Songkran probably tops the list of favorite Thai holidays due to the sheer exuberance of the country wide water fight. But Loy Krathong comes in a close second, and is the most picturesque and beautiful of all Thai celebrations.
If you are an experienced Thai hand, please do not bitch at me about the spelling of Loy Krathong. There are several ‘correct’ spellings. Same same as Suriwong and Suriwongse. You say tomato. . . I’ve arbitrarily picked this spelling. Besides, in Chiang Mai they spell it Yi Peng.
Loy Krathong is celebrated on the night of the full moon of the twelfth lunar month. The lunar calendar sucks ‘cuz it’s close to impossible to find out the exact date of a specific event from year to year. In this case, the holiday is usually toward the end of November; a time of the year I need to be in the States racking up those holiday season dollars. But I lucked out one year when instead it fell at the beginning of the month. Perfect timing for me. Not only was I free, but I’m usually in Thailand then anyway.
Loy Krathong is celebrated in Bangkok with numerous festivities where ever there is a body of water. Large floats and fireworks light up the Chao Phraya River. Sukhothai holds one of the more famous celebrations at the Sukhothai Historical Park, a beautiful natural setting for the spectacular light-and-sound show. Chiang Mai, however, puts them all to shame. Spread over a three day period, there are nightly parades, the sky is filled with floating lanterns, and the Ping River is awash with Loy Krathong floats. Same holiday, but in Chiang Mai it’s called Yi Peng. And it coincided with Noom, my bar boy friend and current love of my life, and my second visit to Chiang Mai.
Noom and I had already spent several days together in Bangkok at the beginning of my trip. Then, I headed down to Bali for a week before returning to Bangkok and to Noom. We’d visited the Tawan Bar’s anniversary party where Noom finally got to meet Nut, a tale I’ve already posted here. Our relationship was growing and solidifying; I was officially a ‘boyfriend’ and had met one of Noom’s brothers and his wife, a tale yet to be told. Things were pretty cozy and rosy; we both were enjoying our friendship as it blossomed into something more. And both were looking forward to our Chiang Mai trip.
Noom had begun thinking about his future, realizing that at some point – regardless of how hot he is – working in a gogo bar wasn’t gonna be bringing in the bacon in his senior years. He was leaning toward becoming a tour guide. Having visited Chiang Mai once already a year before, this trip Noom was in full ‘future tour guide’ mode. On arrival we grabbed a taxi at the airport and Noom made fast friends with the driver, collecting a handful of his business cards. Goal #1, having a taxi driver contact in Chiang Mai for all future touring trips covered, Noom settled back to enjoy the ride letting out a curious, “Where we go?” as we zipped past the Montri Hotel, our place of residence on our previous trip.
For this trip I’d upgraded (slightly) to the Raming Lodge, a more central location on Loi Kroh Road. While I checked in, Noom grilled the counter staff on booking tour groups into the hotel. I went up to the room while he finished up his ‘bidness’. Okay room. A bit dark. A bit dated. But of decent size. And between the main part of the room and the bathroom there was a set of large wooden louvers which I promptly slid back, the vision of Noom’s naked body in the shower each day dancing in my head.
Noom finally came up to the room heady with excitement over scoring a free room on future trips if he booked at least five rooms of touri. The word ‘free’ has a magical quality about it to Thais. No matter what that costs. Depositing the stacks of brochures and business cards he’d gathered downstairs onto the bed, he promptly shut the wooden louvers. Damn! Expecting a late night out celebrating Yi Peng, we settled back on the brochure-laden bed for a nap. Thai bar boys love to sleep. Noom normally nods off at any opportunity. I popped my iPod earbuds in and laid back for a doze only to be almost immediately woken by a nudge to the shoulder. Huh, what? Blah, blah, blah from Noom, and I settled back again. Nudge. Huh, what? Blah, blah, blah from Noom, and I settled back again. Nudge.
I laughed. Noom can zone out with his iPod or fall into a slumber, no problemo. But I guess if I’m the one, well, Noom does not like to be ignored. So cute! So I rolled over, laid my head on his chest, threw an arm around him, and planting one of the earbuds in his ear, drifted off with John Mayer’s Gravity serenading me to sleep. Noom, getting the attention he deserved, decided a nap was a good thing for him too.
