Monday, June 14, 2010

Phi Ta Khon Festival - Friday 11 June 2010

While back in the USA, I had used the Internet and determined that the 2010 Phi Ta Khon Festival was going to be held June 11 to June 14 this year - despite some websites indicating that it is going to be held at the end of this month. When I found the actual schedule of events for the Festival along with the Mayor's message indicating that the celebration was 11 June to 14 June, I was confident as to when the event would start. I wanted to witness this unique Lao Loum cultural event. Upon my return to Thailand, I did additional research and completed arrangements for our visit to Dansai for this year's celebration.

Although the event started on Saturday morning - early Saturday morning as in 3:00 A.M., I wanted to arrive on Friday to reconnoiter the area for event locations, best photography locations, and become familiar with the area for parking, as well as dining opportunities before the start of the festival.

The Phi Ta Khon festival is a unique celebration of the Dansai district in Loei Province of northeast Thailand. The celebration is actually the combination of two different festivals. The first festival is the merit making holiday, "Bun Pha Ves", "Boon Phra Wate" and "Bun Phra Wet" - in Thailand Anglicized spelling is more or an art than a science. There are many English spellings as well as pronunciations for many Thai words - this can make travel with a road map extremely interesting if not confusing. This festival involves merit making by listening to 13 Buddhist sermons - the story, The Mahachet, of Buddha's last reincarnation prior to becoming Enlightened.

Associated with this merit making opportunity, there is a Buddhist folk legend that Prince Vessandara, Buddha's last reincarnation before becoming Enlightened, had been banished from his village. After many years in exile and a very long journey he returned to his village. The villagers were very happy that he had returned. They had a joyous celebration to welcome him home. The celebration was so great and loud that it awoke the spirits who joined in the welcome home party - a party that was akin to being so loud and wild that it woke the dead.

In Dansai they have a tradition of celebrating this legend, by preparing masks and clothing to become spirits during their festival which is held with the sixth or seventh lunar month. The exact timing of the festival in Dansai can only be determined by the consultation of the local male spiritual medium leader, Jao - Por Guan, a female medium, Jao - Mae Nang Tiam, and a group of male mediums, Saen, with the spirit that protects Dan Sai, Jao Saen - Muang. In a ceremony the actual date for the Phi Ta Khon is determined.

The second component of the Phi Ta Khon Festival is the Bun Bang Fei, Rocket Festival, which is also celebrated throughout Isaan at the end of the dry season and start of the rainy season. Homemade gunpowder rockets are fired up into the sky over northeast Thailand as offerings to the spirits for the return of the rains as well as fertility of the land.

Only in Dansai, the two festivals are combined into a ghost and fertility festival with merit Buddhist merit making ritual - a unique cultural event.

After a pleasant three hour drive on good roads with very little traffic, we arrived at our hotel just outside of Dansai around 10:30 A.M. After checking in and unpacking, we had a small lunch before driving down into the valley where Dansai. One logistic concern was resolved - Dansai is 15 minutes from the hotel. We found the local Wat, Wat Phon Chai, and parked inside. The Wat grounds were being prepared for the next day's start of the festival. To the right of the Wat there was a nice stage erected for entertainment. To to right of the stage was a set of bleachers with a cover to protect spectators from sun and rain.

The Wat is situated on a mound in the center of the Wat grounds. Staircases lead from the low level where we parked, and where the many various booths were being set up up to the higher ground where the religious buildings were located. On the high ground, the Dansai Folk Museum is also located. We entered the museum and were very pleasantly surprised. We were the only visitors. The museum had several straw mannequins on display wearing masks and clothing of the Phi Ta Khoen, spirits. I was able to spend about an hour photographing the displays unencumbered. I sat on the floor, lay on the floor and crouched to get different angles as well as perspectives of the colorful masks and costumes. During my shooting, Duang spoke with the museum employees to determine the locations for the various events over the next three days. This being Isaan, she was soon involved in animated conversation with them as if they were relatives reunited after a long absence. Once again the Lao Loum sense of community was very evident and apparent.

The Phi Ta Khon masks are created out of the base of coconut trees, huad, and wood. The huad along with the reed wind instrument, the khene, the pakama, and the long skirt for women are the ubiquitous symbols of Lao Loum, lowland Lao culture. The huad is a quasi conical shaped woven bamboo basket that is used to steam kao kniouw (sticky rice) that is the staple of the Lao Loum diet. After soaking in water overnight the sticky rice is placed in the huad which in turn is placed over an urn of boiling water over an open flame and steamed until cooked. The Phi Ta Khon of Dansai have hats made out of huad.

The Phi Ta Khon masks are beautiful folk art. They remind me a great deal of the artwork on goalie masks in the National Hockey League. The spirits or ghosts have very ornate designs as well as bright and bold colors. They typically have very large and sharp teeth to go along with a large hooked nose. The masks come in many different colors.

The Phi Ta Khon wear clothing, imitating burial shrouds, made from strips of cloth from sheets and blankets. The result is a very colorful and intricate costume. The costumes reflect a great deal of pride and skill of the villagers. It is impressive to see such local craftsmanship and artistry. Fortunately the impact of the global economy has not penetrated or poisoned the culture in Dansai. Massed produced cheap costumes and masks from China are not a reality yet and hopefully never will be.

After completing our visit to the museum, we returned to our hotel for dinner and an early bedtime. I went to sleep still considering the possibility of witnessing the start of the festival at 3:00 A.M.

This is the first of three blogs about this interesting and entertaining traditional cultural event in Isaan.


  1. hi,

    i have previously seen photos of people wearing Phi Ta Khon masks at the Elephant Festival in Laos, in the year when it was held in Pak Lai (a town in Sayabouly province not too far from the Kaen Thao border crossing to Tha Li, Loei). it's the only time i'd ever seen Phi Ta Khon in Laos. do you have any idea if people in that part of Laos share this tradition with Dansai? & if there are similar celebrations in neighbouring Amphoe Na Haeo?

    thank you for sharing all the detailed stuff about Isaan culture :)

  2. As far as I know the Phi Ta Khon celebration is unique to the Dansai District of Loei Province. I live in Udonthani Province located in Isaan and we do not have a comprable celebration. We have rocket launches Bun Bang Fei but nothing related to Phi. In general the Lao Loum people in this area are more fearful of Phi.

    Thank you for your interest. It is always reassuring to learn that this labor of love is read let alone appreciated.