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A Bright Night - Loy Krathong



A Bright Night

By: Jessica Hill



Do you feel like the king and queen?” I asked Jon Watkins, the other foreign English teacher at my high school in Suwannaphum, Thailand. We thought we had missed celebrating Halloween this year, but Loy Krathong fulfilled our longing for what typically begins the holiday season in America.

A Buddhist festival held on the full moon of November, Loy Krathong is meant for thanking the Gods and Goddesses of water and light with an ornate celebration full of gratitude and prayer. While most travel sites will tell you to witness the festivity in a large city such as Bangkok or Chiang Mai, I found our small town event to be quite special.

On the ninth of November, a Wednesday, and the day before this year’s Loy Krathong, at least four teachers told me to sleep well as I left the school.

“You have a big day tomorrow,” they said with a chuckle. "I can't wait!" I replied with only a hint of sarcasm. I had no idea what they had planned.

The next day, nearly everybody wished us luck as we walked out of the morning meeting. I noticed the panic on Jon's face and I giggled. How bad could it be?

We were taken to a local beauty shop where four lady-boys were busy doing hair and makeup. I was called first, leaving Jon to ponder why he was the only male in a small room swarming with half-changed girls going through the various steps of an elaborate process.


“Sit down,” said Coco Chanel, as flamboyantly as she could. “Ooooh! I make you soooo beautiful!”

“Like you!” I exclaimed, knowing how much lady-boys love compliments.

“Oooh farang so sweet! Honey, I be more beautiful tonight. You see!”

She hummed a tune as she put foundation on my face, layer on top of layer, on top of layer. Water, matte, brush was the process, and it continued for what felt like forever. I could feel my face cracking each time I opened my mouth or shut my eyes.

Jon was next. Before entering the shop, he told me he was prepared to battle anyone who tried to put makeup on him.

"They wouldn't do that," I assured him. "The men don't wear cosmetics."

I was wrong.

Together, we looked in the mirror and saw ghosts. The Thai’s envy white skin, but apparently our natural tones weren’t light enough on Loy Krathong.

While Jon didn’t put up much of a fight (“I don’t know how to fight in Thai,” he said later), I saw his pink cheeks burning with fury through the white mask on his face.

“Think Halloween,” I said. The popular holiday originated with a belief that ghosts of the dead return to Earth on October 31st. People would light bonfires and dance around in costumes to scare them away. Today, the celebration is more lighthearted. While people still dress in costume, they’re now disguised as the ghosts they once warded off, and they go in search of sweet treats and a different kind of spirits.

In America, it’s completely normal for men to wear makeup to accentuate their costumes, but it wasn’t Halloween, and Jon wasn’t convinced.

“I can live with this,” he said, drawing an imaginary circle around his made-up face, “but if they try to put me in a dress….” He was fuming.

A few hours later, we emerged from the dingy, fabric shop-turned-beauty parlor looking like Thai royalty. Jon in a blue suit with pants resembling a cloth diaper, and me in a gorgeous brown, silk gown. Mine was a better costume than any I had come up with on Halloween, but Jon was still a bit shaky about his oversized butt flap.

“It could have been worse,” I struggled to say sincerely. “You look, um...fabulous!” I said, stealing a word from Coco Chanel.

Back at the school, we were invited into the director’s office where instead of Halloween candy they offered lunch and coffee while we waited for the rest of the teachers to unite.

Our job was to hold the school sign in front of the parade. The female teachers were lined up in perfect rows directly behind us while the men were drinking whiskey and dancing behind the moving band, again disregarding Jon in the segregation.

We walked from one end of the main road to the other, turned the corner and headed toward the lake. In total, it was close to four kilometers; a very, very slow four kilometers, filled with thousands of photographs.

The entire town was gathered at our destination – a manmade pond surrounded by palm trees and lights. Everybody held beautifully handcrafted floats made of flowers and banana leaves with a candle in the middle. Mine was a gift from my students.

At sunset, we said a prayer for continued light and water, lit the wicks and placed our floats on the lake. Then we watched anxiously, hoping our flames wouldn’t diffuse in the breeze, for a long burning float is said to signify a fulfillment of wishes.

On land, people set fire to combs, or floating lampshades. Looking up, the sky was filled with hundreds of white, blazing cylinders, carrying prayers up to the Gods.

To my disappointment, the personal acts took place over several hours, not during one big show of unity like I imagined, but at the end of the night both the lake and the sky glowed. It was a magnificent sight.

And so was the Suwannaphum Beauty Pageant. In lieu of a costume contest like we do for Halloween, there were two competitions, one for women and one for lady-boys. The contestants were judged on introductions, talent and dress. Many gained extra points for introducing themselves in English, while the talents ranged from singing and dancing to reciting poems, and everybody was sporting various forms of the costume I wore.

Coco Chanel was among the lady-boys, dressed to the nines and showing off her hippy moves with a traditional Thai dance.

“Go, go, Co-Co!” I shouted. After all, she had made me into a beautiful Thai girl, and then she made herself into one too. She didn’t win, but she deserved a little cheer.

Sitting in a chair watching 40 gorgeous people perform on a stage backed by a candle-lit lake under a lantern-lit sky, I felt the corners of my mouth start to rise. There was no doubt I am living in the Land of Smiles.

In the end, even Jon was glad to have participated in such an extraordinary day. Wearing traditional Thai costumes showed our dedication to their beloved culture, and praying with the locals made us part of a wonderful community. Even though we weren’t royalty, we were treated like it.

Loy Krathong wasn’t Halloween. It was better.


Jessica Hill
Suwannaphum, Roi Et, Thailand



Jessica Hill developed a love for travel at a young age. Her passion for writing came later. The opportunity to quit her job and write about traveling became possible when she accepted a teaching position in northeastern Thailand, having absolutely no prior experience. She’s currently living in small-town Suwannaphum, which coincidentally has similarities to the rural part of Oregon, U.S. she was raised in. There, she's learning how to teach English and live like a Thai. For her, every experience is writing material, for even the bad ones make great stories.

Follow her journey here:

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lamphun-wat phra that hariphunchai-01     
       ited in mid-town, Wat Phra That Hariphunchai was built during the reign of King Arthitayarat, a descendant of Queen Chamthewi some 800 years ago.A principal landmark is the 46-metre tall golden Chedi which contains a hair of the Lord Buddha, having nine-tiered umbrella, made of gold weighing approximately 6,498.75 grams...

Chiang Rai

      on the bank of the Kok River within town area, contains what is believed to be the oldest Holy Relic even before King Mengrai built Chiang Rai. Doi Chom Thong has been a sacred site for aextremely long time. The site was surely reverenced as the home of local spirits before Buddhism arrived in the area.

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