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Every year in the small town of Dan Sai, in the hills of Loei province, a three-hour drive from us, a unique festival is held called Phi (Spirit) Ta Khon or Ghost Mask festival. It is an event I have been wanting to attend for several years but each time something else was happening that prevented us getting there. Last year was looking good and then my stepdaughter Peng had major surgery scheduled for exactly that period. I fully expected something to come up this year but we actually made it so I thought I would share the vibrant colours of the day.

Dan Sai, Loei Province in the northeast of Thailand

The basis for this event is supposed to go back to Buddhist traditions as described on Wikipedia as:

…………………………ascribed to a story of the Vessantara Jataka in which the Buddha in one of his past lives as a prince made a long journey and was presumed dead. The celebrations on his return were so raucous as to wake the dead. 

The current connection with “waking the dead” is that large numbers of locals dress up in costumes with lots of bells hanging from their belts and wearing large handmade masks made from rice baskets. This is unique to Dan Sai, so if in the area it is worth the trip for the day. Previously the date for the event was a bit hit and miss (I read it was decided by local spiritmen reading the signs) but now it is set to be on the first weekend after the sixth full moon, which in theory has the next one on the 7th of June but check closer to the time.

Firstly let me qualify the event so that if you do make the effort to get there you understand what you will see. The main procession is held on day two of the three-day event. The parade itself is great and very photogenic BUT it only lasts a bit over 30 minutes, something the other blog sites that review this event don’t tell you. The rest of the day can be taken up with the large markets that come with any Thai festival, which if you are new to Thailand is always dynamic and interesting. However, if you are living here then you will see nothing that you won’t find in your own markets or at any other market across Thailand, mass-produced stuff, much of it originating somewhere other than Thailand I suspect. None of these markets I have seen have a “local” flavour or handicrafts, which is disappointing. I, therefore, found that seven hours on the road for a 30 minute parade a bit of a letdown but having said that I did enjoy that part of the day and I think the following photos reflect why.

We left home early with Yuan, Lud (my in-laws) and Peng, my stepdaughter, so we had a full car. For those locals driving from east Isaan heading west to Dan Sai, probably down highway 210, which is much improved these days west of Nong Bua Lamphu, make sure you take the 2140 route off the 201 (the main road to Loei city) left just after Wang Saphung (your GPS may select this route – ours didn’t). This is a small very rural road with a decent surface that takes you through lots of small villages, rubber plantations, sugar and rice fields as well as scenic hill country. Worth the drive just in itself.

The 210 through Wang Saphung, right onto the 201 and then almost immediately left onto the 2140 to Dan Sai.

I don’t know if it happens every year but this weekend coincided with a huge motorbike rally so the roads were packed with both a lot of big bikes and also normal scooters being ridden flat-out by teenagers, which gave some extra excitement to the trip. We were waved through an accident involving a farang who had a scooter totally underneath his four-wheel drive, so I hope that wasn’t as bad as it looked. For those who have driven Thai roads you will know that there is an element of those bike riders who have the urgent need to meet Buddha earlier than expected.

For motorbike fans this was one of the big bikes we spotted in Dan Sai.

A bike that matches the rider!

All the streets were packed like this with “real” bikes.

My last big bike photo. This one was being riding by a Thai navy guy who had come up from Bangkok for the event. The price of a small car these things.

I had misread a schedule for the day, which had the procession starting at 10:00 am, so we ended up with hours to spare. When in rural Thailand there are usually only two options for the sightseers, markets and temples. In Dan Sai the choice of quality temples is limited, but there is one called Wat Neramit Wipattasana that I rate as one of the most impressive I have seen in Thailand (and I’ve seen a few!), which is one of my “Best Wats in Isaan” post on the blog HERE and Google Maps HERE The photos below show you why.

The fact that such an impressive wat has been built and maintained in a small town in the middle of nowhere is an indication of the status of the monk who originally established it.

We didn’t make it there this time and instead called into one we hadn’t seen before, which wasn’t worth the time (in my personal opinion).

Wat Phra That Sri Song Rak has some history attached to it, which in a country where anything older than 50 years is seen as ancient – me included 🙂 – similar to Australia, which is very limited in real historical architecture. However that didn’t translate into a visual feast in this case.

The entrance.

I didn’t even bother taking a photo of the Buddha shrine. It has significance to Thais, which is as it should be, but to an outsider it was badly maintained and unattractive. I prefer to tell it as I see it in this blog, not out of disrespect but because for anyone actually basing a visit on my words you may as well be fully informed. I have gone to several wats using a farang’s written recommendation and then wondered what drugs they were on when they originally posted their review. With this one in Dan Sai I was the only person from my group to at least have a look. The others remained at the bottom of the steps, which is perhaps a review outcome in itself.

