Saturday, December 9, 2017

Thanh Hóa’s Famous Families


                                        by Jim Goodman

villager passing by the walls of the Hồ Citadel
       Thanh Hóa is Vietnam’s fifth largest province, situated between Ngh An, the country’s largest, to its south, the plains and rivers of the Red River Delta to its north and bound by the mountains of Laos on its western side.  The provincial capital, also called Thanh Hóa, lies 153 km south of Hanoi on National Highway 1A and 15 km from the beach at Sm Sơn.  While the scenery in the province is pleasant, it doesn’t boast of anything spectacular and foreign travelers generally pass it by, making it one of the least known places to foreigners in Vietnam.
typical Thanh Hóa landscape
       For the Vietnamese, however, Thanh Hóa is part of the ancient heartland of their culture, where the bronze drum originated and where human habitation began over 6000 years ago.  Unlike the Red River Delta, prehistoric Thanh Hóa’s plains were not swamps that had to be cleared, for only two rivers, the Mã and the Chu, run through them.  Hills are moderate in the eastern half of the province and higher in the west, where the valleys are also home to Thái and Mường minorities.  Thanh Hóa’s Vietnamese have a reputation for cultural conservatism, thrift and fondness for traditional folk music and dance.
flooded rice fields near Vĩnh Lộc
       The province is also important for its role in Vietnam’s history.  It was part of the Hùng Kings’ realm from the 19th to 3rd century BCE at the dawn of the Bronze Age.  Under the thousand years of Chinese domination it was part of the administrative unit of Cưu Chan, which included present-day Nghẹ An and Hà Tĩnh.  It suffered and repelled Chăm invasions in the 3rd and 5th centuries and after Vietnam regained its independence it later became the birthplace of four famous families—the Hồ, Lê, Trịnh and Nguyễn—that played important roles in the nation’s history.

southern entrance of the citadel's south gate
      The most direct route to Thanh Hóa city from Hanoi is via Highway 1A.  Even with the heavy traffic it takes only three hours or less.  Aside from Sầm Sơn beach, Thanh Hóa province’s main attraction is the Hồ Dynasty Citadel in Vĩnh Lộc district, two hours drive northwest of Thanh Hóa city.  But a better way to reach this historical vestige, and to appreciate the landscape of the province, is by beginning at Xuân Mai, 35 km southwest of Hanoi, one of the starting points of the Hồ Chí Minh Trail during the Vietnam War.
       Largely a footpath through thick jungle back then, Đường Hồ Chí Minh is now a paved road in good condition with very little traffic, rolling through forested hills with gradients at a maximum of 10%.  Skirting around Cúc Phương National Park as it enters Thanh Hóa province, the scenery is especially delightful.  Villages lie far apart from each other, but many restaurants and petrol stations punctuate the route.   
triple arches of the Hồ Citadel south gate
       At the Cẩm Thủy junction, the Trail turns southwest and then south, eventually passing near Lam Kinh, Lê Lợi’s birthplace, where a modest shrine marks the spot.  The other road turns southeast, along the Mã River, to Vĩnh Lộc and the Hồ Citadel, which lies a few kilometers outside the town, in what is now a rural agricultural area.  The gates and portions of the walls are basically all that’s left of the citadel, but that was enough, along with its historical significance, to earn it the award of World Heritage Site.   
citadel wall
       The site is large, nearly square, measuring 870.5 meters north-south by 88ê.5 meters east-west.  The triple-arched south gate, the ceremonial entry point, stands 9.5 meters high and over 15 meters wide.  The other gates have a single arch, the east and west gates rounded.  Local stone provided the construction material, quarried from nearby hills, with their sometimes sheer cliffs often striated, as if to give the masons guidelines where to cut the stone.  Thanh Hóa stone has a national reputation for high quality and in the early 20th century was used to build the cathedral and subsidiary churches at Phát Diệm in Ninh Bình province.
interlocking stone blocks of the citadel walls
       The stone blocks used in building the Hồ Citadel average 2 meters by 1 meter by .7 meter.  Some are almost perfect cubes, while others are longer.  Usually the masons simply stacked them on top of each other.   But occasionally they cut out sections of the corners to make the blocks fit together more snugly.  Thick earthen mounds backed up the walls and wooden watchtowers stood above the gates and at intervals along the walls.
