One of the most unique and colourful festivals in Thailand is Phi Ta Khon that takes place every year in Dansai in Loei Province. It is sometimes translated into English as the Ghost Festival as many people wear ghost masks during the processions. Really the festival is called Bun Luang which is a combination of two different festivals. These are Bun Phra Wet and Bun Bang Fai. The first is the continuous listening of thirteen sermons. The other involves the firing of rockets to ask for sufficient rain.
There are two theories about where the name “Phi Ta Khon” comes from. One is that it evolved from the phrase “Phi Tam Kon” which in English means “Ghost follows a person”. A long time ago, the Dansai villagers believed that ghosts came out of the forest to follow the Lord Buddha. Another theory is that because of the similarity of Dansai’s ghost masks with that of the Khon masks of Central Thailand, that they came to be called “Phi Ta Khon”.
The Phi Ta Khons wear a mask and a unique costume made by each villager. Over the years, these masks have become very intricate in design and also colourful. In the old days, the masks were thrown into the river at the end of the festival. But these days, the people use the masks as decoration during the year and then re-use them during the next festival. Every Phi Ta Khon has a weapon such as a sword which has a tip that looks like a penis. They also wear cow bells which make a noise as they do a kind of a rain dance.
In addition to the Phi Ta Khons, there are also others taking part in the procession. These two are the Giant Phi Ta Khon. Unlike the regular sized ghosts, there are only two giants. They must be male and female giant Phi Ta Khons. The male giant has a large penis which he teases the crowds with. Models of buffaloes remind people the importance of farm animals.
This group of men represent villagers who lived long ago in the forest. They have darkened their skin and are carrying short bamboo poles which they bang on the ground to make a noise. There are others carrying bamboo trays with mulberries or leaves used for herbal medicines.
Quite a few people in the parade have symbolic sexual objects which they use playfully with the crowd. In particular with the young ladies. In an agricultural society, the sex organs are the symbol of fertility. Villagers believe that playing with the symbolic sexual organs causes sufficient rain to fall in the rainy season. Some people also believe that this also helps to expel bad spirits.
The Bun Luang Festival takes place over three days. It begins with the ceremony to invoke Phra Uppakut. It is believed that this is the spirit that will keep the festival free of trouble. The ceremony is led by men dressed in white who are attendants to the spirit leader called Jao Por Guan. They go from Phon Chai Temple to the Man River where they dive into the river looking for the stone that symbolises Phra Uppakut. This is then brought back to the temple.
A little while later, everyone will come together at Jao Por Guan’s house for the Bai Sri ceremony which is the tying of white sacred threads around the wrist of the two spiritual leaders, Jao Por Guan and Jao Mae Nang Tiam, to wish them happiness, good health and good luck. After this ceremony has finished, the spiritual leaders will lead the procession to Phon Chai Temple where they will walk around it three times. The Phi Ta Khons also take part in this.
At dawn on the second day, local people dress up as Phi Ta Khon and cheerfully dance around the town. In the afternoon there is the Phra Wet worship procession. The parade is lead by the leader of the Por Saen holding the Bai Sri tray. Next comes a sacred Buddha image which is followed by four monks. Jao Por Guan is also in the procession sitting on a bamboo rocket. Bringing up the rear of the procession are the villagers wearing white.
Late that day, bamboo rockets are launched into the sky with the hope of bringing sufficient rain for their crops. There is also a competition to see whose rocket goes the highest. The day finishes with the throwing of the costume and masks of the two giants into the river. They believe this will rid the villagers of any bad luck. The third and final day is spent back at the temple where they listen to sermons about the 10 lives of the Lord Buddha.
Bun Luang and the Phi Ta Khon Ghost Festival takes place every year either at the end of June or early July. The actual date is worked out in advance during a ritual performed by Jao Por Guan, Jao Mae Nang Tiam, the Por Saen and the Nang Tang. This year, the festival will take place from 27-29 June 2014. If you get a chance, it is really worth attending this festival. I am really happy that I have been able to go twice already.