Sunday, November 09, 2008

Loi Krathong - Festival of Lights

You have to hand it to them - the Thai people know how to have a festival! If they're not using fire hoses and water grenade launchers to soak you during Songkran, or chanting monks waking you in the pre-dawn hours with their blocks and gong-ringing, then they're shooting off huge fireworks and sending up thousands of paper lanterns to bedazzle the already star-studded night sky. All with very insightful and deep meaning, mind you.

Loi Krathong, is, as I understanding, the festival of the floating lanterns. The ceremony uses darkness and flame and air to symbolize the releasing yourself from the bonds of your past sins and mistakes as you continue down the path to enlightenment.

I was a little worried about this whole event as the large crowds known to attend and thousands of flaming floating lanterns in a small space didn't exactly sound like and incredibly good combination, but we were all pleasantly surprised to discover that the whole ceremony was very well organized and under excellent control.

We arrived just early enough and found an excellent parking spot within easy walking distance of ground zero. On the temple grounds large metal tiki torches were described a large grid and each group was allowed to choose a square on the field. We had a mat that just fit in the square and the ten of us made ourselves comfortable with the picnic we had brought. The beginning of the ceremony was already underway, amplified on loudspeakers strategically placed around the field. We were still borderline close to one, but the spot we had was dark and the people were very orderly throughout.

We sat and ate and prepared our lanterns for takeoff, while watching a few early releases that just couldn't wait test the winds above.

We were too far back to be able to see most of the procession and ground show in the beginning, but when the ceremony really got underway there was English translation provided to keep us all involved. They gave us instructions for following the chants and we watched quietly as the Thai around us chanted and kowtowed following the head monk's prayers. Then the torches were all lit and blessed.

Chaos broke loose at this point as some people began lighting their lanterns from the torches and ushers with blowhorns shoved through the crowds telling them to put the lanterns down - it wasn't time yet!

Finally we were all invited to stand and light our lanterns and within second the grounds were aglow with a thousand earthbound lampshade struggling for their freedom.

Then we were told to release them. In a moment the sky was absolutely filled with thousands of floating lights.

They rose to the trees, floating steadily north, until they just cleared the treetops and caught the southbound wind, creating a spiraling galaxy effect over our heads. More and more lights rose up (our group had 16 just for ourselves) in succession, filling the sky with thousands of new stars. The effect was breathtaking -

- and amazingly orderly. There were three or four lanterns caught precariously in the surrounding pine trees at any given time, but only one really threatened serious burning, and there were firecrews with trucks on the watch the whole time. The night was perfectly crystal clear and relatively still. Just to keep the adrenaline pumping, occasional fireworks were set off in the midst of the rising lanterns. The quarter-full moon shown down, guiding the lanterns to their heights and the stars seemed to welcome new friends for the evening.

Finally the lantern supplies were exhausted and the crowds began to slip away towards cars. The thousand lanterns followed our hour-long journey back to the city, carrying the memories of mistakes and sins past away on the wind and into the deep night.

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