Phi Ta Khon, the festival of ghosts in Dan Sai, Loei
Western visitors to Thailand are immediately impressed by the striking manifestations they see of Buddhism in the kingdom. They generally visit some brilliantly decorated Buddhist temples, and in the early morning may witness shop owners and housewives along the streets offering food, placing it in the alms bowls of a line of passing monks. In their guidebooks they usually read about some basic Buddhist teachings, such as the wisdom that all suffering results from greed and craving, the concept of the Middle Way, and about the Law of Karma. They soon realize that Buddhism touches almost all aspects of Thai society and, consequently, they are inclined to interpret everything ‘Thai’ they observe as, somehow, an expression of the Buddhist philosophy.
In reality, Thai religious and social life involve much more than the teachings of the Buddha, and include ancestor, spirit and other ‘animistic’ cults, as well as the worship of numerous Brahmanic and Chinese deities, legendary kings and charismatic monks. These elements are mostly completely integrated, and where not, they co-exist peacefully. Such religious syncretism is actually more widespread than an exclusive and strict adherence to the Buddhist precepts and philosophy. Furthermore, a variety of activities may take the guise of Buddhism. For example, when people bring offerings to the replica of a Theravada temple in their home compound, they actually are engaged in paying reverence to a spirit residing there.
The Phi Ta Khon ‘festival of the ghosts’ in the remote, small town of Dan Sai in Loei province, is not only one of Thailand’s most vibrant and colourful festivities, but also a fascinating hybrid of various beliefs and rites. Most conspicuous during this festival is a Halloween-style mummery performed by local young men who wear colourful masks and dress in strange robes of patchwork rags, to enact the part of fearsome ghosts. These youngsters dance, cheerfully taunt and tease the crowds of onlookers, and often enjoy rather more than just a few snifters of rice whisky or one can of beer. Much of this carnivalesque activity takes place in the compound of Wat Pon Chai, the temple in the main street of the town.
What is the meaning of all these ghosts roaming around? Here enters the Buddhist element. Essentially, the festival is based on the Vessantara Jataka. According to Chiang Mai-based resident and Vessantara Jataka-expert John Cadet, who has made a decades-long study of such local phenomena, this may be the ‘world’s oldest living epic’. It features Prince Wetsanthon (Vessantara in Pali), the Buddha’s penultimate reincarnation, who exemplified the Buddhist virtues of kindness and generosity. Such was his generosity that one day he offered his father the king’s white elephant to a drought-stricken neighbouring country, for the elephant possessed the miraculous power of bringing rain wherever it was ridden. When the people heard of this ‘selfless act’, they were furious and demanded the prince be banished. During his exile in the forest, the prince continued to be an exemplar of generosity. He no sooner had a possession than he parted with it in order to achieve the self-perfection that would lead to Enlightenment. At last, the king and people repented of their anger and invited the prince to return. In the city he was welcomed by a huge procession and great rejoicing. The people of Dan Sai have adapted this story to include the many wild forest spirits who had benefitted from his generosity. So they joined in the procession and, essentially, it is this part of the story which is re-enacted during the Phi Ta Khon festival.
One episode in the Vessantara Jataka is probably also the clue to the overwhelming fertility symbolism during the celebrations. It is the prince’s act of giving away the white elephant, the country’s revered rain-making palladium, which enraged the people, as without the animal they feared drought and famine. No wonder, then, that the festival takes place in June or early July, at the beginning of the rainy season, when the farmers plough their paddies and plant the rice. Plenty of rain is then an absolute prerequisite for a bountiful harvest.
Traditionally, the essential energy for ploughing the fields was supplied by water buffaloes. Although during the past decades virtually all have been replaced by motorized ploughs (the ‘iron buffaloes’), the powerful animal with its huge horns has survived as a symbol of virility associated with the fertility of the land. In the second day’s major procession of the festival one sees models of water buffaloes made (like hobby-horses) from cloth being ‘ridden’ by farmers who charge towards the onlookers. What’s more, the group of — usually drunken — ‘mud men’ in the procession represents the fertility of the paddy, as they literally carry its soil on their bodies.
Everywhere evident is the phallus, prime symbol of fertility. Most ghosts brandish a large wooden one with bright red glans penis, and sometimes girls in the street are chased with them. Especially among the younger ghosts, the phallus may be replaced by a mock sword with a red pommel. The variety of phallic objects in the procession is rather impressive. I have seen them as big as a small cannon, and being transported on wheels, while many pistols and shotguns had a phallic appearance. Then there was the combination of a phallus with wooden puppets which, by means of a simple mechanism, made copulatory movements. Even a wooden camera carried by a ‘photographer’ exposed a sizable wooden one (like a cuckoo popping out of a clock) when he took a snapshot.
An intriguing hybrid of fertility symbols was exhibited by one ghost wearing the lower jaws of a water buffalo protruding from his groin. As many performers wear a belt with iron cow bells or tin cans filled with small pebbles dangling from it, their excited dancing to the rhythm of northeastern folk music or Thai pop songs is accompanied throughout by the ringing and rattling sounds of a herd of water buffaloes.
