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Loi Krathong: the Mystical �Festival of Lights�

As the full moon of the twelfth lunar month lights up the night sky throughout Thailand on 21 November, hundreds of thousands of ornately-decorated krathong or traditional banana leaf floats are set adrift on rivers and waterways in a spell-binding ritual called Loi Krathong � the 'festival of lights'. Thought to have evolved from royal rituals of the early Rattanakosin period, this is one of the Kingdom's oldest and best-preserved traditions, which sees Thais paying homage to Mae Khongkha, the �Mother of Water�.

Anyone visiting Thailand for the first time will find there�s something very unique about the Thai festival of Loi Krathong. Its sense of harmony and strong association with water instil a real feeling of renewal and rebirth in those who take part. And by any world standard, it is on the whole, a very picturesque affair, if not a rather romantic induction to Thailand�s colourful and enigmatic cultural heritage.

A �krathong� is traditionally a small floating shrine made of folded banana leaves, a sort of origami Christmas cake, with a soft pulpy wooden base that is then decorated with flowers and topped off with a candle or two and usually three sticks of incense. The floral arrangements vary from exotic orchids to the more conservative orange carnation. Each is a unique reworking of an indigenous form � carefully created by the many different krathong makers that appear fleetingly on the night to ply their one-time works of art to potential customers.

Thailand was once a water-based culture, where rivers and canals played an integral role in people�s daily lives. Traditionally these were the places to �loi� (float) one�s krathong, but today almost any body of water will do � even your common garden fish pond, or the more improvised plastic paddling pool � many of which appear in popular nightspots during the festival, allowing you to loi-and-lounge while tippling your favourite beverage.

Although traditionally the water should be free flowing to wash away bad luck, preferred loiing locations now include more cultivated settings like the central boating lake in Bangkok�s Lumpini Park, or for the more affluent, the immaculate gardens of a five-star hotel (three-star for the less fortunate). These tend to be the favoured spots of urbanites keen to live the photogenic picture-postcard dream with historic backdrops and traditionally attired girls on hand to dip their oblation amid reassuring heritage symbolism and the all-pervasive strains of �Loi Krathong� song.

To be sure, still bodies of water do have their attractions. The often rather unstable krathongs are not so likely to be capsized by the wake of a passing tugboat or sucked under an unsightly river boat jetty � an important plus when you consider that each candle-bearing creation is the embodiment of eternal hope. For many, parks like Lumpini are the epitome of a perfect Loi Krathong. After all, there is something mesmerizing about the flawless reflection of a flickering flame, plus your krathong survives long enough for that all-important snapshot. It is perhaps no wonder then that many couples decide to tie the knot during Loi Krathong.

However, more traditional locations along rivers and canals still attract large numbers of people, eager to launch their vessels. In Bangkok many piers along Chao Phraya River become makeshift launching sites during the festival with a number of areas especially popular. One such spot is a relatively newish launch site under Rama VIII Bridge on the Thonburi side, where steps leading down to the river make it easier for people to reach the water. Since the bridge officially opened in 2002, it has become a popular gathering place with a bustling festive atmosphere that attracts food vendors, street entertainment and large crowds in a party mood.

Another popular launch site on the Chao Phraya is in front of Wat Arun, known to visitors as the �Temple of Dawn�. Here, for a small fee, a boat will whisk you to the middle of the river, where you can launch your krathong and watch it slip romantically away, far from the madding crowd. Other popular festival locations include River City, an upmarket shopping complex, and many riverside hotels like the Royal Orchid Sheraton Hotel & Towers; Millennium Hilton Bangkok Hotel or The Peninsula Bangkok.

In addition to Lumpini Park, there�s the pond in front of Chulalongkorn University and another at Saranrom Park. Sukhothai, the former capital of the Thai empire is the spiritual home of the ceremony and the reflecting pools around the city�s ancient ruins are therefore predictably crowded during the festival. Chiang Mai is another famous destination for Loy Krathong where the ancient moat around the city makes an ideal and very picturesque launch site. It is also famous for its kom loy (floating lanterns) which are released into the night sky in their thousands during the festival � a truly awe-inspiring site.

If you�re visiting Thailand during the Loy Krathong festival, then check out HotelTravel.com�s website for our huge range of hotels in Thailand. Popular destinations during the festival include Bangkok, Sukhothai, Chiang Mai, Ayutthaya and Hua Hin.

By Renford Davies.

A Chiang Mai Songkran: Best Day Ever!