       The man responsible for the construction of this citadel, Hồ Quý Ly, was a Thanh Hóa native from a nearby village.  Born in 1336, he first entered the service of the Trần Dynasty court in Thăng Long (today’s Hanoi) in 1371, after the Chăm, under a charismatic leader Chế Bồng Nga, had sacked the capital.  The Trần Dynasty, which defeated three massive Mongol invasions the previous century, was now in decline.  The Chăm continued to menace the Vietnamese for nearly two more decades, sacking Thăng Long again in 1378. 
Nguyễn Hoàng departs for Thuận Hoá
the founder of the Lê Dynasty
      In 1388 the Chăm annihilated a Vietnamese counterattack on their capital Vijaya, near today’s Quy Nhơn, and prepared another march on Thăng Long.  Trần Nghệ Tông, the King Father since his retirement in 1372 after two years as King, and still the power behind the throne, appointed Hồ Quý Ly as commander of its forces, but his attempt to deflect the Chăm advance failed.   Thăng Long was spared another sacking only because a Chăm defector revealed to Vietnamese gunners Chế Bồng Nga’s precise location.  After the death of their king the Chăm returned to Vijaya.
Trịnh Lords Palace in Đông Kinh (today's Hanoi)
       Trần Nghệ Tông died in 1394, leaving Hồ Quỹ Ly de facto ruler.  Three years later he ordered the construction of the citadel in Thanh Hốa.  Not merely a fortress, its walls contained a complete city, which was named Tây Đô--the Western Capital.  He forced the Trần Court’s removal to his new capital and renamed Thăng Long Đông Đô---the Eastern Capital.  Then he set about systematically assassinating 370 members of the Trần family and in 1400 deposed the nominal king, usurped the throne and founded the Hồ Dynasty. 
       His blood-soaked usurpation condemns him in the opinion of Vietnamese historians, yet he was also a progressive reformer.  He introduced paper currency and the use of nóm, the Vietnamese version of Chinese characters, in official documents, expanded traditional Confucian education to include mathematics and agriculture, and instituted land reform, limiting holdings to ten acres (four hectares).  Following a Trần tradition, he abdicated in favor of his son Hồ Hán Thương in 1402.but continued to manage state affairs behind the scenes.
local farmer outside the eastern gate
       However, two Trần princes escaped to China, where they called on the Ming Dynasty Emperor Yong Le to restore them.  The Chinese dispatched a huge army of 400,000 in 1407, chased the Hồ family all the way to Tây Đô and captured them there.  The Chinese sent their prisoners to serve as common foot soldiers in China and their ultimate fate has not been recorded.  Instead of installing a Trần ruler, the Chinese annexed Vietnam and stayed to loot and exploit the country to the greatest extent possible.
planting rice inside the citadel
       Serious resistance to the Chinese occupation began in Thanh Hóa in 1417.  Organized by Lê Lợi and known as the Lam Sơn Insurrection, after the name of the town hosting the first conclave, it won the support of two other influential Thanh Hóa families—the Trịnh and the Nguyễn.  Using guerilla tactics that were adopted by the Việt Minh centuries later, Lê Lợi’s forces first survived, then expanded, and after ten years captured the capital and expelled the Chinese.  In 1428 Lê Lợi founded the Lê Dynasty to govern the liberated country.
       Unfortunately, Lê Lựi died in 1433 and for nearly three decades palace intrigues, purges of lê Lợi’s lieutenants and periodic fights with the Chăm dominated the Court scene.  In 1460 the last two surviving Lam Sơn generals intervened to install Lê Thánh Tông as Emperor, the one truly successful Lê monarch after the founder Lê Lợi.  He conquered Vijaya and annexed the Chăm state’s territory, promulgated a new law code and reigned over a stable and prosperous Vietnam until 1497.
two hundred year-old house outside the citadel
       His son Lê jiiến Tông governed competently for six years, but upon his death in 1504 the country plunged into protracted political chaos, with five successive teenaged kings, who either died young or were murdered for their embarrassing debauchery.  Finally, in 1527 the security chief Mc Đăng Dung seized the throne and proclaimed a new dynasty. 
