As the government sets its sights on promoting Thailand as a festival hub, parties concerned are banking on the Loy Krathong Festival to draw out visitors to join in the fun and boost tourism revenue.
With the festival taking place on Monday, revellers will throng riverbanks across the country to seek forgiveness from the goddess of the river and float their misfortunes away by releasing krathong adorned with flowers and candles into waterways.
In the capital, festival-goers will crowd the area underneath Rama VIII Bridge on the Thon Buri side, Klong Ong-Ang, Klong Phadung Krung Kasem as well as 34 public parks. Others are expected to join fun-filled activities in provinces such as Chiang Mai, Tak, Sukhothai, Samut Songkhram and Roi Et where annual celebrations always draw large crowds.
However, the festival has come under fire in recent years because it generates tonnes of waste that may take days to clean up. Although the number of krathong made from styrofoam has fallen, many floats made from natural materials still end up clogging up and polluting the rivers.
The Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) has kept a record of the number of krathong collected after the festival.
Last year a total of 572,602 krathong, an increase from 403,203 in 2021, was scooped up; some 95.7% were made from natural materials and the rest styrofoam.
Given the massive amount of garbage the festival produces, some environment advocates have urged the public to stop celebrating the festival unless there is a better way to find a balance between the tradition and environmental responsibility.
A sustainable celebration
Responding to calls to reduce waste and environment impact, the BMA will organise a "virtual loy krathong" activity at Klong Ong-Ang, one of the city's festival hotspots, where participants will join the festival without using actual krathong.
BMA spokesman Aekvarunyoo Amrapala said this virtual event, the first of its kind, will have festival-goers release digital krathong projected onto the canal through a large projector.
"Participants will see digital krathong in the canal and release them onto the water virtually. They don't have to bring physical krathong to join the activity, only their smartphones," he said.
Aekvarunyoo: 'Tech can save festival'
Mr Aekvarunyoo said the virtual activity is part of Bangkok governor Chadchart Sittipunt's initiative to promote sustainable practices. Elsewhere, he will encourage people to release krathong in a closed system such as a pond where krathong can be collected for proper disposal.
He said many people believe the tradition allows them to release their misfortunes, so the BMA prefers persuasion to imposing restrictions.
"In line with this thinking, the BMA has decided to provide an alternative for those who want to join the festival and minimise impact," he said.
The BMA plans to expand the virtual activity to other areas in the future and encourage people to celebrate the festival in other ways, he said.
Staff from the BMA's environment office are responsible for collecting krathong from the Chao Phraya River while workers from the 50 district offices and the BMA's drainage office will also scoop up garbage in canals and waterways.
Their work starts at midnight and all floats should be collected by 5am. The waste is taken to garbage centres in Onnut, Sai Mai and Nong Khaem for disposal.
The number of krathong before the Covid-19 pandemic stood at around 600,000–900,000 and fewer than 5% were made from styrofoam, said the spokesman.
The number declined significantly during the pandemic but it was hard to say if it was due to environmental concerns or Covid.
"Last year when the pandemic was easing we collected 572,602 krathong and 24,516 were made from styrofoam. But in fact even those made from natural materials used glue and staples that could be harmful to marine animals," he said.
Economy vs environment
According to Thanavath Phonvichai, president of the University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce (UTCC), consumer spending during the festival was forecast to be the highest in eight years.
The UTCC's survey, conducted during Nov 14–20 among 1,240 respondents, suggested this year's spending would reach 9.68 billion baht, close to the benchmark of 10 billion baht for the first time since 2016.
Of the respondents, 67.3% would go out on Loy Krathong day with 39.45 saying they would take part in various activities, 2.3% saying they would release floats and 25.6% saying they would do other activities instead. The rest were undecided or intended not to go out.
Thanavath: 'Big spend on the cards'
According to Mr Thanavath, average spending per person was estimated at 2,075 baht during the festival, up from 1,920 baht per person last year, with spending mainly on parties, travel and merit-making.
