Isolated for centuries, the sleepy town of Dan Sai in the north-western province of Loei has developed some peculiar traditions over time. The city has, for example, its own shaman, the highly revered and influential Jao Por Guan. But that’s the tip of the iceberg. More famously, three days each year, colourful processions invade Dan Sai during the Bun Luang Festival, a common enough Northern Thai tradition celebrating land fertility. Dan Sai, however, takes the festival to extremes. Enter Phi Ta Khon.
The century-old tradition is rooted in an ancient tale. Prince Vessantara, an incarnation of the Buddha, went travelling, but was gone so long he was presumed dead. One day, he returned, out of the blue, and the celebrations were so raucous they woke the dead. The festival today doubles as a celebration of the arrival of the rainy season. Similar to some European festivals, such as the Carnival of Basel (Switzerland), Phi Ta Khon bears processions of locals covered in colourful masks and rags.
In the old days, these masks were made from coconut husks and painted with bright colours. Today, they are crafted out of hard paper, and hats are made from huat, the bamboo container used to make sticky rice, and worn upside down. According to a local artist, television shows and horror films have influenced the shape and style of the masks, which have become wilder and more frightening than ever.
Over the last decade, Phi Ta Khon has become a major tourist event, with the Tourism Authority of Thailand promoting the celebration all around the world. The festival generally takes place in July, but the date varies according to the combined calculation of the fourth and sixth lunar months of the year. This year, for instance, the festival took place from June 26 to 28.
Those who miss the event should not feel distressed — Dan Sai has a Phi Ta Khon Museum located within Wat Phon Chai, one of the town’s main temples. The imagery is on display year-round. Visitors can wander aisles of extravagant masks, exploring their historical evolution from simple in shape and colour to ferocious and, occasionally, sophisticated. The museum is relatively new and has a series of puppets ideal for photo ops.
There is, however, an eerie sensation in strolling around the museum. Only a couple of novice monks stay on the grounds, but only to keep watch of the facility. There are few explanations provided in English and, when available, they are practically unintelligible. It seems that few people visit the place. But this ghostly charm is fitting. It fully captures the Phi Ta Khon spirit!
Dan Sai is located 85 km from Loei. There are daily flights from Bangkok’s Don Mueang Airport.
Phi Ta Khon Museum, Wat Pon Chai Dan Sai | Opened daily from 9am to 5pm