Why Such a Fascination for Sky Lanterns (Khom Loi)?

Thais releasing a Khom Loi

Thais releasing a Khom Loi (Joe Grez/Sesame)

Pai, Thailand – I have a dilemma. It has to do with the Chinese and Thai traditions of releasing hot air rice paper lanterns (Kongming [Chinese], Khom Loi [Thai]) into the night sky. Happens quite often in the north of the country now, with numerous lanterns coloring the black, faint white polka doted sky with moving golden orange pixels of various sizes. The first site of it is rather striking and as more people release lanterns into the sky, the night becomes that much more entrancing. So what’s my problem with this?

Made of rice paper, bamboo shafts, a fuel cell and wire, the Kongming originated around the 3rd Century AD. It takes it name from military strategist Zhuge Liang but soldiers address him as Kongming. “The name further derives from the hat Zhuge Liang wore after which the lanterns were shaped.” (wiki)

“Kongming Lanterns was used as a signaling beacon, in order to provide a critical signal at the appropriate time, and allowed the land based infantry to more effectively communicate with the navy and vice versa.” (http://EzineArticles.com/2090647)

So…a military device. Not only utilized as a positioning index, but as a decoy as well sometimes leading an opposing battalion astray. Some believe that the Kongming could have been a vehicle for spying a la a hot air balloon. Really there is not much certainty to that, for we know not how large the Chinese constructed them nor if they could actually withstand the weight of a human.

Child release a Khom Loi in Pai, Thailand

Child releasing a Khom Loi in Pai, Thailand (Joe Grez/sesame)

As time went on the Cantonese (South China) incorporated recreational uses at carnivals and annual festivals including the Mid-Autumn festival (Pinyin). Children often would release Kongming into the night sky in celebration of that years harvest. As time went on we see a similar tradition developing in North Siam, a close neighbor.

“Floating Lanterns” (โคมลอย, khom loi) are released by the Lanna people of northern Thailand year round for celebrations and the belief that in these lanterns they release their bad luck as well. The most prominent festival the sky lanterns are used is the Lanna Yi Peng festival, which is held on a full moon of the 2nd month (ยี่เป็ง, Yi Peng) of the Lanna calendar. This coincides with Loi Krathong, the traditional festival on the 12th month of the Thai lunar calendar.

In Chiang Mai during Loi Krathong literally thousands of Khom Loi are set adrift into the full moon night. In Pai (120 km northwest) where I witnessed the festival, a similar ritual took place of which I video recorded and edited:

Yeah it’s cool. REALLY stunning actually, and easy to get swept away with the grandeur of it all. Sort of a sonnet through the night with the wind dictating it’s meter. I really was an observer but wanted to release one myself. But there was something that was really bugging about this whole thing.

The story behind why the Thais release these glowing paper beauties into the night air comes wrapped in a pretty package. With north Thailand’s close proximity to now south China and their histories entwined from time to time, one can correlate that sky lanterns made their way south. Although that history is a bit grey, the Thai have their own symbolic reasons for their ritual. It has some to do with luck. When a Lanna encounters a bad stretch (maybe because of death or illness), they take to the releasing a Khom Loi into the night and with it their bad fortune. It is a sort of cleansing, and en masse can be viewed as a purging.

Now what possibly could be wrong with this? I mean it’s non-violent and in today’s news that is a blessing indeed. It’s good-willed and…hold on…there is this saying…what it is now…ah yes: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Ok maybe that is a bit extreme but certainly there is Isaac Newton’s Universal Law of Gravitation. Newton was quoted as saying, “What goes up, must come down.” Including lanterns (unless they of course can float high enough and sustain an Earth orbit).

A fallen Khom Loi

Fallen Khom Loi (Joe Grez/Sesame)

Generally, these fuel-celled floatation devices reach an altitude of no higher then 700 m (2000 ft.) approximately depending on the size and strength of the cell. The can have a range of up to 17 km (10 miles). So by those figures, it can be concluded that most if not all lanterns will fall back to Earth somewhere. My friends, they do and unfortunately it is not a pretty site. These beautiful white then glowing orange balloons turn to a wrinkled worn grey when landing back to terra. About five showed up on the grounds of my guesthouse in the course of the next three days. I wanted to pick them to dispose of them but was quickly instructed “My” (thai) or “no” because that is bad luck according to tradition. It seems the Lanna (and the rest of Thais) believe that you should wait at least a day as to not attract someone else’s misfortune. I’m not one to disrespect so I let it be and they cleaned it up the next day. But there were more in trees, on top of buildings and electric polls in town as well. Not everywhere mind you but noticeable enough. So with the utmost respect to Thai tradition, does that make them, well, garbage? I think it does.

This lead me to another question: are sky lanterns bio-degradable? And if so, how fast do they break up? What I saw in town was noticeable but not shocking. Now let’s take that figure again from Chiang Mai where THOUSANDS are released en masse. Where do they go? I had to chuckle as a wrote it sadly, but it’s true. They ALL have to come DOWN. I am certain they land through out Chiang Mai which is easy enough to clean and dispose (burning) but that still leaves all that fall through out the woodlands and metal rings (which will not burn in a normal campfire). So now we have an unknown number of these through the wilderness and non-recyclable metal rings. Hmmm…

I found this page on guardian.co.uk. Seems this has been an issue for a while in the UK leading to an actual ban because fallen lanterns were causing injury and or death to livestock. What? Yep, farm animals get caught in the metal skeleton rings and wire. And of course whenever there is money involved precedent will follow. But what about animals in nature, especially in Thailand? Is there any protection for them? That is truly picking up some else’s bad luck indeed.

So while a stunning display and an uprising experience, I’m sure you can see my dilemma. But until a more responsible way to float a Khom Loi into the night is found, I’ll have to break tradition.

Joe Grez

Joe Grez

Joe Grzesik (JGrez) is still an artist developer trying to keep up with new technologies. Photography still has been one of his strongest passions. However, now his main focus has led him back to music where he teaches guitar, piano, saxophone and percussion privately. Music education can never be short changed.

2 Responses to Why Such a Fascination for Sky Lanterns (Khom Loi)?
  1. Shawn C Baker

    SBaker Reply

    “Sort of a sonnet through the night with the wind dictating it’s meter.” – Beautifully spoken sir.
    This is very interesting to me. I’m sure there are many such concerns throughout the world where old world tradition meets new world enviromental concerns. The shift from taking our Mother Earth for granted to making Her safety and well being a priority is a difficult struggle indeed, but it’s articles such as this that help raise awareness and move the world FORWARD.

  2. Joe Grez

    JGrez Reply

    Follow up: while researching a bit further I have indeed found a company that supposedly sells “100% biodegrable” Khom Loi. The company name is Sky Orbs and they can be found here: http://www.skyorbs.co.uk They use “fireproof wool string” in place of wire that they claim is safe for wildlife and farm animals upon it’s landing back to ground. So this intrigues me more. But as far as the lanterns I found here on the street in Pai there are no such makes. Let’s hope that changes soon.

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