This past week, I went on a road trip in northern Thailand. We rented a car – an interesting experience, given that Thais drive on the opposite side of the road, and many ignore common sense and the law of the land while behind the wheel – and took off for the nation's most mountainous province, Mae Hong Son. We covered about 360 miles over the course of five days, with a good mixture of scenic driving, sightseeing, eating, and adventuring by bike and on foot. It was my favorite trip within Thailand, at least in terms of the location: quaint and peaceful mountain villages and cities, comfortable but not overly developed, and nearly untouched by tourists. Many of the towns reminded me of farming villages in Europe. Perhaps the most spectacular one, though, looked different altogether.
Ban Rak Thai, a village of about 1000 people, sits just a few miles away from the Burmese border. The town looks like a dream – surrounded by tea fields, nestled in the heart of the mountains, it's got a truly ethereal quality. It also looks quite different than many Thai villages, because it is Chinese. The village was founded by members of the 'Lost Division' of the KMT. The KMT, or Kuomintang Nationalist Army, was the loosing force during China's Civil War, which was won by Mao Zedong's Red Army. Many soldiers from the KMT escaped to Taiwan, but some headed west into Myanmar and Thailand.
They stayed there for decades, fighting off Burmese troops and staging raids against the Communists in China. However, as the years wore on, the soldiers and their families tried to make a home for themselves. Many started smuggling opium and other drugs through the hills, where government forces had a hard time finding them. Meanwhile, others started fighting Thai Communists. It wasn't until thirty years ago that the soldiers put down their weapons and started growing tea at the request of the government. Today, the KMT villages – there are 64 of them – are the image of peace. Ban Rak Thai even has resorts that bring Thais and Chinese in to drink tea and eat Chinese food. We thoroughly enjoyed our short stay in town.
Today (November 25) is one of the most important festivals in Thailand: Loy Krathong, or the lantern festival. Tonight, millions of people throughout Thailand will let small lantern boats sail into the river. It's one of the most beautiful festivals in the country, known for its joyful atmosphere and focus on relationships. Many families celebrate Loy Krathong together, while couples are supposed to let their boats sail together – if the boats stay close, it means a good year for love, but if they separate, bad luck lies ahead.
Historically, Loy Krathong dates back beyond the memory of any living Thai peoples. The festival was originally dedicated to the Hindu gods Shiva, Vishnu, and Brahma. Since Thais are Buddhists, the festival was changed in meaning to stay attractive to the local people, much like the Roman celebration of the coming of the sun was changed to Christmas. According to legend, the first Loy Krathong, which just means "lantern boat," set sail nearly 800 years ago during the Sukhothai period, which is the beginning of Thai history.
Today, many Thai people believe that the purpose of Loy Krathong is to worship the footprint of the Buddha at the Nammathanati River in India, one of the most revered places for Buddhists. Even though the Buddha was just a man, and told his followers to treat him like a man, many people act as if he were a god. For these people, Loy Krathong has religious importance. However, even for people who aren't religious, Loy Krathong is a powerful festival, one that brings the whole country together. I'll be volunteering at a local temple to sell lantern boats, and I'm very interested in seeing what happens.
Adam De Gree
I am a senior in college, studying philosophy, and am visiting family in the Czech Republic and travelling and studying in Europe and Asia.