For three days each year, the village of Dan Sai in idyllic Loei province fluffs its feathers with the Phi Ta Khon festival. Celebrations start with a cavalcade of local men strutting around town in outrageous costumes of every vibrant hue, their faces shrouded with ghost masks so fearsome they might haunt your dreams. These “spirits” are just a primer. The men also elicit — ahem — more prurient emotions with massive wooden phalluses, which they wave like unsheathed swords at passersby.
The festival isn’t just some deviant party, though. It recognizes the return of Prince Vessantara —Lord Buddha in a past life — from a long journey. A journey so long, in fact, that his devotees presumed he had died along the way. The celebrations following his return were so rowdy they woke the dead.
The first day sees the vigorous “spirits” gathering at the Mun River, and then come the parades, games, and Isaan rock concerts. On the second day, the villagers head to Wat Ponchai to listen to sermons, after which they do more of the same from the first day. The third day involves Buddhist rituals, above all else, but the music and dancing continue too. Alcohol is consumed in
great quantities throughout the weekend. As you might imagine, the party can go off the rails rather quickly.
Phi Ta Khon will be celebrated from June 27-29 this year, and, as always, in Dan Sai. The masks, woven from coconut leaves and rice husks, are world-famous. It’s worth a trip to check them out alone; however, considering the size and scale of the festivities, and not to mention the chance to soak up some Isaan flavour, if there’s any festival worth travelling for, it’s Phi Ta Khon.