Loi Krathong is a holiday I missed the best parts of in my first year in Thailand, having been on the train to Chiang Mai. This year, it simply fell on a weeknight. A few coworkers and I made the short walk from Pinklao to the Chao Phraya River where the closest celebration was happening.
Loi Krathong is a holiday surrounded by some mystery. There is no direct translation of the name into English, a krathong is the name of the small floating object traditionally made from banana leaf and bread, but (unfortunately) now more often made with Styrofoam. They float down the river to symbolize the release of sins and burdens, and often contain personal effects ranging from money to a lock of hair to toenail clippings.
According to legend, the ceremony started at Wat Traphang Thong Lang, the modern central temple of old Sukhothai. Large celebrations sill gather there to partake in the festival every year. Unfortunately, despite the tradition, this has been mostly disproved by historians, and the Thai royalty, who point to Loi Krathong as a reflection of an older celebration.
The four of us met up in a 50‘s sitcom style, waiting outside the others’ building until they could come out to play. From there, we took a series of zigzagging alleys to get to the river. When it came into view, I was amazed at the crowd there.
One thing I’ve read since going is that there are normally Krathong beauty pageants. A couple dozen elaborate krathongs were on display, and perhaps for sale, on tables underneath the bridge.
All around, people were launching khom loi, paper lanterns illuminated and lifted by a flame in the center. Interestingly, khom loi stem from a different festival in the north of Thailand that has become intermingled with Loi Krathong. And while khom loi are awesome to watch, occasionally a misfire while launching will shoot it into a crowd of people or the whole thing would catch fire and fall into the river.
Making our way past the krathong beauty pageant, the five of us had a seat on the terraced edge of the riverwalk under the light of the bridge and the highly-illuminated statue of King Rama VIII. Here we saw one of the most amusing parts of the celebration.
While most people in Bangkok would never entertain the thought of swimming in the Chao Phraya River after seeing the condition of its tributary canals, this seemed to be the vigorously pursued job of several men near the river bank. Most of the krathongs were launched upstream from the north side of the bridge, these men would swim up to them on the south side of the bridge, retrieve them, and bring the krathongs back to the riverbank for their associates to gather, take any money inside, and then re-sell.
While I understand the practicality of this, it did seem to kind of defeat the purpose.
The riverwalk we were sitting on was much more slippery than it looked. And, while we were all just sitting and watching everything happening, others were a lot more active. We saw a lot of people slip on these terraces and fall into the river. And while their friends got a laugh out of this more often than they came to help, the ones who fell looked miserable as they emerged from the Chao Phraya.