Loy Krathong, also known as Thailand’s Festival of Lights, is a vibrant and captivating celebration that takes place annually across the country and in neighboring regions with significant South Western Tai cultures. This enchanting event, typically held on the full moon night of the twelfth month in the Thai lunar calendar, has its origins in the ancient city of Sukhothai and can be traced back centuries. Though not explicitly a religious holiday, many Thai people participate in prayers and offerings to the water goddess, Mae Khongkha, during the festivities.
The name “Loy Krathong” can be translated to “floating ritual vessel or lamp,” which highlights the core tradition of the festival: crafting beautiful, decorated boats or lanterns, often made from banana leaves, flowers, and candles, to float on rivers, lakes, and other bodies of water. This symbolic act serves as a gesture of gratitude towards the water goddess and releases past negativity, allowing participants to embrace the future with a renewed sense of hope and positivity.
In 2023, Loy Krathong will take place on November 28th, and as always, it will provide a dazzling and unforgettable experience for both locals and visitors alike. The festival comprises various activities, such as decorating krathongs, lighting lanterns, and watching mesmerizing firework displays. Some of the most popular destinations to experience Loy Krathong include Chiang Mai, which also hosts the Yi Peng Festival in tandem, and the former capital of Sukhothai, where the event originated. This breathtaking celebration of light and gratitude is undoubtedly an experience that should not be missed.
History of Loy Krathong Festival
The Loy Krathong Festival traces its origin back to India, but it is widely believed to have developed and grown in significance during the ancient Sukhothai Kingdom, approximately 800 years ago in Thailand (source). The festival has evolved over time, accumulating different meanings and representing various cultural and religious aspects.
One prominent belief attributes the festival to the ancient Thai capital of Sukhothai during the 13th or 14th century (source). It is also linked to the period of the Sukhothai Kingdom, between 1238 and 1438, as mentioned in classical literature Tamrap Thao Si Chulalak (source).
Thais celebrate Loy Krathong for various reasons. The primary objective is to pay respect to and thank the Goddess of Water, Phra Mae Khongkha, for providing water throughout the year for agricultural purposes (source). Furthermore, the festival functions as a means to seek forgiveness for any inadvertent harm humans may have caused to the waterways and natural environment.
The festival is also marked as an opportunity to cherish the end of the main rice harvest season (source). Loy Krathong is a time to rejoice in the abundant harvest, and the candle-lit krathongs released into the water are thought to help carry away any bad luck or negative energy, welcoming a fresh start for the new year.
Significance and Symbolism
The Loy Krathong Festival, also known as the “Festival of Light,” is an annual event celebrated throughout Thailand and neighboring countries with significant southwestern Tai cultures. It is believed to have originated in the ancient city of Sukhothai, located about five hours north of Bangkok. The festival carries deep meaning and symbolism for the Thai people.
The word “loy” in Thai means “to float,” and “krathong” translates to “basket or boat.” The central element of the Loy Krathong festival is the krathong, a small lotus-shaped boat traditionally made from banana leaves and decorated with flowers. In the center of the krathong, there are traditionally three sticks of incense and a lit candle, along with other offerings such as coins or food.
The act of floating the krathongs carries its own symbolism. As the krathongs gently drift away in the water, they are thought to represent the release of anger, resentment, and negativity. This symbolic act is supposed to cleanse the participants’ spirits and help them start anew. Many Thai people also use this opportunity to pray to the water goddess, Mae Khongkha, as a way of giving thanks and asking for blessings and forgiveness.
In some regions, the Loy Krathong Festival is also used to pay respect to the Buddha. This is symbolized by the candlelight, which represents the light of the Buddha’s wisdom guiding people through the darkness of ignorance. The act of floating the krathongs can thus also serve as a meditation on Buddhist teachings and a reminder of the importance of remaining centered and mindful.
Celebration and Customs
The Loy Krathong Festival is a time for Thais to come together and celebrate their gratitude for the water that sustains them. The festival encompasses various activities and traditions that showcase the rich cultural heritage of the country.
The main focus of the Loy Krathong Festival is the creation and release of krathongs – small, decorated floating vessels. Traditionally made from banana leaves, flowers, and candles, krathongs are thought to bring good fortune and wash away any negative energy or bad luck. Participants often make their own krathongs, or buy them from local vendors, and release them into the water to watch them float away.
Traditional Dances and Performances
During the festival, various traditional dance and music performances take place throughout Thailand. Ram Wong or Lao traditional dance, classical Thai dances, and regional folk dances are often performed, showcasing vibrant costumes and energetic performances that reflect the country’s diverse cultural roots. Some cities and towns also hold beauty pageants, known as Nopphamat Queen Contests, which adds another layer of excitement to the festivities.
