Lights in the Sky

A gentle reminder of Thailand in the skies of northern Germany.
lights in the sky

Northern Germany is not famous for its good weather. This does not stop Hamburgers from celebrating summer by, say, spending an afternoon at the ice cream café in the rain. Still, when the clouds go away for a few days and the temperatures rise, the city is transformed. The communal outdoor spaces flood with people—the canals and the Alster Lake fill with sailboats, kayaks, and sculls; children chase soccer balls around the grassy courtyards and alleys that divide the apartment buildings; and couples spend Sunday afternoons reading in the park. Restaurants, bars, and cafés spill out onto the street, where people linger over beer or coffee until late in the evening, chatting and laughing. And every apartment terrace and balcony is occupied, four or five floors of them at once, as if a flock of birds had settled on perches to enjoy the air.

We were on our own terrace one night, having a late supper and a glass of wine, when we saw something odd overhead: an unusually large shape colored a dull, flickering red. There was one, then there were a few, and then a dozen, chasing each other across the sky. Too big and irregular to be planes, too bright to be lost balloons, we watched them in the gloaming as they floated overhead and passed out of sight. Then one went dark and started to get larger and it slowly came to earth. “Look,” Tara said quietly, not wanting to disturb the moment. “They’re khong fai. What are they doing here?”

Khong fai are floating lanterns, paper balloons a foot or three tall, carried aloft and lit from below by burning wax. Thousands are released into the sky over northern Thailand every evening during the November Loy Krathong festival. (The rest of the country floats elaborate boats down the rivers.) Tara and I had stumbled on this astonishing sight a few years ago, as we made our way homeward at the end of our honeymoon in Laos, and we had bought one from the monks to send into the sky together. The lanterns, goes the tradition, carry your worries and fears up the heavens, and I remember the elation I felt as ours tugged out of our hands and started on its way.

Sitting out in the cool German evening, I was momentarily transported back to the hot, muggy night, and the noise and smells of the Thai evening. And then Tara reached for my hand across the table, and I knew she could feel it too. We’d heard a second explanation for the lanterns: that the Khong fai carry your wishes to the gods in heaven. I looked at my wife in the evening light, then past her, to where our daughter slept, her face mashed into her favorite stuffed lion, and realized that every wish I’d made has come true.

This is why we travel: to open our eyes and make the world new again.

Next day I tried to find out where the Khong fai had come from. There’s a Thai Wat a couple of kilometers away, and my colleague Johannes suggested that “perhaps some private persons have released them as part of a wedding or some other celebration.” But in the end I decided it didn’t matter–I’ll just watch the skies and hope for another perfect evening.

Subscribe to Gourmet