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Everything You Need to Know About Loy Krathong, Thailand’s Magical Festival of Lights

Held every fall, Thailand’s Loy Krathong (also spelled “Loi Krathong”) is a can’t-miss, visually mesmerizing celebration.

If you’re planning a trip to Thailand, consider November. That’s when you’ll encounter the enchanting, spiritual Loy (or Loi) Krathong festival. Held every fall all over the country as well as Laos and Myanmar, the name translates to “floating basket,” and thousands of candle-lit banana leaf boats known as krathongs are released in waterways to symbolize renewal. Today, the festival also includes beauty pageants, concerts, and even floating lanterns courtesy of Yi Peng, which Loi Krathong coincides with in the northern part of Thailand. Here’s a primer on how to join in the celebrations.

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What Is Loy Krathong?

Loy Krathong, which translates to “floating basket,” is Thailand’s own Festival of Lights. It’s a time to send out the old and welcome in the new, punctuated by candles, incense, and good intentions. Celebrated all over the country, the most robust events will be concentrated in areas around waterways, as they’re needed to float the krathong. You’ll find celebrations in Phuket, Bangkok, and many cities up north, but book early—accommodations fill up fast.

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When Does It Take Place?

The whole country gets in on the festival which takes place annually on the evening of the 12th lunar month. In 2018, it lined up perfectly with the week of Thanksgiving, but it usually falls in the first half of the month; this year the date is November 13. In the north, Loy Krathong is fused with the traditional Yi Peng festival where, in addition to the krathong, swarms of lanterns send wishes up into the sky. Yi Peng runs from November 11-13 this year.

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What Are the Origins of Loy Krathong?

The origins of Loy Krathong vary based on who you ask. Popular legend says that it was the doing of Nang Nopphamat, a beautiful lady of the court of the ancient city Sukhothai. In order to gain the attention of King Ram Khamhaeng, she constructed an eye-catching boat of lotus leaves, placed a lit candle in it and floated it down the river, thus the krathong was born. It is now recognized that the Nopphamat tale comes from a poem written by King Rama IV in the 1800s, but the idea is no less magical. Today beauty contests are held during the festival in Nopphamat’s name. Some believers see the festival as a chance to pay homage to the Hindu Goddess of Water after a particularly fruitful harvest season, and others concede that the celebration is adapted from Diwali (the Hindu celebration of lights), where participants light small clay pots called diyas that symbolize light over darkness. Diyas will also be lit during Loi Krathong in some areas.

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What Exactly Is a Krathong and How Do I Get One?

Like Nopphamat’s lotus boat, krathong refers to a lotus-shaped mini-float made of a decorated banana trunk. How you decorate is up to you—flowers, craft-store buys, and personal items are all fair game. In the hours before sunset you can also find makeshift street stands where you can purchase pre-made krathongs made from such effects as tapioca starch, corn husks, and coconut shells. There are also multi-purpose bread krathongs, which are biodegradable and turn into fish food after a few days. Once widely available, Styrofoam krathongs should be avoided as they are now banned over environmental concerns.

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How Do You Traditionally Launch a Krathong?

Launching a krathong during the festival is an essential for promoting good fortune, but there is a correct methodology to ensure maximum luck. The main components of the vessel relate to Buddhism: the flower represents the worship of monks, the candle symbolizes knowledge and wisdom, and the incense symbolizes purity and power. Nail clippings, strands of hair, and bits of clothing can be added to represent the negatives in the past, while coins are included to welcome wealth. When the sun starts to set, find your way to a waterway and release your krathong into the current while thanking the Goddess of Water–if all goes well, it will float away from you. If it comes back, well, better luck next year. These days the festival is also second to Valentine’s Day for romance, so budding couples typically make a wish for their happiness.

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What Happens During the Festival?

The festival is celebrated by everyone in Thailand, but the crux of the celebration revolves around the floating of the krathong, which can happen on any body of water and involves thousands of little floating lights. You’ll see and hear fireworks and, in homage, to Nopphamat towns will hold beauty pageants called “Nopphamat Queen Contests.” In Chiang Mai, a parade will pass through the Old City square to the river for launching, while the monks of Wat Phan Tao will decorate their grounds with oil lamps and lanterns in the center of the city. Funnily enough, and perhaps in direct contrast to the monks, the circumstances of the festival—romantic lighting and being able to be out without parents—has resulted in Loy Krathong becoming a night to socialize for singles and is even associated with the loss of virginity.

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Where Is the Best Place to Observe or Participate?

As the festival is closely related to the rivers, you’ll want to find yourself near a beach, lake, river, or other body of water. But for an extra mesmerizing experience, head to the north for the Yi Peng fusion. In addition to the lanterns set on water, throngs of lanterns are lit and floated off into the night sky. Chiang Mai is the most lively and elaborate celebration, so plan ahead for accommodations and restaurant reservations.  A quieter option is Chiang Rai and The Golden Triangle, which holds a small local carnival during the festival where you can set your krathongs on the Mekong in view of the Laotians across the River doing the same. This year the Yi Peng festival begins on November 11.

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And What About Those Flying Lanterns? Can I Do That, Too?

The floating lanterns of Loy Krathong are gorgeous, as are the flying lights of Yi Peng. But, put the two together and it’s a breathtaking sight to behold. The lanterns, or khom loy, can be found around town and are made of bamboo and fuel cells. Due to their fragility, it takes more than one person to light the flame launch one, lest you set the whole lantern on fire. The easiest way comes down to one person lighting the fire while the others hold the lantern as it fills with flame, creating enough heat for the khom to float. Then, you all make your wishes and release it against a rising moon.

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