The krathong were flickering stars on a liquid ebony sky, as if the whole world had been turned upside down and the thunderheads leant rolling waves to the inky sky-scape.
People milled up and down on the beach as the sun set.
Women sat over piles of banana leaves, coconut husks and heaps of flowers, heads bent to their work but laughing softly together as they bent leaves and pinned flowers in place. They were making krathong: like little floating birthday cakes of folded leaves, orchids and chrysanthemums, with a candle and three sticks of incense coming out of the top.
Ours decorated our table as we sat and laughed with our friends. The more time we spend with the Kirk family the more we like them. They are fantastically intelligent folks who aren’t afraid of vigorous discourse, and it’s become our dinner hour habit, on the beach, to stretch the evening well past the purple sunset with a few bottles of local brew while the kids run and dig in the sand.
The origins of Loi Krathong are shadowy.
There are lots of stories and more than a few legends. The essence of it is that it’s a celebration that falls on the full moon of the 12th month of the traditional Thai lunar calendar. The people make little floating islands of banana leaf, coconut husk and flowers. They light a candle and some incense and they push them out onto the water as offerings and wishes. It is said, that if your krathong goes away from you and doesn’t come back, you will have good luck for the year as all of the bad things in life are pulled away with it. Sometimes people add a few pieces of hair, or nail clippings to them in the belief that sins will be washed away with the krathong. Other people add a coin as an offering to river gods or to make merit. There seem to me a patchwork of traditions.
I started counting as dusk fell and the first sky lantern took flight from the edge of the Andaman Sea. It rose, wobbling into the night like a fire jelly-fish floating in an moonless void. Another joined it, and then another. Over the course of the evening we counted over two hundred. As they topped the trees and the currents of air that wash over our island home they danced together and rearranged themselves into living constellations that mirrored the krathong on the water.
We were sandwiched between wishing stars.
Phuket is a tourist mecca, but our end of the island is a very quiet, relatively protected community. There are very few hotel rooms. In our six months here we’ve come to know the vendors of each stall on the beach. The long term expats who are sprinkled in between our Thai neighbors in our village are friends in passing. Most of the holiday makers aren’t even aware that Nai Yang is any more than a bus stop for the airport.
We rented a car in the morning and made the trek down into the crazy to get our second round of Japanese Encephalitis immunizations, see the new James Bond movie, make one last stop at Super Cheap to buy them out of my prescription migraine meds, and a quick run into the big Tesco for cheese and guitar strings. Patong was a hive of activity preparing for the festival. There was a temptation to use our wheels for the day to stay down in the busy end of the island and visit one of the “bigger, better” festivals, to see more lights, more action, to have more to point the camera at.
And then, we remembered our friend Phen. He runs the restaurant we like the best on our beach. He looks like a Thai version of my Dad. He goes out of his way to accommodate us. He still checks the progress of the healing of Ezra’s foot, from the fish hook incident a few weeks ago, every time we walk by his shop.
There’s always this temptation, I think, when traveling to “do the big things” to check them off of your list, to see the biggest and best of a particular region or festival or event. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. Part of me wishes we could have been at the big Yi Ping festival with so many of our traveling friends last weekend up in Chiang Mai. 10,000 sky lanterns released within a span of 20 minutes would be a spectacular site to see.
The thing we are learning to gravitate toward, is the joy found in small things.
We prefer the authenticity of a small local celebration, in which we are celebrating with our Thai neighbours instead of having a celebration put on by them, for us, as was certainly the case on other parts of the island.
There was something particularly sweet about watching Phen “work his room,” which is really a 30 foot stretch of sand that he’s marked off with white umbrellas. He herded the slightly drunk Russian girls back to their table when they wandered (what he considered to be) too close to the burning torch on the beach used for lighting the really big lanterns. He held every baby that came within reach. He waied respectfully to all of the ladies. Every time he walked by our table he patted Tony on the shoulder or gave his elbow a little squeeze. He checked on Ezra’s foot.
We stood on the beach while fireworks painted the sky and got to know Ezra’s new friends: a pair of brand new dive masters from Vermont. They just returned from the Similan Islands and the hard work of passing their last tests. Their plan is to retire to teaching SCUBA and English as they travel full time. Of course we’ve invited them to dinner.
We waded out into the warm water that we’ve soaked so often in over this long tropical summer and placed our krathong, made our wishes, and pushed it out to sea, along side our friends, who are already lamenting that this is their “last week,” in Nai Yang.
There are bigger places. There were more impressive showings for this year’s Loi Krathong festival, I’m sure, but there were none better.
It’s a beautiful thing when you stand in the darkness in a strange place, with folks you could never have imagined even a year ago, and realize that you’re home, and you have community, and you’re among friends.
My wish for us, and for all of you that floated out to sea on a coconut husk pinned with orchids: Happiness.