       Supported by the Trnh and Nguyn families, the remnants of the Lê royal family fled to Thanh Hóa and then to Laos.  There they waited until several years later, when an anti-Mc revolt broke out in Thanh Hóa.  Under the leadership of Nguyn Kim, the Lê loyalists returned to Vietnam to engage the Mac armies and in 1443 captured Tây Đô.  Re-occupying and rebuilding the former H citadel, the loyalists proclaimed it their capital and the residence of Lê Trang Tông, the teenaged descendant of Lê Thánh Tông whom they recognized as their sovereign. 
carved brackets of the old house
       Tây Đô remained the capital of the restored Lê Dynasty until the final ouster of the Mc family from power in 1592.  In 1545 a Mc follower assassinated Nguyn Kim and command of the Lê forces went to his son-in-law Trnh Kiểm, who was intensely suspicious of the Nguyn family.  Nguyn Kim’s eldest son soon died in mysterious circumstances and his other son Nguyn Hoàng laid low for years and eventually in 1558 secured appointment as governor of Thun Hoá, today’s Thừa Thiên and Quảng Trị provinces.
Sầm Sơn boat on the sea
       He did such a good job that in 1570 the Lê Court added Quảng Nam to his jurisdiction.  In 1593 Nguyễn Hoàng returned to the north to help mop up remnant Mạc forces, but fearing the intentions of Trịnh Tùng, in charge since 1570, Nguyễn Hoàng returned to Thuận Hoá and turned it into his personal fief.  When he died at the age of 87 in 1613, Vietnam was essentially split into two realms:  the north rued by the Trịnh Lords and the south ruled by the Nguyễn Lords, both recognizing the same Lê Emperor, who was basically a puppet of the Trịnh Lords.
       Hostilities broke out between the two sides later that century, but periodic Trịnh invasions all failed and one Nguyễn invasion of the north only got as far as Thanh Hóa before it had to turn back.  The two sides made a truce in 1674, dividing their realms at the Gianh River in Quảng Binh.  Peace between them lasted a century and then the Tây Sơn Revolt destroyed both regimes in the late 18th century.  Another protracted war ensued until eventually the resurgent Nguyễn defeated the Tây Sơn and in 1802 established the last pre-colonial imperial dynasty.
morning market on Sầm Sơn beach
       Tây Đô was abandoned during the Trịnh-Nguyễn conflict and today no trace of its former palaces or watchtowers exist. Most of the area has been turned into rice fields.  Only a pair of headless stone dragons in the center remains within the walls as evidence of its former splendor. But another kind of relic—a two hundred year-old house—stands in the village outside the eastern gate.  One story, wide, with a tiled roof, it features nicely carved embellishments on its beams, brackets and furniture and has been home to the same family for seven generations.
       No other vestiges of Thanh Hoá’s famous families exist in the province.  From Vĩnh Lộc, it’s two hours drive to Thanh Hoá city, which is almost entirely new, reconstructed after heavy bombing in the Vietnam War.  But Sầm Sơn Beach is a short distance away and very popular with Vietnamese tourists.  It’s also a major fishing center.  From dawn the fishermen go out in small skiffs of woven split bamboo, covered with pitch, with an engine at the rear, a wooden rudder and a triangular cloth sail, usually blue or brown.
hauling a boat up to higher ground
       At most, half a dozen people can fit into these vessels, but usually it’s just two or three.  They return from 9:00-10:00 and park their boats temporarily at the edge of the water.  Customers from the city and its vicinity, and even from as far away as Hanoi, then come to the boat to purchase the morning’s catch of fresh fish, squids, crabs, shrimps and other crustaceans.  When the crowd of buyers has dispersed, usually before noon, the fishermen move the boat to a higher spot on the beach, beyond the tide line, by mounting it on a frame with wheels and rolling it up the slope.
     The province has a few other scenic attractions.  But besides the Hồ Citadel and Lê Lợi’s birthplace, it does not have much tangible evidence of its historic importance.  The main legacy of its famous families does not lie in buildings.  It is the spread of Vietnamese cultural and political institutions across the entire territory of the Vietnam we know today. No other province can make such a boast.

sunset over the Thanh Hóa plain
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 For the full story of Thanh Hóa's families, see my book Delta to Delta:  The Vietnamese Move South
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Monday, November 27, 2017

Strange Creatures in Thai Temples


                                  by Jim Goodman

mom images at Wat Umong Mahatherachan
       At some point in ancient India, certain individuals had the leisure time and intellectual curiosity to wonder about the nature of the world around them. They began speculating on the elements of the universe, both on what could be seen and what could not.  No record exists as to what kind of debate ensued over the interpretation, but eventually a consensus emerged.  The self-styled philosophers of that era came up with a description that would underline all the myths of the Hindu religion as well as, centuries later, Buddhism, both in India and in Southeast Asia.
