The Loy Krathong Lantern Festival – and Self Forgiveness

The Loy Krathong Lantern Festival – and Self Forgiveness

Loy Krathong

I had originally intended to join the hordes of tourists for the mass lantern release, but as I left my guesthouse and I wandered through the back lanes of the old town in Chiang Mai I felt the peace of the night wrap around me. In the darkness, in a district abandoned by the tourists for the evening the Thai people were setting out lamps and candles around their homes. In the distance down by the river firecrackers popped and fizzed while here little night lights encircled gates, steps and doorways; the pinpricks of warm amber light flickering silently. P1020776 Nobody shouted; the locals moved with a calm purpose and I walked in the opposite direction to the celebrations down by the river and into the temple grounds.  Initially believing the gardens to be empty I came across some monks gliding among the statues and the chedis, setting up hundreds of candles along the ledges of the dusty ancient brick structures and next to the sparkling gold of the Buddhas. A man beckoned me towards the temple door and as I drew closer I heard the soft hypnotic chanting of twenty monks who were sat in a line down either side of the hallway. P1020718 Behind me there was the swishing of wheels and a very sick man in a wheel chair was propelled towards the bottom of the temple steps by his family. Attached to the front of his chair was a tray containing unlit candles which his family started to take from him and towards the temple.  The old man, stick thin with sickness got agitated and I understood that he needed to be closer to the temple so I offered to help move him and his chair. Together we managed to get him to a position where he was happy. He could see the chanting monks and then with shaking hands he lit the candles on his tray. With watering eyes he quietly mumbled to himself, lost in his thoughts while we moved back respectfully out of his way.  As I looked upwards towards the milky white full moon tens, then hundreds and then thousands of lanterns floated across the city.

Loy Krathong lantern festival

Living the Dream

I am often told that I am ‘living the dream’, and it’s quite true; I AM living the dream.  I chose this lifestyle and I made it happen.  I always wanted to explore different cultures and find out what makes societies different and I’m now combining this with my other passion and I’m forging a career out of writing. I have the time to wander around in the dark in Chiang Mai and to experience the Loy Krathong festival and to immerse myself in the culture.

Why am I telling you this now? I am telling you this now because as well as living the dream I have been carrying an awful lot of guilt around with me for the past 6 years. I feel guilty that my actions have made other people unhappy.  I sit on the top of mountains in complete awe of a spectacular sunset or I feel tiny and insignificant while watching a meteor shower and I hug myself and feel joyful…. and then the guilt sneaks in the back door. It whispers to me ‘how dare you be happy!  Why should you feel pleasure?’ and then the guilt leaps over my shoulder and stabs me in the heart. But I don’t even feel worthy of the guilt because I know that there are so many people who are a million times worse off than me.  I have been privileged to have been entrusted with stories from other people that would make the hair on your toes curl so what right do I have to feel sorrowful? Gradually there has been a subtle shift in my feelings and it has been led, initially, by the younger people. Men and women from all nationalities but of a similar age to my own two children or younger offer me a road to peace.  They remind me that I did what I had to do and I did it the only way that was open to me at the time, and they tell me their stories. They tell me that I can’t take responsibility for the thoughts and beliefs of others, least of all my children.  They tell me that I must shrug off the guilt and get on with my own life. In some way, coming from the younger generation, this gives me permission to move on. In northern Thailand I finally stopped running and I began to put down the roots of some sort of a commitment. I had been working damn hard to establish a project which will empower people and which will build self confidence.  On the night of the full moon I movingly experienced the lantern festivals of Loy Krathong and Yee Ping.  I lit my candles and I floated my krathong on the River Ping and I joined with two friends to light and launch a sky lantern, each time sending my hopes and wishes off into the darkness. A week after Loy Krathong and unable to sleep in the sticky dark of the small room in my guest house I took my laptop out onto the deck at the front of the hostel to work.  I was joined by Robert an American guy who now lives in Thailand and we quietly chatted about politics and religion and then we moved onto Buddhism and meditation. Guided by Robert I practised meditating – concentrating on my breathing and emptying my mind. With gentle prompts from him I focused on the here and now, accepting the past which I was unable to change or influence and ignoring the future which was yet to come and therefore was unknown.  With a snap my mind refocused and I knew that it was now time for me to try to forgive myself and to let go of the guilt from my past.
Loy Krathong lantern festival

