What’s worse than a traffic jam after a professional sporting event? A people jam after Loy Krathong!
A few weeks ago in Chiang Mai, my family joined thousands of Thais and thousands of visiting and resident farangs to celebrate a Buddhist holiday. We aren’t Buddhist, but this is a BIG holiday in Thailand, and we saw it as an opportunity to build some bridges and understand the culture better.
The holiday is celebrated in several ways. Krathongs (an elaborate, little raft carrying a candle, incense and (sometimes) hair and fingernail clippings) are lit and put in the river or other waterways to symbolize the release of anger, grudges and defilements. Fireworks and firecrackers are set off, and beauty contests are held. But the part that we participated in was the release of the khom fai, a type of hot-air lantern.
Near Maejo University in Chiang Mai, thousands upon thousands of these lanterns are released in unison and out of unison, and they light up the sky like a fresh, new Milky Way.
The sight is amazing! And the lanterns are fun to light (except when you get the ones made with wax, and they drip hot wax on the people below for thirty yards after you let them go). Everyone had a good time sharing the celebration with the Thais.
Since this is an amateur sport, it should come as no surprise that some lanterns endangered some lives:
But then A11 told us she had to go. We started to beat a hasty retreat and quickly found ourselves in a grinding, surging, waiting, jostling, immobilizing, pushing throng of people. Some were coming, and some were going, but really neither were doing much coming or going. It was the thickest people jam I’ve ever been stuck in.
It was a people compactor – especially for the kids. I’m not sure exactly how they were breathing.
Trying to keep all three kids close to us, my wife and I were soon separated. She had all three of them at first, but a couple of surges later, I found my oldest son next to me after he had been separated from the others. We had very little say in who went where. The throng had a mind of its own.
For 30-45 minutes, we hardly moved. A conga line of entertaining but very pushy older Thai women forced their way into any open space as they laughed and barked out orders to those around them, but still they didn’t go far. People on the outer edges of the mass set off firecrackers and fireworks that threatened to trigger a fight or flight response when they exploded, but no one lost their cool. These were Thais, and they tend to take everything with a smile.
I lost sight of my wife and other two children about the time we started moving. After a few shuffling steps, I realized why we were so stuck – there were so many people trying to get into the park that the thousands going out had to exit single file. I felt like a kidney stone having to passing through such a tiny canal. Reaching open air felt exhilarating!
It took my son and me some time to catch up to the rest of the family. They were so happy to be free, I think they must have broken into a sprint. We saw an ambulance arrive while we were trying to find them and wondered how they were ever going to get to the person who needed them. Maybe the crowd could let the sick/hurt person body surf on top and just pass him along to the paramedics.
I’m not much of a “crowd person,” so the experience stretched me a bit, but I do have to admit that it did bring me closer to my Thai neighbors (a little too close maybe).