Fireworks explode overhead. Green, red and blue sparklers provide a magical backdrop as the golden dots begin to float into the distance.
It's easy to get swept up in the magic and beauty of the moment, forgetting the real meaning -- releasing one's sin -- behind this northern Thai festival called Yi Peng.
This is my first Buddhist ceremony, even though I've traveled around the world writing stories about different cultures for years. I never knew releasing sin could seem so beautiful and awe-inspiring.
A Thai woman standing next to me, Som Mookjai, says this is the one time of year she feels light and beautiful from the inside out. The 48-year-old mother of two has been practicing Buddhism her entire life and never misses this November full-moon ceremony. She literally counts down the months, and then days, until she can release her sins through these traditional lanterns.
Mookjai spends most of the year making merit, or doing good works, for her various sins and wrongdoings. She takes food to the monks, but feeding the orphans is where she finds the most joy.
"You can never do enough merit," Mookjai says as she picks up a lantern for herself and one for me.
I thank her for the gift and explain that I don't need it. My God already sacrificed for my sins. She nods, not really interested, and continues with the task at hand -- preparing the lantern for launch.
Mookjai unfolds the mulberry paper, revealing a 4-foot balloon connected to a bamboo frame. She lights the fuel cell, casting a beautiful golden hue on our faces. As we wait for the lantern to fill with hot air, she prays to Buddha, asking for a year of good health.
She tells me this ceremony helps her feel comforted and brings a sense of relief. She explains that it is hard walking around for an entire year with so much on your shoulders. It makes her feel heavy. Curiosity gets the best of me and I ask how many lanterns it takes to feel total relief.
"I release lanterns just enough for my sin," Mookjai assures me, then explains that as the lanterns float higher and higher, she feels lighter and lighter. "I do not do too many, just enough for the year."
Lanterns all around us begin standing straight up; it's time for another mass release. Mookjai's lantern is ready. She places my hand on the bamboo frame to feel its gentle tug. It's ready to ascend. She whispers another prayer to Buddha and slowly releases the balloon.
We watch the beautiful lantern rise lazily, joining thousands of others in flight. They move as one in the dark sky, drifting higher and higher. When a wind current whisks the glowing mass away, we are left standing there, engulfed in darkness and empty-handed.
"I still feel heavy," Mookjai sighs. "One is not enough."
She bends down and fumbles in the dark, searching for another lantern.
Sue Sprenkle has been travelling the globe for more than a decade as a writer and photographer for the International Mission Board. She currently resides in Southeast Asia. For more information on Thailand and reaching Buddhist with the Gospel, go to www.seasianpeoples.org.
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