       They were living in the Gangetic Plain, a broad swath of the heart of India, bounded on the north by the Himalaya Mountains, the earth’s tallest.  It’s doubtful whether any of these mythographers explored these mountains, but they were always visible from the northern edge of the plains.  They reckoned the center of the universe was Mt. Meru, the highest of the 84,000 peaks that made up the northern mountain range.  The sun, moon and planets all revolved around Mt. Meru.
naga at the foot of Wat Doi Suthep stairway
nagas at Chedi Luang
       Thousands of years later, when Buddhism gained ascendancy in northern India its adherents also subscribed to this world-view.  The Buddhist heavens were supposed to be just above Mt. Meru, while all around the mountain’s base lay the Himmapan Forest, home to a wide assortment of ethereal creatures.  Some were totally fanciful, others based on real animals, still others hybrid varieties.  Some preyed on others in the forest, but in general, Himmapan residents, experiencing no suffering and therefore no aging, were eternally youthful.
dragon-headed lion at Lamphun's Wat Haripunchai
Lion Capitals of Ashoka, Wat Bupharam
       Thai people converted to Buddhism, via Sinhalese missionaries, long after the religion died out in India, when it was already heavily influenced by Hindu concepts.  As a result, the imagery associated with Thai Buddhist temple compounds includes that of Indian Hinduism and Buddhism, along with the weird denizens of Himmapan.  Some of these creatures represent protectors and guardians of the sacred space and buildings of the compound.  Others are decorative sculptures enhancing the walls or standing freely in the courtyard.
       The most striking of the guardian animals are the serpentine nagas.  A pair of them flanks the staircases to the main temple buildings.  They were originally modeled on the king cobra, but have heads and fangs more suggestive of a dragon.  Thai versions have anywhere between one and seven heads.  According to Buddhist mythology, after his Enlightenment the Buddha was seated in meditation one day when a violent rainstorm broke out.  The king cobra Mucalinda rose up behind him and spread the hoods of his seven heads to shield him from the rain. 
elephant-headed lion, Wat Lamchang
elephant-headed horse, Wat Muensan
       The naga image evolved from the Mucalinda tale, became associated with the protection of Buddhism, and thus guards the entrances to the assembly hall (viharn), ordination hall (ubosot) and, at Chiang Mai’s Chedi Luang, the staircases climbing up the sides of the ruined chedi. The naga’s color varies from all white to mostly yellow to a variety of colors on one sculpture, such as the ones at Wat Doi Suthep.  The fangs are always bared and a crest rises upward from the top of its head.
       The lion is another guardian animal, usually seated at the compound entrance or beside a chedi.  As the King of the Beasts it represents power and strength, ready to repel any spirit attack.  But it doesn’t always play that role.  At the entrance to Wat Bupharam four lions stand back to back on the columns on either side.  They are replicas of the famous Lion Capital of Ashoka, originally created in the 3rd century BCE, named after Emperor Ashoka of Maurya, who promoted the spread of Buddhism all over the Indian sub-continent.
elephant-headed nagas, Wat Chiang Yeun
elephant-headed bird, Lamphun lamp post
       In this case, the four lions symbolize the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism:  suffering exists, craving causes it, the end of suffering comes with the end of craving, and the way to achieve that is to follow the rules of the Eightfold Path.  The other distinction of the Lion Capital of Ashoka is how closely they resemble real lions.  The animal was quite common in India back then, so one can safely assume the sculptor’s rendition was based on observation in the wild.
       Nowadays lions have vanished from all over India except for one preserved area in the Gir Forest of the western province of Gujarat.  They were never in Southeast Asia, though, so the usual Thai or Burmese rendition of a lion is quite different.  The body shape is close, but the head is much fiercer, more like that of a dragon.  Like the naga, the guardian lion has to look properly frightening to deter evil spirits.
bird with elephant and naga heads, Wat Srisupoan
thep norasri, Wat Saen Muang Ma Luang          
       An animal closer to home, that also plays a protective role in Thai temples, is the elephant.  Quite reduced in numbers now, elephants were abundant in past centuries.  Artists didn’t even have to go out to the jungles to see what they looked like, for kings rode them in processions and armies had stables of war-elephants. Consequently, their sculptures of elephants are generally realistic, even when they are just the front half, like the ones around the chedis of Wat Chiang Man and Chedi Luang.           
mermaid at Wat Saen Muang Ma Luang
       Admired for its strength, majesty, intelligence and good nature, the elephant is also associated with Buddhism through another ancient story.  Accordingly, the Buddha was out walking in the countryside one day when an elephant approached him.  While the Buddha stood in the path, the elephant sank to its knees and bowed its head and trunk to the ground to pay respect and obeisance, acknowledging the Enlightened One.
