48 hours at Phi Ta Khon – Ghost Mask Festival, Thailand

Day One – Jun 24

Bangkok->Loei->Dansai

Since we first moved to Thailand 3 years earlier we had wanted to attended the Phi Ta Khon Festival otherwise known as the Ghost Mask Festival. Scott had seen pictures in a Thai magazine when we first arrived and said this is must. The annual festival is held in late June/early July and part of a larger 3-day festival called Bun Luang that has been celebrated for over 400 years. We had a difficult time attending in previous years as the dates are chosen from the agricultural calendar so the festival dates are only announced 3-6 weeks prior by the village elders. With 4 young kids, I’m a planner and rarely schedule trips last minute so this year I cleared our calendars for June and July to guarantee that we could make it.

-The festival is held in Dan Sai, a small Northeast town close to the Lao border and a 90-minute drive from Loei Airport. Our short early morning Nok Air flight from Bangkok to Loei was filled with government ministers so when we arrived in Loei we were greeted by dancers many of whom were wearing Phi Ta Khon masks. They did several performances and then took photos with the ministers and tourists. There weren’t many foreign tourists on the flight, so the ministers and dancers asked to take photos with us! They thought the boys were adorable and many of the dancers asked for selfies with them. At first the boys were a bit shy and slightly scared by the masks but then they saw a few of the dancers (mostly women) take their masks off so they felt more comfortable. Later when we attended the parade in Dan Sai, the boys were no longer scared of the dancers/masks as they realized it was just another person underneath. After nearly 30 minutes of watching the performances and taking photos, we grabbed our bags and went in search for our rental car. Since Loei has a tiny airport, it was easy to spot the car rental agencies just outside of the terminal. After 15 minutes of paperwork, we drove off in our 7-seater car and followed Google Maps to our hotel.

 

The roads are surprisingly good to Dan Sai and google maps was fairly accurate in their estimate. It took us closer to 2.5 hrs as we had to go back and get Scott’s driver’s license (make sure you get it back from the rental agency) and stopped to buy fruit, honey and snacks along the way. The Northeast Isaan area is an agricultural region where you’ll see fields of crops, rice and fruit. Street-side stalls were selling dragon fruit, pineapple, oranges, honey and mangos. I couldn’t resist buying pineapple and oranges which were incredibly sweet and much cheaper than in Bangkok as well as three bottles of honey.

As we approached Dan Sai, we saw more Phi Ta Khon adverts, statues and people riding motorbikes with their brightly colored masks. Traffic was a bit congested getting to our hotel once we reached the town as the one-lane streets were filling up people and dancers.

Our hotel, Phunacome Resort, is usually just a short 5-minute drive into town but during the festival it took anywhere from 15-30 minutes due to traffic from closed roads and general congestion. We dropped our bags at the hotel and headed out to the festival.

You could hear the thumping bass music as we approached the town. Walking down the streets were groups of villagers in frightening masks and dressed in colorful jumpsuits made from spare rags/cloth with tin cans and bells hanging. The masks are quite large, where the headpiece is often made of woven sticky rice containers and the wooden face is painted in colorful and often grotesque styles. The dancers often carried a phallic accessory shaped from a sword, stick or gun which are symbols to encourage good rains and crop season. The parade is also believed to bring good luck to the village so it seemed all the locals had joined in the festivities in an otherwise sleepy town. There seemed to be 10-15 in each group of dancers who would wear the same outfits. They’d often be followed by a truck blaring out loud bass music. These groups would literally stop traffic when they passed as tourists and cars stopped to take photos. The kids were amused by the dancers although it was uncomfortably hot outside so they preferred to watch the action from the bleachers in the shade. We left the kids with the nanny while we walked closer into town to take more shots and searched for masks for the kids. In between groups of dancers we’d pop into a store or back into the 7/11 for cold drinks. 7/11 and other convenience stores were killing it during the festival as it was boiling out. I eventually bought four paper Phi Ta Khon masks (20B each) as we were unable to find real kid-sized masks being sold along the road.

With their masks on, the boys joined the groups of dancers walking down the street. Everyone had a smile on their face and many danced along with the costumed dancers. The dancers had fun taking photos with the boys and thankfully none of the boys noticed the penis shaped sticks some of the dancers were carrying. Although the schedule of events said that there would be a parade from 11-2 and a performance from 2-4 there seemed to be no organization among the dancers. It must have taken each group of dancers over an hour to work their way from the Phon Chai Temple where they started the parade to the covered bleachers in front of the Dan Sai District Office. I was surprised that cars were still allowed to drive down this road but again this is Thailand…

After nearly two hours in the hot sun, we were all exhausted and hungry. Along one of the sois off the main road there were a few restaurants. We chose the larger one which served up the usual selection of Thai dishes and the boys were happy eating chicken rice or noodles. The dishes were decent and the prices were much cheaper than in Bangkok. As we all started to feel the onset of food coma, we headed back to the hotel for a swim.

  

We spent the next few hours relaxing at the hotel. We swam for a bit and then we went back to the rooms, read, drank wine and unpacked while the boys ran around the extensive grounds. After the boys ate dinner, Scott took the boys on a critter hunt armed with flashlights. They were gone for almost two hours and they explored quite a bit of the surrounding area (including a walk through the rice fields). I’m glad I covered them with mozzie spray and pants although they all came back with bottom of their pants covered in burrs. They saw lots of frogs, enormous and furry caterpillars, and fish in the lake. Thankfully the frogs were too fast to catch.

