Thailand is synonymous with spectacular festivals, from the Thai New Year, and the Vegetarian Festival to the Loi Krathong Festival. This festival is considered the second most important festival in Thailand. Loi Krathong translates as “to float a basket”, after the woven baskets “krathong” which are floated down many of Thailand’s waterways. The festival is held yearly on the full moon of the 12th month of the Thai lunar calendar.
The Loi Krathong festival is originally a Brahmin festival dedicated to the worship of the Gods – Shiva, Vishnu, and Brahma. In Thailand, the festival started nearly 700 years ago. When the Thai people adopted Buddhism, they continued celebrating the traditional festival, and adopted its meaning to be a veneration of Buddhism. The ceremony is now conducted in the honor of the original Buddha. As part of the ritual, the various lanterns that are floated down rivers are meant to celebrate the original Buddha footprints at the Nammathanati River beach in India. Some Thai worshipers also choose to use the festival as an opportunity to venerate and worship the various water deities.
The festival coincides with the Northern Thai festival of Yi Peng. This is a predominantly northern Thai festival to celebrate the Buddha. During Yi Peng, thousands of sky lanterns are lit and released.
Of all the festivals that are held in Thailand every year, Loi Krathong is considered by many Thais and foreigners alike to be the most beautiful and popular of all the festivals.
Loi Krathong has many rituals and attractions. The most noticeable of all these are the floating lanterns and rafts. Additionally, there are many beauty contests held during the festival. Thais will also decorate houses, temples and government buildings with numerous multi-coloured lanterns.
The main way used to celebrate Loi Krathong is the actual Krathong itself. These small floating offerings are made by many Thais and filed with a candle and incense, and floated down one of Thailand’s many rivers. One of the key aspects about these krathongs is that they should not be made from polystyrene or other non-bio degradable materials that damage the environment. In many areas of Thailand, such krathongs are not only frowned upon, but are actually illegal.
The krathong serves two religious purposes. The candle is lit in veneration of the Buddha and the light he brought to the world, while by casting away the krathong down a river, the worshipers free themselves and wash away all their previous transgressions and misdemeanours. Some worshipers will even put fingernail clippings and locks of hair in the krathong as a symbolic cleansing.
Most Thais make their own krathong from various natural substances. Commonly the leaves and trunks of banana trees, bread, flowers, candles incense and sometimes some Thais even add coins as an offering to their Loi Krathong.
The sky lanterns are also made from natural substances; generally, the frames are constructed from small dried bamboo reeds that are covered with the thinnest sheets of paper to reduce weight. The lantern then has a candle placed inside it and secured to the lantern. As the flame creates hot air, it rises inside the lantern until the lantern is turned into a mini hot air balloon, and it slowly rises into the night sky ,drifting with the wind and thermals.
Due the enormous risk caused by launching hundreds of thousands of small fires into the air at night, the lanterns are banned in many urban areas of Thailand since they pose a risk to aviation, buildings and monuments. The penalties for launching a lantern and causing damage are very severe in Thailand, and range from the death penalty or a life sentence to 5 years in prison if the damage was only minor.
With all the floating lanterns, rafts, and other festivities, one of the major aspects of the festival is the many beauty contests that are held all around Thailand at the same time. Legend has it that in the 13th century, the beautiful Nang Nopphamat, who was the consort of King Sri Indraditya, was the first to float a boat down the river. It was of such beauty that the king insisted that every year, decorated rafts would be floated down the river. Although this has almost certainly been proven to be false, it lingers in the folklore, and there are many beauty contests held in honour of the legendry Nang Nopphamat. These contests held in conjunction with the festival are known as Nopphamat Queen Contests.