Thai Temple Holds 1st Loy Krathong Festival

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Inside the Wat Thai Buddhist temple, the monotonous chant of monks and worshipers is punctuated by the thud of Thai pop music playing in the courtyard and echoing off the front of an auto repair shop across the street.

Outside the temple, the smell of incense and barbecued meat hangs thick over a 50-foot pond set up for the traditional Thai boat-floating day, Loy Krathong.

Marking the event, a monk in a saffron robe pans a video camera across people buying jewelry and candy for charity, and focuses on a young boy setting a raft decorated with incense and flowers on the pond.

Behind him, a man swings his right foot above his head and smashes a round basket onto the pavement on the other side of a net, scoring a point in the hybrid of volleyball and soccer popular in Thailand and drawing cheers from the assembled crowd.

Organizers of the first-ever Loy Krathong festival at the largest Thai temple in the United States on Saturday went out of their way to make expatriate Thais forget they are on Coldwater Canyon Avenue in North Hollywood.

"This is fun," said Phra Sumanatissa Barua, a monk at Wat Thai. "It feels just like Thailand."

Holding a Loy Krathong festival, celebrated in Thailand since the 14th Century, is a significant step for Wat Thai, which serves the swelling population of nearly 9,000 Thais in the city of Los Angeles and tens of thousands more from throughout Southern California, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Although it's not expected to turn a profit for the temple, the festival "helps Thai people remember their home," Phra Sumana said.

Several hundred turned out for Saturday's event, a small-scale version of festivals held every year in Thailand on the full moon of the 12th lunar month, in honor of life-sustaining rivers and the teachings of the Buddha.

For Thai Buddhists, the river represents life, and also sustains it. The Chao Prya and Mekong rivers and their tributaries in Thailand bring water for irrigation, washing and drinking, and are often meditated upon by Buddhist monks.

"Here, we had to set up a fake river," Phra Sumana said with a laugh. "We would have used the L.A. River, but there's no water.

Crouching, 62-year-old Wilaiway Sriphanit laid a plastic foam boat laced with flowers on the pond and bowed her head in prayer.

"I am asking the river for forgiveness for all the water I use," Sriphanit said in her native tongue. "I am paying respect."

The tradition of paying homage to rivers comes from India and was an unofficial event in Siam until the 14th Century. Legend has it that a royal lady in waiting, Nang Nopamas, created a boat in the form of a lotus flower and decorated it with carved fruit, flowers and incense, and floated it on a river near the palace. The king of Siam was so awed by the beauty of her creation that he declared the day a national holiday in honor of the Buddha.

Today, Loy Krathong, which means "float a boat," includes a Miss Nopamas beauty pageant and a contest for the most beautiful boat.

On Saturday, Yupadee Klinkalong, 36, of La Puente said she spent a day and a half forming her round boat made of folded banana leaves, flowers, incense and candles.

"When I put the boat in the water, I wish for good luck," Klinkalong said in Thai. "I spend time making the boat because if I do my best, the best will return to me."

Most of the krathongs floated with a wish or a prayer, though, were the plastic foam type, sold for $2 by volunteers at the temple.

Many capsized, to the consternation of their owners.

"It doesn't really matter if they tip over," said Phra Sumana. "It's just for fun."

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