       A Chiang Mai temple specifically honors the elephant.  Called Wat Lamchang, Temple of the Tethered Elephants, it stands on the spot where King Mengrai temporarily kept his stable of royal elephants while he oversaw the construction of Chiang Mai in 1292.  Elephant statues flank the stairways of the buildings, surround the chedi and stand in the gardens.  They can be white, black, brown or terracotta red, from near life size down to the size of a flowerpot.  They can be very realistic, with trunks raised, or small, smiling, almost cartoon-like.  They can also be half-elephant, like the pair of elephant-headed lions that stand before the rear building in the compound.
crocodile-headed flying horse, Wat Saen Muang Ma Luang
       These are called kochasri and are creatures from the Himmapan Forest, where nothing dwelling there is visible to mortal eyes.  So their depictions are up to the imagination of the artist.  At Wat Lamchang they are standing sculptures, while at Wat Meunsan they are gilded low relief images on a gate panel and at Wat Phra Singh carved in stone on the base of the library.
       Elephant-related Himmapan hybrids include the sinta pakuchorn--a green, elephant-headed horse, the kunchun uneu—front half elephant and back half fish, the nok hussadee—an elephant-headed bird, and the karinpuksa—an elephant body with the wings and tail of a bird.  Bigger than an ordinary elephant, it can soar, fly and hover in the air. 
      Elephant-headed nagas are the main motif decorating the shrine in front of the chedi at Wat Chiang Yeun.  Embellishing the roof corners of the Silver Temple at Wat Srisuphan are sculptures of a large bird with two heads—the lower one elephant, the upper one naga.  And the creatures on the roof corners of the ubosot at Wat Chedi Liam have an elephant head on the breast of a bird, with what looks like a serpent’s tail rising high up behind and over the head.
flying horse on the base of the library at Wat Phra Singh
       A final example of the elephant head theme is that of Ganesh, the Hindu god with a human body and an elephant head.   Some Ganesh sculptures have three heads, like the god Indra’s elephant mount Erawan.  The other Hindu deity adopted by Thai Buddhism is Brahma, the creator god, whom the Thai know as Phra Prom and who has four heads, one in each direction.   
       The mythical menagerie of the West has nothing like an elephant-headed naga.  It has dragons, but very different from those in the East.  But a couple of the Himmapan creatures look familiar.  One is the mermaid.  Except for the facial features it is just like the famous statue in Copenhagen, Denmark.  Another type of Himmapan mermaid, though, has wings, unlike any Occidental mermaid.  An equally familiar being is the flying horse, no different from the Pegasus of Greek myth.
       Western myths have other hybrid creatures, such as the half-man, half-bull Minotaur, but nowhere near as many as Himmapan.  The forest is also home to the unique Naruphon tree.  Its fruits produce female, human-like beings called makaleepon, though if the fruits are not plucked within seven days they die.  Not all the animals are hybrids, either, for two kinds of lion live there, one red, one black, both herbivores.
aquatic hybrids from Himmapan Forest
       Other kinds of lions and part lions dwell in Hammapan.  The ghilen is a lion with deer antlers and scaly skin.  It lives a thousand years, represents virtue and punishes the wicked.  The to is a lion with two horns, while the loto is a lion with a flaring head and eagle claws on its feet.  Lion bodies with the head of a dragon, a bird, the head and tail of a naga and one with the upper torso and feet of a monkey also roam around Himmapan and appear in decorative temple sculptures.
       Horses are also part of temple imagery, particularly at Wat Kun Kha Ma, the ‘Value of Horses Temple’.  In the early centuries of Lanna’s history, this site was a horse farm, providing the nobles with their favorite transportation vehicle and military officers with their mounts.   Then one day a disease swept through the herd and killed most of the horses.  The distraught owner, wanting to commemorate his beloved animals, had a temple constructed here in the early 16th century.  Its most outstanding feature is the row of golden horse sculptures, 64 altogether, that line the walls of the compound.
winged anthropomorphic Himmapan creature
       These figures are modeled on real horses, but some horse hybrids, besides the winged one and the elephant-headed type, exist in Himmapan, too.  The durong kraisorn is a horse with a dragon’s head.  The hemara ussadorn has a bird’s head.  And the ussadorn hayra is half-horse, half-crocodile.
