Festival of lights

Festival of lights

Loi Krathong, a popular fall festival in Thailand is one of the most visually mesmerising celebrations in the world, says Anurag Mallick

Giant demon guards at the Grand Palace in Bangkok.

The rustle of the silk brocaded vest, embroidered sash and zippered dhoti did have a touch of royalty, but going by the stares and chuckles, I felt more like Thomson and Thompson from ‘Tintin’ (both rolled into one), trying to pass off as a local in Thailand. The occasion was the Loi Krathong festival and the sweet folks at TAT (Tourism Authority Thailand) thought that Suk Thai — the ethnic dress — would be a nice touch.

People were dressed in casual clothes as we made a dramatic entry, seemingly, a few centuries too late. Carrying krathongs (floating lamps), our motley crew daintily sashayed down the steps like giggling handmaidens going to the river to fill our pails.

Costume shops were busy with kids and parents picking out traditional dresses (like ours) on hire for cultural performances. Street stalls along the riverbank hawked various krathongs — the most common was a sliced banana stem decorated with leaves, flowers, incense and candles.

The use of styrofoam was banned and people had switched to eco-friendly options like bread and corn that dissolved in water and served as fish food. Some were shaped like tortoises and fantastic aquatic creatures.

Loi or Loy Krathong is a popular fall festival in Thailand and one of the most visually mesmerising celebrations in the world, when thousands of small, candlelit floats (krathongs) are released on rivers and waterways.

The offerings to the river goddess Khongkha (inspired by our own Ganga) are done in gratitude for a good harvest and prosperity. Over the past two decades, the local celebration had graduated into a fair with beauty contests, live music, games and street food stalls.

We grabbed a side of fried worms and reached a large riverine congregation at Tung Phu Khao Thong. The main avenue was lined with food stalls hawking Tang Tak (Thai tacos), Luk Chin Ping (Thai grilled beef balls), Hoy Tod (crispy Thai omelet with mussel/oysters) and Aeb (fish grilled in banana leaf). The king’s statue astride a horse loomed over the festivities as locals in traditional finery danced to a band. Everywhere roosters of various sizes, colours and designs had been erected; cock-fights were once a favourite royal pastime in Thailand. At the riverside, people watched the ethereal lights of the krathongs drift away with the currents.

The emblematic Buddha head entwined by the
roots of a banyan tree at Wat Mahathat, Ayutthaya.

The festival was uncannily similar to Karthik Purnima or Dev-Deepavali in India, when river ghats are lit with diyas (earthen lamps) and floating lamps are cast into the waters. Along

with trade, many cultural traditions flowed across the Indian Ocean to the far East, including Hindu epics like the ‘Ramayana’. Incidentally, the Thai version is called Ramakien, the kings use the title ‘Rama’ and Lord Vishnu’s sudarshana chakra (discus) still serves as the emblem of the present ruling Chakri dynasty. 

After Sanskrit, Pali spread to Suvarnabhumi (The Golden Land) during the Buddhist Council in 3rd century BC. In 1238 CE Sri Indraditya broke away from Khmer dominance and carved a separate country of Thailand with its first capital at Sukhothai. The first royal dynasty was named ‘Phra Ruang’ after the ‘Glorious Prince.’ Founded in 1350 CE, the second Siamese capital Ayutthaya was derived from the ancient kingdom of Ayodhya (literally, the city that cannot be conquered). 

Yet, in 1767, the Burmese army destroyed Ayutthaya, leaving behind a jigsaw puzzle of remains of prang (reliquary towers), monasteries and stupas. The forlorn brick structures were reminiscent of the Buddhist university of Nalanda and the fate of Hampi. The site lay buried for over two centuries, until excavation by the Department of Fine Arts. Today, Ayutthaya Historical Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with tourists flocking to Wat Mahathat to see the Buddha head enmeshed in the roots of the bodhi or pipal tree.  

In 1782, King Rama I shifted from the third capital Thonburi to a more secure location across the Chao Phraya river — ‘Bang makok’ (literally, the place of olive plums). He styled the Grand Palace on the architecture of Ayutthaya and built opulent mansions, halls and pavilions including the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. While six pairs of demons guard Buddha’s chapel, the Chinese statues owe their presence to an interesting subplot. In the old days, when teak and rice was traded from Thailand to China in exchange for silk and porcelain, the statues were used for ballast in boats as counterweights. All along the inner walls, the Ramayana was depicted through gilded murals in vivid detail.

