Phi Ta Khon Festival 2020
Posted by Peter C on July 8th, 2019 in Thai Festivals
Phi Ta Khon Festival 2020
The Phi Ta Khon Festival also known as the Thailand Ghost Festival is a colorful mask festival held every year in the village of Dan Sai in North-East Thailand. The Phi Ta Khon Festival 2023 will be held on June 23rd to 25th.
Phi Ta Khon Festival
It is held over three days and involves parades, dancing, Buddhist rituals, ceremonies, and the firing of home-made rockets into the sky. The highlight of the festival is the parade where local people dress up in colorful costumes and masks decorated with scary painted faces. The idea is to disguise themselves as spirits or ghosts. They carry a variety of objects such as swords, axes, spears, and phallic charms. Bells are tied to the waist. The purpose of the parade is to bring luck and good fortune to the village before the rice crop is planted.
Phi Ta Khon Festival Day One
The first day of the Phi Ta Khon festival is called Wan Home Day. Its purpose is to gather the spirits. The villagers gather at Wat Phon Chai temple between 3 am and 5 am. This is followed by a procession of the villagers carrying knives, spears & swords to the Mun River. Just before sunrise, they perform a ceremony to invoke Phra Upakut, a monk with supernatural powers who is revered among Buddhists in the north of Thailand. Phra Upakut is believed to be immortal and able to assume any physical or spiritual form.
According to legend he transformed himself into white marble and chose to live in the waters of the Mun River in Dan Sai. The villagers believe that Phra Upakut will protect the village from evil spirits so they pray for his protection and goodwill. Three white pebbles are collected from the river and taken back to the temple where a ceremony is performed before special food is offered to monks.
Father Guans House
The Thailand Ghost Festival continues with a summoning of the spirits ceremony (Bai Si) at Chao Pho Guans House (a spirit shrine). Guan is the village spirit leader and a male medium. The ceremony involves chanting, the lighting of candles & the tying of sacred threads. After the ceremony, there is a procession to Wat Phonchai. The parade is led by Father Guan & Mother Teem, a female medium. The villagers wear special costumes while at the back of the parade are two village men each wearing a cloth-covered bamboo frame with a giant head. These are the Phi Ta Khon Yai (big spirits). One is male & the other is female. It?s easy to tell which one is which!
Phi Ta Khon Yai
The Phi Ta Khon Yai are fertility symbols and you will see them at all the Phi Ta Khon Festival events. They symbolize success in producing children, successful harvests, plenty of rain, a healthy environment, and success in business. People in Phi Ta Khon costumes joined the procession as it made its way to the temple which was circled three times on arrival. The parade continued around the village.
Many people had already gathered at Wat Phonchai for the opening ceremony, conducted by local officials. A bell was rung to formally open the Phi Ta Khon Festival.
Phi Ta Khon Cultural Performances
The entertainment commenced with an afternoon of cultural performances starting with a special Thai Phi Ta Khon Festival dance featuring dancers in both traditional Thai dress and masked dancers in Phi Ta Khon masks & costumes. This was followed by some extraordinary Masked dance performances from Indonesia, Philippines, Laos & China (scroll down for the videos).
Wat Phon Chai temple is the center of the Phi Ta Khon Festival activities on the first day. The temple itself is several hundred years old and has a distinctive Phi Ta Khon vibe with lots of permanent decorations celebrating the festival. The temple has only a small Ubosot & Pagoda set in peaceful grounds.
The main Buddha image in the Ubosot is named Phra Chao Yai (Big Buddha). The sacred image is believed to be four hundred years old. Inside the grounds is the Dan Sai Folk Museum, a wooden building with an exhibition about the town & the Phi Ta Khon Festival.
Around the temple grounds were lots of stalls selling traditional style clothing, drinks, snacks, and souvenirs. There were also several temple fair-style games such as throwing darts at balloons to win prizes.
Phi Ta Khon Festival Day Two
On day two the center of activities moved from Wat Phonchai to a large stage in front of the district office. An official opening ceremony kicked off the day presided over by the governor of Loei province. Then, it was time for the main event, the grand Phi Ta Khon Festival parade. Thousands of people thronged the town and lined the parade route. Most of the crowd are local people and the event attracts many Thai tourists.
Surprisingly there were not so many foreign tourists, a disappointment as the Phi Ta Khon Festival is such a vibrant & an entertaining spectacle. The parade started on the towns main street at the district office before winding its way through the town. There were viewing stands opposite the town market which provided a great view. However, it was more fun to just join in the parade and get a more intimate experience.
The Phi Ta Khon Festival Grand Parade
At the head of the parade were local dignitaries, the villagers, the Phi Ta Khon Yai and flower-decorated floats carrying Father Guan & Mother Teem on horseback. There were also beauty queens, traditional Thai dancers & a prince & princess in a golden chariot. Once they passed the thumping music became louder announcing the arrival of the ghost parade dressed in their colorful costumes. A carnival-like atmosphere ensued with the audience joining the parade and snapping selfies with the Phi Ta Khon ghosts who were only too happy to oblige.