       Always a scary animal, the crocodile is also the inspiration for the body of the mom, though the head is more dragon-like.  Quite common and usually in pairs, they flank the stairways of subsidiary buildings in the compound, sloping downwards, the head at the lower end, raised and baring its fangs.  The mom is also associated with rain and when the monsoons are tardy, farmers take mom images to the fields and implore them to make the rains come.
       Yet more oddities populate Himmapan.  The mungkorn vihak has a dragon’s head, cow’s body and bird wings and tail.  The sintu puksee has a bird’s body and a fish’s fins and tail.  The upper part of the greenish colored panom masuek is a monkey, while the lower part is a deer.  The sagoon hayra is a bird with the head of a crocodile, sometimes with deer antlers.
sphinx-like man-lion, Wat Mahan
kinnara playing a drum, Wat Mahan
       A special Himmapan category comprises those creatures that, like the elephant-headed Ganesh, are part human and part animal.  Garuda, the mount of the god Vishnu, is one example.  It has an eagle’s head, beak, wings and talons and the body and limbs of a man.  Garuda is considered the King of the Birds, is a sworn enemy of snakes and has the license to devour bad men (except the ones who are Brahmins).
       On other anthropomorphic beings the human part is the upper portion.  The lower half of an upsom sriha is a deer or a lion.  The thep norasri stands on deer’s legs and has a lion’s tail.  Other creatures resemble a sphinx or a centaur.  The most popular in this category is the half-human, half-swan creature called the kinnara, especially its female counterpart the kinnaree. 
kinnaree--half-woman, half-swan
       One type has human legs as well as the swan’s wings and tails.  The more common rendition has a human upper torso, with arms, and a swan’s legs, wings and tail.  The female form—kinnaree—is particularly graceful and has a reputation as a wonderful singer and dancer.  The kinnaras, like the ones on the viharn exterior of Wat Mahan on Tha Pae Road, are often depicted playing musical instruments like the drum, lute, horn, viol and flute.
       The rules for making Buddha images, as well as those for the Hindu pantheon in India, follow standards set centuries ago.  In depicting Himmapan creatures the artists have more leeway, which is why one sees so many different kinds of lions, nagas, kinnarees and other beings.  They have the precedents of previous generations, but can embellish them with personal touches.  And since the creatures of Himmapan are invisible and myriad, they can even come up with new hybrid combinations if they choose.  From Himmapan, anything is possible and everything is plausible.
hybrid Himmapan creatures on a roof at Wat Chedi Liam
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Friday, November 17, 2017

Illuminated Nights--the Loy Krathong Festival


                                            by Jim Goodman

Big Krathong pr9cession 1993
       Most of the festivals in the Chiang Mai calendar year are primarily religious affairs.  They celebrate important Buddhist events like the Buddha’s first sermon, his birthday, the enrollment of boys in the monastery, the opening and closing of the retreat season.  The night before Buddha’s birthday devotees ascend on foot to Doi Suthep Mountain to be at the temple there to honor the Buddha when dawn arrives.  Otherwise the activity is mostly restricted to prayers and offerings at the temples.  Some stalls will offer food instead of flowers, candles and incense, and there may be traditional musicians playing a while in the compound.  In general, though, the atmosphere is reverent and sedate.
       The one festival in which the opposite mood rules is Songkran, held in mid-April at the peak of the hot season.  While the program has some religious elements, the general activity consists of three full riotous days of people throwing water on each other.  There are stage shows after dark, when the water-throwing is supposed to cease, though a lot of foreign tourists don’t seem to know that.
        In contrast to all the other annual events, the Loy Krathong Festival combines the religious and the secular, accented by spectacular evenings of lamps, lanterns, fireworks, stage shows and processions.  Held for three days and nights around the full moon in November, when the rains have practically ceased and evenings are refreshingly cool and everybody seems to be I a good mood.
making a krathoin
krathongs in the river
       A krathong is a little leaf boat, about 20 cm long, made by wrapping folded banana leaves around a section of the tree’s stalk.  As the festival arrives Chiang Mai people start making bunches of them for sale to participants.  When they have gotten all the leaves in place they add flowers, incense sticks and a candle.  Beginning the night before full moon and continuing through the night after full moon, people take the krathongs to the riverside, light the incense and candles and place them carefully in the water to join the succession of other krathongs floating down the Ping River
Loy Krathong nights on the river
       Thais believe that by doing this they send away all bad luck and disappointment of the year.  In Chiang Mai, Loy Krathong coincides with the city’s own Yi Peng Festival, which honors the river goddess.  Part of the motive in sending pretty little krathongs down the river is to beautify it and impress the river goddess.  At the same time they implore her to take the waters back, reduce their level, make the rains stop, it’s time for our harvest.  The krathongs, lanterns and the illuminated shore and sky are meant to be a proper send-off to the river goddess.
