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Loi Krathong: Chiang Mai and the Paper Lanterns

In Thailand, Chiang Mai plays second city to Bangkok, kind of like the way Lake Placid does to New York City. If it weren’t for the annoyance of some one-way streets around a few canals and crossing Mae Ping River, it would have no traffic issues at all. The city itself has a population of 150,000 but the surrounding area, sprawling as it is, holds more like one million. This is still nothing compared to the Bangkok metropolitan area’s official 12 million (which is also probably nothing compared to its actual population.)

Chiang Mai is both more relaxed and a bit cooler. This is where the southern folk head when the weather is too hot. In a previous blog, Peung and I headed to the mountains here (Doi Inthanon National Park) where it was down into the 40s at sunset.

I had an afternoon appointment that finishes as an evening appointment and my hosts took me to dinner at Banana Leaf Restaurant. Built somewhat in the style of an old Thai house, the restaurant had open-air seating one story up off the ground. The starry sky was out and a full moon showed off pushing its way through them. We ate wonderful food for much cheaper than I’d pay in Bangkok. The couple singing and playing jazz on a classical guitar sang sweet harmonies and covered American songs such as Leaving on a Jet Plane. Right about when they started on Fly Me to the Moon, I saw my first paper lantern. In Chiang Mai they float the krathongs to satisfy the water goddess as well, but what makes this place so much more special than Bangkok are the lanterns.

About the size of medium and large garbage bags, the white China paper lanterns contain a paraffin ring held by light metal spokes across the opening. Light the ring, let the heat fill the paper lantern until its tugging at your hands and then release it to the cool skies and make a wish. Charming, no? Dreamlike, in fact. Across the sky, the stars started to multiply growing golden yellow and moving across the sky in a long slow rising arc. Like an army of fireflies or as if the stars themselves decided to shift and so moved in three-dimensions to the unaided eye. For a silly moment I started to count but there were hundreds of them, then well over a thousand and in a matter of minutes those were gone toward the next horizon while as many climbed the heavens behind them. My dinner companions smiled at my fascination. I couldn’t look away. It reminded me, oddly enough, of a moment last summer when I paddled along Starkweather Creek in Madison right in front of the Thai pavilion in Olbrich Gardens. The afternoon sun slipped through the cottonwoods and dabbled gold the drifting bits of cotton between me and the glittering pavilion and I stopped paddling, mesmerized.

The following night I attended dinner again with hosts at Heuan Soontaree, a restaurant along the river owned by a popular regional singer from another time Soontaree Vechanont. She sang folk songs along with the house band and all the Thai guests took their turns walking up to stand in front of her to have their pictures taken with her over their shoulders. We dined down the slope in the open air close to the river and at one point a flying squirrel made a gliding leap to the tree right above us. I told the rest of my table and they all doubted my claim. White underbelly, no flapping, a sort of rectangular shape just a bit bigger than a large hand. Oh, no, not here. Probably a bat. My contention that it could not have been a bat (bats don’t soar/glide to my knowledge and this trajectory was straight like a zipline) nor a bird (it truly was a rectangular shape heading lengthwise into a tree from a higher point up the hill and with a white underside) was nevertheless met with disbelief. “Yes, we have them but only in the deep jungle.” Really was it so much of a leap to think perhaps wildlife ventures into the city along the green spaces of the river’s edge? Everyone just shook their head. Yet the slightest suspicion of the paranormal is met with complete credulity in Thailand. I could have suggested it was a fleeting spirit and we would have moved tables.

After dining on some northern cuisine which included fermented pork sausage and fried bamboo worms. Wisconsin wisdom holds out: anything will taste good if deep-fried. And I ventured into the fermented pork after the initial mistranslation of “raw” was corrected.

After the meal, we gathered by the muddy waters of the Mae Ping River and launched lanterns that our hosts had brought for us. I held mine tightly and could see the wisps of smoke curling up inside and feel the growing heat of the air pushing down out of the lantern. Wait, someone told me, just a bit more. Until finally the heat from the flame inside nearly singed the hairs on the back of my hands and someone, OK, go! and I released the eager lantern and watched it wobble away like a bobber on a river, rising into the rest of its golden glowing brethren as they set sail for dawn.

From my hotel window that night on the 16th floor at the Centara Duangtawan I stood in the dark of my room watching them, spirits slipping past between me and the facing high-rise hotel. Some of them had fireworks buried in the wax ring and suddenly let drift a shower of sparks like a jellyfish with sparkling tentacles. Occasionally a lantern lit up in a frantic flame, flying too hot and too bright. Like Icarus it flared for a moment, twisted and tumbled, consumed by its own wax as it fell from the sky. In other cases just an empty paper lantern drifted by on the wind, a failed wish, a ghost of a thing almost unnoticed in the night sky. I peeled back the curtains all the way revealing that one whole wall of my room was glass from about hip height up to the ceiling. I fell asleep watching the paper lanterns of Loi Krathong as if they pass through a grand aquarium next to my bed.

Kevin Revolinski

Author, travel writer/photographer, world traveler. Writes about travel, hiking, camping, paddling, and craft beer.

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