Illumination Fête: Loy Krathong in Thailand

Tourists releasing Khom Loy during Yi Peng in Chiang Mai

On the twelfth full moon of the Thai lunar calendar (this year Nov 28, 2012), Thai families gather on the banks of rivers, canals or any body of water to float banana leaf boats decorated with flowers and three sparklers, candles, or incense sticks to celebrate the Loy Krathong Festival.  In the western calendar, this event usually takes place in November.

The ceremony is fairly simple and straightforward, after all “loy” means “to float” and “krathong” refers to the banana leaf vessel that is set adrift in the river with the hopes of having one’s wishes come true. However, when performed by thousands at the same time, it becomes a spectacle of light and emotion.

The origin of the festival can be traced back to the Sukhothai period, where Lady Noppamas, the King’s chief royal consort, is said to have made the first krathong to float in the river.  Over the years, given the river-based culture of the traditional Thai way of life, the Loy Krathong became a ritual in thanksgiving to Mae Khongkha, the river deity equivalent to Ganga or Ganges, the Hindu goddess of water.

Interestingly, Thais are not the only ones who celebrate Loy Krathong, similar events occur at the same time in neighboring Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar.  While in India, there is Deepavalee, the “festival of lights” also said to be the basis of the Thai tradition. Although, the festival is celebrated throughout Thailand, the most popular places to experience it are in:

Bangkok. Along the Chao Phraya is where the action happens and also where impressive shows take place. Hotels in the area provide exclusive access to the river. The biggest crowds go to the Asiatique night market where there is a fireworks display and a float procession.

Ayutthaya. The main celebration in the city takes place at the lake (Beung Phra Ram) between Wat Phra Ram and Wat Mahatat at the Ayutthaya Historial Park. Most Thai families however head on to the Chan Kasem Pier where they launch their krathongs on the river bank or on a boat.

Sai. In this northern Thai province of Tak, near the border with Myanmar, Banana leaves are replaced with threaded coconut shells set adrift simultaneously to resemble long chains of light floating along the Mae Ping river. This is accompanied by a parade, loy krathong contest and other traditional rituals.

Loy Krathong in Sukhothai. (top left) Selling krathongs at the historical park. (top right) Daytime procession (bottom left) Releasing krathong in a pond (bottom right) Illuminated sitting Buddha at Wat Sa Si (Wat Sra Si)

Sukhothai. Having claimed to be its’ place of origin, the ancient city of Sukhothai puts on a spell-binding light and sound show followed by a beautiful firework display set against the backdrop of the Sukhothai Historical Park.

Chiang Mai. Coinciding with Loy Krathong is the festival known as “Yi-Peng”. It is altogether a different festival that traces its roots to the ancient Lanna Kingdom.  It is characterized by thousands of  “Khom Loy” or Lanna-style hot-air lanterns released into the night sky. There’s also a giant krathong parade for two nights along the main tourist fare. A week before the actual Yi Peng dates, thousands gather near Maejo University at San Sai district for the mass release of lanterns. This is the event that is usually featured in the ads of the Tourism Authority of Thailand, and is a must see.

Wherever one chooses to spend the Loy Krathong festival, there is without a doubt, that it is going to be one of the most romantic and unforgettable nights spent in the kingdom.

Yi Peng Festival in Chiang Mai (top left/t op right/ bottom right) releasing Lanna-style lanterns by the Ping river (bottom left) night procession and Big Krathong parade

PHOTOGRAPHER NOTES

As a photographer, the Loy Krathong/Yi Peng festival is one of the most memorable and breathtaking events you can ever capture on your camera. Since the main event takes place at night, it is best to use a lens with a wide aperture as you need much available light to make it through the sensor – the wider the aperture, the better.  My lens of choice during this festival is a 10-22 as it focuses better in the dark and also gives consistent sharpness throughout the scene. The lens is also perfect for shots of people launching lanterns in the air. It exaggerates the arms of your subjects as they hold the lanterns before release. It is recommended that flash is not used as it destroys the light and mood of the festival, hence crank up your ISO, however not too high so your photos won’t be littered with noise.

Parts of this blog is taken from my own article about Loy Krathong that appeared in Asian Geographic (Festivals Edition) No 80 Issue 3/2011. 

Also check out my other photos of the festival on flickr.

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