Loy Krathong: A sacred river offering, or an ecological menace?

Today Thailand celebrates its festival of lights, or, ‘Loy Krathong,’ to grace Khong Kha, the River Goddess for nourishing our lives. Thais ask that she drifts away their misfortunes and misdoings.

But in reality,  experts warn that the festival just brings more pollution to Thailand’s ancient goddess of water. 

Plastic pollution has been steadily increasing over the last few years. Many environmentalists are flagging that if the pollution is not curbed, the water will only become more unsafe.

Loy Krathong is an annual traditional Siamese festival, first started 760 years ago during the Sukhothai era.  It’s celebrated on the full moon, the day of the twelfth lunar month. The ritual involves releasing decorated floating baskets, or ‘krathongs’ made out of banana leaves and wood, designed to carry candles, incense, and sometimes coins.

It is believed that floating krathongs on rivers is a way to grant offerings to the river spirits, and the release of the krathong is seen as a symbol to carry away negativity after people have been polluting the rivers.

But this traditional concept is clashing with modern reality.

Pollution concern

Jessada Denduangboripant, a professor of biology at Chulalongkorn University, says what’s really happening to the biology of the water is a serious problem.

“If we look far deeper, we are expressing apologies to Khong Kha for polluting the waters, but we are disposing of garbage in the river,” Jessada told Thai Enquier

He says that floating krathongs is only going to cause more water pollution, and urges everyone to pay more attention to the environment. Even krathongs made out of biodegradable material, like bread or bamboo, can cause river pollution, he says.

“We need to reform this tradition for a better environment.”

For the past few years, concerns about water pollution have continued to persist within environmentalist circles. According to Bangkok Metropolitan Adminsitration’s statistics, the amount of krathongs collected from waterways is over one million every year. 

Many krathongs are non-biodegradable and not eco-friendly, and the material can ultimately kill marine life. Jessada says that too often the floats get stuck inside drainage channels, water banks, and eventually become a source of pollution. But Jessada is offering practical solutions to the public.

“Instead of floating plastic, we can float ice krathong as it’s biodegradable, or pick out digital krathong to float online.”

Changing perspectives

Today, younger generations have become more knowledgeable and concerned about the environment. They still delight in embracing this much-loved festival full of lights and flowers, but they are also taking necessary steps to curb environmental pollution.

Warawut Kunu, 30, has stopped floating krathongs for about ten years. He feels that the festival should remain, while the floating concept should be reconsidered.

“Loy Krathong is just a reflection of the unique traditions of Thailand which have long stayed with us since the past,” Warawut told Thai Enquier. “But it is an absolute source of pollution,” he says.

“After floating the krathongs, the garbage stays on the water surface.”

Warawut says he loves the concept of the festival and enjoys seeing people gather together to celebrate the beauty and romance of the beautiful lights, but still feels uneasy about the level of pollution the festival produces.

He’s just one voice in a sea of young Thais who feel the festival needs to adapt.

But it’s going to take a serious campaign to spread awareness, Jessada, the professor of biology says. He believes that the government should also take part in the process of improving how the country celebrates Loy Krathong.

“Culture is artificial,” Jessada says. “It can thus adapt to time.”

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