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Floating off in Thailand

Helen Taylor at work

It was a fiddle and I was having difficulty making mine look half as creative or beautiful as Nand or Yings.  They managed to make the banana leaves into exactly the right shape and fix them to the base with no problem at all.  Whilst mine, when I managed to fix the folded leaf to the base, I’d pick it up, triumphant, only for the new addition to fall to the ground between my crossed legs. 

We were sat on the floor surrounded by banana leaves, discs made from the trunks of banana trees and pins.  Nand was initiating me into the creative aspects of the current festival.  I sighed, frustrated with my lack of ability as Nand sweetly said, ‘I show again.’  She took a fresh banana leaf, nimbly folded it then pinned the perfect form to my tattered base.

“Khawp khun kha.”  I thanked her in Thai and took another leaf trying myself.  I was improving.  My Krathong – a lotus shaped vessel made of banana leaves – would not match their superior models but it would not lack perseverance.

“I order flower from Suratthani.  They come tomorrow.”   Nand informed me for we needed them as a finishing touch.  “They die if do today.”  I nodded agreement, in the heat they would fade and wilt, we needed the fresh ones, vibrant with colour and life.

Tomorrow was Loy – meaning ‘to float’ – Krathong, the most colourful and celebrated of all Thai festivals.  We would be celebrating it here at the resort on Koh Pha Ngan, in the Gulf of Thailand.  We would float our Krathong on the sea rather than the tradition of doing it on a Klong or canal.

Loy Krathong is celebrated every year on the Full Moon of the twelfth lunar month.   Based on a tradition, 700 years old, of thanking the water gods, it marks the end of the rainy season.  One year, a beautiful woman called Noppamas, the king’s wife, made the first Krathong, to celebrate her Brahmin festival.  Impressed with the beautiful creation, the king made it an annual event.

Ying and Nan making Krathong

On the day of the festival, I went out to visit my little seven-year-old Thai friend,  Pacbung – meaning string bean.  She threw her skinny frame into my arms when I arrived at her parent’s restaurant.  She was with her mother, making their Krathong.

We went out for the day visiting Than Sadet waterfall and beach on the north-east of the island, played in the sea and watched shoals of fish swim by.  In the north-west we ate a lunch of spicy mango salad.   Everywhere we went through the day, people sat on roadsides surrounded by banana leaves and flowers creating their Krathong for the evening’s celebrations.  Some had set up makeshift stalls selling their creations to passing Farang (westerner). 

In Ban Tai, a fishing village on the south coast, stages and stalls were being set up for a market and dancing for the evening.  Food stalls, already making food for the workers, wafted out enticing smells.  The excitement was building, noticeably in the children, and I was really looking forward to the evening.

When I returned Pacbung to her parents, her mother presented me with a beautiful Krathong.  “Make for you.  We wish you much luck.  You good heart.”  I was really touched, I hugged them both and thanked them before leaving.

When I arrived back at the resort Nand had all the Krathong she and Ying had made on display along a table.  They were selling them to all the backpackers staying there.  I searched for the one I had made but it had already been sold.  It really can’t have been that bad then!

They had finished them off with the fresh flowers, a candle and an incense stick.  This trio was familiar in most of the festivals I had been to this year.  They all looked stunning and I went in search of Muig.

Various Krathong at different stages

I found him creating a large Krathong, for Lek – his wife, at one of the tables.  “Muig, I have been given one by Pacbung but I also want to buy one from Nand because she taught me.  Is it OK to have two?”

“No problem, but maybe you like to give one to the children?”  I smiled agreement at his perfect solution.

“Please explain this all to me.”

“You must take some hair.”  His hand went to his head, always miming his words to help with understanding.  “Take some…” he tapped a nail, “What zis?” I told him.  “Take nail, some hair and money, just small money, a coin, one baht.”

“What do I do with them?”

“You put here,” he showed me the middle of the Krathong he had now finished.  “These things make the Krathong you.  The money is for the gods.  You light and put on water and think.  Think all bad go with the Krathong and all good thing you want come to you.  Krathong take bad, space is fill with good, you see?”  I nodded.

We all headed out onto the beach at 8pm and Nand lit all the incense sticks and candles for everyone.  There must have been about thirty of us and all along the shores at other resorts you could see shimmering lights floating out on the sea.  I gave the children their Krathong. 

A wish to come true..

I went quietly off to the side by myself.  As with all their festivals, I wanted to try and experience it totally.  I set my Krathong, carrying my hair, nail and coin, on the sea.  I thought of any bad in my life while holding it, then gently pushed it off.  Whether it was the ritualistic side of it or my imagination I don’t know, but I felt a part of me go with it.  I wished for what I wanted in my life and then watched the dancing lights all around me as everyone’s Krathong headed out into the gulf. 

Fireworks and fire crackers popped all over the island, the smell of the incense filled the air and the sight of thousands of flickering lights bobbing along on the sea was mesmerising and magical.  Some people believe that if the candle remains burning until the Krathong is out of sight that their wish will come true.  One of mine did, shortly after that special night.

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