Festival Time in Chiang Mai

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Festival of Lights

Since starting my adventures to Thailand in 2008, the Loy Krathong Festival has been on my bucket list of Thai experiences I needed to have. The amazing beauty of postcard images of hundreds of sky lanterns glowing orange floating up into the dark night sky was something I wanted to see with my own eyes.

Held on the full moon of the 12th month of the Thai lunar calendar, this festival is celebrated by lighting and releasing khom loy (paper sky lanters) into the sky, hanging colorful fabric or paper lanterns and setting krathong (offerings made of banana leaves, flowers, incense and a candle (krathong has no actual translation)) off down the river. The paper sky lanterns that are launched into the sky and the krathongs that are floated down the rivers are meant to symbolise the drifting away of bad luck and misfortune and provide the opportunity to say prayers asking that wishes and hopes for the future be fulfilled.

Northern Thailand combines the Yee Peng Festival with Loy Krathong. Yee Peng is the Lanna festival of lights. And in true Thai fashion, the whole festival lasts for 3 days and is filled with events and people lighting off fireworks and firecrackers. Hotels and guest houses fill up early. In fact, having forgot to make my reservations when I booked my trip in September, I actually found myself staying at a new place for the first two days of my trip. The Western House Hotel was pleasant, but not the same as coming home to the CM Blue House.

The highlight of the celebration for me was going with my friend Lek to the mass launch of khom loy at Mae Jo University. Designed primarily as a photographic event, thousands of people turn out to participate. Many are tourists and all the anouncements are made in Thai, English and Chinese. Lek picked me up around 4 PM to give us ample time to wind our way through the heavy traffic in the hopes of claiming some piece of turf before the whole massive expanse of green was covered in people, lighting torches and khom loy. Definitely glad Lek was driving the 13 kilometers to Mae Jo. As she expertly wove her way through the heavy traffic, I was able to truly appreciate the variety of smells and sounds of the city and countryside. The sweet smell of flowers wafting on the light breeze competing with the sour smell of exhaust from the cars.

Entering the compound, we were given plastic sheeting to sit on and greeted by the chorouses of young Thai girls welcoming us to the festival. The field was layed out with rows and rows of torches containing candles that would be lit at the right moment in the ceremony and used for lighting the khom loy, most of them surrounded by early comers. We staked out a spot, I by a torch, Lek in a spot not too far from me where she would hopefully have a good vantage point for snapping photographs. After claiming my spot, off I went in search of a khom loy to purchase. A never ending monologue (in all three languages) was broadcast over the loud speakers, explaining the purpose and meaning behind the ceremony. The grey skies threatened rain. While it didn’t actually rain, it did provide a dramatic backdrop for the first early khom loy that were released while waiting for the event to begin.

The ceremony began around 6:30 PM with a demonstration how to properly light and let the khom loy fill with warm air to carry it off into the heavens. Following was a demonstration on how to pray and bow according to Thai tradition, including a couple of practice bows by the entire audience. Finally, a very long sermon was given, the gist of which was about stilling the heart and allowing for inner peace and happiness in your heart, your friend’s hearts and the hearts of all people everywhere. Maintaining focus on a long sermon given all in Thai is not easy and it was often that I would find my attention drifting to the steady stream of khom loy that were being launched into the dark sky.

After the sermon and the circumambulating with candles, it was time for the big moment. The spotlights lighting the field were turned off. People were instructed to light the torches and their khom loy and then to wait for the cue to release the lanterns.

Lighting a khom loy is definitely a two or more person process. A girl from Australlia helped me with mine. Once the parafin ring is lit, the lantern fills with hot air and slowly begins to rise. The heat from all of the khom loy becomes a bit intense with that many people so close together. The orange glow is truly magnificent. While holding the lantern, prayers and wishes are said in preparation of relase. On cue, all the lanterns are relased, floating up into the night sky carrying wishes and prayers and honoring Buddha. As the lanterns reach altidue and are caught by the wind they make a road of wishes drifting off into the distance.

Just like the postcards and images I had seen, it was truly a beautiful and amazing spectical to behold!

Holistic Navigation

Usually one of my first orders of business upon arrival in Chiang Mai is to get a motorbike. The freedom a motorbike provides is unparalleled. I’m not tied to finding a tuk tuk or a songtheaw (shared taxi) to get to where I want to go, especially when I have a whim to go to Tesco Lotus (department store) for this or that or need to actually get to somewhere specific since street pronunciations are not among my strength in speaking Thai yet.