In addition to krathongs, the Loy Krathong Festival also features the release of floating lanterns or “sky lanterns”. These lanterns typically consist of a thin paper shell with a small candle or fuel source inside that creates enough hot air to lift the lantern into the sky. As with krathongs, the release of lanterns symbolizes letting go of negative energy and brings good fortune for the year ahead. Popular places to witness the release of these lanterns include Chiang Mai, where the famous Yi Peng Lantern Festival coincides with Loy Krathong.
Festival Locations and Variations
Chiang Mai and Yi Peng Festival
Loy Krathong Festival is widely celebrated across Thailand but is particularly notable in the city of Chiang Mai, where it coincides with the local Yi Peng Festival. Both festivals are celebrated with the launching of paper lanterns into the sky, creating a magical atmosphere. The city offers a unique experience with parades, cultural shows, and various activities taking place throughout the festival period.
In the Thai capital, Loy Krathong celebrations often involve elaborate and colorful processions along the banks of the Chao Phraya River. Locals and tourists alike gather at various points throughout the city to release their Krathongs, small floating offerings made from banana tree trunks or bread, into the water. Major parks, temples, and other landmarks are popular locations for revelers to take part in the festivities.
Sukhothai’s Light and Sound Show
Another popular destination for celebrating Loy Krathong is Sukhothai, a historic city in central Thailand. Known for its Light and Sound Show, the event takes place at the Sukhothai Historical Park and features traditional dance performances, storytelling, and a mesmerizing display of candles and lanterns. The ancient ruins provide a stunning backdrop, making Sukhothai’s celebration an unforgettable experience for visitors.
Environmental Impact and Sustainable Practices
The Loy Krathong festival, while a beautiful and culturally significant event, has raised environmental concerns over the years. Traditionally, participants release krathongs, which are small floats made of natural materials, into rivers and waterways to symbolically let go of their misfortunes. However, the use of non-biodegradable materials like Styrofoam, plastic, and metal has led to pollution and damage to marine ecosystems.
Over the recent years, there has been a shift towards more sustainable practices. Many people have started using biodegradable and environmentally-friendly materials for their krathongs. Examples of such materials are banana leaves, bread, and materials from native plants like pandanus and water hyacinths. These eco-friendly krathongs leave a minimal impact on the environment and help preserve the waterways and marine life (source).
In addition to the use of sustainable materials, local authorities and organizations have also implemented measures to reduce the environmental impact of the festival in cities like Chiang Mai. For instance, designated areas have been assigned for the release of krathongs and lanterns, which helps control litter and makes it easier to clean up after the event (source).
As a foreign traveler attending the Loy Krathong festival in Chiang Mai, you can contribute to its sustainability by:
- Using or purchasing eco-friendly krathongs made of biodegradable materials
- Refraining from releasing balloons or lanterns made of non-biodegradable materials
- Participating in cleanup efforts organized by the local community, if available
- Being respectful of the local environment and disposing of waste correctly
By adhering to these sustainable practices, you can help ensure the preservation of this beautiful cultural event and minimize its negative impact on Chiang Mai’s environment.
Tips for Visitors
When to Go
The Loy Krathong Festival takes place on the day of the November full moon. In 2023, it will be celebrated on November 28th (Asia Highlights). The main festivities in Chiang Mai usually span a few days, so it is best to plan your trip around these dates to fully experience all that the festival has to offer.
What to Wear
When attending the Loy Krathong Festival, dress modestly and comfortably, as you will be participating in spiritual and cultural activities. It is preferable to wear lightweight clothing that covers your shoulders and knees. Traditional Thai attire is also welcomed and will help you blend in with the locals during the celebrations.
As Loy Krathong is a deeply spiritual event for Thais, it is crucial to respect their customs and traditions. Here are some general etiquette tips to follow:
- Refrain from making loud noises or disrupting the serene atmosphere.
- Do not litter or release non-biodegradable krathongs, as they can harm the environment.
- Respect the local beliefs and participate in the rituals with appreciation and mindfulness.
The festival draws huge crowds, especially in popular areas like Chiang Mai. To ensure a safe and enjoyable experience, keep these safety tips in mind:
- Be aware of your surroundings and keep an eye on your personal belongings.
- Avoid bringing valuable items to the festival, as it may become crowded and chaotic.
- If you plan to release a paper lantern, make sure you follow safety precautions and release it in designated areas to avoid accidents and fires.