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Wed Nov 25 2015: Festival of Lights

Well, the year 2558 is coming to a close. No, we haven't time-traveled to the future, although the blog is so far behind, it might as well be a history book. As we've noticed in all the dates we see on the newspapers and flyers around town, the Thai calendar is measured in the Buddhist Era, which is 543 years ahead of the Christian Era of the Gregorian calendar.

In the Buddha Era Calendar, the most important days are the full moon days. That's when all the Thais and tourists come out to celebrate. And of all the Full Moon celebrations, the most visually spectacular is the one celebrated on the 12th month of the lunar calendar, Loi Krathong - the festival of lights.

Normally in the western world, this means werewolves. In Thailand, it means PAAAAARRRRTTTTEEEEEE!!!!

Loi Krathong celebrations in Chiang Mai take place over several days. We heard the monks at the Wat Phan Tao, right in downtown Chiang Mai, were throwing a huge party the day before the full moon, so we dropped in.

This is how the Buddhist monks celebrate. Wat were you expecting?

It does get livelier though. Outside the temple, the monks were carrying small ceramic bowls of wax with a candle inside. They were placing them all over the temple and the grounds.

You can donate some money to the temple and receive a Buddhist votive candle.
Then you write your name on a tag that you stick on the underside along with a wish or prayer

You can hand them to a monk for them to place your candle up on the walls of the temple

Neda made a wish. Like a birthday wish, you're not supposed to share it with anyone else

Loi Krathong is a special occasion, so at Wat Phan Tao they organize an outdoor ceremony where novice monks practice the light waving rite.

Novice monks slowly walk out onto an island of candles

As a Buddhist sermon is delivered, they close their eyes in deep meditation

With paper lanterns above them and a carpet of candles around them,
it's a spectacular setting for a religious ceremony

The next evening is the actual full moon ceremony, and tens of thousands of people will spill out into the streets of Chiang Mai to celebrate. Iva, the whirlwind traveler has arrived in town from her densely packed itinerary just in time to celebrate Loi Kathrong with us. We sat down with her during the day and she regaled us with stores of where she had been in the last 10 days: the temples of Angkor Watt in Cambodia, the ruins in Ayutthaya, the beaches of Phi Phi. "So what have you guys done since I last saw you?" she asked.

"Um. We took the train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai... Oh and we ate a lot of food. Like, A LOT of food! And... we're seeing Loi Kathrong tonight!"

This is the main event, releasing the Krathong into the river

A Krathong is an offering made of banana leaf and wood shaped into a lotus flower. They are typically decorated with a candle, an incense stick, perhaps a coin and a lock of hair. The idea is to place all of your bad fortune into the Krathong and release it into the river away from you.

When a few people release krathongs, it seems like a deeply personal affair

But it's not a Festival of Lights if only a few people do it...

When thousands of people line the shores of the river and release thousands of these lit-up krathongs, it is quite a sight! That's a lot of bad luck floating down the river...

No party is complete without a parade

And floats. Each year there is float dedicated to the Queen Noppamas Beauty Contest

The first person to ever create a Krathong was Noppamas, the daughter of a Brahmin priest in 1850AD, she presented it to the King of the Sukhothai kingdom and he released it into the river. Then he married her. Then came the floats.

During the parade, we glance up at the sky...

It was breathtaking. Thousands of orange lights, like fireflies rising up into the dark clouds of the night sky. It all seemed to be coming from Wat Phan Tao temple, so we quickly headed over there to see what was going on.

At the temple, there was a crowd of people all releasing paper lantern balloons

Although Loi Krathong is Thai holiday, Chiang Mai has put a special twist on this celebration. Because Loi Krathong also coincides with the Lanna (Northern people) festival called Yi Peng, this tradition also launches thousands of paper lantern balloons into the sky like embers rising from a flame. So along with the thousands of Krathongs floating down the river, you have the mirror image of the paper lanterns floating up in the sky. It truly is a Festival of Lights!

How do you get yourself a paper lantern? Well one way is to donate some money to the temple... :)

The lantern is called a Khom Loi, and like the votive candles, you write your wish or dreams on the side of the lantern balloon

Here's a Hello Kitty Khom Loi. Not sure what the wish here is... Maybe a pink bowtie for Christmas?

The Khom Loi are lifted up by a wax disc that's set on fire. It is also capable of setting your head and hair on fire
if you're not careful. True story...

You hold the lantern upright until the candle has filled the inside with hot air,
then as it becomes light, you let it go...

Looking up, it looks like something from an astronomy textbook!

If you think this is not entirely safe for airplanes, you're right. On the night of Yi Peng, you're only allowed to launch lanterns within a small window of time in the evening of the full moon. During that time, all flights are routed around the Chiang Mai area. If you launch a lantern outside of this window, you face stiff penalties up to and including the death sentence. Yes, you can actually be put to death for having too much fun.

But nobody here is thinking anything remotely close to that

Iva launches her own wish up into the sky

Although Loi Krathong is the main national event, in Chiang Mai Yi Peng is by far the more popular activity

Throughout the night, thousands of these lanterns are released

After all the tourists leave at the end of Loi Krathong, it's up to a cadre of local volunteers mostly made up of university students, to scour the dam's reservoir of Krathongs and hiking up the hills around Chiang Mai to collect the landed Khom Loi. It's not a job that's much-publicized, but an essential part of the lifecycle of the festival.

Fireworks explode, providing a brilliant backdrop to the rising khom loi

    Paper lantern hopes and wishes
    Held high with both hands
    Lit up from inside with
    equal parts imagination and willpower

    Dream hard and let go
    And let's see where it flies off to

    Yi Peng, Chiang Mai 2558 BE / Toronto June 14th, 2012

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