Loi Krathong is a huge festival in Chiang Mai, and throughout Thailand. It actually goes on for well over a week, but really gets crazy for about three days around the full moon. I went two days in a row and had an amazing time both times.
I bought a little krathong for 50B, which was far more than I should have paid—20-30B would have been more reasonable. Of course, we are talking a difference of 50¢ here so I am not too worried about it. I was concerned that I would have trouble finding a krathong when we got to the river. It turns out that there are a bazillion krathong available everywhere, and most were far more beautiful than the one I bought.
The idea is to pray about what you are thankful for and to get ride of some bad karma. The krathong symbolizes this bad stuff and is floated away down the river. There a literally hundreds of thousands of people doing this. There is a parade going on, fireworks going off (one hit me in the head), and a general cacophony of sounds and smell and crushing people. There were even hundreds of lanterns being set aloft. It was a blast.
I also went on Friday with a Thai friend. He had made a huge lantern for both of us to set aloft. It was so large that Thai people kept commenting how big it was. Normally it takes one ring to get them in the air; ours took four. As we were getting it ready a large crowd of people started to gather around us to watch. I was worried it wouldn’t actually go up, but when we let go it shot into the air and floated off above us beautifully with the other lanterns. I was impressed.
My Thai friend also made a really big krathong for the both of us to float down the Ping River. It was quite large and made from orchid pedals. Unlike the previous night, we were at the Nawarat Bridge and had to go down to a muddy bank to release our krathong. We said out prayers and floated it away with the hundreds of other krathong in the river.
Because we were away from the touristy area, there were fish, eels, birds, turtles, and various other animals available for sale. You can buy them and set them free. This increases your merit and thereby gives you some good karma. Presumably there is no bad karma for the people that capture the poor things. I encountered one vendor that wanted to know the name of every animal in English she had in stock. I spent several minutes looking at each, snapping a photo, and saying their name, then repeating it. That was rather fun.
Throughout all of this there is a festive atmosphere. People are watching a huge parade of floats and dancers. There are massive crowds everywhere and people are buying food and toys. It was almost what you would expect if the carnival was in town, except everyone is participating and happy to be shedding a year’s worth of bad juju.