Changing Planet

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.

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
  • Alicia Ephraim

    enjoyed thoroughly…this wonderful art and ecology piece.

    enjoyed the photography by basia and derek.

    thank you and please continue these posts.

  • ap

    Unusual take on a river that gives us a wonderful sense of the rivers place and role. It brings out the vitality of a rivers being to it’s environment.

  • Lynne Gallimore

    Basia, you have such a gift for presenting your perpsective in a clearly written and thought provoking manner … looking at the world through the senses of the river is extremely powerful. So looking forward to your next post !!!!!

  • Jay Gallimore

    Such a wonderful visit with words that draw vivid images in the mind of the living river and its vitality and necessary integration with the human existence, garnering the respect of the people while simultaneously and ironically being neglected and abused by them. Thank you, Basia

  • Carri LeRoy

    What a pleasure to read about the Ping River through Basia and Derek Irland’s creative sets of eyes! Very excited to read the next piece!

  • Stanly Steinberg

    Wonderful. Would like to spend some time on this river.

  • Johanna

    Lovely! A river I have walked beside, but never thought about in quite this way. Thank you, Basia.

  • Colette Hosmer

    These are beautiful, important stories. I read each one as soon as it appears. This is a project with no end in sight. I wonder if there is a “clean” river to be found anywhere in the world?

  • Larry Akers

    It would do us and our rivers some good to worship the rivers as the Thai people do. More important is to respect them year round. Thanks for your work.

  • Katy Hoeper

    This is a really cool and creative way to make people realize the effects of humankind on the rivers. I wonder what, if any, efforts are being made in Thailand to reduce the pollution/inform the communities of the harmful effects they could be having on the river so that instead of apologizing to it for abusing it so much throughout the year during the Loy Krathong ceremony, the people can simply celebrate the river and all that it allows to flourish.

  • Brandi Gerschutz

    I think it is very interesting to see a glimpse into the lifestyles and beliefs of the local communities from the river’s perspective. I appreciate the imagery created from the sounds, sights, smells, and touch; it is easy to put mentally put myself in this setting. I look at the discontinuity between apologizing to the river for pollution and abuse by floating krathongs down the river that are made of sytrofoam. This seems to negate the purpose. But overall, the article was very descriptive, and the tradition of flushing the negative and starting anew is something all of us need to do.

  • Sarah Renfrow

    I would really like to go to Thailand just to witness this amazing ceremony. I think it is great that the locals take the time to pay tribute to their water and understand its value as a resource. I like that the spirituality of the ceremony and the river itself are mentioned (i.e. the way it meanders is letting go of negativity).

  • Abbi Kuhn

    It is really interesting to see the contrast of different problems and assets that different rivers throughout the world have through this series. I enjoyed reading about the ceremony in this piece and to be able to see how the river is valued in this community, especially through the perspective of the river.

  • John Weniger

    In a time where pollution is thought to be the “norm”, it is nice to know that there are communities coming together to ask for forgiveness. I think other parts of the world could learn a lot form the actions portrayed here…

  • Jake Glaser

    Very fascinating article! I particularly enjoyed your use of the senses to give us a glimpse into what the Loy Krathong ceremony is like. Just the fact that the ceremony has been continuously celebrated for over 6,000 years is truly amazing. The communities living on the Ping River realized long ago that we are connected with our rivers much more personally that one would think. I would hope that the actions of communities like this could bring a heightened awareness of our duty to take the time to appreciate our rivers and other water sources. I look forward to reading your upcoming articles of more familiar rivers!

  • Peter Evans

    This article is very intriguing to me. I think it shows how close people can get to the rivers that their lives depend upon in one way or another. Some people use it for fishing, others for industrial processes, and believe or not, for drinking. I believe that because of this connectedness to the river, people become bound spiritually, rivers speak to a deeper part of us. Much in the same way that we may look to God as a ‘source,’ many of us also look at rivers as a ‘source.’ And just as our relationship with God, the beautiful, creative source of love, is reflected in how we live our lives, in how we relate to one another, our relationship with our community and our world can be reflected in how our rivers flow. Are they dammed up, clogged, polluted, trapped in a pattern of destruction and exploitation, or are our rivers seen as something that can bring out the best in us? Do they flow freely, exchanging with the land around in a percolating process? Do our rivers flow clear and full of fish? Are our rivers bountiful and a central common place of relation with others? I think we could ask many of the same question about our relationship to God.

  • Sue Jackson

    Basia’s sensitive poetic treatment of human attachment to rivers reveals the many ways in which we all depend upon and interact with rivers, especially the vital role of water to our cultural and religious practices and beliefs. I like the personification of each of these great rivers. The series title also challenges us to think about the limits of our knowledge and the implications of dominant economic and environmental philosophies for human relationships with water.

  • Sebastian Kessler

    The tradition seems like an excellent way to celebrate the river but it baffles me that people would use pollutants to apologize for polluting a river when the natural decomposing alternative is already there. I hope there is an installment continuing the tale of this river down through metropolitan Bangkok. It would be interesting to contrast the difference from the murky fishing waters to that of the city.

  • Caroline Glynn

    I love how this article highlights the symbolism inherent in rivers. Rivers serve as a point for people to gather around, both in cities or in rural areas such as this village in Thailand. As a natural resource that provides transportation and life to an area and its people, a day of appreciation for the river only seems necessary. When we look back through history, virtually all major cities has evolved around rivers or oceans for many reasons both practical and symbolic. We often forget how much we depend on our rivers and other bodies of water for the life they give us, and this celebration seems very fitting.

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