For those visiting and those watching from afar, today is Loy Krathong and it is my favorite Thai holiday that exists. I say this because unlike many of the other holidays, this one tends to be a quiet one generally devoid of firecrackers (there are some fireworks but not many.) It's a peaceful holiday that is all about getting together with family, doing a few, generally quiet traditional things for good luck in the next year and then almost certainly partying and ruining tomorrow.
There are various theories about where this festival came from and how it became a part of Buddhism, but the short answer is: Nobody really knows for sure. For a long time it was attributed to a particular woman, but it was later discovered that this legend originated from a poem of uncertain origin. I suppose it doesn't matter. It's a nice holiday and people get to enjoy a long weekend because of it - so I'm for it!
The main aspect of this holiday centers around creating a little floaty thinger referred to as a "krathong" that has candles, incense, decorations, a few coins, maybe some flowers and in some instances pieces of the creator's hair and fingernails and no, i don't know why - perhaps so the spirits know whose krathong it is and can give the good luck back to them.
You take this krathong to designated rivers or ponds and push them out for good luck. That's pretty much all there is to it. In certain areas, a massive amount of lanterns are released into the sky but this is a recent addition to the tradition and has no historical background to it. Many people suggest this was introduced for tourism purposes and actually has nothing to do with the history behind the holiday - which is fine because the "history" doesn't appear to contain much history behind the holiday either.
More populated parts of the country will have the rivers looking like this and it is nice to see.
The bad aspect of this otherwise wonderful holiday
Despite the beauty and peacefulness of a bunch of flickering lights in the water and in the sky, there is a big problem that I, and an increasing number of people have with this holiday: It is basically long-distance littering.
While some areas have provisions in place to take care of this problem, many do not and for the more reasonable members of society, they have taken steps to make certain that their krathongs are made of biodegradable materials. Traditionally, the krathongs were all made of banana tree products, and these were fine. As time went by, demands to make more and more elaborate krathongs introduced pins, tape, staples, ribbons (made in part of plastic), and even Styrofoam into the mix.
To put this into perspective in Bangkok alone, where they actually do clean up the aftermath, the municipality removed 6 tons of krathongs the day after Loy Krathong from the Chao Praya river and its tributaries.
The lanterns on the other hand, while made of very thin paper that when it gets wet completely dissolves, has a thin wire frame and well, who knows where that ends up? When i was a dive instructor, we would routinely find these things in the sea, sometimes wrapped around dead sea creatures.
In many parts of the country the lanterns are banned (such as in Bangkok) and there are very steep penalties for anyone caught selling the lanterns and for people using them. So if you are still in Bangkok and someone tries to sell you a lantern know that you are facing up to 3 years in prison (very unlikely to happen, unless you were the kingpin behind the sales of them) or a fine of 60,000 Baht (this is what will happen.)
In Chiang Mai the spectacle has become such a tourism attraction that not only are the lanterns not banned, they are encouraged and flights are sometimes delayed, rescheduled, or even cancelled to accommodate their use. This is all very surprising to me since Chiang Mai is undergoing a bit of an environmental crisis at the moment and receiving a ton of bad press in regards to their rather dubious environmental standpoints that during certain times of year result in us having the worst air quality in the world.
Anyway, I am not trying to rain on anyone's parade and it isn't really my business to tell people how to celebrate their own holidays. If you are here and participating, please pay a bit more for your krathong (I'm presuming you don't know how to make one) and get the fully biodegradable ones made of bread. Then, at least the wildlife gets something to eat because of you.