Why is it that when you give someone a mask they will never fail to show you their true face? For Phi Ta Khon festival, or the ghost mask festival, the normally shy, polite and retiring villagers of Dan Sai reveal themselves to be fun-loving, dance-crazy, non-stop party people. The festival, held in Loei province, is a vibrant interweaving of religion and art.
Mask makers spend the months leading up to the big event constructing and painting their lavish costumes in exquisite detail. When finished, the complete outfits resemble colourful monsters, somehow managing to be both fearsome and fluorescent. Dancing and continuous cowbells announce to the world that the ‘ghosts’ are in town.
What does Thailand’s ghost mask festival actually mean?
According to legend, Prince Vessantara (a reincarnation of the Buddha) once took a journey into the wilderness that was so long and perilous that his followers presumed him dead. When the good news surfaced that the Prince was actually alive and well, people for miles around threw a party so loud and raucous that the spirits of the dead were literally stirred from their graves. The masked men of Phi Ta Khon dance to commemorate this legendary party, their colourful costumes representing the disturbed spirits of ages past.
Like all good festivals, Phi Ta Khon is an event which helps bind the community closely together. In an age where the bright lights of Bangkok can be more alluring to local youngsters than their family rice farm, I was heartened to see that the “Dan Sai Phi Ta Khon Club” was largely made up of local boys practising traditional mask making with clear devotion and skill. In the past, the ghost masks (and literally days of hard work) were thrown in the river at the end of the festival, but nowadays they (sensibly) tend to be preserved in the local Phi Ta Khon museum which is built next to the ancient temple Wat Phon Chai.
When is Phi Ta Khon festival?
I’d love to be able to tell you exactly when the next festival will be held so that you can go and see it yourself, but unfortunately the date is decided by the complicated lunar calendar. It’s in the seventh lunar month, which usually corresponds to June.
What else is there to do in Dan Sai, Loei?
If you’ve come all the way to Loei, then there’s a lot to do beside the Phi Ta Khon festival…
- Wat Neramit Wipatsana is a serene hill-side temple complete with forest monks, a gorgeous laterite hall and a sacred image of the Phra Phuttha Chinnarat Buddha. I don’t really know what laterite actually consists of, but whatever it is it’s certainly red, shiny and super pretty.
- Take a ride with the Dan Sai Cycling Club for Health. The Thai have an attitude to cycling that I can get behind: you take a van to the top of a hilly area and slowly freewheel your way to the bottom, stopping to see various wats and intricate bamboo water wheels along the way. Cycling is one of the best ways to soak in Loei’s beautiful hillside scenery and watch local life in action. Call Khun Apichart Deedankho on +66 83 147 4199 to arrange a trip.
- Visit Phra That Si Song Rak which is quite possibly the world’s oldest standing peace monument. Construction was a joint venture started 450 years ago by the kings of Thailand and the kings of Laos to mark mutual friendship and recognise each other’s sovereign territory. Today the monument remains a spiritual centre for the local Dan Sai community, who adorn it with bee’s wax flowers in time for Phi Ta Khon.
At the peace monument, and at most religious sites in Thailand, violence towards animals is strictly prohibited. I think that this is an excellent rule, but it did lead to a strange situation where we had to patiently and somewhat nervously wait for a snake to decide to get off the path before we could exit the temple grounds!
Where to eat in Dan Sai, Thailand?
Pa Wan Som Tam Restaurant offers up locally grown organic fruit and veg in delicious heaps. Sadly I didn’t get to eat too many of those heaps as almost everything on the menu is liberally sprinkled with pork, chicken or shrimp, but egg options are available for vegetarians. The formidably spicy papaya salad is worth a try for the brave (or the hungry).
Want to experience Phi Ta Khon Festival for yourself?
I was lucky enough to see this vibrant and unique festival first hand on an eco-tourism press trip with Amazing Thailand and the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) who support local Thai communities and preserve traditional events. If you’d like to join in with the festival, send them an email and they’ll be sure to let you know where in the community the annual festival will be hosted.