Sunday, August 8, 2010

Rivers of Light

All too often my blogs here focus on the darker side of a country that is uncommonly beautiful, uniquely cheerful, and full of grace.  Despite some of the things I've said here, Thailand is a magical place, and the world is blessed to have it occupying its little corner of the map.

At a time of the year when people in some parts of the world dress up as ghosts and vampires and knock on doors to demand treats, the Thais, rich and poor alike, take their gratitude and their prayers to the nearest body of water, and as darkness falls they create lakes and rivers of light.

Loy Krathong (pronounced "Kratong") may be the world's most beautiful holiday.  Celebrated at the full moon of the last lunar month, usually late in November, Loy Krathong ceremonializes the deep relationship between the Thais and water, which makes possible not only the irrigation of rice but life itself. As a way of blessing the waters and expressing gratitude, people fashion elaborately cut and folded krathong, traditionally from banana leaves, that are then laden with flowers, sticks of incense, a candle, and (often) a small coin.

The leaves are folded to suggest the lotus flower.  The lotus has powerful symbolic value in both Hinduism and Buddhism.  In Buddhism, because the flower blooms from mud and sometimes stagnant water, it represents the soul's ability to rise above negative earthly influences and grow toward transcendence.  Krathong are made all day as part of the celebration and then, as darkness falls, they're carried to the water's edge, flames are lighted, a wish is made, and they're set afloat.

People often place their regrets, anger, and guilt adrift with the krathong, hoping for a fresh start.  The flames have also come to symbolize longevity and release from sin.  Prayers drift on the current, along with the wishes. Lovers set their krathong in the water side by side, hoping they'll glide away together as an omen of the relationship to come.

This may seem like a heavy burden for such a frail craft, but the magic of the ceremony is undeniable as the rivers and canals gleam with light.

And in some areas, the skies light up, too, as thousands of khom loy (floating lanterns) are released, each carrying with it misfortune and worldly cares.  For one night each year, the stars bend close.

By the way, some of the most beautiful images in this post are from a really wonderful site,

Tim -- Sunday


  1. "For one night each year, the stars bend close." Poetry to accompany the top picture, really the most beautiful picture of them all.

    Although you write about Thailand's dark side, the degree to which you love the people, the customs, and the country, are always clear.

    How blessed you were that it was cold in Japan.


  2. What beautiful imagery--the pictures and the idea of letting go of your worldly woes. I want to see this someday. I'd imagine one can't help but be moved to participate.

    I just finished 'The Fourth Watcher.' There was a lin in the last third of the book--and I meant to mark it but was reading in bed at the time--when you wrote "...was more than..." and I just knew your journalistic training had kicked in!

    I had a question about the title of one of the last chapters, but don't have the book in front of me so I'll have to ask next week.

    Truly enjoyed it and am ready to move on to the third in the series!


  3. Hi, Beth, hi, Michelle --

    Thanks so much for being so nice. Thailand is a magical place and it's the curse of mystery and thriller writers that we're too busy sifting the mud to pay attention to the lotuses. And no kidding, Beth -- if I'd stayed in Japan my whole life would have been different.

    Michele, I'm so glad you liked WATCHER. After I realized how dark NAIL was I thought, whoops, better write something a little airier, and I have to admit I like the book a lot. Poke's half-sister, Ming Li, came right out of the ether and I liked her so much I'm going to bring her back for a later book. I'd love to know what line that was and also which chapter title. Hope you like BREATHING WATER.

  4. Beautiful, Tim. Contrast Loy Krathong with, say, America's Fourth of July; Thais create beauty, Americans blow things up. (Yeah, yeah, I know all about ending sentences with prepositions, but hey, sometimes it works.)

    On a side note, I expect to have my review of The Queen of Patpong posted online sometime this week; I'll send you an e-mail with a link as soon as it's ready. Gotta tell ya, my friend, I loved the book.