Holidays Without Regulations on Handheld Explosives
Chiang Mai has two claims to fame. First, it is the capital of Thailand’s northern province. Like Boston, it lacks pedestrian-plowing taxis, emphysema-inducing smog, fashion-forward lady-boys, and the repute of the larger capital southwards. However, it cannot be overlooked.
These northern “second cities” famously champion certain holidays. Traditionally, Boston hosts the premiere St. Patrick’s Day shenanigans in America. In turn—but with less firewater and more fire throwing—Chiang Mai champions Yi Peng and Loi Krathong in Thailand.
Anne and I interrupted the revelry incidentally. (In defense of our haphazard path finding, Paul Theroux once suggested, “Tourists don’t know where they’ve been; travelers don’t know where they’re going.”)
In a second lucky strike, we avoided the strike of explosives throughout the three day, three night bonanza. I’ll get to that momentarily.
First, the quick background: On Yi Peng, locals send rice-paper lanterns to the sky like hot-air balloons in order to “make merit” with the spirits that be. For Loi Krathong, revelers float boats made of flowers down the river as a salute to the Goddess of Water. In tandem, the two festivals set the city aglow.
Thais always brighten the streets with toothy smiles and perennially youthful faces. However, during the festival they are doubly charming.
Couples snap pictures of each other clinging to angelic lantern-halos as the orbs take flight. Friends circle around larger lanterns to pilot them in unison. Observant families kneel in prayer before sliding flower boats into the waterways.
The scene stuns with so much beauty and romance, Oprah followers would dissolve in tears. Even the Grinch would crack a kindly smile. If Walt Disney had seen this, he would have rushed to animate it (adding a sixteen-year old girl enslaved in a lantern-making shop; a lady-boy godmother; and a set of well-dressed mice singing and tap-dancing on lanterns as they rocket skywards in balls of flame). Disneyworld would, in turn, offer a launch-your-child-to-space-for-God-knows-how-long ride. With years of babysitting experience behind me, I’m admittedly disappointed that the latter never materialized.
What did develop was a market for pyrotechnics.
Anne quickly dubbed Loi Krathong the “most dangerous holiday ever.” I will be brief in explanation. [Mom, please refrain from sending a well-intentioned but neurotically fretful email. It’s over and I’m safe.]
Throughout the festival’s three days and nights, children and teens—in fact any local under age thirty with opposable thumbs and forefingers—expanded on the “light” theme by igniting fireworks, flame-throwers, miniature grenades, and a cosmic assortment of wholly unidentifiable explosives. Brave opportunists cart these crackers through the streets in wooden rickshaws—a hazard that would stir America’s suburban mothers to hold a concerned neighborhood meeting and send a petition to their local state congressman.
For the first two days, Chiang Mai enveloped us in mixed aromas: smoke; spicy pork and noodles bubbling in street-side woks; flowers; and the standard mysterious stinks that pervade Thailand every day. The air reverberated with booms, bangs and wizzaws not uncommon to battlefields, as well as giggling revelers (though quiet descended between the hours of 5am and 8am). Neon streamers and lightning-like flashes brightened an already colorful city.
Between the sensory overload—and the fact that most fireworks went off at street level or just above our heads—I trembled at fireworks for the first time in my life. I began behaving like our former cat Winky, who, after being hit by a car, jumped and ran into the wall every time a floorboard creaked.
On the third and final day of Loi Krathong, Anne and I evacuated.