If there was only one day left in your life but you got to live it in Chiang Mai, Thailand, it would almost be perfect. Make it a Chiang Mai Songkran day and it quickly becomes possibly the best day ever!

And it is not hard to understand why. Songkran is so synonymous with Chiang Mai that the city fills up with Thai nationals from other provinces during the festival�s official dates. For a four-day stretch the city becomes, for all intents and purposes, a battleground by day and a rocking town at night.

Shining through all the excitement with relative ease are the religious aspects of the festival, still an integral part due to the attention and respect Thais give to Songkran�s origins. This makes Thailand�s second largest city arguably the best place to experience the nation�s traditional New Year celebrations.

The official dates for Songkran in Chiang Mai are between 12 to 15 April, but while traditional celebrations adhere to the time frame, enthusiasts do not. Local children, for a few days before and after the set dates, are not particularly bound by adult rules or time constraints and can often be found splashing each other and visitors (especially unsuspecting tourists on motorcycles!).

The ancient ramparts and rectangle moat of old Chiang Mai city becomes the city�s Songkran centre of gravity. From morning until dusk both sides of this once protective body of water are inundated by both road and foot traffic.

Water warriors gather there to have steady access to raw materials and trucks packed with people and barrels of water converge to do battle with them. This is definitely the place to be for the most immersive taste of the action, with a few specific locations worth mentioning.

The crumbling ramparts have four gates, one on each side of the city, the eastern one being Tapae Gate. This location is used during many festivals and Songkran is no exception. A large paved area fronts the road on the outside of the moat, people congregate here to enjoy music and on some days the start of processions. Tapae Gate is a great place to base oneself for at least part of the day. Expect water throwing to be fierce as two roads converge at this point into a bottleneck of fluid in flight.

On the east side of the moat are many businesses, from franchises like Starbucks right by Tapae Gate to local burger stands. This of course in addition to the local foods sold specifically during Songkran.

A less official point of interest is the street in front of Kad Suan Kaew or Central Shopping Centre. A few hundred metres from the moat�s north-west corner, large crowds of people dance to local tunes and spirits run high. There are pop or Thai country concerts and other cultural events throughout the day and well into the night.

Once night falls, Chiang Mai for the most part returns to its usual facade, with a few pockets of die hard water addicts continuing. There is a notable difference though in the sheer number of travellers who inhabit the city. During Songkran Chiang Mai�s conventional nightlife becomes unconventionally busy with large crowds still buzzing with the energy that powered them during daylight hours.

Where to go is a matter of taste. Chiang Mai has a uniquely relaxed pace that prevails in even the most up tempo of venues. It is part of its charm and attraction.

Numerous fine dining establishments dot the city, serving everything from European food to local cuisine. Stefano, an Italian restaurant of particular note stands just a few steps from Tapae Gate down an alley called Chang Moi Kao Road. Well known and long standing, Stefano retains its understated appeal and provides a good selection across its menu.

For a taste of local life the historic area within the moat should be explored. Many small bars and restaurants are hidden away, catering to residents, expatriates and discerning travellers.

Two favourites that have stood the test of time are Riverside and Warm Up. Both offer a mixture of entertainment and dining. Riverside, as its name implies, hugs the Ping River�s east bank. Popularity means tables are hard to come by even under normal circumstances so try to arrive as early as possible. The intimate bar section near one of the restaurant�s entrances is a very popular hangout for younger locals.

Warm Up sits on the south end of Nimmanahaeminda Road in Chiang Mai�s west. A large house has been converted into a restaurant and pub, albeit with a very Thai style. Trendy decorations take up the walls and the different corners of Warm Up will pique differing interests. From a pool table to indoor club sections, it has it all.

This is only touching the surface of what Chiang Mai is all about, not to mention its mesmerising variation of the Songkran festival. The resounding fact that should be taken from the words above is that Songkran in Chiang Mai dispenses unlimited variety to travellers, and during such a joyful time of year it would serve one best to dive straight in and explore.

Michael DesPortes

Festivals and Holidays in Thailand
New Years Day Jan 1st

In Thailand there are three New Year's days. The Western, on Jan 1st, the Chinese New Year on the first day of the First Lunar month, usually in February and the Thai New Year marked by the Songkhran festival in April. Thais usually exchange gifts on January 1st.

Phra BuddhaBahtFair

Held at the temple of the Holy Footprint at Saraburi, 236Km north of Bangkok, from 31st January to 1st February. Many activities including music and outdoor drama.

Bosang Umbrella Fair

Held in Chiang Mai during January, it features colourful paper umbrellas and other local handicrafts.

