Our Kazakh host Ramille called them Gipsy Taxis: random and unauthorised people, stopping at inappropriate spots on the road, offering lifts to complete strangers hitchacking their way back home from work. On our way to the airport from Almaty city centre, that peculiar and iconic sight would be the last of Central Asia for a good while.
As the airport doors closed behind us, a hint of sadness made us realise what we were leaving: a fascinating and wild land, made of communities and strangers looking after each other, the hospitality of people who all they had to offer was kindness and their last piece of bread. The austerity and grayness of Soviet buildings not quite matching the warm souls of the people inhabiting them. We went through the airport security check, with our bikes packed the best way we could, hoping that we wouldn’t be charged for the extra weight of all the new life lessons we were carrying within.
Albeit fairly uncomfortable, the overnight flight went smoothly and by 9am we were in Bangkok. We woke up whilst walking the halls and vast corridors of an airport the size of a dozen of Tajik villages put together. Our eyes growing bigger and bigger at the sight of so many kinds of..everything! I am sure it would have been quite an amusing scene had anybody noticed us walking around as if we had just landed from Mars (or landed ON Mars, depending from the point of view).
The waiting for the connecting flight to Chiang Mai passed quickly, as you would expect it to happen when you have so much to see and do. In a matter of 4 hours we were already settling down in our little apartment , which would be our new “home” for the following three weeks – a bit of a luxury when you are on a cycle touring journey across half of the world. A quick shower and change of clothes, and we were ready to indulge in the vast variety of Thai food sold at the night market. And what a glorious moment that was, finally experiencing all sorts of spices and flavors exploding in the mouth. The taste buds having a damn right feast.
This was the time of the year when Thais celebrate the Loi Krathong and Yee Peng Festival, otherwise known as the Thai Lantern Festival. A beautiful celebration and an extremely scenic ritual to let go of all the sorrow, the misfortune, the sins and, more than anything else, to make wishes for new year. The city was bustling with people from all over the world and it certainly was no coincidence for us to be there, either.
I remember one of the many Sundays of my early teenage years spent at home watching the travel channel in the living room with my parents – the day I came to find out about the Festival. Images of hundreds of people launching lit lanterns in the night sky, and gently pushing floating decorated baskets into the black river completely blew me away. Before I knew it, my travel bucket list had suddenly taken shape and a little wish was quick to inhabit it.
That dream of mine has been comfortably sitting on my travel bucket list since then. And, as it happens, the older you grow, the more those young dreams are put away to make space for something else. But this time, for a series of unfortunate coincidences (like not obtaining our Chinese Visa), which I now consider to be very fortuitous indeed, we happened to be able to fly to Chiang Mai: the right location, at the perfect time of the year.
On the first day of the festival, the air was filled of anticipation and excitement. I am not entirely sure if it was universally felt; the certain thing is that I was jumping around like a 3 year old overdosing on sugar. Despite some confusion on the actual events’ programme, we made it to the Three Kings monument for the opening ceremony. Lanterns and colors were filling the lanes of the Old Town; street vendors were producing food like there was no tomorrow; hundreds of people were marching all in the same direction, armed with the biggest camera lenses I have ever seen, and putting our “cute” Canon G7X to shame. Admittedly, I started worrying if both the camera and I could actually perform the task of photographing moving lights in the dark sky – which I have sadly come to discover to be an arduous task even for the seasoned photographer. Considering my “skills” and “knowledge” in the matter, however, I should have probably worried about it a good few years earlier.
On the second day of the celebrations, trying not to let the “photographic” frustration upset us, we made our way to a charming Buddhist ceremony at Wat Phan Tao, a temple whose setting and decorations are extremely scenic. Upon arriving we discovered a big crowd, but we managed to place ourselves in a sweet spot. The ceremony itself wasn’t particularly elaborate, but the little sandy corner underneath leafy trees upon which young monks were sitting, candles and flambeing lights, the lanterns hanging from the trees’ branches, and the vivid saffron orange of the monks’ robes reflecting in the pond made of its magic and dreamy sight.
After a very long Buddhist chant, and the liting of the first khom loi – floating lanterns – we made our way to Nawarat Bridge, THE place to be for releasing both Krathongs – decorated baskets made of banana trunks and leaves- and khom lois.
I loved every single moment of it: lighting the lantern, patiently waiting for the warm air produced by the flame to fill the balloon, feeling the air and the pressure making sure it was ready to be carried away by the wind, letting it go, and, finally, look at it going up and up into the dark sky. It really felt like a cleansing ritual, but one full of happiness, hope, and beauty.
The process itself was quite technical and not all the lanterns being lit ended up in the sky. Some of them would miserably fall into the river, some others would get stuck into the trees or into the festive lights strings hanging above the bridge. And some others yet would timidly lift up, hit a pole, almost falling down towards the water and, then, at the very last minute, gain the pressure needed to fly. It was quite amusing to see the crowds cheering up for every single lantern who made it to the sky. It was heartwarming seeing strangers helping each other to make sure that even the less technical capable would have their dreams and their sorrows blown away. And, most of all, it was emotional to see people holding onto their lanterns. Their faces lit by the warm flame, looking at the white rice papers with buoyancy, contemplation, and with such intensity and intimacy, that you started to believe they were secretly talking to them. And, perhaps, they really were.
I find it difficult to express exactly what that moment was for me. We all have done regrettable things in life, and it felt good to have a metaphorical way to finally let them go and express a little wish for the future. However, as much as I appreciate the whole tradition and meaning behind it, I couldn’t help but let the little crumbs of childhood left inside me come out, and genuinely hope that one of those lanterns would reach my beloved grandma, somewhere up there in the sky. Realistically foolish, I know.. But then I wonder, what would I be if I didn’t have a head full of dreams?