Every year on the evening of the full moon of the twelfth lunar month (usually in November), Thais all over the country celebrate the end of the rainy season with Loy Krathong, also known as the Festival of Light. One of Thailand’s most beautiful festivals, it’s held to honour and appease the spirits of the water at a time when all the fields are flooded and the canals and rivers are overflowing their banks. The festival is said to have originated seven hundred years ago, when Nang Noppamas, the consort of a Sukhothai king, adapted an ancient Brahmin tradition of paying homage to the water goddess.
At this time, nearly everyone makes or buys a krathong and sets it afloat (loy) on the nearest body of water, to cast adrift any bad luck that may have accrued over the past year. Krathongs are miniature basket-boats made of banana leaves that have been elegantly folded and pinned, origami style, and then filled with flowers, three sticks of incense and several lighted candles; the traditional base is a slice of banana tree trunk, but it’s increasingly popular to buy your krathong ready-made from the market, sometimes with an eco-unfriendly polystyrene bottom. Some people slip locks of hair and fingernail clippings between the flowers, to represent sinful deeds that will then be symbolically released along with the krathong; others add a coin or two to persuade the spirits to take away their bad luck (swiftly raided by opportunist young boys looking for small change). It’s traditional to make a wish or prayer as you launch your krathong and to watch until it disappears from view: if your candle burns strong, your wishes will be granted and you will live long.
Chiang Mai goes to town over Loy Krathong, but Sukhothai Historical Park is the most famous place in Thailand to celebrate the festival, and the ruins are the focus of a spectacular festival held over several nights around the full moon. The centrepiece is a charming son et lumière performance at Wat Mahathat, complemented by firework displays, the illumination of many Old City ruins, thousands of candles floating on the shimmering lotus ponds, a parade of charming Nang Noppamas (Miss Loy Krathong) lookalikes and all sorts of concerts and street-theatre shows. All accommodation gets packed out during the festival, so book ahead if possible.