Sitting on a jetty in the port of Nathon isn’t everyone’s idea of fun, but on the night of Loy Krathong, it’s one of the most popular places to be on Samui. The same goes for any and all places that have easy access to the water. On the other side of the island at Chaweng Lake, it’s even more crowded. It’s almost impossible to find a place to park, as thousands come to celebrate. Exactly the same scenario takes place every year. People wade into the water to release tiny ‘krathong’ or boats that – hopefully – float far off into the water. They’re the flimsiest of vessels, but each is sent out with hope.
It’s a beautiful sight; all the boats have candles that mean they remain visible even when they’re far out across the water. And even if you don’t know the significance of Loy Krathong, it evokes a sense of transient beauty. Perhaps precisely because it is so beautiful, visitors to the island just accept it for what it is, a sight that stays in the mind a long time. But of course there’s plenty more to the custom than just appearance.
Delving first into the Thai expression, ‘loy’ means to float, while ‘krathong’ refers to the floating container itself. traditionally, krathong are made of round sections of banana tree, although these days they’re just as likely to be made of an even more convenient material, Styrofoam, which is of course woefully non-biodegradable. Increasingly Styrofoam is banned as it takes many years to disintegrate. It’s common for Bangkok authorities to collect over a half million floats the day after Loy Krathong, many from the city’s canals and waterways as well as the main river. No fun for the people doing the work. Similar situations, though with smaller numbers, occur in most of the big towns in Thailand. Chaweng lake is no exception; there are hundreds of floats to be fished out of the water, this being the biggest venue for Loy Krathong on the island.
But at the time of launching, each float is perfectly made, while on top you’ll find an unusual assemblage of objects. There may well be some food, elaborately folded banana leaves, incense sticks, fingernail and hair clippings and, included as an offering to the river spirits, a coin. On the day of Loy Krathong you’ll find many people are busy making floats outside their homes. This goes on for most of the morning and all of the afternoon. They place them on tables and sell them to passers-by for a hundred or more baht, depending on size and complexity. You can of course make your own, but unless you’re shown exactly how to do it, your results may not look so good.
Loy Krathong is a festival that always falls on the night of the full moon (this year, 2017, it’ll be on Friday 3rd November) making the event even more beautiful. It is reputed to bring benefits to whoever partakes of it, and as each krathong is launched, a wish is made and many people believe that the wish will be granted. All the more reason, therefore to go along and take part. It’s very much an event for family and friends and a convivial spirit reigns. Because of the candlelight it has a magical feel to it as well, and it’s much loved by children. As Thai festivals go, it’s second in popularity to the nation’s biggest Thai celebration, Songkran, the Thai New Year. Both require the presence of water. According to King Rama IV, writing in the mid-nineteenth century, Loy Krathong is roughly based on a Brahman festival that was adapted in Thailand to honour Buddha. The floating away of the krathong is a symbol of letting go of all hatred, anger, and wrong thinking.
Large corporations and government offices also launch huge krathong. You’ll see them on display before they float off into the night, and there’s usually a competition to see which one is best. Some are works of art; almost all are brightly-coloured and many hours of work will have gone into making them.
Perhaps bizarrely, Loy Krathong is also associated with beauty contests. That’s because there’s a Thai story that claims that the first person to float a krathong was the consort of a 13th century king; it was in her honour that the beauty contests started, and still continue to this day. She’s known as Nang Nopphamat, but the story itself was written in the 19th century and woven into a novel, so there’s no historical basis at all. But the cultural tradition, wherever it came from persists; here and there you can expect to see beauty contests on the night.
If you’re on Samui during Loy Krathong then no matter who you are or what beliefs you may have, you’re free to join the celebration. It’s incredibly good fun and is guaranteed to leave you with many happy memories. Just make sure you bring along a krathong with you, though you’re likely to find plenty on sale at the various venues.