All too often my blogs here focus on the darker side of a country that is uncommonly beautiful, uniquely cheerful, and full of grace. Despite some of the things I've said here, Thailand is a magical place, and the world is blessed to have it occupying its little corner of the map.
At a time of the year when people in some parts of the world dress up as ghosts and vampires and knock on doors to demand treats, the Thais, rich and poor alike, take their gratitude and their prayers to the nearest body of water, and as darkness falls they create lakes and rivers of light.
Loy Krathong (pronounced "Kratong") may be the world's most beautiful holiday. Celebrated at the full moon of the last lunar month, usually late in November, Loy Krathong ceremonializes the deep relationship between the Thais and water, which makes possible not only the irrigation of rice but life itself. As a way of blessing the waters and expressing gratitude, people fashion elaborately cut and folded krathong, traditionally from banana leaves, that are then laden with flowers, sticks of incense, a candle, and (often) a small coin.
The leaves are folded to suggest the lotus flower. The lotus has powerful symbolic value in both Hinduism and Buddhism. In Buddhism, because the flower blooms from mud and sometimes stagnant water, it represents the soul's ability to rise above negative earthly influences and grow toward transcendence. Krathong are made all day as part of the celebration and then, as darkness falls, they're carried to the water's edge, flames are lighted, a wish is made, and they're set afloat.
People often place their regrets, anger, and guilt adrift with the krathong, hoping for a fresh start. The flames have also come to symbolize longevity and release from sin. Prayers drift on the current, along with the wishes. Lovers set their krathong in the water side by side, hoping they'll glide away together as an omen of the relationship to come.
This may seem like a heavy burden for such a frail craft, but the magic of the ceremony is undeniable as the rivers and canals gleam with light.
And in some areas, the skies light up, too, as thousands of khom loy (floating lanterns) are released, each carrying with it misfortune and worldly cares. For one night each year, the stars bend close.