We got to attend a really fun celebration Wednesday night, called Loi Krathong. It's celebrated on the night of the full moon on the 12th lunar month. Wikipedia can tell you all the historical details. Someone at work told me that traditionally it was meant to thank the river spirits, now it's thought of as more of a good party and a way to make wishes and shake off any bad things that happened in the year before.
What you do is put a small float made of banana leaves and flowers, topped with incense and candles into the river to float away, carrying with it your wishes for the future and any bad feelings from the year before. Some people put bits of hair or fingernails in the float to further symbolize getting rid of the old. A big party surrounds this tradition, with beauty contests, parades, music and drama performances, fireworks galore and, our favorite, the release of lanterns into the air. Our boss gave us a beautifully made float to send out.
We went to town where a ton of tents had been set up by the Nan river, centered around a pavilion and monument to King Rama V. There was a big stage with music performances and later, a beauty pageant, a huge square of food and drink stalls, an open courtyard where people were setting off fireworks and releasing lanterns, and then the pavilion to look out over the river. Under the pavilion you could access the river to set out your float. If you hadn't made your own there were plenty of people selling them; they weren't all high quality, but they were all beautiful! You could also buy little bags with live fish, eels, or turtles in enclosed to let loose in the river-- where they were probably caught earlier that morning!
The lanterns in the air and candle-lit floats in the water really gave a magical feel to this beautiful festival. We spent most of the evening there, stopping on the way home at a wat and another small point along the river where people were setting out floats. As this is a Buddhist festival (although it likely has roots with the same traditions that the Hindu Diwali Festival stems from) there was a lot of activity at the wat (temple) as well. As a fundraiser you could pay 10 baht (30 cents) to fish a little capsule out of a pond. In the capsule was a number that corresponded to assorted raffle prizes. It was good fun. As the main festival was very crowded it was nice to stop at the smaller point further up the river, near home. There, people were selling floats that I would guess were made by children for a donation of your choice. The peope we met there were incredibly sweet, so we bought another float and got our knees dirty sending it out from their floating platform.
It was a great time!