Loikatong in the Four Regions of Thailand
Loikatong occurs every year in November as winter begins. The weather is cool and pleasant and in this season of flooding the water fills the stream bank, revealing the river’s shape clearly.
No clear evidence exists of when Loikatong first began though it is believed that the tradition has been passed down since long ago since the Sukhothai period when, in the reign of King Ramkhamhaeng, Loikatong was called pitijong prian or ganloy prabratip. Evidence from stone inscriptions mention a festival of burning candles as the largest and most festive of its kind in the city of Sukhothai, a festival assuredly equivalent to Loikatong. Later, the famous “Lady Noppamas” or “Thao Sukhothai” the king’s favorite concubine, was the first person to invent the katong, a buoyant basket made from lotuses, to replace the sky lanterns (small paper Chinese lanterns that when lit float up into the sky like hot air ballons). The katong remains popular to this day.
During that period, Loikatong was a festival of sky lanterns and as King Rama V (a nineteenth century king of Thailand) recorded, Loikatong was originally a Brahmanic ceremony for worshiping three gods: Shiva, Vishnu, and Brahma. Yet after Buddhism entered Thailand to join with these former beliefs, the lanterns were released into the sky to worship the relics of the Buddha and in reverence for the Buddha’s sacred footsteps.
The traditions of Loikatong have been passed down continuously ever since the first three reigns of the Rattanokosin period when the royalty and nobility enjoyed competing to make enormous katong at great cost of wealth and manpower. King Rama IV saw this as wasteful and so abolished the practice of constructing large katong and in its place, having the royalty build lanterned barges to respect the spirits instead of the gigantic katong. These were called “lamp boats,” and in the 5th and 6th reigns of the dynasty this royal ceremony was revived again. In modern times whether or not to float the king’s royal lanterns depends on the temperament of each king.
The traditions of Loikatong, according to Thai beliefs, serve certain functions:
- To ask for forgiveness from the Goddess of Waters because people both need the waters for eating and for daily use and because humans so often discard trash and pour sewage into her waters.
- To pay homage to the Buddha’s footprints which he pressed into the sandy beach on the banks of the river Ganges in India.
- In order to float away, sorrow, disease, and other misfortunes as in Brahmanic ceremonies for floating away sin.
- To revere Shin Upagutta whom the Northern Thai people worship the most. According to legend, he was a great arahant (Buddhist saint) with supernatural powers who was able to conquer Mara the king of demons.
Loikatong is celebrated in every part of Thailand especially in areas adjacent to rivers, canals or other spaces of water. Each area has its own fascinating ways of celebrating:
Sky lanterns, popularly called loi kom, wow kom, or wow kwan, are made from various bits of cloth or paper and then filled with smoke so that they float upwards like hot air balloons. This tradition of the Northern people is called yi peng.
- Chiang Mai province has its own yi peng tradition each year, a huge and dazzling event where the released sky lanterns literally fill the sky.
- The Tak province has a custom of floating katong in a line, each one diminishing in size—a phenomenon aptly named by the locals, katongsai, or “the line of katong.”
- The Sukhotai province arranges a majestic parade of suspended lanterns with fireworks and sparklers.
The Northeast (Isaan):
In the past, there was a Loikatong event in Isaan called “The Twelve Peng”:
- In the Roi Et province, the occasion is called sommanamkeunpeng sengbratip, which in the local language means the “asking of forgiveness from the Mother Goddess.” There is a competition for the most beautiful lantern and katong, and a parade of models of all the eleven cities in the province.
- Sakhon Nakhon province in the past had an event of floating banana leaf katong in the shape of traditional palaces, a festivity called the “Festival of Royal Boats.”
The Central Region:
All provinces celebrate the tradition of Loikatong:
- In Bangkok, there is the festival of the Golden Mountain, a temple activity celebrating the 7-10 days before Loikatong and ending the day after Loikatong.
- The Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya Province, at the old capital, there is an enormous event in the Ayutthaya Historical Park with a spectacular light show.
In the Hat Yai District of the Songkhla Province, there is a particularly large celebration, though in the other provinces people celebrate Loikatong as well.
Other than the floating of the katong, the most recognized symbol of Loikatong is the beauty pageants of woman dressed as Lady Noppamas, the woman who, as mentioned before, first invented the katong. Also, depending on the place, there are katong competitions, parades, and many other forms of celebrations and entertainment, with some places showing fireworks or great displays of flowers as well.