Self forgiveness

The following day after speaking with Robert I hired a scooter and I drove with a friend on pillion up the mountain to Doi Suthep.  My friend had already visited the temple a few days previously so I parked the scooter and I went on alone.  As I climbed up between the mosaic serpents which undulate down each side of the long stone staircase I felt a strange sense of purpose which continued after I had paid my entrance fee, removed my shoes and sat on the floor by a pillar over to one side of the main temple hall. A monk was sat on the other side of the hall and as groups of believers entered he murmured blessings over them, glancing occasionally in my direction.  As another group entered and knelt before him, bowing low with lotus flowers and incense sticks between their palms he gestured to me to join them.  I hesitatingly moved closer, then closer still as he obviously wasn’t going to start until I was included. He began to intone his blessing and with small flicks of his wrist he sent little sprinkles of water over the group from the little swatch of twigs that he was holding, but to the surprise of everybody present he then proceeded to douse me with a series of super strong splashes. 20151204_113252 Along with the others, I bowed and backed out of the hall, not entirely sure why I had been singled out for his special attention. Walking among the rest of the temple complex I hardly noticed the hundreds of other visitors, many of whom were busy clicking off pictures but many other people were walking slowly around the site in some ceremonial way. And then at another smaller temple there was a different monk again sat to the side of the hall. As I peered in through the doorway the monk looked at me.  I laid my rucksack down, kicked off my shoes, approached him at a crouch, and then kneeled before him.  As he blessed me I knew that I was being given permission to forgive myself.  He smiled kindly as he handed me a white cord for my wrist. And then I got on with the day visiting the Royal Summer Palace and a couple of waterfalls.  When I arrived back at my guesthouse I found Robert there and I asked him to tie the white cord around my wrist, closing the circle.

Loy Krathong

Freedom

A week later I was in Laos.  I had trekked to the top of a waterfall with some friends.  We edged out along some bamboo logs which had been placed at the top, holding on to the rustic wooden handrails.  Standing bang in the centre, we could see for miles, across the jungle clad mountains and over and down where the water crashed and tumbled while the misty damp spray rose and swirled around us. I was standing on the very edge of a waterfall in the jungle of northern Laos and as the tears flowed unstoppable down my face and my friends wondered, I raised both arms high.  I had finally forgiven myself.  I was feeling joy, unfettered from guilt.  I am in the jungle of Laos and I am living the dream. Postscript: Forgiving myself does not mean forgetting.  Christopher and Sian: – I will never stop loving you nor give up hope

Loy Krathong
5.  Lisbon and my first Music Festival

5. Lisbon and my first Music Festival

We were very lucky to find accommodation in an AirBnB with Guida in her apartment in Lisbon.  She lived just ten minutes walk from the Optimus Alive Music Festival venue but she provided us with much more than just beds for the night.  

Before we got down to the business in hand and went to the festival we spent a day and a half exploring Lisbon thanks to Guida’s help and guidance.

Guida provided us with food for breakfast every day, she helped us to book our onward tickets to Lagos (because the website was in Portuguese), she took us on a quick guided tour of her neighbourhood and she got us cheap bus passes.  She also printed out our tickets at her local library and even drove us to the bus station at 7.45am on her day off. 

There was just one funny incident which was when she first showed us around and she asked us to make sure that we kept the bathroom door closed as her cat would get in.  Guida was very vague about what the cat might do and I just assumed the cat would probably drink from the toilet – but we found out the next morning because I had accidentally left the door ajar in the middle of the night.  I was first one up and in the bathroom and it turned out that the cat preferred to use the bidet rather than her litter tray.  There, curled up in the bowl of the bidet was one very smelly, very large poo! Oops!!

Exploring Lisbon

On that first afternoon in Lisbon after a siesta we got a tram back into town and we walked up the steep hill to the Castelo de Sant Jorge.  The views across the city from the ramparts were amazing although we arrived at the Tower of Ulysses just five minutes after they had closed off visitor access to the periscope.  The camara obscura is an optical system of lenses and mirrors which had been invented by Leonardo da Vinci and I had actually seen one in action in Havana, Cuba. The castle is quite big with complete walls and seven towers to climb, and then as we wandered down the hill from the castle, we found a cute little rooftop bar with a sun terrace that overlooked the terracotta roof tiles of the city below. 

