Amid flood catastrophe, Thais ready for festival

AP News
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Posted: Nov 09, 2011 4:17 AM
Amid flood catastrophe, Thais ready for festival

Every year when the moon is full and the rainy season draws to an end, millions of Thais fill their country's waterways with miniature lotus-shaped boats, setting them adrift with flickering candles in a centuries-old homage to a water goddess.

Today, many still believe the tiny banana-leaf boats launched during Loy Krathong can symbolically carry away their misfortunes, allowing past sins to be cleansed and life to begin anew.

This year, flood-ravaged Thailand has plenty of reason to pray for rebirth _ and little reason to celebrate.

The festival, due Thursday, comes on the heels of a cataclysmic waterborne disaster that's drowned one-third of the country in three months, killing 529 people and wiping out rice fields and factories and livelihoods along the way. The flooding is the worst to hit Thailand since World War II, and it's not over yet. Damage so far is likely to exceed $6 billion. Recovery will take months.

"Most people don't feel like celebrating this year _ there's been too much sadness and suffering," said Saithong Sateankamsoragai, a Bangkok flower vendor who sells the tiny boats, called Krathongs, that are an integral part of the festival.

"Flooding has forced people to flee their homes _ the water in my own house is up to my chest," said Saithong, who moved in with her sister late last month in a drier part of the capital.

Tragedy in mind, the Tourism Authority of Thailand has canceled all official celebrations in Bangkok, including those along the Chao Phraya river _ the chocolate-colored waterway that snakes through the city's glittering condominiums and decrepit apartment blocks.

In recent weeks, the river's banks have brimmed to record levels, forcing a halt to dinner cruises and fueling fears the mighty waterway could swamp downtown.

Outside the capital, though, festivities are going ahead in many unaffected cities nationwide. They include the northern town of Sukhothai, where the tradition is believed to have been born. Revelers there have already begun setting off fireworks this week, filling the skies with balloon-like lanterns.

The mood in Bangkok, whose outer neighborhoods are still submerged, is far more muted. The Culture Ministry is calling for revelers to float just one boat per family, while the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority is urging people not to launch any at all.

Close to a million krathong's are typically set adrift annually in the capital alone, and there is concern they could trigger fires in abandoned homes or clog drains and canals critical to helping ease the massive pools of runoff bearing down on the metropolis of 9 million people.

Most krathongs are made from hardened, painted bread or ornately curled banana leafs filled with yellow marigold flowers and metallic-purple globe thistles. Some are built from environmentally unfriendly non-biodegradable plastic foam.

Some Thais joke they won't have to go far from home to find water this year. "We probably can float the krathongs right in the house," tweeted one.

"Of course it's different than it has been in years' past," said Ladda Thangsupachai, a senior Culture Ministry official. "Can there be fun while there is suffering?"

Ladda's ministry is encouraging people to set krathongs adrift online instead _ through special websites on which you can light digital candles and incense and watch yours float on a full-screen rendering of lake.

The festival has its roots in a long ago era when most people lived on stilt houses, surviving off the land fed by water that nourished agricultural fields and sustained life.

Over the last few decades, that life has slowly been replaced by modern urban living. Canals in Bangkok that once allowed annual rain-fed floodwaters to pass unheeded have been paved over to make room for roads, highways, shopping malls and housing developments.

Loy Krathong, meanwhile, has morphed into a romantic evening for hand-holding lovers, a relaxing night for families and friends. It has become a commercialized holiday in which beauty contests are held, fireworks are set off.

"Most people in Bangkok have lost their connection to water, it doesn't exist like it did in the past," said Siripan Nogsuan Sawasdee, Associate Professor of Political Science at Chulalongkorn University.

Thanking the water goddess, or asking her forgiveness for polluting the nation's life-sustaining rivers "isn't on people's minds" Siripan said. "Most people don't believe in that anymore."

Still, as floodwaters approached Bangkok in early October, the city's governor held a special ceremony to pay tribute to water goddess, Phra Mae Khongkha, and beg the crisis' swift end. The ceremony was ridiculed by some local media.

At Bangkok's flower market, vendors say business has been cut by half. Fewer people are buying krathongs, and flowers used to decorate the boats are in short supply because the provincial fields that grow them are underwater.

Saithong said she would launch her own float this year on the Chao Phraya because "it's a tradition."

"It gives us a little bit of inspiration," Saithong said. "It gives us hope that life will be better next year."