Thai New Year

Thailand does New Year’s better. For starters, the weather is a vast improvement over any other end-of-December I’ve witnessed… no snow, no ice, no freezing temperatures, no gray Seattle fog hiding fireworks. Just a balmy 75 degrees at midnight, perfect for strolling, eating street food, and drinking outside.

And midnight on December 31 is just the first of three New Year’s celebrations. Why have just one when you can also give a nod to Chinese New Year in February and have the three-day Songkran in April with merit-making, firecrackers, parades, and massive water fights?

Holidays here are taken seriously – most of the local restaurants we’ve eaten at closed on or before December 30 and won’t reopen until January 3 or 4. (Some even closed between Christmas and the New Year or longer.)

And of course, midnight celebrations are a little different. We went to the Tha Pae Gate to celebrate. The area had already been setting up for the events days in advance – a small market sprung up last week along with more street food vendors than usual. A main stage was erected, and was occupied by a famous or semi-famous Thai singer and band for a concert the traditional countdown to midnight. Since the area is tourisy and restaurants stayed open, we ate there on the 31st (a German/Thai restaurant might not have been the most obvious choice but it was delicious) and that put us right in front of one of the main launching areas for lanterns.

The first sky-lanterns go up about 7:45, just a small handful from those who could not wait or had small kids to hurry home. Then, about 9 p.m., hundreds start rising from all directions. Several other sites around the city like the Nimman Road/Maya shopping plaza and Ping riverfront/Warorot Market had large celebrations and also contributed steady streams of lights.

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The lanterns are flimsy, and the slightest breeze sends them into trees or power lines (of course, it doesn’t help when they are launched directly under said power lines by inattentive people and then burst brightly into flame and rain down burning ashes on the sidewalk). But once the lanterns get around any obstacles, they are absolutely beautiful. One light floats up, joins dozens or hundreds of others buoyed along by the wind, bobs along for a while, then flickers, fades, and sinks back to earth. I think it might be the most quietly joyful celebration I’ve witnessed (just tune out the firecrackers).

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If you look carefully, there are already downed lanterns in the water.

Fireworks are not so strictly regulated, so roman candles and aerials can be bought by the side of the road, and carried around above your head as they explode in merry bursts (saw two guys doing this) or set off in the middle of the (crowded) street. It is assumed passers-by will notice and move out of the way accordingly. Most were made well enough and the explosions cleared the rooftops, but some explode closer to eye-level and sent people dodging.

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What goes up does come down, and after just five minutes or so. Burned-out lanterns already littered the moat and nearby trees when we sent ours up and we passed the their detritus all the way home. They skimmed along the streets the next morning, lingering gray husks of the celebration.

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