What is Phi Ta Khon?
Phi Ta Khon [ผีตาโขน] is part of an auspicious and merry tradition called Boon Luang Festival [บุญหลวง] (the grand merit-making festival) of Northeastern Thailand (Isaan). Everyone is welcome to join the Phi Ta Khon parade simply by wearing a spooky-looking mask and a dress made of discarded cloth. This tradition is observed every year in Dan Sai District, Loei Province, during the rainy season, or from late June to early July. People dressed as Phi Ta Khon shows off their funny dance moves and gestures to brighten up the atmosphere and entertain the crowd at the annual celebration, taking place on the streets across Dan Sai and almost everywhere in Loei, while the main ceremony is carried out at the Wat Phon Chai Temple.
In this three-day festival, townspeople dress up in ghost masks – which is also the actual translation of the festival name – and make merry by participating in parties and parades in the Dan Sai district in the Loei province. This is also a time when people’s creativity comes into play. The colourful and vibrant masks are a sight for sore eyes, and can even get pretty scary at times. Skillfully handcrafted from dried sticky husks, these masks are generally white and have long noses.
Phi Ta Khon is well known and loved by the Thai people because of its fun and quirky elements, but despite a long-standing tradition in Northeastern Thailand, no one can say for certain when or where it started. Today, the Phi Ta Khon tradition is considered an opportunity to observe three merit-making festivals at once, namely Boon Luang (the great merit-making festival), Boon Bang Fai (the traditional rocket festival), and Boon Sam Ha (warding off bad luck for the country), to worship the city’s guardian angels and holy spirits. Still, we have gathered three assumptions concerning the origin of Phi Ta Khon as follows:
The Legend of Vessantara and Madri
According to the Buddhist Jataka, Prince Vessantara is the last life of the Bodhisattva before his reincarnation as the Gautama Buddha. The legend has it that “Phi Ta Khon” came from the word “Phi Tam Khon” (ghosts following people), a scene when the generous Vessantara and his wife Madri are leaving the forest for the city. To bid farewell to the couple, forest angels, ghosts and animals disguise themselves as humans and blend in with the villagers to see them off.
The Story of Phi Ta Khon Festival, more commonly known as the Ghost Festival of Thailand dates back to a long time ago. It is said Prince Vessantara (Buddha in his past life) went on a long journey. It was a journey so long that most of his followers believed he was dead. Surprisingly, one day, he returned, alive and in good health. His followers rejoiced, and the celebrations that followed were so strident that they resulted in the awakening of the dead.
Since then, the celebrations have continued. After much evolution, the festival of Phi Ta Khon has become one of the most fun celebrations to be part of in Thailand, the land of smiles, and a more significant part of Bun Pawet, a Buddhist merit-making festival.
The Legend of Pu Ye-Ya Ye (Grandparents Ye)
In this legend, there was once upon a time a giant tree that reached heaven, obscuring sunlight with its large trunks, branches and leaves, plunging the city into darkness, driving people into poverty since nothing could be cultivated. One day came an elderly couple, named the Grandparents Ye, who volunteered to cut down that colossal tree with only one request in return: remember them when they die. The grandparents then set off to fall the tree with large axes. After three months and three days, they were successful and the city and its people were able to see the bright sunlight once again. Unfortunately, the gigantic tree trunk fell on top of the grandparents and killed them instantly. To fulfil the couple’s wish, the villagers erected a spirit house in which the hair (called “khon” in Thai) of the grandparents was kept. This could be another possible origin of the term “Phi Ta Khon”
The Ancestral Spirits
The third theory states that Phi Ta Khon is a way to pay homage to the spirits of deceased ancestors, believed to have become guardian angels of the city and may bless the earth with fertility or curse it with famine. To please the ancestral spirits, the villagers arrange for the Phi Ta Khon parade. This practice is similar to an ancestral worship ceremony in the Lan Xang Kingdom (one of the greatest kingdoms in Southeast Asia from 1353 to 1707), and also in Laos, where the Grandparents Ye are worshipped as an ancestral spirit.
Where is Phi Ta Khon Festival Celebrated?
The festival is celebrated in the agriculturally driven Dan Sai district. It is situated in the Loei Province of northeastern Thailand. This tradition is unique to Dan Sai in Thailand but inculcates elements from other festivals such as the ‘Rocket Festival’ from Isan.
