can do, places to visit and some great tips from the message boards.
If you want to visit a Festival of Light but you're still in the UK, there is an option for you! Take a look at Meera Saujani's latest blog post on Leicester's Festival of Light.
About the Author: Rusja Foster
As a recently graduated Film student with a huge case of wanderlust, Rusja (or Roo, as she's better known), decided that the UK was not the place for her. So in November 2011 she set off on an 11-month around the world trip, visiting SE Asia, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and finally the USA, where she worked as Media Director at a YMCA summer camp for the 2nd year running. Roo is now back in the UK, living with the post-travel blues and planning her next adventure. You can find more from Roo on her blog Roo Around the World.