Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Phi Ta Khon - Sunday 13 June 2010 - Day 2

Sunday, 13 June, was the second day of the Phi Ta Khon Festival and true to what we had been told earlier by local people it was the biggest day in terms of crowds. After breakfast and checking out of our hotel we drove down the hills into Dansai. Being somewhat a creature of habit (Heck - if you find a great restaurant for dining why search for another one when probability indicates you will find many more inferior restaurants) I parked the truck where we had parked it the previous day - across the street from Jao Por Guan's house.

We had been warned that the Police would be closing the road around 8:00 A.M. so we ensured that we had parked prior to 8:00 A.M.. Upon arrival we noticed a much greater Police presence than the day before as well as many more metal crowd control barriers. We walked to Wat Phon Chai which serves as the main center of festival activities. We climbed the stairway to the higher ground surrounding the Wat and took a seat in the shade. Sunday morning was a great deal sunnier than Saturday and just as hot. It was going to be another 100F day.

We sat and amused ourselves watching the activities around us. The upper area where we were located was overrun by the Canon Camera Club from Bangkok all wearing event tee shirts identifying them as Canon Club members and the Phi Ta Khon Festival. Approximately 120 members had arrived to photograph the day's events. A young boy dressed up as a spirit was set upon by several of the photographers. I took a couple photos of the scene because it appealed to my sense of the absurd - a small peasant boy surrounded by a horde of city people each with more than $5,000 of expensive camera gear around their neck and strapped to their back. Even more amusing at least to me, was the efforts of some of the photographers to stage and pose the young boy to achieve a "unique" photograph.

I looked over to the Dansai Folk Museum and saw at least 50 photographers each carrying a 5 to 6 foot long extended tripod scurrying up the stairs to the museum. They appeared to be another tour group of photographers. Even today, I am unable to figure out how so many people let alone people setting up tripods could manage to get into the small confines of the museum that two days earlier I had the premises totally to myself for photography. I have no idea how a photographer could control the exposure of their shots in a small space with 49 other photographers all using a flash.

Around 10:00 A.M. the procession of Jao Por Guan, Jao Mae Nangtiam, the Saen, the Nang Taeng, and Phi Ta Khon lek arrived and just as on the previous day the procession circled the Wat three times. Today the procession included an offering for the Monks - the ubiquitous banana stalk "Money tree".

Several young school girls attended by their mothers sought the shade outside beneath the overhang of the Wat's roof to dress and apply their make-up. The girls were getting dressed into traditional Thai clothing - what appears to be baggy pants with a bundle of fabric on the waistline at the back. This style of clothing is more reminiscent of times long past than reflective of current fashion. Today girls wear pants, often jeans, or the Lao long skirt called "phaa nung" - a wraparound skirt created from a tube of fabric. As I watched the girls prepare for their upcoming performance, I realized that the baggy trousers were not pants at all. A very long tube of fabric - perhaps two or three times the circumference of a typical "phaa nung" is stretched and folded once the girl has stepped into the tube. The flat folded portion of the fabric tube is then run between the girl's legs from front to back to create the illusion of pants legs. A belt and pieces of string are then utilized to secure the garment in place with a bundle of the excess fabric at the back. The girls applied make-up, often helping each other, to complete their preparations.

The girls performance involved playing a traditional game. On Sunday the games that we observed on Saturday were also being played. These girls played a sort of game of tag. They, all but one, formed a line, with their hands placed on the hips of the girl in front of them and started to chant some sort of song. The girl who was not in the line faced the line and at some point in time of her choosing took off after the last girl of the line. The girls in the line all started to giggle and laugh as they struggled to maintain their formation while running away from the girl. They were thoroughly enjoying themselves. It made for some innocent entertainment. It seemed ironic that they had spent so much time preparing for a simple game. But such efforts are not uncommon in Isaan.

In Isaan there is still a great deal of pride in personal appearance. For religious celebrations, people especially women wear their best clothing. Women, especially younger women, do their best to look attractive. For the vast majority of Lao Lom women, marriage presents the best and often the only opportunity for economic security or social advancement. A great emphasis on personal appearance and social skills enhances a woman's chances to improve her life.