Phi Ta Khon Masks & Costumes
The multi-colored costumes are unique and homemade. They are patched together from different colored pieces of cloth. The most eye-catching part of the costume is the huge masks worn on the head. The top part is a cone-shaped wickerwork sticky rice steamer while the long face mask is made from carved banana or coconut tree wood.
The faces have been painted to look as scary as possible and resemble ghostly beings. The mouth is shaped in a wide sharp-toothed smile and the face is topped off by the addition of a long thin curved nose. Around the back of the waist is a string of cowbells, known as mark-ka-lang which are meant to scare away evil spirits. Some dragged an empty can or metal container linked by string to their waist or leg.
The dancers paraded in small groups dressed in costumes of the same design, colors, and masks. Each group representing a local community. The ghosts dance and strike a pose often clutching penis-shaped phallic charms known as Palad Khik. Demon figures wearing grotesque head masks and armed with wooden phalluses kept popping up all through the parade. All of the dancers were happy to pose for photos or selfies with the crowd. Visitors were welcome to join in the parade and the fun.
The Palad Khik
A Palad Khik is a wooden phallic-shaped charm. It is worshipped in Thai folklore for fertility and protection, especially in the north & northeast. These wooden phalluses are worn or carried by males in the parade who like to point and thrust them at everyone especially females. This may look obscene or offensive to some sensitive foreigners but the phalluses are regarded as a traditional fertility symbol and the intention isn?t to offend.
It is part of the ritual and refers to rain-seeding, crop growing success, and of course successful human reproduction. The Palad Khik charms at Phi Ta Khon can be seen in many forms such as the barrel of a gun, a sword, or even as a spring-loaded device featuring two wooden moving puppets copulating on a large stick.
Mud Men & Buffaloes
Agriculture is the mainstay of the local economy and this was reflected in the parade. Several groups were covered from head to toe in brown or black mud resembling a lost primitive indigenous tribe. They wore grass skirts and carried club-like bamboo poles which they drummed into the ground. If you got too close you got covered in mud if they brushed against you. The mud on their bodies represents the fertility of the rice field, as they carry its soil on their bodies.
The Buffalo enjoys a special status at Phi Ta Khon, a symbol of virility associated with the fertility of the land. There were men dressed as farmers riding cut out model life-size water buffalos mock charging at the crowd. Children were pulled along riding on large model buffaloes on wheels.
ASEAN Mask Parade?
The Phi Ta Khon Festival 2019 parade also had an ASEAN flavor with the participation of cultural mask wearing groups from Laos, China, Indonesia & the Philippines. As well as performing at the International Cultural Show on the first day of the festival they took part in the parade wowing people with their distinctive costumes.
Phi Ta Khon Festival ? The Music
The Phi Ta Khon Festival parade was accompanied by an Isan music soundtrack pumping traditional folk and popular morlam songs from massive speakers mounted on trucks. Although alcohol wasn?t openly on sale it was pretty easy to find a beer. Many seemed to be drunk but this only added to the party atmosphere.
Phi Ta Khon Festival 2019 Souvenirs
The Phi Tha Kon festival is Dan Sais biggest day of the year. The town was full of Phi Ta Khon Festival souvenirs, some made in the town. Things you could buy included T-Shirts, dolls, keyrings, fridge magnets, mugs, & hats. More ingenious were Phi Ta Khon figures that would dance to music. And of course, you could buy a real Phi Ta Kon mask and outfit from around 1500 baht. If you fancied yourself as a rocketman, Bang Fai rockets were also for sale at the temple. The local OTOP market had a lot of cool stuff including local Loei coffee beans, fruit, clothing & handicrafts.
The Ba-Si (Summoning of Spirits)
The next activity of the day was the Ba-Si ceremony (a ritual to celebrate a special occasion) held at Father Guans house. The ceremony involved a Buddha image, four monks, Father Guan, and other mediums.
The Wetsundorn Parade
After the Ba-Si ceremony, the Buddha image was placed on a flat sedan chair. The four monks likewise on individual chairs while Father Guan sat on a pile of Bang Fai rockets. All were carried in a parade to Wat Phonchai by villagers where they paraded around the temple three times.
As the Phi Ta Khon Festival 2019 parade neared the temple the villagers got rowdier and the monks and Father Guan were bumped (thrown in the air) by the villagers carrying them. They had to hang on tight, one monk almost fell off! During the parade, Father Guan threw lucky money (a coin wrapped in a ribbon) into the crowd along the parade route with people scrambling to catch them. The Buddha image was taken into the Ordination Hall of Wat Phonchai where a short ceremony took place.
The Bang Fai Rockets
After the Phi Ta Khon Festival 2019 parade, the Bang Fai rockets of various sizes were carried to a small hill overlooking the temple. The Bang Fai is a black powder rocket made from bamboo bongs or PVC pipes with vines used as the fuse. The purpose of the rocket launch is to make merit before the crop planting season to help ensure plentiful rain.
Some of the small rockets were handheld and fired by novice monks. Be warned this is not a safe activity. The first rocket fired by the monks sailed uncomfortably close to our heads, hitting the main rocket-launching tower. Larger rockets were successfully launched from the wooden tower disappearing high into the sky leaving a weaving vapor trail.