Yi Peng is a major celebration in Chiang Mai. And Chiang Mai is a major touri destination. So you’d think it would be easy to find out what events were scheduled. But this is Thailand. Telling the touri where and when things would be happening is not a priority. But then stumbling upon a parade or celebration is one of the rewarding experiences of international travel. Plus, I’d Googled my ass off before the trip so had a rough idea of where we needed to be and when we should be there. As the sun set we had a quick dinner and walked over to the Tha Pae Gate area for the first of three nightly parades.
Turns out this was the staging area for that night’s parade. But the beginning of a parade is about the same as the middle, so it was a good spot to watch. I’ve been in Thailand enough to get used to some of the local customs that would be considered rude back home: I completely ignored the three-deep crowds who had gathered along the sidewalks, grabbing the choice viewing spots. Stepping right in front of them, I had a ringside view without anyone blocking me, and happily snapped picture after picture of the passing parade.
The parade was spectacular. Illuminated floats worthy of the Rosebowl featuring traditionally garbed beauties of both genders. Ranks upon ranks of marching locals representing their clubs, businesses and organizations. Truck loads of red shirt party supporters blaring Thai political crap (warmly received by the Northern Thais). Dancing girls, prancing boys, and sultry ladyboys decked out in their finest costumes. I’d been expecting a cute little rural parade and instead got an Hollywood-like extravaganza lasting over an hour. And in the meantime, over in the plaza in front of the Tha Pae Gate, large, candle lit lanterns drifted into the night sky. Now this was a surprise. How’d I miss the whole floating lantern thing on my Google trip of discovery?
These large balloon-like lanterns, called khom loy (meaning ‘floating lanterns’, uh, duh!) are a major part of Chiang Mai’s Yi Peng celebration. Thousands are released over the three day celebration. The sky fills with illuminated lanterns, blocking out the stars (and causing a serious navigational problem for airplanes). They are about the size of a 30 gallon garbage can. Made out of thin paper over an expandable wire frame, they are handed to you flat. After pulling them into shape, you use your trusty Bic to light the waxy ring wired into the center bottom of the lantern. It flames up releasing gas into the lantern while you hold it still at ground level. When the lantern fills with gas you let it go to soar into the sky. Or if you let it go too soon, it soars diagonally across the plaza and into the crowd who scatter to avoid being set on fire. Many lanterns don’t make it far. Some become entangled in power lines, others in trees. Sanook takes precedence over safety.
Noom and I are comfortable with each other’s company and have no problem drifting apart in a crowd. I looked for photo ops (uh, just point your camera anywhere) Noom looked for souvenirs. Instead he found a lesbian. Selling khom loys. By the time I reunited with him he had become best friends with Pom who was in town to make a buck selling lanterns at the festival. Noom was busy corralling customers for her. Big smile on his face when he spotted me. Pointing at Pom he yelled, “Lesbian!” Noom has a thing about spotting dykes that rivals my fascination with taking monk shots.
Noom introduced me once again as his boyfriend and then qualified the introduction with, “We gay!” (Though he is straight and has always reserved the ‘gay’ moniker for fem boys in the past). He added, “same-same”, pointing at Pom and then at us, just in case either of us had not been able to make that connection. We were introduced to Pom’s brother who was helping her out. Then all four of us got busy handing out khom loys, collecting baht, and helping light our customers’ lanterns.
I had a great time vending, but kinda thought it might be cool to actually set off a lantern or two, too boot. But Noom, in his normal ‘make up your religious beliefs as you go’ manner decided we could not light lanterns until the next night, the actual night of Yi Peng. OK, whatevers. Around 2am, the crowds finally thinned, hugs all around, and we headed back to the hotel.
The plan for Night #2, it being the official night of Yi Peng, was to head riverside to set our krathong adrift. The roads along the river were barricaded to prevent traffic, an unnecessary act since there were so many people packed into the streets no vehicle could pass anyway. Along the route, in addition to all the usual crap for sale in Chiang Mai, were the krathong booths. Thousands available to select from, you could get small versions of the flowered floats for as little as 25 baht, or large fancy ones for upwards to 1,000 baht. Regardless of the size and splendor all krathongs have a candle in their center and three sticks of incense to light to please, or appease, the gods. In Thai culture, the belief is that since all lives are ruled by the power of good and bad luck; when you send these candle lit floats down the river, and lanterns into the sky, it brings you good luck in the new year. And any bad luck from the past year is washed away with the beautiful drifting lights. (That Loy Krathong is not celebrated at the time of any one of the three new years Thais celebrate each year is besides the point.)