The festival took place from 23rd June 2023 – 25th June 2023. Although the dates change every year, one can quickly get to know about it because the buzz about it is created months before the event take place. Most of the action takes place on the first starting day of the festival when the locals make an effort to wake the dead spirits up. People dancing on the streets in beautiful, yet creepy costumes, participating in fun-filled games and walking in parades are a common sight on the first day.
How Is Phi Ta Khon Festival Celebrated?
What was once a children’s festival, in tune with the festival of Halloween – has gradually turned out to be an elaborate festival for the artists. The primary attention of every festival-goer would fall on the great monstrous mask, with terrifying teeth and evil eyes. Legend says that it is meant bad luck to keep your mask after the festival gets over, but as times have changed, people now sell their masks and make good money out of them.
Phi Ta Khon ghost masks worn during the festival are made from carved coconut tree trunks. They are decorated with bright colours and intricate designs. The masks often display a demonic fierceness that is tempered with playfulness, while other times they look like a salacious pirate. Hats are decorated with religious imagery, such as the Hindi figure Phra Rahu eating the sun or moon.
One common attribute that Phi Ta Khon masks share is a long, phallic-like, nose. While phallic products are seen more often in the neighbouring country of Cambodia, phallic symbols have been present in Thai culture for centuries, and are often associated with fertility, prosperity, and good fortune. One of the most well-known examples of phallic symbols in Thailand is the “palad khik” (ปลัดขิก), which is a carved wooden or ivory phallus that is sometimes worn as an amulet or talisman.
In Thai folk religion, the “palad khik” is believed to possess magical powers that can bring good luck, protect the wearer from harm, and even help to cure illness. The phallus is also a symbol of fertility and is often used in fertility rites and ceremonies. Another example of phallic symbolism in Thai culture is the “lingam“, which is a Hindu symbol that represents the God Shiva and male creative energy. The lingam is occasionally found at Thai temples and is considered a symbol of fertility and abundance.
The masks catch the eye of tourists, and thus, the prices can go as high as thousands of Bahts. It is not easy to make the costume. Hours and hours of hard work are required to make a costume which when patched together should not restrict the dancers’ movement and also attract the locals and tourists at the same time.
At the Phi Ta Khon festival in Loei, it is not just the nose of the mask that evokes a phallus, there are more explicit representations on display. Parade participants will sometimes carry wooden penises or swords with a handle that has been fashioned into a penis. During the parade and dance celebrations, there are also two huge Phi Ta Khon Yai puppets (both male and female) with decorated genital areas that identify the sexes. At the end of the festival, the Phi Ta Khon Yai figures, which have been built from a bamboo frame, are thrown into the river to cast away all the year’s past sorrows.
An exciting aspect of this festival is the sexual undertone that lies in every costume that is showcased during the 3-day festival. It is not hard to notice that most of the costumes have a gigantic phallus. Dancing and parading around the town, people love to boast this eerie feature of their outfits, especially women. There is creativity in crafting the phallus too, as each would have a distinct feature. Some are sword-shaped, some look like a cannon, and it won’t be a surprise if you come across a group of people playing with it and clicking pictures of it. All these activities are in good taste and mean no harm to either of the genders. It, along with gallons and gallons of alcohol sets a festive mood in the laid-back town otherwise.
It is indeed a piece of happy news that the local population of Loei is always friendly and welcoming. They will be more than happy to share details of their culture with you and make sure that you are an integral part of their celebrations. They will also be excited to pose for photos so keep that camera ready to catch the excitement as this is a memory you wouldn’t want to forget ever.
The next day, the villagers attend Buddhist sermons in the nearby temples.
How to Reach Loei Province?
There are multiple ways to get to the Ghost Festival in Dan Sai, Loei Province. One can either take a flight from Bangkok. There are generally 4-5 flights every day connecting the two destinations. One can also take a bus which will take about 9 hours from Bangkok which would cost around THB 130 to THB 600.
Phi Ta Khon or the Ghost Festival, undoubtedly, will be one of the most enthralling festivals one would ever encounter. So without further ado, one should plan the long due trip to Thailand and be part of a never-seen-before commemoration. This would also bring about the realization in the person that Thailand is much more beyond its beautiful beaches. The country brims in culture and heritage, which comes out in unique festivals, such as this one.
A Global Concierge Company would help one to plan a trip to explore Thailand. If you are interested in festivals in Thailand like Phi Ta Khon, communicate the same to the Best Luxury Concierge Thailand so that they can arrange travel (Hotels, Villas, Jets, Experiences) essentials.
Explore Thailand beyond the beaches – you will not regret it for sure!