For three days each year the village of DAN SAI, in idyllic Loei province, fluffs its feathers like a bird of paradise during the festival known as PHI TA KHON (or Ghost with Human Eyes). It starts with a cavalcade of local men strutting around town in outrageous, vibrantly coloured costumes, their faces shrouded behind ghost masks so ghoulish they might haunt your dreams. But perhaps more nightmare inducing are the massive wooden phalluses they wave like unsheathed swords at passersby. But don’t get the wrong idea, as this festival isn’t just some deviant frat party. It recognizes the return of Prince Vessantara (the 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 festival has grown immensely in popularity over the past number of years, and nowadays the fearsome festival masks—woven from coconut leaves and rice husks—are the iconic image most associated with this region if Thailand. The first day sees the vigorous “spirits” gathering at the Mun River, and then come the parades, games, and concerts featuring Isaan rock bands. 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, as well. Alcohol is consumed in great quantities throughout the weekend, and often the party goes off the rails rather quickly. This year’s celebration runs from JULY 6-8 in Dan Sai. It’s well worth the trip, so take a chance and soak up some authentic Isaan flavour.