Loy Krathong is my favourite Thai festival, and like many celebrations in the kingdom (e.g. Songkran), has water as a central theme.
Loy means "to float" in the Thai language, and a krathong is a kind of little boat traditionally made from a cleverly folded banana leaf. The festival of Loy Krathong falls on the full moon night of the twelfth lunar month - normally in November – and in the evening people flock to a nearby body of water and set their krathong afloat in the water. The krathong contains a flower, a lit candle, three lit incense sticks, and sometimes also a coin. On this night the canals and rivers soon become crowded with the flickering lights of hundreds of krathong bobbing up and down on the water. People make a wish as they set their krathong afloat, and some say that the krathong carries bad feelings away with it as it sails off. I like the image of my troubles being taken away on a little banana-leaf boat.
Some time ago, styrofoam krathong became quite popular, and created real problems in Bangkok, where they clogged up the sewers and caused flooding and other water circulation problems. Ironically, many people say that the festival of Loy Krathong is held to ask “Mother Water” (the literal translation of the word for "river" in Thai, meh nam) for forgiveness for polluting water. Eventually, styrofoam krathong were made illegal, and people went back to using natural materials for making their krathong.
The Loy Krathong festival dates back to the kingdom of Sukhothai, when it marked the end of the rainy season and the main rice harvest. The story goes that the farmers of Sukhothai used to hold a festival of floating candles every year. One year the king’s beautiful consort Nopamat made some special lanterns for the festival from banana leaves which she formed into lotus flower shapes. The king was impressed and announced that krathongs would be floated on the water every year from then on. Today, Nopamat is remembered in beauty contests which crown a "Nopamat Queen". (Beauty contests are very popular at festivals all over Thailand.)
In Chiang Mai, in the north of Thailand, Loy Krathong is also the occasion for three days of deafening fireworks. The city becomes filled with smoke and noise, and it’s not very restful at all. However, people also make a traditional type of lantern which, when a candle is placed inside, floats into the air, so if you can take your mind off the boom and shriek of fireworks and look up into the sky, you can see large glowing objects floating serenely away.
Mongkut, who was king of Siam from 1851 to 1868, wrote a story in 1863, in English, about Nopamat and the king. In the story, Mongkut writes Nopamat as the lovely and accomplished daughter of a very wise Brahmin. The king hears tales of her beauty and skill, and, intrigued, sends the elderly ladies of his retinue to ask for her hand. The Brahmin is happy to oblige, and Nopamat joins the royal household, soon being elevated to chief rank among the king’s wives and concubines. The Buddhist king prepares for a kathin ceremony, when robes and other necessities are offered to the monks. However Nopamat, who is Brahmin, prepares an offering to the spirits of the river according to her own beliefs, building a very large and elaborate krathong to appease the water spirits. It attracts the eye of the king, who is at once captivated by its ornate splendour and concerned that he, as a Buddhist, ought not to appreciate it. So he makes a loud pronouncement that assimilates the offering into Buddhist beliefs, dedicating the krathong to the Buddha. Then he lights the candles and incense and sends the krathong off down the river. Everyone is charmed, but Nopamat is concerned that her intentions have not been realized, so she sneaks away and makes a quick little krathong, lighting a candle and incense and setting it afloat to fulfill her aim. But the king sees this too, and realizing that Nopamat must have made this – for no one else is skilled enough to make such a lovely thing in such a short time – is loud in his praise. Everyone follows Nopamat’s lead and makes a little krathong of their own, and the air is filled with joy and laughter. And so there has been a Loy Krathong ceremony ever since.
A charming folktale, but also a little bit more.
It is telling that Mongkut would write the story in this way, and in English. Many Siamese kings, including Mongkut, have welcomed Christian missionaries into the kingdom and allowed them to preach freely, but have not been accorded reciprocal respect. While Buddhists like Mongkut believe that all religions are like many paths that all lead to the same palace, many Christians of his time asserted instead that their path was the only true one. (Sadly, this idea has not disappeared, nor is it confined to those of the Christian persuasion. Bigots exist in all religions, they just seem to be less common among Buddhists.) Mongkut’s story of a happy syncretism blooming out of a relationship of love and respect can thus be read as a sly dig at arrogant farang who refuse to recognize a middle path that can reconcile apparently conflicting belief systems.
You can read the entire text of Mongkut’s story about Nopamat on the excellent website
Besides being a fountain of information, this site is remarkable for being a project written and maintained by students at a small school near Bangkok.