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Celebrating Loy Krathong in Krabi town

THAILAND | Thursday, 29 November 2007 | Views [9800]

My krathong.

My krathong.

I ended up in Krabi town for Loy Krathong quite by accident, as a result of a double whammy of food poisoning (first night in town) and a vicious bed bug attack (second night in town).  A normal person would have fled town, never to return, not wanting to know what the third night would hold, but I was too weak, too itchy, and too grumpy to go anywhere and was determined to not let it deter me from seeing more of the area's famed beauty.  

Loy Krathong falls on the night of the full moon of the twelfth lunar month, after the rainy season has ended, when the tides are strong and the rivers full.  The tradition is to float a krathong -- a lotus-shaped raft woven of banana leaf and decorated with flowers, a candle and 3 incense sticks, resembling a birthday cake -- on the river or sea, and to send it off with a wish.  It seems to have many meanings.  The most important is to give thanks to the goddess of water, to apologize for polluting her waters and to ask for forgiveness for taking water from the rivers all year long.  It’s also considered the festival of light, and many suggest that it is related to the Hindu celebration of Diwali, adopted back when the region was Hindu and then transformed and blended with animist beliefs over the centuries.     

The celebration is supposed to be most beautiful in towns and cities on rivers, like Bangkok, Ayutthaya, and Sukkothai, at least according to the guidebooks.  Thankfully they don't mention Krabi town, which also has a river running though it, and fewer tourists and more manageable crowds than the more popular destinations.  Krabi is a small town, the provincial capital, and sits along the Krabi River.  Most people just pass through on the way to Railay and the islands of the Andaman Sea, which had been my original intention as well.  But derailed by sickness and bedbugs, I ended staying five nights and just taking day trips to Railay and other spots.  Little did I know that the best thing about this change of plans was the opportunity to experience the Loy Krathong celebrations in this riverside town.

In the afternoon, people began setting up card tables along the river to sell the krathongs.   Next to the tables, spread out on cloths, sat more people weaving the little baskets, or rafts.  The base is a slice of banana tree, and banana leaves are woven around to make the lotus flower shape.  Inside, flowers are arranged around a candle and three sticks of incense.  No krathong is alike, and I greatly enjoyed walking along the river and admiring the different interpretations.  The greatest variation was in the kinds of flowers used to decorate the krathongs.  Orchids of all colors were most common, but also marigold, chrysanthemum, sunflowers, many kinds of wildflowers, and even some colorful tropical foliage.  Some were very large, like birthday cakes (for those who take very long showers and need to ask for extra forgiveness).  Some were made of bread, and I later read that this is the ubher-environmental krathong, since it will degrade fastest.  Apparently not too long ago, krathongs were made of styrofoam until the environmentalists put a halt to that.

I had the good fortune to stumble upon some friendly English-speaking krathong makers.  They were a group of six men and women who worked together as Environmental Officers in Phuket.  They were on their way to a conference on wastewater the next day, appropriately enough, and decided to make some extra cash to buy drinks (or so they told me).  After I admired their krathongs decorated with red orchids, they invited me to see their “factory,” which consisted of the three women, working away.  Each one did a separate part of the krathong, and as I stood watching, they answered my questions. 

I asked how they learn to make the krathongs, and one of the men told me that “it is nature, it is genetic, it is in the blood.  We Thai people, we just know how to make them.”  Hmmm.  This genetic-determinism (the “nimble fingers” of Southeast Asian women!) argument was exactly what I had spent seven years teaching students to question critique and disprove in introductory cultural anthropology classes.  I suppose if people insist upon these kinds of explanations, it is at least better to deploy it for krathong-making than for justifying exploitation of women in the sweatshops. 

I had already purchased a krathong and was looking for the perfect place from which to launch it when I met them, so I took the opportunity to ask what I was supposed to do.  They told me that the act of throwing the krathong in the river was akin throwing out all the evil spirits and bad luck of the old year.  When I asked if it meant it was the new year, they said no, though I suppose it’s a new year of sorts in terms of the water-based calendar as the end of the rainy season. 

They told me that I needed to put a piece of my finger nail and a piece of my hair on my krathong.  This was a way of getting rid of the old, and ensuring good health in the new year.  They lent me their nail clippers and one of the girls took her Swiss Army knife and snipped a bit of my hair for me.  They also told me that it is customary to place a 1 Baht coin on the raft.  But one of the men shook his head, saying, “As an economist, I don’t believe in that tradition.”  I reached for my purse, but one of the woman insisted that I take her 1 Baht coin.  I can only imagine that in the bigger cities someone makes a lot of money by going for a swim the next morning.  I was told that I should light the candle and incense, then hold the krathong to my forehead, give thanks to the water goddess, and make a wish for the new year.

My krathong was ready, and I thanked them and bid farewell and went to seek a good spot to float my krathong from.  The tide was still coming in, and many krathong were getting hung up on boats or the river bank and I did not want that to happen to mine.  When I asked everyone what time Loy Krathong began everyone said “midnight.”  It made no sense to me, because ever since sundown people were launching their krathongs.  I even stayed up until midnight just to see what happened, and it seemed that it was the same steady stream of people lighting and launching their krathongs.  Then I realized that it was high tide at midnight, so perhaps it is the most auspicious time to launch one’s krathong.

After much searching, I found a nice spot to launch mine.  I tried to do as I was instructed, but it was windy and I was trying to keep the candle from blowing out.  I launched my little orchid and wildflower krathong in a spot before a bend in the river, where the tide was very strong and the current swiftly bore it out to the center of the river, taking my gratitude and wishes along with it, out of sight and into the dark waters where the river goddess dwells.

Tags: celebrations, culture, festivals, krabi, loy krathong

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