From all accounts, Loy Krathong will be a subdued affair in Bangkok this year. The 100-year-old Supreme Patriarch (kinda the Thai Buddhist version of the Pope) died a few weeks ago and the powers that be decided mourning was preferable to partying even if that meant cancelling the celebration of the country’s second biggest holiday of the year. Not that that announcement sent locals into a panic. When you are dealing with the passing of the Thai version of the Pope, honoring his memory with the Thai version of making a decision is only right. Initially, the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) made the grand announcement that all Loy Krathong celebrations would be cancelled this year, or possibly postponed by a week until the official mourning period was over. Then with all due respect having been properly paid to His Holiness’ passing, a few days later they issued a new statement: Just kidding!
Working with the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) to uphold an honored Thai Tradition – um, confusing decisions and grand pronouncements geared toward lip service more than reality, not the Loy Krathong celebration – their joint handling of the affair serves as a perfect example of how things are done in Thailand where face reigns supreme. Cancelling the country-wide party in honor of His Holiness’ death was the right thing to do. So they did. And once that observance was made, they were then free to proceed with their plans of throwing a bash that has become famous the world over. But wait! There’s more!
Saving face is never a simple thing to do. If I didn’t know better I’d assume Sir Walter Scott had the Thai obsession with face in mind when he wrote “Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to device.” But then a Scottish poet probably had some scheme to squeeze the last drop out of a farthing in mind with that one, and Thais are masters of the intricacies of spinning tangled webs of logic anyway. So yes, Loy Krathong was officially cancelled. Or postponed. But then on reflection TAT and the BMA decided the show must go on because Loy Krathong is such a popular celebration with tourist. So any condemnation for not properly honoring the dead Thai pope is all the fault of farang and not the decent people of Thailand, elected or appointed official or not. And just in case someone might think they were not serious about cancelling and/or postponing the party, TAT still postponed the Lhong Rak Thale Dao Art & Music Festival in Phetchaburi until December 13th. Not that that celebration really had anything to do with Loy Krathong.
I’ve no doubt that many touri schedule their visit to include the Loy Krathong celebrations. I have even less doubt that the majority of touri in Thailand during that holiday are clueless about the holiday and the manner in which it is celebrated. Which is probably the right way to go. Loy Krathong is held on the full moon of the 12th lunar month. Which means trying to figured our the exact dates the celebrations will be held on is an annual event. This year it falls on November 17th, a Sunday, an auspicious date because it is on the weekend and there is little question of which date within the three to five day period TAT finally got around to announcing will be the day for fireworks, music, and krathrong floating. And unsuspecting touri will know it’s party night thanks to all the fireworks and the illuminated boat parade down the Chao Phraya. Um, except there will be no fireworks, live music, and floating illuminated boats this year. Maybe. ‘Cuz we are still honoring the death of the Supreme Patriarch . Unless, of course, the wats along the river that usually host those festivities decide otherwise. TAT says that’s up to each individual temple. Or, evidently, shopping centers.
Asiatique, Bangkok’s newest riverside shopping extravaganza, will be home to Bangkok’s official Loy Krathong celebration this year, as it was last year, and is probably the best place in town for the average tourist to catch, and participate in the celebration. Think of it as Loy Krathong Lite. There are fireworks (which is just a maybe this year but I’m betting on yes), there’s an illuminated boat parked in front of the shopping attraction, there’s dozens of vendors selling khom loi – the fire breathing illuminated lanterns that end up filling the night’s sky which are more part of Northern Thailand’s version of Loy Krathong (Yi Peng) than Bangkok’s but are too much fun to regulate to their proper geographical home – and even more vendors selling krathrong – the small flowery decorative floats that are what the celebration is all about – at prices that no self-respecting Thai would ever pay (not that the boy du jour you take with you to Asiatique’s party will balk at your wallet overpaying for the largest and most gaudy krathong he can find.) An added bonus, that probably confuses the hell out of many tourists, is that the shopping mall is already decked out in its finest holiday display of illuminated Christmas trees. “Cuz nothing says Loy Krathong like Santa Claus.
An equally touristy way of celebrating the holiday are the special Chao Phraya Dinner Cruises, which double the price they usually charge for an excursion up the River of Kings accompanied by a dinner of bland Thai cuisine. I usually assign Chao Phraya dinner cruises to the same circle of touri hell as I do Jim Thompson’s House of Silk for Sale, but Loy Krathong may be the one time paying for a cruise is worth it. It is the best way to see all of the temples and government buildings (plus a hotel or two) lit up for the holiday. Of course this year the question is just how many of those buildings that usually take part in the display will be flipping the switch on. I’m betting most, if not all, will.
For a more local celebration the Memorial Bridge is the hot spot. Or one of them. Rama VIII bridge is just as much fun. At both you’ll get to see some of the illuminated boats, if there are any this year (and once again my bet is with yes). Khom loi are less evident – that’s more a Chiang Mai and/or Hangover III thing – but the crowds of locals shooting fireworks off at each other and floating what seems to be a million krathrong down the river (916,354 was the official krathrong count last year) makes up for the lack of organized Loy Krathong displays; it’s a lot more fun partying with locals than with a few hundred of your fellow touri anyway. You can get a watered down experience anywhere in town where water can be found – if you can’t pull yourself away from the bars of Soi Twilight for more than an hour, many locals fill the waterways of Lumphini Park with krathrong too.
As beloved as the Supreme Patriarch was, to Thais fun ranks even higher so where it is up to the locals to celebrate the holiday, business will be as usual. And that’s a shame. For those few days when it looked like all the hoopla would be canceled, the vision of a more historical and personal version of Loy Krathong was an enticing one. The holiday got its start during the Sukhothai period (1238 to 1438) when members of the royal family created – or adapted a traditional Brahmin festival – to ask for forgiveness from Phra Mae Khongkha (Ganges Goddess of rivers) and to pay respect to the Lord Buddha.
Loy Krathong was, and still is in some areas, a religious observation and a family affair. There were no illuminated boat parades, no firework displays, no beauty pageants, no crowds of drunk locals and even more drunk touri gone wild. Krathong were handmade out of banana tress and spider lily plants; their candle honored Buddha with their light, floating them down a river symbolized the letting go of all one’s hatred, anger, and negative thoughts. It was a personal affair, steeped in religious belief and tradition. There was, this year, a short window that suggested the celebration would perhaps be closer to what it once was. Experiencing that would have been a treat for locals and touri alike. But then those damn farang, according to TAT and the BMA, demanded their chance to party their asses off. Subdued, which TAT still promisees, will be unlikely this year. So expect a major party as usual. But if you’ve never celebrated Loy Krathong before it’s a smart idea to make sure you head for one of the areas promising the biggest splash with a local. You’ll get to see all the fireworks, flying lanterns on fire, pageants and pageantry, and if you are lucky, when your boy du jour sets his krathrong afloat you’ll also get to experieence a small taste of what the holiday really means to the people of Thailand.
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