I’m sitting on the floor up here in my airy ninth floor corner apartment in Chiang Mai. I have sound in three-D here, and what is it? First there’s the rhythmic beating of a gong at the Pa-O wat (buddhist temple) across the street, sometimes with cymbals too, as a clashing under-over note. Then there’s the bang bang, at irregular intervals, of fireworks. Smetimes it’s a “pop” loud and sudden, sometimes there’s a whistle and then a bang. There’s very lttle traffic noise though, for many streets around here have been closed off, for tonight’s big parade. Last year I was down by the parade watching and photographing; this year I’m keeping my distance
All this is Loy Kratong in Chiang Mai. Twenty-three years ago at my first Loy Kratong here, things were smaller...there were some big exploding whooshes of fireworks in the sky, bright bursts of colour, and there were the little scary firework “bomblets”, firecrackers in a string, that people would toss out into the road. But there weren’t many cars and crowds were manageable. Like so much else in Chiang Mai and Thailand, Loy Kratong has gotten bigger and more modern in many ways recently.
But up here I’m low-tech: I just have two little ceramic candles, out on the ledge of my little balcony.
And last night, after making kratongs in the afternoon with two neighbours, using rounds of banana stem as base, then wrapping each round with banana leaf, anchored with pins, and decorating the top with flowers and folded banana leaf and candles, I carried my two to the river. I went with a friend early. We sat at a little restaurant on the far bank, at a table near the water, and watched the sun set and the lights of floating kratongs make their flickering way down the river. Finally it was our turn. I lit the little candles on my kratongs, then launched them, one by one. As I watched them totter away on the dark water, heading downstream, they seemed like little freshly hatched baby turtles, or any fledgling, precariously setting out.
They were like the embodiment of our hopes and fears, fragile, vulnerable, optimistic nonetheless, in fact rather valiant.
That was last night. After watching the scene for a good long while, we made out way through incredibly thick traffic and crowds, oh so grateful to be on foot, over the bridge, past arade, and thence into the relative peace of the lane I live on.
All this evening the moon has been coy, draping herself in gauzy cloud one minute, then peering out in a silvery gleam, then completely veiling herself in thick cloud the next moment. But now she’s out, the sky is clearing, and the moving golden yellow lights of fire-paper lanterns are sliding upward across the sky. Oh now there are some bursts of red and then sparkling white-silver from fireworks to the east, and here’s a zinging whine of something... But the backdrop is the floating moving constellations of fire-in-the-sky paper lanterns. And if I look closely I can see their ghosts, the blackened husks of expired paper lanterns as they drift slowly, like tired phantoms, back to earth.
Suddenly, a pair of very loud bangs make me jump. I can’t imagine how people who have been in war of any kind ever tolerate this festival; there are so many explosions large and small, unexpected bangs and pops.
In the distance I can hear the music that accompanies the various floats in today’s enormous elaborate parade. They pass down Thapae Road, then north along the river. The sound is carrying up to me from the river, born by the breeze in irregular gusts.
How peaceful I feel up here, not distant, but just at a calm remove, looking out at and listening to the panorama of light and action. Meantime the two ceramic candles are bright on the ledge before me, flickering with a strong golden yellow light.
Above the moon seems cool and very silvery in comparison to all this man-made yellow flame. She’s got an aureole now, pinkish, the haze caused by the fireworks’ smoke perhaps...or just the remnant of damp air from the quickly disappearing clouds.
The breeze has freshened. I think the wind has changed. Perhaps finally dry season with its clear skies and crisper temperatures and dry air is finally ready to start. Hallelujah!
And there’s another reason to feel grateful: tomorrow, November 30, my older kid will be twenty-five. To think, speaking of vulnerable fledglings, that he has grown up to be such a strong and capable wonderful person - it seems miraculous to me, another cause for optimism as we light our candles in the dark and admire the glow of the moon above.