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Loy Krathong In Laos
Reasserting a Tai Cultural Heritage
Every November at full moon people gather by stretches of open water throughout Thailand to celebrate Loy Krathong. Small but elaborate lotus-shaped creations bearing traditional offerings of flowers, incense, candles and a coin are floated in countless numbers on streams, rivers, lakes, ponds, and even the open sea to reverence and pay homage to Mae Khongkha, the goddess of rivers and waters. Each tiny float also carries with it the dreams and aspirations of the sender.
This festival – perhaps the most evocative and beautiful of all Thai celebrations – traces its origins to the Sukhothai period, and more specifically to Nang Noppamas, wife of Phra Ramkhamhaeng, who is credited with beginning the custom at Sukhothai during the late 13th century. Even today Loy Krathong is said to be at its most piquant and picturesque best in Sukhothai and the North. What could be more aesthetically pleasing, and what could be more quintessentially Thai?
And yet Loy Krathong is more than just "Thai" in the sense of belonging to Old Siam. Specifically, it belongs to the Tai people as a whole, and though more elaborately celebrated in the Siamese Kingdom than elsewhere, the festival also enjoys a widespread and growing popularity amongst the Tai-speaking peoples of Burma's Shan State, China's Sipsongpanna, and Thailand's close relative and neighbour across the Mekong – the Lao Popular Democratic Republic.
Thailand's relations with Laos have always been close. Not always good, it is true, though most Thai and many Lao prefer to represent such differences in terms of a family quarrel. Because of this, Thai-Lao relations are often represented in terms of a "pi-nong" relationship, at least by the Thais. For their part, the Lao are happy to acknowledge a family relationship, though they would vigorously dispute just which country enjoys the status of elder brother!
Those familiar with Thailand who visit Laos will find the country reassuringly familiar and yet... tantalisingly different. Inheritors of the venerable cultural traditions of Lanxang – close neighbour of Lan Na – the Lao do things like the central Thais, but they do them in their own way.
And so it is with Loy Krathong, which is celebrated at Auk Phansa, the end of the Buddhist "Lent" at full moon time in October, fully one month before their Thai brethren across the Mekong.
The reasons for this divergence are obscure. Certainly the Lao like to assert their cultural, as well as their political independence. But their are also positive side effects, at least for the peoples of the central Mekong Valley, during these increasingly open times. In late October the Thai inhabitants of Nakhon Phanom, Ubon Ratchathani and especially of Nong Khai can enjoy the spectacle of Lao Loy Krathong – many crossing over on the strength of their Thai national identity cards to enjoy the cheap and excellent Lao Beer – whilst one month later the whole festival can be experienced, once again, in Thailand!
In future years, following the opening of the Mittraphap Bridge between Nong Khai and Vientiane next April, and given the degree of personal freedom increasingly enjoyed by Lao nationals, this traffic is certain to increase. For the moment, however, Lao Loy Krathong is still – even in Vientiane – in a new infancy, struggling to find its feet after years of official disapproval. For Laos has more than one influential neighbour, and Vietnam – between 1975 and the present day the Lao PDR's real "big brother" – has tended to view Loy Krathong, together with all manifestations of overt Thai cultural influence, as contrary to Vietnamese national interests in Indo-China.
Accordingly, following the Pathet Lao seizure of power in Laos during August, 1975, Buddhism was banned as a primary school subject and people were forbidden to make merit by feeding the Sangha. Buddhist monks were also forced to till the land and to raise animals in direct violation of their monastic vows. In a move more directly aimed at countering Thai influence, the PDR authorities also abolished the minority Thammayut sect, established in Thailand by King Mongkut and patterned after an austere form of Mon monasticism. To the Pathet Lao, as to their Vietnamese mentors, the Thammayut was a tool of the Thai monarchist system and hence – at one remove – of US imperialism. It had to go.
To be sure, these restrictions did not sit well with the outraged Lao laity – by tradition pious Buddhists – and as early as 1976 the Lao PDR government was forced to backtrack, not only permitting traditional alms-giving, but even making a daily offering of rice to the Sangha itself!
Strictly speaking, however, Loy Krathong is not a Buddhist ceremony. It harks back to phii, or spirit worship, and is deeply bound up with the age-old, life- and culture-sustaining relationship between Tai peoples and water. Honouring Mae Khongkha, goddess of rivers and waters, is undeniably a manifestation of spirit worship. It is also a very T[h]ai way to behave... particularly when viewed from Hanoi.
Accordingly, following the 1975 Pathet Lao seizure of power, phii veneration was officially banned throughout Laos, though in reality it remained the dominant non-Buddhist belief system in the country. Even at the height of the Cold War, when austere communist values dominated the Lao PDR, manifestations of spirit veneration permeated the country at all levels of society. Lao citizens openly performed the ceremony of sukwan or bacsi, known in Thailand as sai sin, where khwan, or guardian spirits, are bound to the body by a sacred thread. Similarly the lak muang, or venerated "city pillar" of Vientiane, located at Wat Si Muang, continued to receive daily offerings from the Lao populace.
Under these circumstances – and given the peculiarly Thai flavour of the tradition – it is hardly surprising that Loy Krathong failed to flourish under the Pathet Lao. Today, however – as new bridges of friendship are built across the Mekong not just between Thailand and Laos, but also between Thailand and Vietnam – Lao Loy Krathong is beginning to flourish, to the joy of all concerned.