Unbeknownst to me, the day I flew into Chiang Mai was the middle day in a three-day festival called Loy Krathong. Literally translated, it means “float a basket.” It’s a huge festival in the Siamese culture, and is celebrated throughout Thailand and many of the neighboring countries. Chiang Mai, however, is the epicenter of the celebration. The festival is set to coincide with the final full moon in the 12th month of the traditional lunar calendar and is celebrated by celebrants releasing intricately-made floats or baskets, often made out of banana leaves, flowers, and even colored ice cream cones. They are released on the river that runs through town, and the person who releases the Krathong (that’s the name of the boat) makes a wish.
In Chiang Mai, however, the Loy Krathong festival also happens to intersect with a separate festival celebrated by the northern Thai Lanna people called Yi Peng. This is one of the festivals in Southeast Asia that is celebrated by lighting and releasing paper lanterns into the sky. The act is a way of gaining Buddhist merit and symbolizes releasing the bad things you’ve done during the previous year.
Regardless of the purpose of the celebration, I was extremely fortunate to arrive in Chiang Mai just in time to witness it; it was entirely a coincidence. The festival was part of the reason the airport was so slammed (see the previous blog post). Not only were many people arriving in the city to witness the festival, but dozens of incoming and outgoing flights in the evenings were cancelled to prevent the planes from sucking one of the tens of thousands of paper lanterns into the engines and causing severe damage or injury.
My resort, the Yaang Come Village resort was only a few blocks away from the city’s river, and the bridge from which many of the lanterns and Krathong would be released. It was also just a couple of blocks from the city’s nightly bazaar, and from the part of the city where streets would be blocked to make way for the press of people coming to witness the festival and partake in the food.
Yaang Come is a beautiful, quiet resort. It’s built with an eye toward the Lanna style of architecture that can be found in a lot of the Buddhist temples in the area. (One of the characteristics of the Lanna style is a very steep-angled, A-Line roof, as seen in the photo above.) The resort consists of several smaller buildings which housed between four and eight different rooms. It felt more like you were staying in a small apartment building than a hotel.
The grounds were also particularly stunning. The grounds were lush with vegetation, including orchids growing off of the huge Lanna trees and other tropical plants with leaves larger than me. In the center courtyard was a crystal clear pool. Also on the resort was a covered, open-air restaurant and bar, and a classy spa. The rooms themselves were quite unusual as well. There was the relatively standard sleeping area with a large, low-slung bed and a small desk. There was also a rather heinous-colored recliner for relaxing. There was also a small entry room with a built-in wood armoire and a small, lighted dressing table.
The bathroom was, perhaps, the most unusual aspect of the hotel room. It was a large room, behind a pair of heavy wooded double-doors, intricately carved with traditional motifs. There were a shower and a large, standalone tub. There were also a standard toilet and, surprisingly, a urinal.
A quick side note about the toilet situation in Thailand. The common practice in Thailand, as far as I was able to determine, was for each toilet to also be equipped with a long hose with the type of nozzle you would perhaps have on for cleaning dishes at your kitchen sink. After doing your business, you would use the hose to clean yourself off with water. Due to the potential (read: near certainty) of getting water EVERYWHERE in the process, there was always a drain in the floor near the toilet. If there happened to be toilet paper, and that was always a big if, you would only use it to dry yourself off, then you would dispose of it in a small, lidded wastebasket stored next to the toilet. Most toilets had signage warning against flushing toilet paper at all. As someone who has spent his whole life flushing his TP, this was a very, very hard habit to break. I also learned quickly the importance of carrying a package of toilet paper in my bag with me when I went places. (The local 7-Elevens had travel packs of TP for purchase.)
In any case, the bathroom of my hotel was spacious and well-appointed but had one unusual feature: it had windows that didn’t close. Every opening into the room was covered with a fine mesh screen to keep out bugs, but the transoms over each window were made of slotted wood, which allowed for natural air circulation. (And, adding to my self-consciousness, did nothing to prevent passersby from hearing any sounds emanating from the bathroom.) The open-to-the-outdoors aspect of the restroom was one of the reasons for the heavy double-doors into the rest of the suite: it was to keep the outside sounds (and heat/humidity) out of the main living area of the room.
After the debacle with the bags, my lack of sleep, and my very late meal, I was feeling pretty weary. (Well, that, and three days of SCUBA diving.) I had a nice long nap, grabbed a drink by the pool, and, as the sun dropped below the horizon, decided to go to the festival.
The streets were packed in a way we rarely see here in the U.S., save perhaps for New Year’s Eve at Times Square in Manhattan. People were shoulder to shoulder. I wove and darted my way through the throngs, food stalls, and stands selling lanterns and banana-leaf-and-flower Krathong, eventually making my way to the Thanon Charoen Mueang bridge spanning the Ping river.
I walked the bridge from one end to the other and back, taking pictures and videos. It’s very difficult to capture the scale of the celebration. There were thousands and thousands of people on this bridge, and it was only one of dozens of locations were lanterns were set free. There are over 300 temples in Chiang Mai, and most of them also had mass lantern-releasing ceremonies. The sky was absolutely plastered with bright, yellow-white cylinders of rice paper and bamboo, gently floating away into the sky. Every now and again, one would catch fire and plummet toward the early, trailing a line of spark and smoke behind it.
It was amazing to behold, and unlike anything I had witnessed before. But it felt so…touristy and frantic. It was nothing like the lantern festivals I’ve seen depicted in movies. There was nothing of the tranquil peace I hoped to feel, no space for personal reflection.
There were also, sad to say, very few Thai people participating. Nearly everyone I saw, at least in my section of the city, were tourists. It was fun that we tourists were allowed to participate, but I couldn’t help but feel a bit like the tourists had appropriated a meaningful tradition for our own entertainment. Of course, that may just be my own liberal sensibilities. Maybe Loy Krathaong isn’t actually all that special. I also know that, in several locations across the city (see the cluster of lanterns released in the photo above) the monks in the temple would release lanterns as part of a ceremony, so maybe that was where the more “traditional” celebrations took place.
After spending time on the bridge, I to explore more of the festival. One of the main squares and its surrounding streets had been blocked to traffic and was awash with revelers. A large park in the city center had been converted into a walkthrough canopy of lanterns, ripe photo opportunities. Sellers hocking their wares. I found an old man sitting on the ground in front of several large pots of bubbling stock that smelled incredible. For 50 Baht (about $1.75), I got a bowl of spicy, rich Khao Soi with thick, perfectly cooked egg noodles, a well-cooked chicken drumstick, and a thin-textured, richly-flavored yellow curry broth. Sitting on the grass of an open area, surrounded by floating lanterns, happy people, and the strains of traditional music ricocheting about me, I had a bit of out-of-body experience that, I suspect, is one of the reasons people choose to travel in the first place. I was, at once, fully at peace, excited, and intrigued. It was so deeply foreign on one hand, so inexplicably familiar on the other.
After my Khao Soi, I walked around the packed night market for a bit and picked up a fresh coconut smoothie that was absolutely delicious. (And, in retrospect, probably a big honkin’ mistake…more on that in the next couple of posts.) At last, I walked back to my resort, pausing for a few minutes to catch a bit of a drag show in an open-air gay bar called Ram Bar. I had never seen a drag show before, let alone one of Thailand’s infamous “Lady Boy” shows, so I decided I’d come back the next night to catch the whole show, and maybe even chat up a cutie or two.