The pagoda complete with monk.

We then the drove into town, a short distance and parked in a field rented for that purpose by a local entrepreneur for 100 baht ($4.00) a day. I was still thinking the parade was about to get underway any moment at that stage, but with nothing immediately happening we wandered the markets and the small wat at the centre of the festivities.

This is an illustration of my point about the lack of local cultural influences in the markets here. You will find exactly the same merchandise in Dan Sai, Chiang Mai or Phuket markets. Good for tourists but not if you want to discover the “real” Thailand.

More cultural items imported from China.

Eureka. These are hand “painted” (they actually use coloured felt pens and then varnish them) bamboo money boxes. I bought two (the lady is holding mine), not because I have any money to put in them, but I was so surprised to find anything approaching a one-off that I had to support the guys whose idea it was. They are a little touristy but nicely done and are now in our garden rice hut retreat.

On the table?

The artwork was being done out the back. The varnish applied later kept the “painting” in place.

Youngsters enjoying the day. Thailand must be one of the most phone obsessed countries in the world, and that’s a placing hard to achieve. 

This photo was taken outside the temple around which the festival happens. Heaps of people so it was a busy place to be.

Inside the wat. Small but neat.

And outside people were making offerings watched by a few monkettes or mini-monks as I call them.

Back into the markets I came across this shop, which was theme based and nicely presented. One of the few places that were cashing in on the festival itself. The better quality masks were selling for 2,000 baht plus so expensive by Thai standards but at least they were original.

Or slightly cheaper options for the cash poor.

A Dan Sai cowboy shop! How Thai is that 🙂 The American cowboy culture is big in Thailand and you will come across hats and boots in the oddest of places.

We meet our first ghost. Lud here.

Yuan and Peng with a non-living ghost, if you see what I mean!

The ghosts were happy to get involved in photo moments, which suited the Thais of course and one farang!

Peng and Gaun jumped into someone else’s photo for this shot.

Colourful is what it’s all about and a photographer’s delight.

I had to be quick to capture this shot, which is why it’s a little blurred. This young girl suddenly spotted her first “ghost” character and it shows!

There were both individual ghosts characters and coordinated teams. I believe there was a judging process happening for the groups. These masks are made from wicker baskets, rice containers and other add-ons.

A huge range of colours and designs.

The following images are pre-parade with people getting their allocation of selfies for social media:

Some of the masks were pretty basic but others were more elaborate.

Lud and new friend.

Phallic symbols are part of this as well as the Bun Bang Fai festival I have covered previously. I am not sure this scene would be replicated in the west 🙂

The procession itself got going mid-afternoon and although brief it was an enjoyable event and I was pleased we caught it. I won’t add too many words to the following photos because it is all about the images.

My sort of police-person. She was leading the parade. I am sure enrolments in the force increased post-festival as a result either because of the officer or the transport.

Stunning costumes with a backdrop of Thai ugliness.

Only the one formal dance group in the procession, but it was a big one. Beautiful and graceful as always.

Thais have a natural ability to enjoy themselves in most situations.

Because the parade had lots of people running in to take selfies, which drives me crazy, it was almost impossible to take wide angle shots without having non-participants cluttering up the photo. The shots I have are largely close-ups as a result. Grrrrr.

It’s all about me.

The other Thai festival restriction is that they happen in urban areas and the backdrop is just so unattractive.

Still it was no hardship with this sort of beauty on show.

One more. These flower arrangements will be offered at the temple at the end of the parade.

One of the better masks. Great aren’t they.

Rather than buy from one of the few places selling them I think that if you went around at the end and offered 1,000 baht for a mask you’d end up with a taker at some stage.

Good one.

See the phone on the right? I had to battle with other spectators as well as the selfie crowd. My life was hell to bring you these images 🙂

A lot of effort had gone into this short part of the overall festival.

A slightly different design.

This sort of thing was happening as the parade was on the move.

Parade basically finished I hasten to add so Peng wasn’t cluttering up the scene for others.

So there you have the Dan Sai Ghost Mask festival. I class it as a “been there, done that” event but I do recommend it for it’s uniqueness and vibrancy for first-timers. Keep in mind that the main event happens later in the day if markets aren’t your thing. Do make sure you visit Wat Neramit Wipattasana. It is worth the trip and situated on the outskirts of Dan Sai so easy to get to.

Thanks for reading.