What the River Knows: Ping River

In this series, “What the River Knows,”  by Basia Irland, the artist and water activist writes from the perspective of each river, using the first person. Installments are published in Water Currents every other week on Mondays. The first post is about the Ping River in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Other posts include the Chao Phraya River, Bangkok; Kamo-gawa River, Kyoto; Siem Reap River, Cambodia; Yaqui River, Mexico, where the eight Yaqui tribal villages do not have water due to agricultural corporations; the superfund site on the Eagle River in Colorado, polluted with heavy metal runoff from a mine; and the Virgin River as it flows through Zion National Park.

Please feel free to add your comments at the end of each post.

Maenam Ping, Chiang Mai, Thailand–On the night of the twelfth lunar month during the full moon at the end of the rainy season, communities gather along my banks to pay homage to me, and my water spirits. They thank the Goddess of Water, Phra Mae Khongkha (พระแม่คงคา), which is the Thai form of Ganga, the Hindu goddess of the holy Ganges River, India. It is also a way to beg forgiveness for polluting and abusing me during the past year.

 

Banana-leaf krathong. Photograph by Basia Irland and Derek Irland.
Banana-leaf krathong. Photograph by Basia Irland and Derek Irland.

 

This festival of lights is called Loy Krathong (ลอยกระทง). The name is translated as “to float a basket”, and refers to the tradition of making krathong or buoyant, banana-stem sculptures that are decorated with folded banana leaves and contain flowers, incense, candles, and coins (an offering to the river spirits). These sculptures are floated on my moist skin in the evening forming a candle-lit parade dancing downstream. Lights hanging from trees and buildings, and a multitude of hot-air lanterns rising up into the night sky reflect on my body, creating a myriad of new constellations.

 

Full moon with ascending lanterns. Photograph by Basia Irland and Derek Irland.
Full moon with ascending lanterns. Photograph by Basia Irland and Derek Irland

 

Sounds: Splashing of young boys diving into the water to find coins within the kratongs, and the loud cracking from fireworks. Sights: Thousands of flickering lights, in the air and on my surface. Smells: Rich aromas of spicy Thai food. Touch: Hands feeling my wetness releasing their offerings onto me.

 

Boy looking for coins in a krathong. Photograph by Basia Irland and Derek Irland.
Boy looking for coins in a krathong. Photograph by Basia Irland and Derek Irland.

 

Banana stalks and bread kratongs are biodegradable or eaten by fish, but modern ones are sometimes made of Styrofoam, which pollute my body and may take up to a million years to decompose! There is already enough trash clogging my waterway.

 

Riverside trash. Photograph by Basia Irland and Derek Irland.
Riverside trash. Photograph by Basia Irland and Derek Irland.

 

The 6,000-year history behind the festival is complex, and Thais celebrate for many reasons. The main rice harvest season has ended and it’s time to thank me for a year’s worth of abundance, as well as an apology for not taking care of me and other waterways during the past year. It is a time of celebration, fun, reflection, and great spirituality.

Loy Krathong incorporates beliefs from different religions, including elements from ancient Brahman doctrines and more modern Buddhist ideas. Numerous Buddhist temples along my shores fill with bright orange-robed monks who chant to me as I flow by.

The krathong’s meandering downstream symbolizes letting go of negativity and a time of optimism for the year to come. Participants ask water spirits to sail away their troubles in their krathongs, Another offering tradition sets eels, snails, frogs, and turtles free to live within my body.

 

Eels offered to the river. Photograph by Basia Irland and Derek Irland.
Eels offered to the river. Photograph by Basia Irland and Derek Irland

 

Frog “reintroduced” back into the river by celebrants. Photograph by Basia Irland and Derek Irland.
Frog “reintroduced” back into the river by celebrants. Photograph by Basia Irland and Derek Irland.

 

I am grateful for this brief time of the Loy Krathong ceremony, which only happens for a few days once a year. After I leave the rural area outside Chiang Mai, I am on my way to the Bhumibol Dam, and flow downstream to join the Chao Phraya River, whom the reader will meet in busy, bustling, metropolitan Bangkok.

 

Fishing net downstream from Chiang Mai. Photograph by Basia Irland and Derek Irland.
Fishing net downstream from Chiang Mai. Photograph by Basia Irland and Derek Irland.

 

Basia Irland is a sculptor, poet, and installation artist who has focused her creativity on rivers for 30 years. Her aim is to connect people to their local waters and watersheds in ways that will motivate concern, caring, appreciation, and stewardship. You may read more about her and her work on her website.

Changing Planet

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Fulbright Scholar, Basia Irland is an author, poet, sculptor, installation artist, and activist who creates global water projects. She is Professor Emerita, Department of Art and Art History, University of New Mexico, where she established the Arts and Ecology Program. Irland works with scholars from diverse disciplines building rainwater harvesting systems; connecting communities and fostering dialogue along the entire length of rivers; filming and producing water documentaries; and creating waterborne disease projects around the world. She lectures and exhibits internationally and is regularly commissioned to do artistic river restoration projects. Check out her work at basiairland.com