The Lantern Festival of Loy Krathong in Sukhothai, Thailand

Everything is illuminated at the Thai festival of light.  
Sukothai, Thailand
In parts of Sukhothai, it is an age-old tradition to release paper lanterns, known as the khomloi, into the sky during Loy Krathong. Photo: Sugato Mukherjee

Last year, I visited Sukhothai, in north-central Thailand, timing my trip to coincide with the annual Loy Krathong festival in November, a festival of light which celebrates the Buddha.

It is celebrated throughout the country, though it originated in Sukhothai. Here it is associated with the commemoration of a 13th-century battle, during which a Buddha statue allegedly spoke to the Siamese army, boosting their morale as they fended off Burmese invaders.

On the advice of my Italian host Paulo, who runs a guesthouse in Sukhothai with his Thai wife, I travelled to Wat Si Chum, the temple where Buddhist monks worship the speaking Buddha from the legend. Few people witness the ceremony here, which takes place before the larger public procession. The nondescript temple is located on the northern fringes of the manicured gardens and old stone Buddhas of Sukhothai Historical Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site 10 kilometres from the city.

Sukothai, Thailand, Asia

The buoyant, decorated baskets called krathongs are released into water as an offering to Pra Mae Khongkha, the goddess of water. They are believed to carry away one’s hatred, anger, and defilements. Photo: Sugato Mukherjee

Sukothai, Thailand, Asia

Traditional Thai clothing and headgear are sported during the festival parades. Photo: Sugato Mukherjee

Wat Si Chum, Thailand

According to a Thai legend, the stuccoed Buddha statue inside Wat Si Chum spoke to the Siamese army during a 13th-century battle against Burmese invaders. Photo: Sugato Mukherjee

I followed a group of orange-robed monks, who entered through a narrow slit in the temple’s wall. Inside was one of the largest and finest Buddha statues I had ever seen. As the chants of the monks reverberated in the conical temple, sunrays filtered through to light up the 13th-century statue’s golden fingers.

It was the fifth and climactic day of Loy Krathong. Festivities had so far involved beauty pageants, basket-making competitions, food stalls, and musical soirées. In the evening, the city’s main boulevard brimmed with colour and music. A long parade inched towards the historical park. Women in flowing costumes froze in elegant poses atop elephants and on palanquins carried by other revellers. Children darted in and out of the procession to grab deep-fried delicacies from roadside food stalls.

At the park’s main gate, vendors sold incense sticks, candles, and an array of ornate krathongs, floating baskets made of banana stalks and meticulously-folded banana leaves and decorated with flowers and candles. I purchased one, and lighting the candle, floated the dainty vessel into a small moat along with the crowd.

Then it was time for the laser show, the high point of Sukhothai’s Loy Krathong celebration. The full moon soared atop Wat Mahathat, a 700-hundred-year-old shrine and the park’s largest temple. The performance began with laser rays piercing the darkness. The history of Sukhothai unfolded through superbly choreographed performances by about 200 dancers and actors. At the end of the extravaganza, thousands of khomloi or sky lanterns filled the night sky, illuminating the majestic head of the Buddha of Wat Mahathat, before gradually fading into inky oblivion.

The Vitals

Loy Krathong is on 4 November, 2017.

Getting There Sukhothai is 440 km/6.5 hr north of Bangkok. Buses leave every 30 minutes from Bangkok’s Mo Chit Northern Bus Station (www.sawadee.com/thailand/transfer/bus-north.html; tickets THB324/`620). Another option is to take a short one-hour flight (roundtrip from about Rs 6,000).

Getting Around Renting a bicycle (THB50-60 per day) is a good way to explore Sukhothai. Take a broad-brimmed hat, as it can be uncomfortably hot even in the middle of November. 

  • Sugato Mukherjee is a photographer and writer. He has contributed to publications such as The Globe and Mail and Al Jazeera, and has received UNESCO's Humanity Photo Award. He is the author of "An Antique Land: A Visual Memoir of Ladakh" (2013).

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