Phi Ta Khon – Ghost Mask Festival, Thailand

If hundreds of people wearing lurid, ghoulish masks with schlongish noses and shaking giant wooden penises doesn’t sound like a family-friendly event to you, then you’re clearly not from my family AND you’re not getting an invite to my next party.

I’d been desperate to see the Phi Tha Kon (ผีตาโขน) “Ghost Mask” festival in the northern province of Loei since I arrived in Thailand. It’s not that difficult to get to: a 1-hr flight to Loei followed by 1.5-hr drive to Dan Sai Village. But work kept getting in the way of my vacation (something I plan to address). And it doesn’t help that the date for the festival is divined each year (sometime between March and July) by local mystics. This year, however, the penises were aligned and the festival weekend was wedged between business trips to England and Singapore.

  

When we arrived on Saturday morning , the main road in Dan Sai was already filled with troops of Phi Tha Kon dancers wearing matching patchwork trousers and those utterly distinctive leering masks. This was just the “practice session” for the big parade on Sunday, but it was already a very festive environment. The Phi Tha Kon danced to techno music blasted from lorries bristling with speakers. They happily posed for selfies and family photos. They playfully menaced visitors with donkey-sized wooden dongs. Everyone was in a good mood, including my boys, who found the whole thing hilarious.

   

The festival was fun during the day, but at night, things really picked up. After getting the boys to bed (they were exhausted after such an early start), we returned to the center of town. The indefatigable Phi Tha Khon were dancing like crazy in the main square, and an open area near the town’s wet market had been converted into a raucous beer garden with live music on stage. And as usual at any big Thai event, the food options were delicious and super-cheap.

   

Sunday was the big parade day, and it was hectic. The number of people in the streets quadrupled. It felt like everyone from Loei and the nearby provinces had descended on tiny Dan Sai. We had to park a kilometer away from the parade route and it took 45 minutes to weave through the knots of tourists. The temporary bleachers erected opposite the main plaza were dangerously full, and even if you could find a seat, there was nothing to look at; the parade was already a few hours behind schedule. Fifteen minutes later we decided to give up; the boys were hot and hungry and getting grumpy.

  

On the walk back to our car, we stumbled upon a little secret: all of the parade participants were lined up down the road heading towards our hotel! They were bored too and happy to pose for crowd-free photos. In addition to the Phi Tha Kon, there were troops of “Mud Men”, festival princes and princesses dressed in beautiful traditional outfits, giant zombie figures and dozens of groups of school kids.
 
   
The Phi Tha Kon festival is Dan Sai’s big thing. Everywhere we looked there were vendors selling Phi Tha Kon T-shirts, coffee mugs, miniature Phi Tha Kon figures riding toy motorcycles. And of course I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to buy a real Phi Tha Kon mask…especially when it only cost Bt1200!
 
  
It’s not a stretch to call this the Mardi Gras of Thailand. But with a key difference: people behave themselves. Despite the liberating anonymity of wearing masks, the widespread drinking and the penis pistols, nobody got out of control. The festival was wild, but ultimately still conservative. Nobody was rude. It was sad to think that the same kind of event could never be pulled off in the USA or Europe without at least a few people doing something stupid.
 
My family will definitely be back for the Phi Tha Kon festival. And if you’re planning a trip to Thailand around that time, you should seriously consider making the trip up to Loei. You could combine it with a trip to the delightful riverside town of Chiang Khan and stay in a hotel overlooking the Mekong and Laos on the other side.
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