[this was bonus material for my Kickstarter supporters, made public a year later]
Loi Krathong is one of the greatest celebrations I’ve ever witnessed. It’s a little like the 4th of July due to the fireworks and parade, but it feels more festive than my own personal experiences of the 4th of July, at least as an adult when I would go somewhere to watch fireworks with waning spectacle and then go home. As a kid the holiday was great. My family would drive up to Wyoming (we were in Colorado) to purchase firecrackers to set off on the street out in front of our house, which was exciting for many reasons. It was a long ride with my dad, who always had cool old used cars – one year in a blue “Wild Cat” – then picking out the firecrackers we wanted (and Dad was willing to buy), then waiting for it to get dark and setting them off as a family with a thrilling knowledge that our celebration was flying in the face of the law. But there’s a disconnect between my youthful experience of celebration and my adult half-participation. Loi Krathong festival felt like how I saw holidays as a kid.
Loi Krathong is a gathering around the Ping River where children, teens and adults float “krathong” – lotus-shaped floats made of various parts of a banana tree, with flowers, incense and candles – down the river while fireworks punctuate the sky that is practically filled with rising orange fire balloons, drifting up and aligning in a channel of moving air that brings them up and away until they are un-twinkling constellations in the sky.
The pace of this celebration is easy. There are countless vendors selling food, which is reminiscent of summer holiday BBQ’s in the US, and other stalls selling fire balloons or “krathong” of different sizes and design. The small “krathong” are the size of a pancake in diameter and cost about 20 Baht (80 cents) whereas the larger ones hold more flowers and the base is the size of a homemade cake and cost about 60 Baht ($2). I bought a big one from a vendor at the flower market, the regular roses, orchids and marigolds pushed back a few feet to make room for the table, but the sweet, cool scent of their petals pushing back in protest to seep out into the street, contesting with the aroma of sweet waffles and savory grilled meats.
We found a great area off the road, right on the bank of the river. I lit the candle and three sticks of incense on the “krathong” and pushed it onto the ink-black water. It pushed through a few other “krathong” that had clung to the sides of the riverbank and floated easily downstream. I was quite proud of it, the way it moved and stayed alight. Some monks were setting off firecrackers in the darkness behind us, lighting bottle rockets that screeched more than they popped and often the actual explosion hit the water before it really had a chance to give light. I was surprised to see them and wondered if they cloaked themselves in darkness because they were breaking rules. Nearby you could hear vendors advertising for their fire balloons. 30 Baht ($1) for one or three for 100 Baht. There were three of us together: my husband, my best friend from childhood on visit from the US and me. So I got the package of three and we lit them. one by one, making wishes as we watched them grow brighter and then lift themselves out of our hands into the air.
Then we sat and watched others light their lanterns and release them. I got nervous when they wavered or threatened to fall back to earth, but none of them really failed to drift away. Sometimes a group of three or four friends, or a family, would light one lantern together, their faces aglow in a circle around the base of the lighted balloon. More often than not it was a young couple in their late teens lighting a lantern together. I liked seeing the different techniques people used to light them and to ensure or even expedite the hot air trapped inside the lined paper. Some would light the ring at the base and put the whole base on the ground until the lantern started to lift itself. Others would move the base gently up and down at chest-height, almost fanning the flame as it grew brighter with every downward tug. My favorite were the couples who would simply hold the base of the balloon for a very long time, waiting patiently for a soft pull from the lantern itself as it began to lift and then they simply let go.
I saw fire balloons rising into the sky outside my window for days after the official celebration of Loi Krathong had ended. (It’s a three day celebration right at the full moon). I loved seeing them, one or two trailing into the sky and disappearing just as quietly as they’d come.