Chinese New Year

1st day of the first Chinese Lunar month, usually in February. Businesses close for 3-4 days giving families time to get together and worship at one of the Chinese Buddhist temples. There may also be public celebrations with acrobats, Lion Dance and firecrackers. The latter are believed to frighten away "foreign devils".

Flower Carnival

Held in Chiang Mai during February it features parades and colourful floats exhibiting the local flora.

Makha Bucha Day

End of February/beginning of March, depending on the moon. This commemorates the day when 1250 of Buddha's disciples gathered spontaneously to hear him preach. Buddhists visit Wats and make merit by such acts as releasing caged birds. In the evening the celebrations culminate in a candle lit procession around the main temple building.

Chakri Day 6th April

Commemorates the founding of the Chakri Dynasty, of which the present King Bhumipon is the 9th King. Portraits of the King and Queen are prominently displayed and decked with tributes of flowers.

Songkhran 13-15th April

This is the celebration of the old Thai New Year. Buddhists visit the temple for the ceremony of Rod Nam Dam Nua. They sprinkle water on the Buddha images, and on the hands of the monks and novices at the temple, as an offering to express confidence that the supply of water will be adequate to cover the dry season.

Songkhran is a time when the Thai family will try to be together, and many people will travel back to their home village.

This holiday has now become secularized, with exuberant merrymakers taking to the streets throwing water at each other, and you, by the cup full, the bucket full, or even with a hose. To add to the fun, talc is mixed with the water and may be daubed on your face. Take it all in good spirit, no one is exempt, not even the policemen. The cool water may even be a welcome relief as the festival coincides with the time when the sun is due overhead and the weather can be very hot.

Pattaya Festival

Held during the second week of April in Pattaya on Thailand's Eastern Seaboard. It features processions, floral displays, and other special events plus a spectacular fireworks display.

National Labour Day - 1st May

This holiday follows the lead of many western countries, whose workers now celebrate Labour Day.

Coronation Day - 5th May

This celebrates the coronation of the present King Bhumipon, Rama IX. Tributes are paid at shrines and portraits of His Majesty.

Royal Ploughing Ceremony

This is an ancient Brahman ceremony, held under Royal patronage in Bangkok during May, which celebrates the beginning of the rice planting season.

Fruit Fair

A festival is held in Rayong during May and another in Chantaburi during June. They feature locally grown fruit such as rambutan, durian, and jack fruit.

Visakha Bucha Day - Full moon of the 6th Lunar Month.

This celebrates the birth, death and enlightenment of Buddha, and is therefore the most sacred day on the Buddhist calendar.

Asalaha Bucha Day - Mid July

This is the day before the start of Buddhist Lent. Many young men, who are about to become monks, hold parties on this day.

Buddhist Lent - Mid July

This marks the start of Khao Pansa, period similar to the Christian Lent. During the period monks do not travel to other monasteries, their religious duties are strictly observed, and the novice monks receive their training in the teachings of Buddha.

Candle Festival

Held in Ubon Ratchatani on Khao Pansa Day. Candles carved from bees wax are paraded through the streets.

H.M. Queen's Birthday - 12th August

Tributes are paid to Her Majesty, and donations are made to the many charitable organisations that are patronised by the Queen.

Chulalongkorn Day - 23rd October

This commemorates the death of King Chulalongkorn, Rama V, who reigned between 1868 and 1910. He is renowned for his achievements in the fields of education, modernisation and progressive thinking.

Buffalo Races

Held in Chonburi (80Km east of Bangkok) during October.

Loy Krathong - Full Moon 12th Lunar month, November

The festival is believed to date back to the Sukhothai period, but its exact significance is uncertain. Krathongs, or lotus flowers made of natural materials, containing a candle, incense sticks, a coin or two and beautifully decorated with flowers are launched into the sea, or any convenient stretch of water, as a thanksgiving to the water spirits, and a cleansing of sins.

River Kwai Bridge Week

A week long series of historical exhibitions, light and sound shows, and vintage train rides held in Kanchanaburi during the last week of October.

Annual Elephant Roundup

Held during the third week of November at Surin in North East Thailand.

Trouping of the Colour - 3rd December

Their Majesties the King and Queen preside over this annual event which is held in the Royal Plaza, Bangkok.

H.M. King's Birthday - 5th December

People demonstrate their respect for King with flags, displays and other tributes.

Constitution Day - 10th December

This marks the day in 1932, when the monarchy became constitutional, at the very beginning of democracy on Thailand.

New Year's Eve - 31st December

The end of the old year when everybody celebrates.

 
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