Farmers in the parade may mime comic acts in which elements of human sex and daily activities in the countryside are mixed. There was the angler with a wooden phallus dangling from his line as bait, and I remember well the two middle-aged men wearing traditional blue cotton shirts, straw hats and rubber boots — the characteristic outfit when working the muddy fields — who mimed copulation with a large wooden phallus and a vulva adorned with bristly pubic hairs created from the husk of a coconut.
These modern versions of age-old fertility cults are much enjoyed during the festival.
In addition, the launching of bamboo rockets should be regarded as another fertility ritual. At the end of the hot season, rocket festivals are organized all over Northeastern Thailand. During the spectacular rocket festival of Yasothon, the celebrations also include parades of mud men. When fired, the phallic rockets are believed to stimulate the rain-producing powers to begin performing their duties.
Some aspects of the procession reminded me strongly of the Songkran celebration (traditional New Year) in Luang Prabang in Laos, also basically rain-making rites (such as the throwing of water) combined with Buddhist rituals. Two large human figures with conspicuous sexual organs were almost identical to the fertility mascots of the former royal Laotian capital. These similarities should not come as a surprise, since Dan Sai was formerly part of the Lan Xang kingdom — its people even speaking in a Lao dialect almost identical to that of Luang Prabang.
The Phra That Si Song Rak also bears witness to the age-old ties with Luang Prabang. This sacred white pagoda is on the top of a low hill just outside Dan Sai and is believed to enshrine a relict of the Lord Buddha. It was built in the mid-sixteenth century as a symbol of friendship between Ayutthaya and Lan Xang at a time of frequent Burmese encroachments into the Chao Phraya and Mekong valleys.
During the Phi Ta Khon festival the 30-metre high, lotus-shaped monument with cubical base attracts many visitors who bring offerings. At its base one will see many ton phueng, chedi-shaped offerings made from the stem of a banana tree and decorated with flowers folded from thin sheets of orange wax. Also characteristic for Dan Sai (as well as Luang Prabang) are offerings of special candles that are long and flexible enough to encircle around one’s head. No monks reside at the Phra That, instead the site is tended by a medium and his followers who represent the guardian spirit of Dan Sai. This let spirits the people know — through the medium — the date Phi Ta Khon should be celebrated annually.
Over recent years, the festival has attracted increasing numbers of Thai and foreign tourists. At Wat Pon Chai, information about the history of Dan Sai and the festival, and about how the masks are created, is now on display. (Each is shaped from the stem of the frond of a coconut palm. A long carved wooden nose is attached to it and the mask is completed with a strange headset made from a woven bamboo container used to steam sticky rice. Then, both headgear and mask are painted in brilliant colours in a wide variety of designs.)
Local institutions like sub-district administrations, banks and schools now send their representatives to take parts in the parade. There may be contingents of traditionally dressed Hmong girls from a nearby mountain village and of endlessly smiling local girls in their best silk gowns and made up as if for a Miss Thailand contest. In 2004, there was even a special homage to Her Majesty Queen Sirikit in commemoration of her sixth cycle (72nd birthday). These incursions of organized Bangkok-style culture have somewhat changed the character of the festival, but the carnavalesque fertility rites still dominate. During the festival in 1995, prior to the parliamentary elections, an opportunist candidate hoped to exploit Phi Ta Khon by asking a group of ghosts to parade a large banner displaying his name. Unfortunately for him, the youngsters were soon too drunk to perform their duty and just dragged the banner along the dusty road.
During the celebrations a few years ago, many stalls promoting handicrafts and local food lined the streets. Even Mama instant noodles were promoted, which — one has to admit — somehow has become Thailand’s national food. Most intriguing was the large campaign of Carabao Daeng (‘Red Water Buffalo’, then a newly launched brand of energy drink), since its buffalo-head logo chimed in with the fertility symbols. Numerous promotional campaign staff were dressed in ghost outfits with the logo displayed on headgear and white tunic. As it is almost identical to the logo of Thailand’s legendary rock band Carabao, it also created a link with their famous songs about rural life. The Carabao song about Phi Ta Khon played continuously over speakers along the street, further integrated this energy drink with the age-old fertility rites.
One may regret this commercialization, yet on the other hand, such developments are also fascinating to follow. One may even wonder how the festival will evolve, when, one day, even the paddies with their iron buffaloes might have disappeared. One of the ghosts, partly lifting his mask and making obscene gestures with a phallic object, may be one of the clues to the future. On noticing that his object lacked the characteristic red knob, I realized the guy was actually just talking on his mobile phone.
©Sjon Hauser: text and images
Dan Sai is about 500 kilometres from Chiang Mai. Following Highway 11 past Uttaradit, the most direct way to get there is to turn off to Thong Saen Khan, and onwards to Ban Phae. From there follow Highway 1143 via Chat Trakan to Nakhon Thai. Highway 2013 leads to Dan Sai. During the busy festival it is virtually impossible to find accommodation in Dan Sai. However, Loei, 80 kilometres east of Dan Sai, has several big hotels. But the best alternative choice is Falkland Resort at Mueang Pharae (Na Haeo District), just 35 kilometres north of Dan Sai—see the article Top 5 accommodatie (in Dutch).