After we got the kids showered and in bed, Scott & I headed out to see the night festivities. We were not disappointed. The stage that was earlier empty was now filled with various Thai bands. The main street was blocked off and filled with vendors selling all sorts of food, drinks and souvenirs. Masked dancers as well as it seemed everyone in the town and surrounding villages were walking and dancing in the streets. There was a tented market on one of the sois that I hadn’t noticed during the day that sold all sorts of Phi Ta Khon related souvenirs and the usual Thai market vendors selling food/snacks, cheap Chinese crap, toys, clothes and mobile accessories. Hidden amongst this market was a vendor selling real Phi Ta Khon masks and dolls. There were a few other vendors on the main road which sold lower quality masks but these were authentic and inexpensive considering the amount of work that went into making it. Scott couldn’t resist and bought one.

On the other side of the road another soi led to a huge outdoor beer garden with about 50 tables leading up to a stage filled with a popular local Thai band. On the edges of the beer garden were vendors selling noodle soups, grilled meats & seafood, fried chicken, skewered fish balls/tofu and other snacks. Each table had from 4-8 chairs around it with happy revelers and in the middle of each table was a beer tower. On one table, one of the dancers had placed their mask over the beer dispenser so it looked like beer was coming out of the mask’s mouth.

I now realized that most of the dancers were male and that their merriment could be from a few beers before they paraded through town. Nonetheless everyone was in good spirits and sure that most were enjoying the festivities well into the night. The music was loud but thankfully as we turned onto the road of our resort, it was blissfully quiet.

  

Day Two – Jun 25

Dan Sai

After a lovely breakfast at the hotel we drove into town at 9’ish. By then the roads were already congested as the main road through the town had been closed off. We chose to park closer to where we thought the parade would be starting. It seemed like there were about ten times as many people as there were the day before. As each group of dancers walked down the street to the start of the parade, tourists would stop them to take their photos or to do selfies with them. The day before it took Scott & I about 20 minutes to walk down the road but it would take closer to 45 minutes as there were so many more people and vendors crammed into the tiny streets of Dan Sai. It was also quite difficult to keep track of the kids. I’m glad I brought my nanny as Scott & I were trying to take photos/videos so it was difficult to keep an eye out on the kids. Tourists were mostly walking down the street with the vendrs although some had smartly found a shady sitting spot on the sidewalk.

We finally reached the covered bleachers and the main stage after about an hour and a half in the blazing sun. On the main stage there were groups of dancers mostly from overseas (Indonesia, Malaysia, China) entertaining the officials/ministers seated around the stage. It was impossible to get close to the stage and we were quite low on the bleachers so it was hard for the kids to see anything besides throngs of people. After another 30 minutes there was still no sign of an organized parade although there were a few barriers set up along the road but only the locals seemed to be waiting behind them or seated in the bleachers. There were some ominous looking clouds approaching and so we parked the kids with the nanny in the bleachers. Scott & I finally decided that we should take the kids home and we would come back to take photos later as we were all hot and drenched in sweat.

While Scott was heading back to get the rental car, the parade finally started. The first few floats were dedicated to the late King Rama IX and the royal family. The floats were enormous and impressive, some even had up to six people riding on top. As people got tired or hot, they left their spots on the bleachers above us so we finally moved up high enough to have a good view. We were only able to enjoy the views for about 10 minutes before Scott phoned that he was nearby and we needed to meet him at the edge of town which at best would take us 15 minutes. As we rushed to meet Scott we passed by many of groups of dancers, some of whom we hadn’t seen the day earlier. The parade was moving so slowly they were backed up on the road coming into town for about three kms. Along the way to meet Scott I took some great shots of the dancers, most were bored waiting and were happy to see the boys in their Phi Ta Khon t-shirts and masks.

We spent the next few hours relaxing and cooling down at the hotel. It poured for about an hour soon after we got back and were relieved we weren’t stuck in the parade during the storm. The schedule said that at 3pm they would be lighting off rockets which was a part of the festivities. We thought it be best to leave the kids with the nanny and have them eat at the hotel. Rockets and young kids didn’t seem like a good mix. By the time we left the hotel at about 3:30, most of the tourists were heading home. There must have been about 10,000-15,000 tourists in Dan Sai for the festival, most of them Thais from the neighboring villages/provinces. I was surprised that only about 5% were foreign tourists. As we walked into town it started to rain again. Thankfully we made it to a coffee shop when it really started to pour. There were still a few dancers walking along with some tourists on the streets. We chatted with a German man with a Thai wife who said it was their 4th time to the festival and he had never seen any rockets launched. At one point, two floats passed by with about 50 officials following behind down the road but other than that the parade was now officially over. We waited a bit longer for the rain to slow and then headed to a restaurant we walked by earlier for dinner.

 

While I went to the bathroom Scott ordered from the menu which was only in Thai. The staff were bemused to see him to write the order (in Thai) on the notepad they left at the table and then later repeat back the order to confirm. The dishes were good although much spicier than I usually like my larb gai and som tam but we’re in the Northeast where it seems that locals just like everything more spicy.

By the time we finished our dinner, the rain had stopped. As we drove into town to buy drinks/snacks at the 7/11, we saw the main stage area was now filled with masked dancers who were happy to be outside again after the rain. It seemed like the festivities were not yet over although for us we were ready to get back and get a good night sleep before our early flight back to Bangkok.

Note: Kids under 5 may be frightened by the elaborate masks. Also bring ear-plugs especially if your child is sensitive to noise. Click here for other tips.

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