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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
The following images are pre-parade with people getting their allocation of selfies for social media:
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.
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.
The other Thai festival restriction is that they happen in urban areas and the backdrop is just so unattractive.
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.