River of Dreams, River of Destruction

Added over 5 years ago

By Andrew Forbes and Colin Hinshelwood


loy krathong festival in Thailand

Celebrating Loy Krathong in Bangkok. Thanks to Mbbkk for the picture

Each November on the night of the full moon, families gather by riverbanks throughout Thailand to celebrate Loy Krathong by floating tiny candlelit boats on the water accompanied by wishes and prayers.

The small but elaborate lotus-shaped creations known as krathong—decorated with traditional offerings of flowers, incense, candles and a coin—are floated downstream on rivers across the country to pay homage to Mae Khongkha, the goddess of rivers and waters. Each tiny float is believed to carry with it the dreams and aspirations of the sender.

This year, on November 10, the festival takes on added significance at a time when the full devastation of floods is yet to be realized. More than 400 people have died in Thailand, and more than 2 million have been directly affected or made homeless, mostly in the Bangkok area.

The clean-up effort is likely to last well into 2012; initial estimates say the damage could be as much as 150 billion baht (US $5 billion). The Bangkok business district, which was spared the full horror of the floods, accounts for 41% of Thailand's GDP; nonetheless, growth for 2011 has been pared to 2.6% of GDP from 4.1%.

Central Bangkok may have been saved, but outlying and rural areas were not so lucky. Thailand is the world's largest rice exporter, but output will be down by 24%. Several foreign multinational firms have plants in Bangkok's suburbs. Most have been utterly inundated. Honda, which employs 6,000 local workers, may be forced to suspend work at its manufacturing plant for six months, affecting production in countries as far away as England.

The human cost of the disaster cannot yet be counted. Residents of the Thai capital have been walking a gauntlet of fear for weeks now—apart from the danger of drowning, the floods have brought in poisonous snakes, leeches, crocodiles and the very real possibility of electrocution. As the waters recede, sewage and garbage will remain; stagnant waters will become breeding grounds for mosquitoes and consequently malaria, dengue fever, cholera and diarrhea.

Bangkokians may curse their luck; they may even blame politicians or administrators in the north. From a geopolitical point of view, everything in Thailand, rivers included, funnels toward Bangkok.

From the north of the country, in quaint Chiang Mai, the highest rainfall in decades set off this domino effect of destruction. Dams overflowed, levees broke, towns and cities flooded.

Like veins taking blood to the heart, the rivers Ping, Wang, Nan and Yom carried the swell southward, merging at Nakorn Sawan—“The City of Heaven”—forming the confluence of the mighty Chao Phraya, then converging on the ancient capital of Ayutthaya, before finally wreaking havoc on Bangkok at the mouth of the Gulf of Thailand.

One would imagine then, that it would be with bitter irony that Bangkokians would regard the sight of millions of banana-leaf boats from the north floating serenely through their city—miniature junks, which had set off from towns and villages as far north as the Burmese and Lao borders, finally coming to rest among the debris of the capital.

However, as many foreigners have learned, to know the people of Thailand is to know the Buddhist philosophy of karma. The smiles may be strained this November, but the prayers and wishes that travel with the krathongs will be positive.

For Loy Krathong is, above all else, a chance for redemption—to float away your worries and fears, to make a fresh start.

The festival of Loy Krathong—perhaps the most evocative and beautiful of all Thai celebrations—traces its origins to the Sukhothai period, and more specifically to Nang Noppamas, the wife of King Ramkhamhaeng, who is credited with beginning the custom at Sukhothai during the late 13th century.

Regardless of the veracity of this story, most people would agree that even today Loy Krathong is at its most piquant and picturesque in Sukhothai and the North. What could be more aesthetically pleasing, and what could be more quintessentially Thai?

And yet Loy Krathong is more than just “Thai” in the sense of belonging to Old Siam. Specifically, it belongs to the Tai people as a whole, and though more elaborately celebrated in the Siamese Kingdom than elsewhere, the festival also enjoys a widespread and growing popularity amongst the Tai-speaking peoples of Burma’s Shan State, China’s Xishuangbanna, as well as in Laos, Thailand’s close relative and neighbour across the Mekong River.

Strictly speaking, Loy Krathong is not a Buddhist ceremony. It harks back to spirit worship, and is deeply bound up with the age-old, life- and culture-sustaining relationship between Tai peoples and water. Honouring Mae Khongkha, goddess of rivers and waters, is also a manifestation of spirit worship.

The interdependence between human and spirit worlds, as between man and nature, although apparent throughout Thailand at Loy Krathong, is perhaps at its most poignant in Chiang Mai. This is, perhaps, only to be expected. If the spirit of Nang Noppamas still lingers, where would it be more at home than in the canals and streams of the north?

Loy Krathong is celebrated with a combination of enthusiasm and dignity. As dusk falls, people from all levels of society carry (reverently, in both hands) their homemade boats to the banks of the river.

In times past these decorative floats were made of natural substances like the trunk and leaves of the banana plant, illuminated by tiny bamboo and coconut oil lamps, and decorated with orchids and other forest flowers.

For a brief period in recent years, driven by the unthinking forces of modernisation, these materials were replaced by polystyrene and other man-made, non biodegradable substances, which blocked streams, polluted natural waterways, and degraded the environment. Happily these mistakes now seem a thing of the past. Moved by a new spirit of social awareness, Thai people everywhere seem to have understood that enough is enough, and are returning to their traditional ways.

As night draws in, crowds gather at temples and chedis to participate in the launching of khom loy, or floating lanterns. The sound of Chinese crackers and the brilliance of burning magnesium flares fill the night sky, whilst everywhere the sharp smell of gunpowder mingles with the sweet fragrance of incense.

This year's festivities will be muted in Bangkok; many small banana boats will get trapped in blackwater sludge—the dreams and prayers they carry never making it to the open sea. Much as Thais enjoy celebrating the bounty of nature in this rich country, this year they will also remember to pay respect to her wrath.

© Colin Hinshelwood, Andrew Forbes, CPA Media / Pictures From History, 2011

Tags: Festivals, Loy Krathong, Thailand


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