Samui Wining & Dining
The festival of Loy Krathong symbolises the quiet joy that’s bubbling
quietly under the surface of Thailand.

The festival of Loy Krathong symbolises the quiet joy that’s bubbling quietly under the surface of Thailand.In many ways Thailand is a voyage of discovery. It’s probably as unique as you can get in today’s busy world. What makes it like this is the fact that it’s just about the only nation that’s never been colonised. And this means that it’s never had to absorb new ideas or sudden new ways of doing things. And that includes customs and traditions. Yes, certainly it’s a Buddhist nation, and as such shares some occasions with other parts of the world. But, as with many other aspects of life in Thailand, things here seem to take on their own particular flavour.


The best-known of Thai festivals must be, of course, Songkran, the Thai New Year, when possibly more water is seen on one day than in the rest of the year combined. But, next to this, is the gentle celebration of Loy Krathong.


This event takes places on the evening of the full moon on the 12th month of the Thai lunar calendar, which this year falls on 22nd November.


As with most such traditional events, there are two distinct layers to Loy Krathong. One is tied in with the origins of the festival, the historical elements and their observed traditions. And the other is the spirit of the thing – the way in which it has come to be passed down to the people today, what it has come to represent, and the how people now interpret and celebrate the occasion. In translation, ‘loy’ means ‘to float’ and ‘krathong’ is the general name for a small vessel or raft. In this context it has come to mean a small round ‘boat’, traditionally made from banana bark or leaves, and often shaped like a lotus blossom.


Nobody is certain how all of this began. But it is generally believed that it originated in the 14th century, in India, as a Hindu festival (similar to Deepavali). A thanksgiving to the deity of the River Ganges, and with the floating lanterns representing the giving of life throughout the year. According to the writings of one of Thailand’s most beloved kings, H.M. King Rama IV,
The festival of Loy Krathong symbolises the quiet joy that’s bubbling quietly under the surface of Thailand. the festival was adopted by Buddhists in Thailand as a ceremony to honour the original Buddha,Siddhartha Guatama. And it all centres on King Loethai, the King of Sukhothai at the time, and his royal consort, Noppamas.


The legend goes that it was Noppamas who first created the Buddhist version of the floating krathongs and illuminated them with candles, placing offerings of tokens and valuables, together with elaborate carvings made from fruit (one of the reasons that traditional fruit-carving competitions still exist today at the celebrations in all the local temples). The king was so pleased by this unexpected surprise that he issued a royal decree that in the years to come, the whole kingdom should bear witness to the ‘life festival’ by making and floating similar krathongs. And today, in the temples, together with the krathongs and the fruit carving, each year a ‘Miss Noppamas’ beauty competition is also held, in memory of the queen who so many years ago started all of this off.


Over the centuries, the symbolism of the event has swung around a little, and now represents new directions. The candles pay respect to, and venerate, the Buddha with light. And the act of sending the krathong away is an acknowledgment and a rejection of grudges and meanness – a symbolic act of cleansing so that one can begin again with pure intent. The addition of a lock of hair and fingernail clippings emphasise this,
 as they stand for the rejection of lower instincts in order to start anew. Food plays its part, too. Sometimes you’ll see rice noodles included. These ‘khanom jeen’ are long and have a chewy texture, symbolising something that will endure and is not easily broken. The festival of Loy Krathong symbolises the quiet joy that’s bubbling quietly under the surface of Thailand.And quite often some sticky rice, ‘khao neow’, is also added, as it represents the bonding together of a family or couple.


But don’t forget that Thailand is largely a farming nation. And in the North and North-Eastern Regions another belief has also crept in, reflecting the value of, and the respect that people have for water. It’s a venerated and life-giving element in their society, and in this part of Thailand it’s generally thought that Loy Krathong is to honour Phra Mae Khongkha, the Goddess of Water.


Well, that’s the history and tradition behind it all. And, in a way, there’s something in there that appeals to everyone, young or old, in the country and the towns. And at all levels, from a dedicated religious festival in the temples, to a bit of fun for an hour or two at the side of a pond or stream. And certainly it’s about new beginnings and togetherness. And that includes families, as it’s a looked-forward to source of delight for the kids. But the event is also a must for young lovers across the nation, and an occasion to declare their commitment and affection. But it’s not altogether easy sailing, as it’s an ill-omen if things go badly and their krathong should sink!


For a long time, the most popular spot on Samui for Loy Krathong was the famous Big Buddha temple (Wat Phra Yai). But over the last few years it’s become just too crowded, making it a disagreeable struggle to get in and out on the narrow causeway, and an impossible job to park. Nathon is still highly-rated, as all along the front the sea is shallow and accessible. But the best place to go these days is Chaweng Lake, which is not only central but has a huge circumference. But wherever you end up it’ll be delightful, if not perhaps entirely as gentle as it used to be in times gone by!


Rob De Wet


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