At the lower level of the Wat's grounds, people were busy eating, drinking, and watching stage performances. Just as the previous night, there was a dance competition. Mahlam Lao music was provided by student musicians and added to the festive atmosphere of the morning. This was a true family event with people of all generations enjoying the festival. Many fathers were carrying their younger children around in the bright sun light and rapidly increasing heat of the day.

Dispersed amongst the festival goers were phi (ghosts). The younger ghosts carried wooden swords and kept busy posing for the many people taking photographs. Older ghosts, young men around 17 to 25 years old, were also "ghosts" carrying swords. However their wooden swords were actually a wooden phallus with a bright red "head". These older ghosts took great joy and perhaps even pleasure in teasing and taunting the spectators by waving their swords at them - especially younger women. This provided a great deal of laughter from the crowd. On occasion, the older ghosts would tease an elderly women. Perhaps because they had attended so many of these festivals before or due to life experience, the elderly women showed that they could not be intimidated. Often when confronted with a red tipped phallus, the elderly woman would grab the phallus and either give it a couple of good shakes or give it a couple of twists much to the raucous delight of the spectators. This blatant flaunting was the fertility aspect of the festival - part of the ritual involved in invoking the fertility of the land for the upcoming rice planting season once the rains return to the land.

Besides the stage show, refreshment booths, and ghost antics at the lower level, there was a couple tables where children were doing artwork to be judged later in the day. Pieces of A4 sized paper had a Phi Ta Khon mask and "DANSAI" drawn on it in black ink. I have no idea why Dansai was written in Roman script rather than Thai or even Lao script. Children were cutting or rather punching out very small dots from sticky backed pieces of colored paper to fill in the outlines on the paper. The results were extremely impressive. Some of the completed pieces were mounted, framed and displayed on tripods near the work tables.

At Noon, Duang and I looked at each other and simultaneously asked "Do you want to go now?". It was not that we were bored or that we were not enjoying ourselves. The sun was bright and the temperature had risen to 97F and we still had a 3 hour drive to return to our home. As we exited the Wat's grounds on to the local street, we found ourselves in the midst of a parade. This parade was much more ribald and raucous than the previous processions. There was a large wooden phallus mounted on wheels that was being pulled along the parade route. There were many more "ghosts" taunting the spectators with their phalli. There was a large black bull float made from chicken wire and fabric mounted on wheels that was pulled along by several Phi Ta Khon. It was very apparent that it was a bull and not a cow, steer, or even a heifer. The bull was anatomically correct and obviously fully functional. Further up ahead there was a cow float that was being mounted by another bull float.

A couple of trucks were in the parade. The trucks were are covered in black with several young men riding in and on the vehicles. It is possible that the young men may have just returned from the Gulf Coast of the United States. They were stripped to the waist and completely covered in crude oil. I don't know if they had been cleaning up the sludge or only swimming in the Gulf - no matter the truth - they were covered from head to toe in black heavy oil. I don't know why but they were having one Hell of a time. Everyone was having a great time. We had had our great time and reluctantly knew that it was our time to leave.

On our journey back to Udonthani, Duang talked about returning next year - testimony to the great weekend that we had enjoyed. I too would like to return next year to better understand and participate in the festival - to witness the launching of the rockets, the ridding of spirits by throwing the masks into the river, and attending the sermons on the third day of the festival. Perhaps I, if not we, will even attend the opening ceremonies commencing at 3:00 A.M.!


  1. Lind Harriman LaLandeJune 16, 2010 at 8:43 PM

    The children are just beautiful. I had a friend who many years ago visited there and came back with a wonderful carving. I carve in wood myself so of course this was of interest. As I write this I can see myself moving forward to Thailand as a destination. Right now I don't know how to buy the ticket. Much love, Linda Harriman LaLande

  2. I use and for making my air travel arrangements and some of my hotel reservations. I use to get rooms much cheaper.

    My next blog will address some of philosophy on photography and why children play such a large role in my photography.

    Thank you for your appreciation