Phi Ta Khon Festival Day Three
On the third and final day of the Phi Ta Khon Festival 2019, nothing much happened. There is no more Phi Ta Khon dancing. The villagers assemble at Wat Phon Chai at 4 am, where 13 consecutive Buddhist sermons are recited. After the sermons, the villagers tie white string around the ordination hall and hold hands. This is believed to bring good luck for the year ahead.
Phi Ta Khon Festival 2019 Behind the Mask Phi Ta Khon People
One cool thing about the Phi Ta Khon Festival was the involvement of a whole community from young children through to their grandparents. The local people were also friendly and hospitable. Take a look at some of the people behind the masks.
The International Mask Fair 2019
The International Mask Fair has become part of the Phi Ta Khon Festival over the last few years. Mask culture isnt just a Thai affair with countries all over the world holding similar festivals. Some of these festivals go back over thousands of years. Each nation has its own mask designs that help tell a story, are to do with religion or promote national identity, culture, and tradition. At the Phi Ta Khon festival 2019, the emphasis was on Asian countries. This year the participants came from China, Indonesia, Laos, and the Philippines. Check out the videos below to see some outstanding performances.
The Laos masks are known as Puyur & Yumyur. They are used in rituals and festivals. They originate from Luang Prabang.
The Philippines has its own mask festival, the annual Masskara Festival, held in October. The smiley masks were originally native folk masks but evolved into a more modern design influenced by the masks worn at the Rio Carnival & Venice Festival. The masks are truly stunning while the dance is uptempo and electrifying.
The Topeng Mask is a sacred mask used when performing a national dance. This dance is about the battle between good and evil.
Bian Lian (face-changing) is an ancient Chinese dramatic art that is part of Sichuan Opera. Performers wear brightly colored costumes and move to quick, dramatic music. They also wear vividly colored masks depicting well-known characters from the opera, which they change from one face to another almost instantaneously with the swipe of a fan, a movement of the head, or wave of the hand. Unfortunately, the camera malfunctioned so no video, but you can check out some photos.
I have to say that having been to many Thai festivals this was one the most colorful & fun. Phi Ta Khon is a unique experience blending entertainment, culture, & religion & wrapping it all up in a fun party atmosphere. If you go to one Thai festival next year, make it this one.
You can see more video of Phi Ta Khon 2019 at our Youtube Channel
Phi Ta Khon Festival ? Dan Sai Guide
Dan Saiis a small town in the western part of Loei province, northeastern Thailand. The town is surrounded by misty mountains and has a cool climate all year round. Its an agricultural area where rice, fruit, vegetables, and plants are grown in abundance.
What to see in Dan Sai
There is a small market, an OTOP market & three significant temples. Wat Phon Chai is home to a sacred Buddha image & the Dan Sai Folk Museum which tells the story of Phi Ta Khon. Phrathat Si Song Rakis a stupa containing the Buddhas relics and dates back to 1560. Wat Neramit Wipatsanais one of the most impressive temples in northeast Thailand. It is made of laterite and resembles a European style church from the outside. The interior of the Ubosot compares favorably with some of Bangkoks grandest temples, containing beautiful murals and a large sacred Buddha image. It is located on a hillside on the edge of town.
Where to Eat & Drink in Dan Sai
The town has one 24 hours 7-11 convenience store. The best bar in town is Chu-a-pa opposite Wat Phon Chai. Beers from 50 baht & a large selection of craft beer. Baandoen serves the best coffee in town and some delicious homemade cakes & cookies. During the week of Phi Ta Khon, there are a couple of beer gardens in the town serving draft beer and food.
How to get to the Phi Ta Khon Festival
From Bangkok, both Air Asia & Nok Air fly to Loei Airport which is 82 km from Dan Sai.
You can check schedules & book tickets here
From the airport, take a 20 baht songtaew to Loei Bus Terminal. Take a Minivan from platform 14 direct to Dan Sai (140 baht). There are three departures a day between 09.30 & 14.30. During Phi Ta Khon there are extra services starting at 06.30. The last van from Dan Sai to Loei is at 17.30.
There are no direct bus services from Bangkok to Dan Sai. You take a bus from Morchit 2 in Bangkok to Loei. Then take the Minivan as above. There are buses from Chiang Mai that stop in Dan Sai.
You can check schedules & book bus tickets from Bangkok here
From Chiang Mai check here
There is no train service to Loei. You take the train to Phitsanulok. You then take a bus to Loei. Then take the Minivan as above.
You can check schedules & book train tickets here
You can check bus schedules & book bus tickets from Phitsanulok to Loei here
Where to Sleep
The best place to stay is in Dan Sai so that you can get to the early morning activities and enjoy the evening activities. Accommodation in Dan Sai isnt cheap and you need to book in advance as everywhere is booked up in advance for the Phi Ta Khon festival dates. If you stay in Dan Sai make sure you are within walking distance of the town. Check the hotel on the map! Cheaper accommodation is available in Loei city but you have to factor in travel costs and convenience.
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