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Loy Kratong: Surprise Attack

I ducked as another rocket whizzed past my ear and fire continued to rain down from above. All around me people were running and screaming. There was no respite and no escape. I looked around frantically and kept moving so as not to become an easy target. An old woman nearby wasn’t so lucky and took a direct hit from one of the stray rockets. This was FUN!

The rockets were small fireworks and the fire was melting plastic from airborne lanterns. I was in Chiang Mai where I had stumbled into Loy Kratong - Northern style.

After an overnight train ride from Bangkok, I found a cheap and cheerful guest house in the old city of Chiang Mai, where I ate, got cleaned up and rested.

After spending the afternoon getting to know a couple of other travellers in my guest house, we headed out together for the evening’s entertainment oblivious to what was lurking in the falling darkness. If this had been a movie, there would definitely have been a shaky long shot of my new friends and me as we made our innocent way along Chiang Mai’s backstreets, with the camera mimicking a stalker, ducking behind walls whenever we glanced towards him. There would have been the sound of strange, heavy breathing and perhaps a special effect to replicate the stalker’s inhuman vision.

As we chatted and walked, there appeared to be nothing out of the ordinary until we approached one of the four canals that surround old Chiang Mai city centre and that had formed a defensive moat in more unstable times. The street that ran along the inner side of the canal was packed with people, all craning to see something. We could just make out enough through and over the crowd to distinguish beauty queens passing on floats, all fixed smiles and flying flowers.

After peacefully and respectfully watching the procession pass, the animal instinct took over and the crowd suddenly and without warning deteriorated into a lawless mob. By the time we had walked 50 metres from the procession, we had passed through some William Burroughsesqe portal from Chiang Mai to Mogadishu. The movie had changed from The King and I to Black Hawk Down so seamlessly that Tarantino himself could have been directing it.

We were swept up in the mass hysteria of riotous revelry, taken over by and indistinguishable from the beast that had stalked us and into whose lair we had wandered. We were unarmed, and we were right in the danger zone. It was like being in an extreme, ultra-violent paintball fight without any protective clothing. It was like Songkran but with the water and talcum powder replaced by rockets and fire. It was unadulterated, dangerous fun - the kind of fun that makes you laugh hysterically as you balance on the edge of oblivion wondering if you’ll ever come back. There’s nothing like a sudden rush of adrenalin to send you on a natural high. Loy Kratong in Chiang Mai is certainly an experience that I will never forget.

I had never even heard of Loy Kratong until that night. I have since spent many a Loy Kratong in Bangkok, but none have ever come anywhere near that night in Chiang Mai for wild abandon and anarchy.

Loy Kratong is a Thai festival held on the full moon in the twelfth month of the lunar calendar (usually November) and celebrated throughout the country. It is believed to have originated in India and arrived in Thailand during the Sukhothai period (1220 – 1350BC). Loy Kratong is principally a festival honouring the water goddess, Phra Mae Khongkha. Loy means “float” and kratong is the name of small rafts that are released on rivers, canals, lakes, the sea or any convenient body of water, including swimming pools in the top hotels!

The kratongs were originally made from slices of banana tree trunks, but these days Styrofoam tends to be more popular and, surprisingly, is encouraged by many local mayors as their clean up crews find Styrofoam kratongs easier to catch and recycle than banana tree kratongs. The kratongs are elaborately decorated with banana leaves, flowers, incense sticks and candles. Thais may place small amounts of food, money or sometimes even gold on the kratongs to honour and thank Phra Mae Khongkha for providing water throughout the year, and to request forgiveness for abusing and polluting her. This explains why lots of small boys can be seen swimming in rivers and lakes on Loy Kratong night. Thais also often put nail or hair clippings in the kratongs to symbolise floating away all their ill feelings.

Apart from floating kratongs, there are often beauty contests, as I had seen in Chiang Mai. These contests celebrate a young queen of the Sukhothai kingdom, Nang Noppamas, who is believed to have been the first person to make a kratong and float it. There are also many large firework displays on Loy Kratong night, and if you happen to be in Chiang Mai, you might find that you inadvertently become a part of the pseudo-military tattoo.

While Loy Kratong is a national festival, it is celebrated with particular verve in Thailand’s past and present capitals and city states of Sukhothai, where it originated; Ayutthaya; Bangkok; and Chiang Mai. In Chiang Mai, people also release floating lanterns, khom loy, into the night sky. The khom loy are usually wire frames covered with paper and supporting a candle to provide the hot air that gives them their lift. The candle is sometimes fixed to the frame with melted plastic, which re-heats as the candle burns down and causes the rain of fire I later experienced.

Loy Kratong is quite probably Thailand’s most beautiful festival, but in Chiang Mai, it is also the most dangerous. Don’t let that put you off, though. You only live once and your life will be enriched for the experience - if you survive!

In Bangkok, it’s much more sober. Pim and I usually walk down to Lumpini Park, buy a kratong and then float it on the lake. We watch it in meaningful contemplation for almost an entire minute before a young boy snags it and reels it in to see if there is any money in it, before he re-sells it. Talk about re-cycling!

Paul Snowdon

Have your say...

28 Nov 2015, 04:34
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30 Nov 2015, 06:43
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