Masked Insanity

by Donald Gilliland, Apr 20, 2001 | Destinations: Thailand / Loei province

Halloween comes early to the northeastern Thailand province of Loei. Or so it would appear. It's late June and the sun is shining yet the dusty streets of Den Sai are filled with hundreds of enthused people, not trick or treating but outrageously costumed as ghosts and other wicked looking creatures. Locals and tourists sing songs and dance in the streets, cheer the passing parade of floats and musicians, drink far too much alcohol, taunt one another with phallic-shaped objects and wear lots of gruesome homemade masks.

Held every year in the Den Sai district of Loei (considered the coldest province in Thailand during the all-too-short winter that lasts for only a few weeks), Phi Ta Khon is a wild, hallucinatory rush of a festival. For an idea of what it's like, take Halloween, Mardi Gras, a New Year's Day parade and a Woodstock concert put them all in a blender, mix well and stick them in a rural Thailand village. Like at most outdoor Thai festivals, Phi Ta Khon has plenty of music, contests, colorful street processions and lots of drinking. With the anonymity that the Phi Ta Khon masks provide, people tend to behave a little crazier than normal.

The festival is usually held in either late June or early July depending upon the whims of the local village shaman or headman. Phi is the Thai word for ghost and it's obvious by looking at the spirited participants at this festival that a whole lot of local folks are having a hauntingly good time. The origins of the fair are somewhat murky but evidence suggests that similar celebrations in the area first took place over 200 years ago. While the garish Phi Ta Khon imagery reflects the villagers belief in ghosts and spirits there is also a surprising religious significance to the proceedings. Local monks cite a story involving the Lord Buddha when he was still went by his pre-enlightenment name of Prince Vessandorn. As the tale is told, the Prince had returned to his hometown after a long journey and was welcomed back with such fervor that powerful spirits emerged from the 'other' world to join in the homecoming celebration. Thus, the Phi Ta Khon ghost angle.

But how do you explain the abundance of wooden phalluses and other sexual imagery at the festival, surely that's not a Buddhist derived custom? Indeed it's not. The phallus pointing and subsequent launching of homemade bamboo rockets is all done in an attempt to provoke the gods into blessing their parched village with a few thundershowers. That's right, if the normal prayers for rain don't work, just shake a big phallus at the sky and hope that does the trick. And many people believe that it does.

The festival is traditionally a three-day long affair. Day one is reserved for a colorful procession through the city streets in which a sacred Buddha image is carried to a local temple. The conglomeration of mostly young men and boys are dressed in rags and blankets that have been sewn together. Besides their tattered apparel the fellows wear colorful hand-painted masks made from coconut tree palm fronds. On their heads are huge garish hats that were constructed from bamboo baskets used to hold rations of sticky rice. To add to the already deafening cacophony, they tie cowbells around their waist and run around yelling and teasing women in the crowd with their phallic-shaped sticks. The sight of all this insanity only serves to further create more noise and wild abandon. Bottles of home-brewed whiskey come out and the party has started. No open container law in this village obviously. Meanwhile, the procession carrying the sacred Buddha image continues through the streets until finally ending up at Wat Phonchai, the local temple.

On the second day, the rest of the town gets into the flow of things, turning out in outlandish costumes and masks. Once again there's more dancing, singing and phallus swinging with the additional spectacle of grown men covering themselves in mud. The villagers instigate another boisterous procession that leads through town, culminating in some more rain-inducing rocket launching. As the day winds down prizes are awarded in various age groups for best mask, best costume and best dancer. The third and final day of the festival is set aside for more solemn activities. People gather at the temple and listen as monks give a traditional series of 13 sermons concerning Lord Buddha and his last incarnation before reaching nirvana.

The best way to reach Loei, besides taking a tiring full day road trip from Bangkok (520 kilometers away) is to fly or take a train to the city of Udon Thani. From there you can take a bus or van for the remaining 140 kilometers to Loei. # # #