       Placating the river goddess is not a Buddhist concept, of course, but an animist one.  Yet Buddhism has never succeeded in eradicating superstitions or animist notions from the Thai psyche.  But more properly Buddhist activities are also part of the Loy Kratong program.  Some of these are part of every full moon day, which is a particularly auspicious day in the Buddhist year, along with new moon and the 8th day of the lunar month. 
       For Loy Krathong, however, the sermon for the occasion is one from the Jataka Tales, which narrates the lives of previous incarnations of the Buddha.  This one is about Prince Vessantara, who gradually gave away all of his possessions to the poor, exemplifying the virtue of selfless charity.  Thais know the story well.  It is also depicted on the wall murals of the viharn at Wat Bupharam.  Yet these Loy Krathong sermons are still well attended and the sermon, the krathongs on the river and the grand procession of decorated floats are the three parts of the festival program that have remained unchanged for the thirty years that I have been in Chiang Mai.
Loy Krathong boat races, 1990
       Every year city authorities publish the festival schedule of events.  In recent years, other than the Vessantara sermon in the temples, the activities are all at night.  When I first observed it in 1988 longboat races were held in the daytime, between the Nakorn Ping and Nawarat Bridges over the Ping River.  The long, narrow boats, with dragon-headed prows, held 23 rowers and another on the rudder.  After some rowing practice the crews paired off for a race that terminated north of the second bridge.  Winners paired off afterwards until a champion finally emerged.
       The other daytime event was the krathong contest held the first two days in the compound of the city’s Municipal Office, on the river next to the Muang Mai market and the American Consulate.  These krathongs were much bigger and more elaborate than the simple ones people bought to float on the river.  The awards were given the second afternoon because many of them would be carried as part of the second night’s Little Krathong procession.
women in the first night's procession
men in the first night's procession
       The boat races disappeared from the program in the late 90s, but the krathong contest continued longer.  The city scheduled one this year, but either it was canceled or nobody entered, for the Municipal Office lot was empty each day. 
       The festival always begins with an official ceremony and speeches and a classical Thai dance performance.  In the past this was held at Tha Pae Gate, though in recent years it has shifted to the square in front of the Three Kings monument.  Various kinds of lanterns, big and small, fill the area, in the shape of stars, begging bowls, baskets and wheels. 
women with krathoings, first night's procession
       Made of paper, but usually around a bamboo cylinder to protect them from igniting from the heat of the candle mounted within, they are also hung from posts along the procession route and strung across temple courtyards.  One type spins around from the generated heat, revealing portraits on its sides of the twelve zodiac animals or other pictures.
       In past years, the first night’s procession was on foot.  Participants dressed in classic Lanna clothing and some in each contingent carried tall poles with long, thin, woven cotton banners called tung in Thai, or brandished big lanterns.  The second night was the Little Krathong procession.  Back then it was hand-carried, even if it was so big several people were required to carry it.  The third night was the float procession, with men and women in traditional clothing and jewelry riding on spectacularly decorated floats on flatbed trucks.
lantern procession
       Participants in these processions marched in contingents representing various companies, banks, schools and other city organizations.  Most dressed in old-style Lanna clothing, the women wearing classic northern textile designs, like a parade of traditional fashions.  Their hair tied up in buns and decorated with jewelry, they carried krathongs or lanterns, while the men filed along hoisting the poles with the dangling tung banners.  A large, wheeled drum accompanied some groups, with shirtless men taking turns pounding it.
       Throughout the 90s the processions all began at Wat Phra Singh in the western part of the old town, advanced along Ratchadamnoen Road, passed through Tha Pae Gate and proceeded down Tha Pae Road to just before the bridge.  Here they turned left, passed along the river and terminated at the Municipal Office.  Nowadays they begin in front of Tha Pae Gate, but otherwise follow the same route.
Big Krathong rider, 1993
Big Krathong rider, 1990
       The first night’s procession did not involve any vehicles other than the drums on wheels.  Each contingent consisted of at least twenty men and women, all dressed their best for the occasion.  On the second night’s Little Krathong procession folks carried krathongs much bigger and more complex than the small ones sold by the riverbanks.  Some of these later wound up placed in the river.  As the years went on, though, people no longer carried them, but placed them in trucks.