While the troika of sights — the Grand Palace, Wat Pho (Temple of Reclining Buddha) and Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn) feature on every itinerary, the Bang Pa-In Summer Palace is more offbeat. Not too different from our Chao Phraya dinner cruise, the kings too drifted on royal barges to host their guests at this 46-acre pleasure park. With palatial residences, audience halls, memorials and florid statues in whimsical Neo-Gothic style, the vast campus seemed right out of Versailles with treasures like a floating house, a Chinese two-storey mansion and Ho Withun Thasana (The Sages Lookout), a lofty observatory for viewing the countryside. 

The sprawling Bang Pa-In Royal Palace has a
mix of Thai, Chinese and European architecture.

Also in Bang Pa-In district is the magnificent Arts of the Kingdom museum that showcases revolving exhibits of traditional Thai crafts made by artists of the Queen Sirikit Institute. Gilded royal barges, pavilion thrones, intricately carved wood partitions, golden howdahs, khid (bamboo basketry), khram (Damascene inlay with silver and golden threads) and gold Nielloware; the museum is designed to dazzle. Yan Lipao, a dark fern vine used for basketry is complemented with jeweled beetle wings of the Malaeng thap (genus Buprestis) to make ornate frames and art pieces. Found under the makham that (camachile tree) on whose leaves it feeds, the beetles must die a natural death for the wings to retain the iridescent emerald green colour. 

In a small store, heritage foods like Somanut (literally ‘happy’) made of coconut and egg white, and the flower-shaped Klep lam daun (similar to nankhatai) were being sold. Besides myths and legends, many culinary traditions too seemed to have migrated to these distant shores. At Abideen Pranom, we watched muscled workers glued to Thai soaps on the telly toil over Roti Sai Mai. The process was exactly like making soan papdi, except it wasn’t cut into cubes but left long and fibrous and eaten as a snack, wrapped into a roti.

Ayutthaya also attracted Dutch, Portuguese, French and Chinese traders who introduced their food habits. One crossover dish is Foi Thong, derived from Portuguese ‘Fios de Ovos,’ made of egg yolk and
sugar syrup. ‘Thong’ means gold and has an auspicious connotation for Thais. We headed for a Thai dessert cooking class from Baan Mali (‘Aunty Jasmine’), who ran a womens’ cooperative. In a rustic shack by the river, she and her bevy of ladies cackled at our attempts to rotate the tin funnel from which egg yolk dripped and swirled into boiling water before being dunked in sugar syrup.

We tasted other variations — Thong yip (‘yip’ means ‘to press’) a five-pointed star, the yellow Thong yod made of chicken yolk, the brown one from taro and coconut milk, and the orange Med Kanun was coconut and soybean paste wrapped in duck yolk.

Thus fortified with sugar, the leisurely boat ride around Ayutthaya Floating Market burnt precious little calories. However, it is a good place to grab street eats, a Thai movie, besides budget shopping (‘Buy anything for 100 baht’ stores), all in a beautiful setting.

Krathong decorated with flowers,
banana leaves and incense.

We grabbed a meal of ‘boat noodles’ at a local restaurant Klong Sra Buang Noodles. Traditionally, it was sold by vendors directly from boats, hence the name. Old sewing machines doubled up as tables while salvaged windows served as table tops as we tucked into bowls of hot Koi Thiao Moo (pork). 

Bangkok is perfectly positioned for quick escapes. We soon bid adieu to the hotel we stayed at and drove three hours to Khao Yai. We checked into the next hotel with its charming nooks and a stunning pool overlooking the mountains. Khao Yai is a whirlwind of entertainment – farm tours and workshops at Khaoyai Farm Village, guided vineyard tours and wine-tasting sessions at PB Valley Winery, losing your way at Pete Maze, sheer indulgence at The Chocolate Factory to hanging out at Primo Piazza, Thailand’s ‘Little Italy’.

Styled on a Tuscan Village with vintage style souvenir shops and cafes, the highlight was feeding sheep, alpaca and donkeys in the barn. Back in Bangkok, a traditional Thai massage at Health Land Spa was the perfect workout.  

Before leaving, we popped by at a Pla ta pian workshop, where 72-year-old Wisit Krajang Wee, a fourth generation artist continued his ancestral occupation of making Pla ta pian or fish-shaped wind mobiles. Pla means tilapia — a symbol of prosperity; in the past, the danglers were placed above cradles to amuse infants.

Styled like a carp and made from bai lan (fan palm) fronds sourced from Khao Yai, the raw material is available only once a year when it is harvested in the end of November. Just a few families practice this dying art. “It takes 15 days for a large sized fish and costs 2500 Baht; a small one takes a day,” Wisit smiled.

We all picked a souvenir each, hoping that our little contribution might help keep the art alive. Now hanging on our balcony back home, each time it twirls in the wind, it is a moving reminder of Thailand’s superlative craftsmanship. 


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