Noom picked out a medium sized float (just large enough to make other Thais jealous without actually going to the level of ostentatiousness) for 300 baht and then carefully instructed the vendor on the modifications he wanted made. There is a small chamber under the candle to slip in a few baht coins; evidently like with other officials in Thailand, the gods must be bribed. Noom had harvested his finger nail clippings to add to the coins (I don’t know if this a standard Thai custom, or one of his specialized religious beliefs). With Noom reverently balancing our float in his hands, we made our way down to the war zone that was known as the Ping River.
Expats and regular visitors to Thailand will tell you Chiang Mai is the absolutely worse place to spend Loy Krathong. This opinion is largely due to the enormous amount of fire works that the locals light off. If it is fun to light a 200 role of fire crackers, it’s more fun to do so when you throw the roll at someone. The Loy Krathong celebration at riverside looks less like 4th of July and more like the D Day invasion at Omaha Beach. With just as much blood. Hundreds are injured, maimed, and lose body parts each year during the Loy Krathong celebration in Chiang Mai. Never mind, it’s sanook!
When we finally got to the water, Noom said his prayers, lit the candle and incense, and set our krathong off on its journey. The belief is that if your krathong drifts out, catching the current and sails down the river, good luck will follow (or bad luck will be washed away. One of the two.) If instead it floats back to shore, you’re fucked. But one man’s bad luck is another’s fortune; immersed in the shallows, large groups of locals wait greedily for wayward krathongs to float their way. They gather these up, scoop out the coins and pass the floats to comrades waiting on shore. The rescued krathongs are immediately taken back up to the road to be sold to unsuspecting festival goers. God I love Thailand!
We avoided a bitch slap to our karama; our krathong floated out into the middle of the river and sailed away. Duty done, and with Noom quite annoyed with his fellow countrymen bombarding our position with fireworks, we went back to the Tha Pae Gate and caught the last half of night #2’s parade. Just as spectacular as the previous night’s though manned by different groups (we’d missed the large parade floats that would be launched onto the river, so when the moon aligns right again we’ll have to come back). There were even more people packed into the plaza than the previous night, and the price of khom loys had doubled. We found Pom and her brother on the outskirts of the crowd. They were concerned about being beaten by the local Mafia as their sales were not ‘approved’ so they’d taken a spot from which they could easily dash to safety. (Uh, no, I’m serious.) Noom went into body guard mode and watched over them as they quickly sold out of inventory. But not before setting aside a half dozen lanterns for us to light.
Finally! My chance! And Noom did what Noom does best. He turned the fantastic into the extraordinary. Earlier in the day he’d grabbed a hundred baht off me and furtively bought something at 7/11. Turns out it was a set of fat tipped marking pens in several colors. Our khom loys quickly sported names, wishes, graphics, and colorful swoops and swirls. And the crowd went wild. We set one floating off together; then I on my own and he on his own. We joined Pom and her brother to decorate a super-sized lantern and watched with shit eating grins on our faces as it slowly lifted off ablaze with colorful wishes for the New Year in both English and Thai, drawing everyone’s eyes. The locals swarmed us begging for use of the pens. I expect that the next time I manage to get to Chiang Mai for Yi Peng, felt tip pen decorated khom loys will be de rigeur.
The following night saw another parade and another night of thousands of lanterns littering the sky. We met up again with Pom and her brother for dinner, walked through the always enjoyable Sunday Night Market, and then spent most of the night cruising the plaza at the Tha Pae Gate watching the spectacle.
Neither of us were injured by fireworks, Noom added another lesbian to his growing roster of Chiang Mai friends, and I got to experience a uniquely Thai celebration, the memory of which will remain with me for years to come.
(Oh, and the wooden louvers back in the hotel room? On the last day as Noom showered I slammed them open. He laughed. And then put on quite a show.)
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