The trade off though is that it is easy to miss out on the details of being in Chiang Mai. Or the chance encounters that can occur. Since I figured traffic would be miserable with the festival, I opted to not get a motorbike right away. Which made for a lot of time in my shoes, with many benefits. The biggest benefit has been running into people that I would have otherwised missed if I was zipping here and there.

So after two days on the back of a motorbike or on foot, I got my motorbike. And for the first trip since 2008, I have found myself without my trusty Nancy Chandler’s Map of Chiang Mai with its cheerful, colorful maps and tips for things to see and do. Being without my trusty friend feels a little sad. We have been together through many Chiang Mai (and surrounding areas) motorbike adventures. To be fair, my map is being held together by a lot of tape and doesn’t fold very well anymore. Perhaps it is time for a new map. In the meantime, I am making due with the free tourist maps that are definitely lacking in detail (like streets and a consistent scale).

After so many kilometers on a motorbike during my past trips, I have a pretty good feel for most of the roads around Chiang Mai. Still don’t know them quite as well as the back of my hand, but I’m working on that. The combination of no map and a vague sense of the streets makes for a bit of what I call holistic navigation. Using holistic navigation methods, I follow the other motorbikes and cars that generally look like they know where they are going and hope I end up where I want to be. For the most part this type of navigation has been successful. When it fails, I find myself exploring parts of Chiang Mai that I haven’t seen before, which is not a bad thing.

Being a Non-tourist

One of my aims for this trip is to just exist in Chiang Mai. To not fill my time to the brim with tourist activities and motorcycle adventures. Some days are dedicated to training. Outside of those days, I have no set schedule. So far this approach has been fruitful, both mentally and in having experiences I might have otherwised missed.

On Sunday night, as I was making my way along the inside moat road admiring the little candles being placed along the sidewalk as part of the Loy Krathong festival, I ran into two of my friends Aek and Mix. They were on their way to meet friends to go to Amooga, a Thai barbeque restaurant, for dinner and invited me along. And by invited, I mean they told me I was coming along. I never made it to where the main festival activities were taking place. Instead, I had a much more satisfying evening spent with friends and experiencing a meal I wouldn’t have had the chance to experience otherwise.

Thai barbeque is a type of hot pot meal, although instead of boiling the food in the water, the steam and heat are used to grill the food on the top of the plate. The cooking plate is placed over a burner on the table and the trough around the edge is filled with water. To start, everyone fills a plate (or two or three) with whatever types of meats and vegetables they want to eat. The meat options ranged from steak and chicken to squid, and everything in between. Still not sure what half of the options were. Then the cooking and eating begins. My eyes were definitely bigger than my stomach. Not to worry though, the boys took care of finishing all the food on the table (much to my astonishment) and two bottles of SangSom The whole meal, including non-alcoholic beverages and coconut ice cream for dessert, cost 199 baht (or just under $7).

On the way back to the old town, we stopped to launch a krathong. My krathong had banana leaves folded into intricate points, giant yellow marigolds and purple orchids. I lit my joss stick (incense) and the candle. Keeping the candle lit proved to be a futile task in the light breeze that had started blowing. Placing a few strands of hair on the krathong, I made my wish and let it go in the Mae Ping (river). Sadly, I don’t think my krathong made it very far as it had trouble catching the current and ended up bunched against a branch with several other krathong. Still, just maybe my misfortunes will be floated away and my wish will be granted.

Rain, Rain Go Away…

November is a transition from rainy season to cool season in Chiang Mai. The warm daily rains of the wet season are replaced with sporatic cooler evening storms. Many days the clouds just threaten. The last two nights though we have been graced with torrential rains. The first night I was caught on the other side of the old town with my motorbike. I had forgot how cold riding a motorbike in the rain can truly be. Even on the short journet back to the Blue House, I found myself trying to take as much advantage of the heat of the other cars as possible.

One of the Loy Krathong events is a parade showcasing brightly lit, highly ornate floats bearing the winners and contestants in the Noppamas Queen beauty contest. All of the floats and participants were staging when the rain started falling. All the beautiful women, dressed in their finest were rescued from their floats as fast as possible and all the parade participants went scurrying for cover. I headed home as quickly as possible, lacking either a rain poncho or an umbrella, assuming the parade was cancelled given the torrential rain that we had all night.

The other downside to the rains is the number of mosquitoes. The voracious mosquitoes take any opportunity to grab a drink of blood. Finally resorted to buying some mosquito repellent. I think the mosquitoes are just laughing at it though as I’ve managed to continue to amass welts from bites.

I am also now the proud owner of an adorable blue umbrella with a polka dot trim. Hopefully I don’t have to use it too much, especially while riding my motorbike.

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