We then wandered around tiny narrow streets in the Amalfa district on the hillside which consisted of steep steps and cobbles.  Coloured garlands criss-crossed the washing lines that were strung between the balconies, children played in the gutters, and most of the houses were faced with painted ceramic tiles.

These tiles are common all over Lisbon and they lift common looking buildings into works of art.  We then stumbled upon a ‘World Fair’ in a large square where we sat and drank caipirnhas from the Brazilian stall and listened to Latin American music whilst watching the Lisboans promenade past us in the park. That evening we ate in a tiny restaurant where I had the most delicate grilled sea bream that you could wish for and we also struck gold with our tram ride home when for the late night journey, the sleek modern tram had been replaced by one of the original bone-rattling wooden trams.

On Saturday morning we walked to the Belem area and visited the Torre de Belem (Tower of Belem), we wandered along the waterfront to the Padreo dos Descobrimentos (Monument to the Discoveries), we chatted with a Marine who was guarding the war memorial (more about him later), we poked our noses inside the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos (Jeronimos Monastery) and find of finds, had coffee and the most exquisite pasteis at the famous Cafe de Pasteis.

Guida had recommended that we shouldn’t miss this little treasure and we were so glad that we found it.  Reminiscent of a tearoom in times gone by there were little ante rooms off from the main hall and we were served by waiters who glided silently around the rooms with their pretty tiled walls.  As well as the opulent surroundings those pasteis were quite a little bit delicious and actually, as it turned out, quite famous.

The Optimus Live Music Festival

After a couple of very pleasant days sightseeing it was time to go to the festival.

I had never been to a music festival before, after having a bad experience involving a near riot with Dexys Midnight Runners (who remembers them?) when I was aged sixteen when they performed at the Top Rank night club in Cardiff.  Since then I have always been wary around crowds and I had actively avoided concerts or gigs for most of my life.  I wasn’t involved in the fracas in Cardiff but I had been just an innocent teenager who was caught up in the middle of a large mob who were out to cause trouble.  Once some guys in the crowd turned violent and began throwing beer bottles at the band on stage, the police were called and it turned very quickly into something like the Wild West.  I just wanted to escape from the cave like venue but I was trapped with all hell breaking out around me.  The band left the stage and then when the police arrived the gangs turned on each other and a huge fist fight broke out.

Anyhow, I digress.  This trip was all about finding myself and becoming confident so I decided to bite the bullet and go to a music festival – and after all, this destination was the winning ticket in my lottery to decide where to begin my travels so it was like fate was guiding me; which was how I ended up in Lisbon with tickets to the Optimus Alive Festival.

Queuing in the sun was relaxed with people from across Europe waiting in line.  It was good fun trying to work out the language and the nationality of people but it was even more fun eavesdropping on people trying to chat each other up, with English as their second but common language.

Festival Highlights

 I had never heard of the band Of Monsters and Men and because they didn’t have one of the headline slots and were performing in the ‘unknown’ tentI thought that it would be safe to get a place quite near the stage; however by the end of their set the tent was packed and people were standing outside right back to the food stalls.  I think that their popularity took many people by surprise but the word soon went around that this wasn’t a band to be missed, and they continue to be a band that I listen to today.

Greenday were the headliners on the first day and as they had been one of my son’s favourite bands I knew most of their music.  They gave a terrific live performance, as did The Kings of Leon – although with both bands I was careful to stay back, well away from the crazy mosh pit.

The Stereophonics also played as well as Biffy Clyro, Depeche Mode and the Brass Wires Orchestra and many others.

There wasn’t a huge choice of food but there were food trucks where we discovered a great Portuguese dish called ‘tachadinha porco’ which was spicy pork pieces served with onions, sauce and rather bizarrely tiny sticks of crisps in a bun.  We also ate a lot of ‘farturas’ which are best described as giant churros which were served piping hot, rolled in cinnamon and sugar.  For just one euro and eaten hot they provided the perfect energy rush.

To top everything off a LARGE tumbler of very decent red wine could be bought for just two euros.  Maybe it’s not cool to drink wine at festivals but hey, when in Europe…!  By the end of the festival I had hardly any anxiety – due in part to the relaxed atmosphere and the fact that so many people weren’t focusing on drinking but only wanted a good time in the sun with good music and their friends.

