Back from the Dead: Thailand’s Phi Ta Khon Ghost Festival
Phi Ta Khon, also known as the Ghost Festival, is one of Thailand’s liveliest and most-colorful festivals taking place in the unassuming farming village of Dan Sai. Nestled in the mountains of Loei Province in northeastern Thailand, the locals celebrate with a mix of Buddhist and indigenous beliefs. The festival has a fun-loving party atmosphere with games, concerts, and parades.
The three-day festival follows the lunar calendar and is usually held in June or July, on the first weekend after the sixth full moon. For visitors heading to Loei, the northeastern region of Thailand is known as Isan. In this sparsely populated region of Isan, travelers will get real insights into the traditional rites and beliefs of local Thai villagers.
A highlight of the festival is the masked-dancing procession which takes place on the first day. Called Wan Ruam, or assembly day, the town’s residents seek protection from Phra U-pakuk, the spirit of the Mun River. The procession begins with people dressed in ghost masks, made from thick palm leaf stems. The masks are skillfully painted in bright and gaudy colors.
Participants also adorn colorful patchwork pants and shirts made from different fabrics. Many performers wear iron cowbells or tin cans filled with small pebbles. There’s a real carnival atmosphere with games, costume contests, and concerts taking place throughout the fairgrounds.
People dance along the streets to the rhythm of northeastern folk music or Isan pop songs. Accompanied by the ringing and rattling sounds of the cowbells and tin cans, some men also carry wooden phalluses – symbols of fertility, which they use to tease the crowds.
The second day of the festival incorporates elements of the Rocket Festival, along with more costume and dance contests. The third and final day wraps up with a solemn affair during which the community listens to sermons given by monks.
Phi Ta Khon is thought to originate from Vessantara Jataka in the Apadana, one of the most popular legends of Theravada Buddhism. In the story, a compassionate prince known as Vessantara, gives away everything he owns, thus displaying the virtue of boundless generosity. One day he goes too far and gives away a magical white elephant. He’s subsequently banished from the Sivi Kingdom. His followers believed he was dead; but, he later returned. The ensuing celebrations were so raucous that legends claimed they awoke the dead.
The festival is particularly popular with Thai tourists, who like to reminisce about the way things used to be. For foreigners visiting the area, the festival offers a real window into how traditional events are celebrated in Thailand.
We highly recommend it as a fun and exciting event for families to enjoy, or for adventurous travelers keen on observing an extraordinary cultural celebration.
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