Fires In The Night

We arrived in Bangkok after the Surin Elephant Round-Up (and the most painful overnight train ride of this trip) just in time to witness our latest example of absurd human behavior: the Loi Krathong festival in Thailand.  It’s a celebration that was originally dedicated to the goddess of water and was considered a way for people to atone for their wrongdoings, including polluting the environment. Therein the absurdity: Thais celebrate the festival by releasing thousands of candlelit floats into rivers. Many of the floats are built on bread – which means they eventually dissolve. But a large number use styrofoam. The result? When we took a boat ride the day after the festival, hundreds of mangled krathongs languished near the river’s edge, their unbiodegradable bases bobbing in the current. At least people’s consciences were clean.

Just in case a flotilla of styrofoam atonements is not enough, their release is often complemented by a different Thai tradition: the launch into the air of thousands upon thousands of flame-propelled paper lanterns.  We first saw these during the elephant festival, and if you don’t think too much about what they actually are, they’re quite beautiful – the sky is filled with what looks like illuminated jellyfish floating gracefully into the night.

But here’s what they actually are: paper lanterns fitted with a flammable wax base. You light the base on fire, and eventually the flame produces enough hot air to carry the lantern into the air.

Peter and I both loved watching their gentle lift-offs. But not every launch is successful, and once you watch a few of these flame-filled paper lanterns topple sideways and begin to fall to the ground, the wax still spurting flame, you start wondering about the fire resistence of most Thai dwellings. We saw a few fire trucks hanging around the launch site but, given that the lanterns were being released into a breeze, that didn’t seem particularly useful. I would be interested in seeing incident reports from local fire stations on major Thai holidays. What I do know for sure, though, is that once the lanterns go up, they do indeed have to come down (once the wax runs out, the lanterns float back to earth) and over the next few days we saw dozens of smoke-blackened paper lanterns caught in bushes, or lying in grass on the side of the road. But hey. At least they’re pretty.

Leave a Reply