Different Holiday, Same Message

My favorite part of Thailand’s Loy Krathong festival wasn’t the enormous street market the first night, though the long rows of artwork, clothing, and sparkly souvenirs that filled the core of Chiang Mai’s old city were impressive. The chanting in one of the city’s many temples was better, as I felt the cadence seeping into my thoughts and infiltrating my breathing even without the key of comprehension, but that wasn’t it either.

The second night I was swallowed by one of the larger temples, whose series of shrines and altars stood in the darkness in exotic splendor. I loved the way they crowded around, not arranged with a familiar sense of order, just a general geometric commonality. Like a parking lot; no careful placement, just a shared sense of order. Parking lot for lifts to the divine. They were chanting here too, as barefoot young monks hung colorful paper lanterns in long instagramphilic rows. Beauty was everywhere, but that wasn’t my favorite part of the festival either.

The third night came close, since that was when people launched their personal krathong floats into the river, each carrying a lit candle, three incense sticks, and whatever regrets or old energy they wanted to release from last year. The sense of celebration danced in every aisle of the night markets where we ate savory dishes with tangy lime sauces, sugary sweet undertones, and enough spice to make the hot air seem cool…on each dish. Thai cuisine is amazing, it goes for every type of flavor, all together, all at once.

Night four was the big outlay, with ornate floats celebrating local schools, other countries (the US’s was bizarre), and I don’t even know what all. The music varied with each entry, but the crowd’s good spirit never changed, and fireworks went off overhead to their own mysterious schedule. The main night, yes. But still not my favorite part. So what was?

When I started this post, I was going to say that my favorite part was the beautiful multilayered chaos of it all. Not just the kinetic joy, press of colors, abundance of flavors, all that stuff, but the way the festival itself is a feast. At least three different holidays have merged into it, and nobody seems sure if it’s to honor the river goddess, celebrate the Buddha’s teachings, or remember one’s ancestors. It’s all of that, or something else, and either way there’s room for everyone.

But remembering each night I kept feeling joyful resonance between my own past and this other-country tradition. The first night’s chanting service could easily take the place of my boyhood church services, with formal clothes, some awe, some boredom, and curiosity about what the others were getting from it all. The young monks hanging lanterns the second night kept sneaking into the shadows to light off firecrackers with exactly the same sense of adolescent “tonight is different and I’m on the verge of everything” eager energy I remember from that age. The krathong tradition’s shedding of old energy on the third night is something we can all understand, especially in a year as tumultuous as this one has been. And by the final night I felt more connected to the local schools and ladyboy club than the US’s awkward imperialist contribution.

Different temple, different youngster with the firecrackers, but you get the idea

That feeling of inclusion, so intensely sought after by the traveler, was abundant in Loy Krathong last week. That is something to be cherished. Something worthy of being a “favorite part.” And it was. Almost.

Because this particular festival had one more feature: my brother and his partner were there. The presence of kin amplified every moment. We always say family is the most important part of the holidays, and I’ll be a nine-headed naga if it ain’t true. And that’s a Favorite Thing to hold on to, whether it’s a new festival in a foreign land, or the familiar rituals of home.

Happy holidays to all of you and your kin!