A blog about geographical and spiritual mysteries.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Loy Krathong

The Loy Krathong song begins, “In the twelfth month on the full moon…”
By the Western calendar, the festival actually takes place in November, but by the Thai lunar calendar it’s the twelfth month. Not only are the months counted differently, but here in the village it’s actually 2542, since the original Year of the Buddha occurred 500 years before the first Year of Our Lord. I feel as if I’m a time traveler who has been transported 500 years into the future.

Loy Krathong วัน ลอยกระทง is the second-most important celebration on the Thai calendar, and this presumably means the village will go all out. But when the celebration begins, I’m surprised at the dignity and restraint of the celebration. Unlike the prolonged and frenzied partying of the Songkran holiday, this harvest festival chiefly involves launching floating candles across the water to carry our sins away. No Las Vegas-like stage shows, no throbbing outdoor movies, no wobbly carnival rides.
Instead, after dark, we carry our modest krathongs (floats made of banana leaves and bearing flowers, candles and incense sticks) down to the village reservoir. The vast, placid reservoir is already fringed with flickering krathongs, which are bobbing near the shores from which villagers have launched them. It’s a windless night, so not many of the village’s sins have floated out into the middle, except where villagers are splashing and making waves to send them on their way.
Floating our boats of sin away is actually only one of several explanations I’ve heard about this festival. I’ve also been told that the festival involves giving thanks for the rains that irrigate the paddy fields. And in a combination of those two strains—expressing gratitude for the rains and asking forgiveness for sins--I’ve heard we are specifically asking pardon from the water gods for polluting the water. That’s a tad ironic, since the festival involves littering the waters with dozens of krathongs, some of which have come to include Styrofoam.
Still, it’s undeniably a lovely sight when the rivers and lakes of Thailand become oceans of flowers and fire this one night of the year. Perhaps the most spectacular celebration takes place in the ancient city of Sukothai, but the nearby Mekong River becomes a stream of candlelight as well.
But for this festival, the village has plenty of water and floating beauty. And of all the different explanations I’ve been given for Loy Krathong, it’s the asking-for-forgiveness explanation that I like the best. For me, this makes the ritual of Loy Krathong something like a sacrament, a visible expression of God conferring invisible grace. Or, as one definition says, “a rite in which God is uniquely active.” Amen to that. So I silently ask Jesus to forgive my sins before launching my krathong. My Buddhist friend, Maliwan, is crouched beside me, and she pauses before launching her krathong as well. “Now,” she murmurs, “we pray.” She also bows her head. Our candles burn with remorse, our incense sticks send up a fragrant plea for forgiveness. Our sins set sail softly, sadly, but when our sin and regret stall a few feet from shore, we smack energetically at the water, sending the floats outward on concentric ripples of water. All my students are milling around, exchanging greetings and smiles. The whole village is out, and the feeling of a fresh start, a new beginning, is in the air. It’s a beautiful sight, as dozens of candles flicker on the dark water.
Later, three of us from the village straddle a single motorcycle and ride to Ban Dung, where a krathong contest is being judged. Here is the lavish celebration I have grown to expect in Thailand. These krathongs are not modest—they are huge and elaborate, constructed of hundreds of tightly woven banana leaves, sculpted into royal birds and royal palaces and bedecked with festive lights.
But not only are the floating beauties of the water being judged—local beauties of the human variety are also competing for a crown. Beauty contests are another feature of Loy Krathong, and one young woman after another parades across the stage. As she crosses, pauses, and twirls, each woman’s measurements are pronounced over the loudspeakers to fervent applause. Also posted on Writers Rising

Monday, June 7, 2010

Night of the Grasshoppers

The night of the grasshoppers begins at Khruu June’s house. Villagers start showing up with lamps strapped to their foreheads like miners, hauling empty bamboo baskets. We climb into a pick-up driven by June’s husband and set out through the deepening dusk. The sunset is spectacular, with thunderheads glowing an icy pink-and-blue in the darkening sky.
The truck rattles past the reservoir, leaves the lights of the village behind and heads out into vast, dark fields. After a while, even in the dark, I can see that the fields we have reached are full of sugarcane. Abruptly, the pick-up shudders to a halt and everyone pours out. A gate that leads into the sugarcane fields is tightly padlocked. The truck can go no further. Everyone begins to climb under or over the gate, so I do, too. On foot, we pass a shack with no electricity. The three children who live there are standing out front in the pitch dark, silently watching us slip past by like a throng of ghosts rustling the sugar cane. We pass a pond, and we are still tightly clumped together. And then, as if a secret signal has been given, the group scatters in all directions.

The sugarcane towers above us. Most people wear headlamps or carry flashlights. Some carry flickering candles, which they hold up to the sugarcane stalks, in search of grasshoppers. When a grasshopper is spotted, it is plucked from its perch and thrust into the basket. Sweat pours down my body and heat lightning flickers in the distance. The basket I carry grows noisier as the night goes on, rattling with the sound of grasshoppers hopping madly inside. Somebody’s candle starts a small fire which somebody else stamps out. Among the boys, there seems to be a competition for who can capture the most grasshoppers. We roam the fields, which seem endless. After a couple of hours, I begin to feel claustrophobic, trapped among the towering sugarcane, yearning for open space, for a place to stop moving, to rest, and cool down. I’m wondering if we will ever find our way back out again.
Then a quiet young village girl comes and takes me by the hand. She leads me gently and doesn’t bother speaking, as if I am a deaf-mute. Now she parts the sugarcane stalks, bends over and peers inside. She turns and smiles up at me, beckoning. I bend over and peer into the thicket of stalks. Three baby birds are nestled in a row on a stalk, serenading us in the night. We pause in our attack on the grasshoppers and listen to their delicate, trilling chorus.
The reward for all this labor comes later, back at Khruu June’s house. It does not involve money, but food. Baskets upon baskets of grasshoppers are dumped into woks sizzling with oil. The taste is salty and crunchy, similar to popcorn. Some of the villagers won’t eat the grasshoppers until they’ve pulled their stomachs out, because the stomach tastes bitter. I learn, after a few tries, that I won’t eat them until I’ve plucked off their razor-sharp legs. Also posted on Writers Rising