Floating Festival

A tour that’s good for the sights and the soul

By: Monica Poling

I’ll be honest, in my life I may have committed a sin or two, so I’m always interested in finding easy ways to atone for my lapses. To be sure, floating lotus-shaped, banana-leaf krathong floats down Thailand’s swollen November waterways may be one of the more self-indulgent ways I’ve found absolution. And at a starting price of $950 (commissionable), including international airfare, this form of penance didn’t leave a huge hole in my pocketbook either.

Every year, during the full moon in November, the Thai people celebrate Loy Krathong, one of the country’s most popular and picturesque festivals. The celebration, which pays homage to the goddess of water, simultaneously thanks her and apologizes to her for the people’s use of the waters she oversees. Furthermore, legend states that by floating a krathong down any of the nation’s waterways, people will wash away their sins and receive good luck and fortune.

In 2005, as just one part of its tourism stimulation plan, the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) worked together with four West Coast tour operators to create multi-company Loy Krathong tour packages for U.S. travelers. Designed to showcase three different regional Loy Krathong festivals, the package price includes international airfare, accommodations, food, domestic transportation and all admission fees. Because TAT was involved, the group received VIP treatment for the duration of its stay in Thailand, including access to private dinners and events not open to the public.

In total, the four companies brought 132 people to Thailand, where we were combined into one mega-group. Overall, we had enough Thai people participating to ensure the program had an authentic flavor, but enough Western faces to give the program an international and multilingual appeal.

The trip started in Bangkok, where we had just enough time for a half-day self-guided program and a TAT-sponsored welcome dinner. Then early the next morning, we headed north.

Although TAT’s main purpose in creating the Loy Krathong program was to showcase regional differences between the three Loy Krathong festivals, we were lucky enough to attend festivals in Thailand’s ancient capitals, Sukothai, Ayuthaya and Bangkok, so we also enjoyed an in-depth look at early Thai history.


Our first full day included a stop at a Naresuan University’s textile program and museum, and although all 132 of us did our best to clear the gift shop of its entire stock of Thai silks and cottons, we barely made a dent in the selection.

That evening we were treated to tricycle rides through the city of Phitsanuloke. Fifty lit-up bikes shuttled guests around the city, while one deluxe bike provided an Elvis soundtrack in the background. At the halfway point, we stopped at an outdoor city market, but only a few of the more daring group members actually sampled the market specialty deep-fried silk worms, frog skins and cockroaches.

The following day was dedicated to exploring the Sukothai Province, which was Thailand’s first capital. The Sukothai period is generally considered the golden age of Thai arts and culture, and the area is now famous for extensive architectural ruins. In particular the region’s Buddhas are generally noted for their happy countenance and serene smiles.

Sukothai Historical Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site containing the ruins of ancient royal palaces and 26 temples, also was the site of our first Loy Krathong festival. Because we were running a few minutes late, the park actually delayed its kick-off parade, a magnificent display of costumes and performances from northern Thailand. Our arrival must have been a relief to the thousands of locals who lined the parade route in direct, mid-afternoon sunlight, on what was an unusually warm and humid day even for Thailand.

The evening’s festival was probably the most regionally authentic, which also made it the sweetest of the three festivals we attended. We enjoyed a picnic with such delectable Thai specialties as curries, sticky rice, pad Thai and tom yum koon soup, and then we sought our fortune by launching our krathong floats. The festival highlight, a re-enactment of the history of Sukothai, was a light and sound show held on the grounds of the Mahatat Temple. With special narrations for English-speaking guests, more than 200 actors utilized the massive outside area of the temple to showcase their history, and the performance ended in a fiery display of pyrotechnics, followed by the release of dozens of hot-air lanterns, a mesmerizing display of lights against a nearly black sky.


The following day our group was transported to Thailand’s second capital, Ayuthaya. Here we enjoyed lunch served upon a riverboat floating along the Chao Praya River, a tour of the Pa-In Summer Palace and a stop at the Bang Sai Royal Folk and Handicrafts Center.

Located on the banks of the Chao Praya River, the grounds of the Bang Sai Handicrafts Center were converted into a public festival site. A special events platform, jutting onto the water, had been set for our dinner, where we enjoyed a multi-station buffet, including made-to-order pad Thai and noodle soups. A cultural performance accompanied dinner, the highlight of which was a demonstration of Thai kickboxing by two 5-year-old athletes.

From a grand reclining Buddha at the Wat Yai Chaimong Kol temple to the ancient Grand Palace, the following morning was a historical exploration of Thailand’s second capital Ayuthaya. And despite the massive all-you-can-eat breakfast we’d just enjoyed, and the multi-dish lunch that we knew was just an hour away, we all managed to sample some of the street food served at the temples.

Back in Bangkok, we were granted the only free time in our itinerary, which amounted to just two hours. Some of the group enjoyed a quick nap before dinner, while others raced off to buy new luggage to hold all of the merchandise they’d purchased in the previous days. Me? I indulged myself in an in-room, one-hour Thai Massage, which cost just $15.

After our break, we were off to the Royal Thai Navy, a fabulously scenic riverside location adjacent to the Chao Praya River, with an incredible night view of Bangkok’s Grand Palace. The location, normally a restricted military site, was open to ticketed guests for this year’s festival. Buffet stations throughout the massive reception area served everything from cheeseburgers to sushi, to dozens of Thai specialties.

This evening was probably the most high-end and most scenic of the three festivals. After floating our final krathongs, we enjoyed Thailand’s version of the Rose Parade, where numerous barges and ships decorated in multicolored lights drifted along the Chao Praya River.

When watching the flickering lights of the thousands of candle-lit floats on the river, it became apparent to me that the TAT chose its “Happiness on Earth” tagline wisely. Between the near-meditative quality of the candle floating, combined with the regional celebrations we’d enjoyed over the past few days, I would say that this trip was surely a painless way to show contrition.


International Grandway Travel
Package price: $950
(plus tax, twin sharing)
Commission available.

Star Tours
Package price: $1,199 (including tax, twin
Commission: 10 percent on land

Thailand Vacations
Package price: $950 (plus tax, twin sharing)
Commission: 12 percent