Joy and Light

Chiang Rai, Thailand

I’m now up in the north, in possession of a rental car with which to drive around the smaller villages and towns that surround Chiang Rai here in the mountains. I’m traveling for the moment with Leander, my Dutch friend whom I’ve met along the way. The ride up, though on the wrong side of the road, wasn’t difficult, and Chiang Rai itself has an interesting flavor: it felt instantly more like Korea somehow than the rest of Thailand — an odd reference point, I know — and I think it’s because we’re much closer to China now.

Loi Krathong

The calm of this small city is a welcome change after the wild excitement of the three-day festival known as Loi Krathong, or in Chiang Mai as Yi Peng. It’s a full-moon festival of lights, with lighted floats of flowers or bread set out on the river, great lanterns filling the sky, and beauty contests and parades.

The festival in Chiang Mai was amazing, revelatory, beautiful. The joy in this city was palpable. (See my galleries — the third one is still to come.)

On the first night of the festival, I had to cut short a fascinating conversation with Bird, the owner of a major bookstore — he has an MA in political science from SOAS in the UK — to go watch an incredible parade of lanterns and elaborate floats and drummers and dancers down Thapae Road.

As I looked for a good place to watch the show, I spotted Tam, the Australian woman from my trek in Pai, and we spent the evening together. The parade was exquisite, with great lighted paper floats, dancers, beauty queens, and finally a procession of floats borne on bamboo poles, the hundreds of silent bearers all with faces painted white and outlined in black. 

Then we wandered down to the river, where huge crowds were launching krathongs — little boats made of flowers or bread or, in my case, ice cream cones, and carrying lit candles and incense — to send away our fears and sins and bring good luck for the next year. We crossed the bridge and found ourselves on the more Thai side of the river, wandering through the old Chinatown and past upscale clubs and bars, then crossed again at the next bridge and walked through bustling Warowot Market, where thousands of monks, from old men to little boys, were out gathering alms, sometimes in great lines, all centered on one major temple.

Then on the second night I met up with Leander and an older Japanese-American couple from my cooking class, Dean and Deb from Northern California. We had decided to skip the vaunted Maejo University launch — an event put on by an obscure Buddhist sect, in which thousands of lanterns would go up into the sky at once, and for which you may or may not have needed to buy a hundred-dollar ticket months ago, and for which the traffic was expected to be horrendous — and stay in the city. I don’t regret it at all, especially after hearing about the five hours in traffic people spent going to and from the event.

The four of us split off from a much larger group gathered by Paul, the Inevitable Dutchman of Pai (I keep running into him, and did again last night in Chiang Rai), and followed the night’s smaller parade along until we headed for the bridge. This time it was so crowded as to be impassable. Long before the appointed hour of 10 pm, or “and onward 9 pm,” as the signs said, when lantern launches would become legal, thousands upon thousands of the five-foot white paper lanterns — and some in cute animal shapes — were ascending into the sky, occasionally trailed by sparklers. We launched a few, lighting the fuel-soaked slice of a toilet paper roll that makes the heat source. Rather than doing it from the bridge, which was packed and not moving — with cars and motorbikes stuck for the night — we pushed down to the riverside and walked along the bank. We made our way along that way for a while, then emerged into a fun park — games, rides, a Chinese temple, a Ferris wheel — and discovered we’d caught up again with the parade. We made it to the second bridge, crossed, spent some time on it just watching: lanterns, lanterns, lanterns in all directions, plus a steady barrage of fireworks of every size and descriptions, from sparklers to Roman candles to big explosives, that left the sky smoky. The crowds, the noise, the fires, the lights, all of it created a carnival that kept bringing to mind the line from Dr. Seuss’s If I Ran the Circus: “You’d never see half if you had forty eyses.”

We came back along the far bank, along the water, past bars full of no one but Thais, back up through Chinatown, and finally back down by the water below the bridge, where we launched a couple more lanterns. We ate street food here and there. We were in big crowds and smaller ones, sometimes packed in and unmoving, more often flowing along in great streams. I have been in big crowds before, but this had a feeling that’s hard to describe. The sense of fun, of joy, of pure pleasure was everywhere. It was a carnival, but the transgressive side largely took the form of lighting things on fire, rather than any kind of violent or sexual energy. It was a religious festival, but without a whole lot of piety or sanctity. It was one of the best nights of my life.

Things were winding down by midnight, so we split up and went our separate ways. Back at my hotel, I could still hear the booms and pops of firecrackers late into the night.

On the final night, which was also Thanksgiving, I had a fancy buffet dinner with Bird at Le Meridien, where we discussed Thai politics and culture before venturing out into a wet, rainy night to watch the last of the Loi Krathong parades. Even with the bright lights, the floats, the traditional bands, the barrage of fireworks, it felt a bit sedate after the night before. There were still hundreds of lanterns floating into the sky throughout the night, but nothing like the previous night. I found Tam again watching the parade, then found my way to a rooftop bar where Leander and some other Dutch people were hanging out, and we sat and watch the lanterns and explosions until closing.


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