Our trip was literally planned around Loy Krathong Festival in Chiang Mai.
The history of this festival was not clear. According to Wiki, this tradition stems from a book written in the end of 1850 where the protagonist of the book gives guidance for all women who wish to become civil servants. (Citation Here)
In accordance with this tradition there were several aspects to the festival: A pageant, a Parade, and the release of Krathongs (floating alters). Closely associated with this festival is Yi Peng – the releasing of floating lanterns.
Hanging lanterns were everywhere. They were especially on display in front of the Tha Pae Gate and in the many Buddhist monasteries in the city.
Tha Phae street was blocked off from the bridge over the Ping River all the way through Old City. We walked 2.5 km there and another 2.5 km back on a street filled with thousands of tourists perusing hundreds of street vendors, food, clothes, and other unique items. We came across Gac fruit (Click here). We passed it up once before in Laos, but I couldn’t resist trying here. “It tastes like Passion Fruit.” “It tastes like V-8 juice.” “It is sour.” “It is tangy.” “I don’t like it.” We all had a different interpretation of this exotic fruit. Many monasteries opened their courtyards to the public. Food stalls and “Buddhist Experience” items were available for the wandering public to enjoy. From lighting candles, to hanging lanterns, to watching monks pray, tourists could perhaps gain some superficial insight into Buddhism.
During the festival the population of Chiang Mai, which was usually 131,000 (2017 estimate) swells. According to this piece. the tourism board expected an additional 15,000 people (Click Here). Chiang Mai was a city ready for tourism, there were 60,000 registered rooms available for rent (Click Here). I read online that there was a 90 percent occupancy rate during the festival. Add to that any local tourism for people travelling to the city for the day or evening from suburbs and there was a massive throng of people pushing and weaving their way up and down the street. It certainly felt like all those people were right where we were.
A short parade started at the Tha Phae Gate in the Old City to the City Municipal building. Three floats were on cars. Most entries were groups of Thais in traditional dress either dancing, walking, or carrying lanterns. The outfits were so detailed and beautiful. Some of the more impressive floats were massive structures carried on bamboo poles by groups of people. One float was so massive, it took over twenty people carrying it. When they had to pause, they place their float on car jacks, and a group of assistants came to fan the carriers and give them water.
Enjoying the parade was difficult due to the crowd. In the parades I’ve been to, there has been an unwritten rule that when you have your place on the curb or standing in front, people don’t get in front of you. Not so here. People en masse stepped right in front of Alyssa and Kylie to get pictures. I didn’t move my feet for most of the parade. Before starting, I was parade-side with a clear view of the procession. However by mid parade, I was seven people deep. The people extended so far into the parade route, that the route changed from a two lane road route to a half lane road route, just enough room for a small car float to pass by. While some were apologetic about it and tried to make it so people behind them could see, others couldn’t care less. The desire to get that “perfect picture” usurped any semblance of manners. Of course manners is relative. In the crowd, I saw very little Thais. I heard Russian, German, French, English, Chinese, Korean, and Spanish. At one point one white tourist ran across the parade route standing right in front of a French tourist’s stroller to take pictures. This led to a shouting and pushing match.
During the day we made our way to the local municipal building. They were having a Krathong making contest for local children. They were also teaching others to make our own Krathong. We plopped ourselves down on the rattan mats in the grassy yard and went to work. Nan helped us with ideas and showed us how to use the materials. We started with a slice of banana tree trunk wrapped in a banana leaf. We then used leaves from other plants folded or wrapped in creative ways and pinned them to our slice of trunk. We added different types of flowers. Three incense sticks, a candle, and a sparkler later, we had our beautifully crafted Krathong to float down the river.
Nan explained that during the festival we are giving three prayers when releasing the Krathong: “We apologize to the river for all we do that is wrong to it, the dirt and pollution. We thank the river for all it gives to us. Lastly, we pray for our future, as we let the Krathong float down river and release all the bad things that happen to us.” The three incense take those prayers up to the gods while the light venerates Buddha. Nan added silver glitter for more pzazz. Besides who doesn’t like glitter?
We saved our Krathong to release in the evening with everyone else. We made our way down the street holding our creations carefully. The crowed masses undulating around us felt like the crowded train stations in China. We edged our way down to the river and balanced on a rickety bamboo dock. One by one we lit our Krathongs, said our prayers, set it gently on the Ping River. We watched them float away with all the other wishes and prayers of other Krathongs. In that moment, stresses brought on by the crowd and fireworks faded, everything was beautiful. I felt warm. I felt included. I felt as if I was honoring things that should be honored. (Yes, I was aware of the hypocrisy of apologizing to the river for pollution while contributing to its pollution. It was like wishing on a birthday cake to loose weight right before having cake. It still felt nice to wish. The visual effect was tremendous!)
Floating of the Krathongs has been a strong tradition throughout Thailand. However, it creates a mess. Waterways become clogged and polluted. In 2017, 810,000 Krathongs was collected in Bangkok. Of those collected, 93.6% were made from biodegradable materials while 6.4% were made from polystyrene foam (Click Here). Even though the bulk of the material was biodegradable, the mass of the material remains too much for the ecosystem to absorb. Certainly the amount of trash, biodegradable or not, has been costly to the city (Click Here). Municipalities spend time and money cleaning them out of the waterways leading people to question whether or not traditions are worth the environmental impact. A recent poll showed that 64% of people would NOT favor abolishing Krathong floating due to environmental concerns (Click Here). Waste management has become a recent topic of interest in the Kingdom of Thailand. There has been an increasing push to regulate the types of Krathongs people were putting into the river (Click Here). At the tourism center Kylie picked up a brochure trying to educate tourists:
- Big firecrakers prohibited
- Do not use polystyrene box.
- Litter at bins must be separated by garbage type
- Avoid floating Krathong made from bread, it may cause pollution
Echoing the pollution problem Krathongs cause was a giant bigger than life Tiger-Pig Krathong floating down the Mae Teang River. I’ll let the picture speak for itself.
Traditions continue to be strong motivation. What happens when the tradition is unhealthy or damaging? How can the environmental movement help start new traditions that are Earth friendly? I think this remains a challenge for the movement.
The symbolism of letting problems “float down river” remains another dilemma for this region and metaphorically for humanity as a whole. Time and time again from Vietnam all the way through Cambodia, Laos, and now Thailand I saw people just throw garbage into the river. The river washes much down stream, just like time washes our inaction into the future. It becomes an SEP (Somebody Else’s Problem). Like I said above, it felt good letting my problems float away. It was easy. How is the environmental movement fighting this common feeling? Knowledge doesn’t seem to be enough. Most people seem to be unwilling to act until environmental calamities are upon them.