Around the world there are thousands of undiscovered festivals; unique celebrations of ancestry and cultural heritage. No guidebook or magazine article can accurately capture the experience of attending one of these festivals. The truth falls outside of description. It is a summation of all your senses and of what it means to be in that place and in that moment. You won’t have a true appreciation of what it’s like until you complete your TEFL certification and move abroad. But as a teaser here is an introduction to Thailand’s Loi Krathong Festival from a TEFL teacher’s perspective.
It is 8am and you are having breakfast at a roadside stall. You are eating a savory rice porridge with strong flavors of chili and lemongrass. You are sipping on Jasmine tea. The whole meal cost less than a euro. You’ve been living in Thailand for months and you still can’t believe that anything that delicious could cost so little.
You thank the woman who runs the stall. Her name is Fa, which you recently learned means both blue and sky.
She says, “Sawadee-kaaaa! See you tomorrow!”
And Fa is right. You will see her tomorrow because this little stall with plastic tables and plastic chairs has become your routine on the far side of the world.
You park your scooter in the lot behind the school. There is a sea of scooters and very few cars. As you walk through the gates students approach you in mass. Only a few of them are in your class. Everyone wants a high-five. The morning high-fives are part of your new routine and as always the scene is overwhelmingly cute.
Looking around, you notice that something is different. The courtyard is full of palm fronds and brightly colored flowers. The school is preparing for something but what?
You are midway through your first class and the students are distracted. Your lesson plan is good; a mixture of new material and activities you know the students like. But you can’t seem to turn down their buzzing. So you ask. You ask about their excitement, the palm fronds and the flowers.
“Teacher! Today is Loi Krathong!” they say. “We want to make krathongs!”
You have no idea what that means. You have questions but you hold back. You know that they won’t be able to answer. They barely speak the language. They are barely seven years old.
During the break, you ask one of the Thai teachers to explain. Her name is Yai and she is your friend. She is the person you go to when Thailand needs a translation. Yai explains that Loi Krathong is an important Thai festival. It is connected to the Thai lunar calendar but it usually occurs on a full moon in November. She explains that Krathongs are small floats. They are made by decorating a slice cut from a palm tree with elaborately folded palm fronds, flowers, incense and a candle in the center. At night everyone gathers by the river to light the candles and float the Krathongs down the river.
“It is very beautiful,” she says. “You must attend.”
But you want to know why. What is it all for? Yai explains that Loi Krathong is a union of past and present. The tradition began as a way to appease the water spirits who lived in the river. Later the candle was added to symbolize Buddha’s light. And some people add hair and fingernail clippings as a way of letting go of the past and embracing the openness of the coming year.
“This afternoon we will make Krathongs,” Yai says. “Your class will be very short.”
And she is right. Your afternoon class is only fifteen minutes long. A Thai teacher takes over. You sit on the floor with your students surrounded by palm fronds and flowers. They patiently show you how to fold the leaves and where to place the flowers. You show them your finished Krathong. They jump up and down clapping excitedly.
“Very beautiful, teacher. Very very beautiful,” they say.
That night you head out with a few of your fellow TEFL teachers. No one is sure what to expect. And everyone is surprised. You’ve never seen the streets so busy. It seems that every house must be empty.
You walk down to the river and the crowd only grows. There are rows of food stalls, the local radio station is broadcasting from a stage and all around and in between people are carrying their Krathongs; some are simple and others are art.
You find a place on the bridge and dangle your legs over the side. Everyone moves to down to the river’s edge. It’s a sudden shift as if an unseen signal flashed and disappeared. Candlelight moves through the crowd in a sweeping wave. People gently float their Krathongs and move away to make room for those behind. You see Yai down below with her husband and their three young children. You wave but she doesn’t see you.
The Krathongs are carried away on the current. Light seems to spill into the blackish water. It is soothingly beautiful and indescribably new.
Your mind starts to wander. You think about your family and friends back home. You wonder what they are doing in that exact moment. And you wonder if you will ever be able to explain the moment that you are in.
You bring yourself back. You focus on the bobbing light and the town that has become your home.
You are in awe of your new life.
And of Thailand.
And of the things that only TEFL teachers know.