I’m sitting in a cool breeze, the trickle of a small fountain in the background, with poppings and small bangs and muted whizings from the fireworks, rockets, roman candles and every other kind of pyrotechnic large and small being set off on this full moon night in Chiang Mai. The dark sky is dotted with floating gently moving lights, the fire-heated paper lanterns that are being set off by the hundreds here this evening. They hang in the sky, moved by small breezes, drifting and eddying, making a shifting pattern of constellations that is mesmerising and enchanting all at once.
It’s Loy Kratong in Thailand, the full moon festival in November that marks the start of dry season. Kratongs are tiny rafts, decorated with flowers and banana leaves, and lit with candles, that are set afloat in rivers and streams, sent off with a wish for the future and the job also of carrying away the bad things from the previous year as they float down towards the sea.
This year, with the flooding that afflicted not just Bangkok but much of central Thailand, and is still going on, the idea that water is everywhere and needs to be acknowledged is even more potent. To put a kratong in the water you need to kneel on the bank and reach out and place it carefully on the surface. You want it to float and be carried off by the current, so you give it a little push, and perhaps also splash the water to make waves that will carry it away from the shore.
Yesterday I went to Warorot Market to shop for kratong-making supplies. The base is round, made of a short length of banana stem, about 2 inches thick and anything from 5 to 15 inches in diameter, like a round cutting-board in shape. (People had started to use styrofoam instead of banana stem these last years, but not a concern over pollution and trashing the river has led people back to banana stem.) I also bought several large bundles of banana leaves, long folded-green and supple, as well as small pins and finishing nails to use as attachers. Then what about flowers? I bought some orchids (magenta ones and white ones) and a bag full of marigolds, large full orange ones. Then I needed sparklers and incense, a bag of small clay and wax candles, and a box of matches, and the shopping was done.
Today I sat on the floor with three friends and we figured our way into kratong decoration, starting with wrapping the whole banana stem platforms banana leaf (so the banana stem absorbs water less quickly and lasts longer). Then came the decisions about which flowers? and arranged how? Symmetrically the Thai way? or not? We each decorated two or three. Each had personality and was a reflection of the moment and of the person who made it.
Then in the late afternoon we put each in a plastic bag for easier carrying (taking care not to crush the flowers around the edge or to knock over the incense batons etc), and set off for the river. I knew the crowds would get dense and intense, so I was happy to set out just as the fat moon was rising over the trees in a limpid sky.
We headed down Thapae Road to the river, then across the bridge and north. The place I had in mind for us to float our kratongs was the riverbank at the Brasserie, best known for its bluesy jazz in the late night. We sat sipping lime juice and other easy drinks, watching the light fade, with the big blue mound of Doi Sutep against the western sky, and meantime too, a stream of flickering-lights - kratongs - was already floating down the far side of the river.
As darkness fell we carried our kratongs to the wet post-floods-smelling river bank and one by one we lit the candles, the incense sticks, the sparklers, and knelt and placed them on the water, then gave a push to encourage them out into the deeper water where the current could catch them And one by one they made it: tippy-teetery, carrying their toppings of marigolds and orchids, their spikes of incense and their flickering candles, they valiantly headed out to join their colleagues, then floated quickly off down the river.
They carried wishes with them, and hopefully carried off all the negatives and difficulties and regrets from the last twelve months, leaving us free and fresh to begin another cycle of life and hope.
Later we walked along the river banks, the dark water now alive with lit kratongs and with the reflected dots of light from the hundreds of paper lanterns floating aloft. And everywhere there were people lighting candles, holding lit paper lanterns as they waited for the hot air to build up and carry them away, eating and drinking, laughing and living in the now.
How lovely. How special.
AFTERWARD: I wrote all that last night, and now it is once again evening, and there are again firecrackers banging and popping and in the distance I can hear a marching band playing loud ly and rhythmically as it makes its way down Thapae Road. This is the third parade in as many evenings! Ah well. I kind of feel sorry for the police who vow endlessly on their whistles as they try to redirect traffic from blocked-off roads.
This morning was the Haw market, as it is every Friday here. There were custard apples, and heaps of pickles and Shan tou, and creamy Shan soup, and Burmese sweets, and dried meat, and vegetables and greens of every description, and people with faces from the hills and valleys of many parts of SOutheast Asia, as well as the odd foreigner. I had a thick creamy Shan soup and then an hour or more later a noodle soup with a meat sauce heightened by chile paste. Yum, and YUM!
Oh, and the big fat glowing full moon has just come up from behind the eastern hills...;Happy full moon day everyone.