       The grandest procession was, and still is, that of the Big Krathongs, of huge, fanciful krathong displays mounted on long, flat truck trailers.  Both the men and women riding these dress in the most ornate costumes of all.  Some wear the garments of centuries ago, their hair buns adorned with crowns and tiaras, plus lots of rings, necklaces and bangles.  The floats feature sculptures of lotuses, nagas and other mythical creatures, demons, birds and elephants, sometimes with three heads.
Big Krathong procession, 2017
       This procession, usually of a couple dozen floats, could take hours to complete.  In the past, at the terminus of the route, people lifted two or three of these floats into the river.  They floated downstream, with the riders still aboard, only as far as the first bridge before hauled to the side.  But it was quite a climax to the procession.  Unfortunately, like the boat races, that was also dropped from the program long ago.
       At the turn of the century the city added another attraction to the festival by staging a ‘sound and light show’ on the riverbank opposite the Municipal Office.  The stage show featured skits of players in ancient costumes, carrying noble ladies in palanquins across the stage, classic dances and loud, recorded music.  Fireworks shot off behind the stage, but there were fireworks from other points all along the river as well.  The stage occupied the most popular area for launching krathongs, which sort of interrupted the main festival activity.  Besides, Loy Krathong already was a ‘sound and light show.’  After two years, with little attendance, the city dropped the show from the program.
       While the processions are in progress, now as in the past, other activities take place along the route and on the riverbanks.  The yard of the Governor’s Mansion, just before the bridge at the end of Tha Pae Road, is full of food stalls.  One can buy snacks, rice or noodle meals, grilled meat, dried fish, sushi and more exotic specialties like gilled chunks of goat, sheep, rabbit, wild boar, ostrich, deer, crocodile and scorpions.  Behind the stalls stands a Ferris wheel, just like at a circus.
Big Krathong on the Ping RIver 1990
Big Krathong on Tha Pae Road, 1993
       All along the river are piers from which people place their krathongs in the water.  Food, drink and snack stalls line the sidewalks.  In between the piers folks shoot off small fireworks or light sparklers, while on the third night a series of skyrockets burst into the sky in multiple colors.  And for about a dozen years now the illumination includes the addition of sky lanterns.
       More like a hot-air balloon in the way it operates, the sky lantern is a wire-frame paper cylinder about one meter high.  Fixed to the bottom is a small tray containing cotton soaked in kerosene.  The user lights the cotton and then holds the lantern steady while the flame heats it up, which normally takes about a minute.  When enough heat has been generated inside the lantern, the holder releases it and it goes floating high into the sky.
like a traditional fashion show
       Problems can arise, especially if a breeze suddenly comes along.  If the lantern is released too early, it could tilt and catch fire, slam into a tree or crash into the river.  But considering the thousands of people sending sky lanterns aloft, that doesn’t happen very often.  Most of them successfully join the other launched lanterns in a stream that speckles the heavens.
        The lanterns are usually white, which makes them pale orange in the sky.  A few are red or blue or have faces painted on them.  The best to watch are the ones that have a long tail of sparklers attached.  Once they ascend they start leaving a trail of glitter below them that follows them high into the night sky.
       The sky lanterns can also interfere with aircraft.  A few years after their introduction the city decided to restrict their use to two nights only and canceled all flights from 7 p.m.  When they burn out the lanterns fall back to the ground, on roads, in gardens and people’s yards and that has caused complaints.  This year the government announced the day before the festival that sky lanterns and fireworks of any kind were prohibited under pain of 60,000 baht fine and three years in jail.
sky lantern lift-off
sky lanterns along the river
       Either Chiang Mai got a special dispensation or the city simply ignored the decree.  Authorities had already canceled 78 flights.  To ‘uncancel’ them would have been just as much trouble, since the airlines had already readjusted.  Newspaper editorials denounced the sky lanterns as not being a traditional part of Loy Krathong and a nuisance.  They also slammed the post-festival rubbish problem in the rivers.
       I doubt that Chiang Mai people see it the same way.  This year the festival was as enthusiastic as ever.  Sky lanterns filled the sky for two nights and fireworks characterized the third night, though not as many as in the past, for it was individuals setting them off and not part of a city show.  And no one muttered about the mess to clean up next day.  That’s always been a familiar aftermath, one they’ve dealt with for centuries.  For local folks, Loy Krathong will always be worth the trouble.  It’s the most beautiful event of the year.
taking a break during a procession traffic jam,  2017
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