The estimate was close to the pre-pandemic level in 2019 which recorded spending of 9.57 billion baht during the festival.
Sumana Kajonwattanakul, director of the Marine and Coastal Resources Research Centre, said the centuries-old tradition could be kept even while minimising impacts on the environment.
Based on the Marine and Coastal Resources Department's figures, 101,703 pieces of debris weighing 1,895.2 kg were collected in November last year, indicating that some of the festival waste flowed out to the sea.
She called on vendors and festival-goers to use eco-friendly materials such as banana leaves and avoid materials such as staples, nails or glitter and if possible participants should use one kratong per family to reduce waste.
Ms Sumana also urged people not to release krathong into the sea because the waste can end up being eaten by marine animals, particularly endangered creatures.
Sumana: 'A balance must be struck'
Assoc Prof Thorn Thamrongnawasawat, a marine expert at the fisheries faculty at Kasetsart University, said people can always celebrate the festival without causing harm to the environment as long as they are aware of the damage krathong may cause.
The fisheries faculty reported that microplastics from polystyrene foam had been found over a distance of 200km in the Gulf of Thailand this year. A turtle also was found dead last year with small nails in its digestive system.
He said the participants must avoid releasing krathong into the sea and use materials that are environment-friendly or biodegradable.
Scrap Loy Krathong?
Waranyu Boonsith, administrator of Monsoongarbage Thailand, said the group's campaign to cancel the festival does not mean that it wants the celebration to be scrapped.
Monsoongarbage Thailand, which has been campaigning for better management of the festival garbage for about four years, wants to raise public awareness about how much waste the festival generates. Even krathong made from bread can pollute the water, he said.
He said it is time for the country to encourage people to release krathong in a closed system, he said, adding the increase in styrofoam krathong last year was worrying.
In 2021, out of 403,235 krathong collected, 3.54% were made from styrofoam while in 2022, out of 572,602 krathong, 4.3% were made from styrofoam, according to the BMA's figures.
Sonthi Kotchawat, an environment academic of the Thai Environmental Academic Club, said he objected to abolishing the festival as the tradition is passed down from generation to generation. The problem was caused by unfriendly environmental materials, and should be tackled at its roots.
He suggested people should be ware of the 3R principle, namely Reduce, Reuse and Recycle to minimise impacts on the river's ecological system. They should focus on natural materials instead of foam and plastic that can take a hundred years to break down.
Sonthi: 'People must abide by 3Rs'
For example, he said that pure natural krathong are suitable for still water with a clear boundary like big ponds.
But such a place is not recommended for krathong made from bread because too much organic substance formed by the rotten bread could pollute the water. The organic matter usually absorbs oxygen in the water, which leads to the pollution.
He said bread krathong are, however, suitable for a river because the currents can break down the bread and freshwater animals eat them.
But the river is not suitable for krathong made of other natural substances because it can sink to the bottom of river, taking at least 14 days to decay.
"The best option is that people should look for ice krathong or online krathong. I think we are now coming closer to where we select the best materials for environment. It is a significant turning point for preserving our culture and environment in a sustainable way," he said.
The falling number of foam krathong in Bangkok, with non-foam krathong reaching 90% last year, suggest this message is catching on.
Meanwhile, Hannarong Yaowalers, chairman of the Thai-Water Partnership, said the BMA and the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources decide where people can float their krathong.
The BMA could ban the use of unfriendly materials and guide merchants as to how to make suitable krathong.
"We have the successful precedent of the ban on selling firecrackers during the festival. Why don't we use the same model for krathong? Banning the festival is not the right way to go," argued Mr Hannarong.
Pilai, 40, a vendor at Pak Klong Talad near Chao Phraya River, said the festival will still draw people out to celebrate this year despite the campaign encouraging virtual participation.
Veerapat Cherdwutthakat, 21, a student, said people are likely to enjoy the physical activity of floating a krathong more than engaging virtually.
He pointed to the intricate craftsmanship of krathong each year that showcases creativity. However, he agreed that environment awareness should be heightened to minimise any adverse impacts.