I didn’t see any trouble or anti-social behaviour as I would have expected but the majority of Spanish and Portuguese have a very different approach to alcohol compared to large number of Brits on an evening out.

I felt very pleased and proud of myself that I had faced my fears and I had been in large crowds for two days running but now it was time to say goodbye to Guida (although our paths would cross again) and time to take that bus south towards the Algarve where we were booked to do some volunteer work on an eco-farm and hostel.

A Portuguese Marine’s perspective on life.

Before the next article inwhich will tell you about our time in the Algarve I would like to tell you about our encounter with the Marine that I mentioned above.

It’s probably not a story that most people would bother including when they recount their holiday memories however I find people’s stories and opinions as interesting, if not more so that ticking off the top ten of places to visit. 

In this instance, when we stopped to chat with Juan who was a guard at the war memorial we got a real insight into what a soldier thought of politics and customs.

It can do us all good to listen to another person’s view on one’s own country.  All too often we can be quick to dismiss our heritage and we may grumble about our politicians and our way of life, or we might look the other way and assume that what we grew up with is superior to someone else’s experience in another part of the world.  Sometimes it takes a foreigner to highlight what they believe to be bad in their country and to point out how your own might be so much better – but at the end of the day we don’t need to agree or to argue, but to keep an open mind and ask questions.  

We had been walking along the seafront from Alges to Belem when we passed a large war memorial and we happened upon the changing of the guard.  We stood to watch the ceremony and after the retiring guards had moved away, the sailor (I assumed) who was now ensconced in his guard box, beckoned me over and indicated that I should have my photo taken with him.  I teased him that he would get into trouble as in the UK the guards were supposed to stand very still and be serious but keen to break the monotony of his day he proceeded to chat with us for the next twenty minutes.

His name was Juan and he was a Marine.  The Marines are a relatively young branch of the Portuguese services and were set up when a small group of their armed forces came to the UK to train and to learn how our Marines functioned.  Juan had served in Somalia and Afghanistan and he was now serving a period of time on ceremonial guard duty in front of the war memorial.  Whilst he believed that it was correct to have a guard present he also felt that it was an activity beneath the esteemed Marines.  The large marble walls listed many fallen Portuguese with the majority of the deaths taking place during the 1960’s in the Portuguese colonies in Africa.  There were thousands of lives lost in Mozambique and Portuguese Guinea during that decade.

Juan was trying to come to a decision.  He had just about served his initial eight years in the Marines and was being pressured into signing up for a further term.  He praised the British system and society for its forward thinking and appreciation of the role of its service personnel.

Like Britain, Portugal does not have compulsory national service, but unlike Britain it doesn’t allow its military personnel to sign up in chunks of time which may or may not be extended or opted out of (or at least it wasn’t an option when we met Juan.)   Having served eight years he could now either leave or sign up and remain in the service until he was sixty five.  He had enormous respect and pride for his country but he couldn’t begin to imagine how his politicians could consider an elite member of the forces would be able to continue until that age.  He wanted to remain in the services, but not until he was that old, and he was therefore looking to terminate his career and return to university.

He was also full of praise for the British people and their support and pride in their troops.  Juan explained that in Portugal the population generally considered people who went into the armed forces or the police to be civil servants and they refused to acknowledge their part in wars on the world stage such as in Afghanistan.  He was so pleased to be able to thank me and BF for our pride in our armed forces (we are British therefore it was a given) and by proxy, our acknowledgment of his work.

Juan continued to highlight the differences between the decisions that the leaders of the two different countries had made when deciding to enter the European Union and choosing whether to adopt the Euro.  He believed that both past and present British governments were fiercely protective of their rights, the currency and were strong and correct to stand up to the German Chancellor, whereas the Portuguese governments had given away too many rights and privileges in the past and now the population were paying for it.  He was scathing about the German prime minister and her attitude towards the poorer nations in the EU and he could understand why so many young people wanted to leave his country and work abroad.

Politics aside, I am extremely proud of our armed forces in the UK and this was reinforced listening to Juan.  We may have many things wrong in the UK but things are not always as rosy as they appear elsewhere and this was highlighted to me that day on the seafront in Lisbon.

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