Life in Laos through the lens of a diplomatic wife raising twin toddlers.
After seeing this photo that my husband took on our first night in Luang Prabang when he went out to explore the night market, I was excited to go back the next evening to Wat Mai temple where it was taken, but I also knew that going out at night with two three-year-olds who need to be in bed by 8pm is a lot to ask for, especially when we had to save up their “late” night for the actual Loi Krathong the following evening. So I played it by ear while remaining hopeful that we could stay out somewhat late to get a glimpse of the lanterns at night.
My hopes started to dwindle the further and further we walked through the night market to get to the temple. The problem with having super cute kids is having people get into their faces and touching them while speaking a language they don’t understand causing them to recoil with hesitation if not outright fear, particularly for our sensitive son who also happens to dislike crowds. I was ready to scoop him up and head back to the hotel to comfort him when my husband motioned from a distance that we had arrived at the temple.
The secluded wide open space of the temple grounds playfully decorated with hundreds of paper lanterns immediately calmed all of our nerves. The kids busied themselves with exploring and following the local children lighting lanterns while I took advantage of their independence to photograph the amazing light and colors and activity (and hoping that the photos would come out at all give my lack of skills in low light settings).
There was nothing, though, that could capture the atmosphere. We left the brightly lit, hot, and busy commercial space of the night market and stepped into the soft twilight and stillness of the temple grounds to join a festive and joyful lighting of lanterns by children while inside the temple monks where chanting with worshipers bowing at their feet. The air was so layered with this cacophony of contrasts – alluring but difficult to take it all in.
It was all so beautiful, magical, and spiritual I had no idea what to expect the following evening, except that there would be big crowds and that we’d most likely not be able to view the launching of the paper boats and krathongs at the center of the celebrations at Wat Xiengthong, on the temple steps to the river. There would just be too many people for us to handle the kids, our bikes, the krathongs we bought to launch, and carry our paper lantern without tearing it before it got launched. So we opted instead to ride our bikes down river a bit to a (hopefully) more secluded part down to the river. Well it wasn’t too crowded but what we found was a very steep and precarious dirt slope, not easy to navigate in the dark for us never mind the kids. My husband had to carry our son who was petrified of all the exploding bottle rockets and fireworks around us. Our daughter did great just holding my hand but I think it got to be too much for her, too, when I had to let go of her to (unsuccessfully) take pictures of people launching their krathongs, trying to get ours lit, and then trying to create wakes in the water after launching it so that it would go out into the river instead of floating into the nearby boats. My husband was exasperated, my son was petrified, and my daughter and I held on to each other tightly trying not to lose it ourselves or fall down on our way back up to the maddening boom and wiz of the fireworks.
On the way to the river we had seen people lighting paper lanterns and watched them float up into the night sky and hoped that ours was still without tears after hauling everyone down and back up from the river. But there was no way that we could launch ours the way we wanted to do as a family by staying in the crowd. Leave it to my incredibly thoughtful husband to suggest that we cycle away to a quiet secluded spot to do it right. And that we did! With the full-moon in view and only a few on-lookers from nearby houses and passing cars, we lit our lanterns and sent it off into the night sky.
The kids’ faces beamed and glowed as the lantern set sail into the sky, and so did mine. I couldn’t have wished for a more special moment for us to experience this local tradition, until…
On the way back to the hotel, we decided to buy another lantern and walk up to Wat Mahathat where we had visited the day before to light it. Thinking that it would be a good spot on top of a hill to send off our lantern, we wandered up there expecting to be alone, but as we entered several novice monks followed along with us. They took out their digital cameras and began taking pictures of the kids. Then as we fumbled with our matches to light the coil, one monk handed me a candle which I tried to hand back forgetting that monks cannot take anything from a women by hand, so I set it on the ground not wanting to snuff it out for some reason. And what we got was this moment: our family, at a secluded temple, lighting a lantern with monks, and together watching with awe as it floated away joining all the other glowing lanterns in the darkened sky. It was magical and memorable and so so special!