Phi Ta Khon Festival: A Photo Essay
The Phi Ta Khon Festival (ผีตาโขน) traces its origins to the ancient practice of ancestral worship, where the villagers of Dan Sai engaged in a series of merit-making rituals to honor and appease the guardian spirits.
Believing that the rituals were essential for the well-being of their community, the villagers diligently made offerings to the spirits, seeking protection and prosperity. It was firmly understood that if the Phi Ta Khon rituals were not held annually, the consequences would be dire, ranging from illnesses to droughts leading to famine and other misfortunes.
Over time, Phi Ta Khon has manifested from solemn rituals into a joyful celebration born out of a vivid homage to the guardian spirits of Dan Sai. For the villagers, the festival acts a spiritual anchor that bonds the community with unity and harmony, inspiring both morale and hope. For travelers, the festival is a vibrant, unique, and fun-filled event that shouldn’t be missed.
Morning Alms at Wat Phon Chai: merit-making holds great significance in the lives of the villagers of Dan Sai, who deeply believe in its power to bring protection and prosperity. According to their tradition, by making merit to the town’s guardian spirits, they ensure a smooth and bountiful existence. As a result, the Phi Ta Khon processions can only commence once the villagers have invoked good karma through their offerings of food to both spirit shrines as well as local Buddhist monks.
This act of offering sustenance to the spirits and monks is a sacred ritual that sets the stage for the festivities to come. It’s seen as a way of expressing gratitude, seeking blessings, and generating positive energy to ensure a prosperous future for the community.
Wat Phon Chai to Chao Pho Kuan: the procession from the temple to the city shrine featured villagers that walked in unison with individuals dressed in distinctive and striking costumes known as Phi Ta Khon Yai, also referred to as the “big spirits.” These remarkable costumes feature large cloth-covered bamboo frames that are adorned with symbols of fertility, including representations of both men and women’s genitalia, which also serve as a form of protection against malevolent spirits.
To be chosen as a Phi Ta Khon Yai is a great honor and privilege bestowed upon individuals by the spirits themselves. Those selected must fulfill this sacred duty for three consecutive years, further adding to the significance of their role. The process of being chosen as a Phi Ta Khon Yai is seen as a spiritual calling, and those who embrace this role with dedication become an integral part of the festival’s rich tradition.
Baci (Spirit Summoning) Ceremony at Chao Pho Kuan: as Dan Sai’s spiritual leader and head male medium, Father Kuan led a revered summoning ritual along with Mother Teem, the village’s head female medium. Together they performed a series of long and complex chants in Pali that were punctuated by symbolic food offerings and candle lightings to the Pha Kwan, a handmade marigold pyramid, as a gesture of gratitude and respect.
Once the meditative Pali chants were completed, the villagers began tying dozens of white sacred threads (sai sin) around the wrists of both mediums as traditional music and dance broke out within the shrine’s walls. The threads were meant to bring good luck, protection, and unity to the mediums, as they symbolize the binding of the wandering spirits to their bodies.
*Pali is a dead language of ancient India in which Gautama Buddha preached and the Buddhist scriptures were written and preserved.
Directly outside of the shrine, the Phi Ta Khon Leks began to gather and dance to live music as they waited for Father Kuan and Mother Teem to lead them to Wat Phon Chai.
The Mini Parade to Wat Phon Chai: after the completion of the Baci ceremony, the spiritual leaders led a procession to Wat Phon Chai where they walked around the ubosot (main temple) three times in a clockwise direction, imitating the daily movement of the sun. This act of circumambulation, known to Buddhist’s as pradakshina, is believed to purify negative karma and ward off malevolent spirits.
After the pradakshina was completed by the entire community, the Phi Ta Khon Leks began dancing again as the sound of traditional music filled the air – rhythmic beats of drums and cymbals set the tempo for the procession.
Phi Ta Khon Grand Parade: on this auspicious day, the villagers eagerly awaited the arrival of the revered spirit of Phra Upakhut at Wat Phon Chai. To commemorate the arrival of this powerful and benevolent spirit, the Phi Ta Khon participated in a grand parade that wound its way through the streets of Dan Sai.
The high-octane parade was akin to a boisterous and spirited block party. It was a true celebration where age-old customs blended seamlessly with modern-day festivities, creating a unique and unforgettable experience for both the locals and visitors alike.
*According to Buddhist folklore, Phra Upakhut was a monk who attained enlightenment and became an arhat. He had the power to perform miracles but chose to live in seclusion, until King Asoka the Great (268 to 232 BC) summoned him to protect a seven years, seven months, and seven days celebration from evil spirits. Since then, summoning Phra Upakhut during important Buddhist ceremonies has become a widely established practice.
Buddhist Sermons at Wat Phon Chai: on the final day of the Phi Ta Khon festival, the villagers came together to participate in the reading of the Thet Mahachat, a sacred occasion led by local monks. It consisted of a series of 13 enlightening sermons and merit-making rituals, that served as a heartfelt tribute to the guardian spirits of Dan Sai.
Through the spiritual guidance of the monks, the occasion was a deeply meaningful and introspective experience for the villagers. It embodied the essence of their spiritual beliefs and cultural heritage, fostering a sense of spiritual connection and unity amongst the people.
*Thet Mahachat is a ritual recitation of the Vessantara Jakata, the story of Buddha’s final incarnation before he became Siddhartha Gautama.
According to a dissertation from Rajabhat Institute in Loei, the researcher proposes that the tradition of wearing “ghost masks” originated in Luang Prabang and has been passed down generationally for decades. Although, the true origin of the mask is still unknown.
Traditionally, the Phi Ta Khon mask was made from a bamboo steamer that was carefully folded into a taco-like shape with punched holes for the eyes. The mask was then adorned with a long and pointed nose made of a piece of wood meant to resemble an elephant’s trunk, as well as two horns made from dried coconut husks. For creative effect, the mask would be painted to look fearsome but over time the customs have changed and the masks are now designed to look “fun.”
Where To Stay: hotels in Dan Sai sell out quickly once the festival dates are announced (within days). If you’re unable to secure a hotel in Dan Sai, staying in Phu Ruea District is your second best bet as it’s only 30 minutes away by car and a beautiful place to stay.
When To Visit: the Phi Ta Khon Festival (ผีตาโขน) changes dates every year, but is typically held at the end of June or the beginning of July. You’ll need to call Loei’s Provincial Office of Tourism to confirm the exact days (Thai speakers only).
Getting Around Dan Sai: there’s not many options for motorbike or car rentals within the city – Grab also doesn’t function here and there’s not an abundance of tuk-tuks like in Chiang Khan. To explore Dan Sai you’ll need your own wheels, so you can either hire a driver in Mueang Loei, rent a car from the airport, or just bring your own vehicle from the get-go.
Parking Fees: 40-60 baht for motorbikes/cars.
Admission Fees: all attractions are free for both Thai and foreigners.
Wat Phon Chai Address: วัดโพนชัย หมู่ 1 บ้านเดิ่่น ตำบล ด่านซ้าย อำเภอด่านซ้าย เลย 42120
Tip #1: given that Phi Ta Khon is a religious event, make sure to dress respectfully and follow the usual Thai temple etiquette when at Wat Phon Chai and Chao Pho Kuan.
Tip #2: day 1 and 2 of the Phi Ta Khon festival are the most action-packed, with day 1 being our favorite since there were only a few hundred people (vs a few thousand on day 2). Day 3 doesn’t offer anything “special” for travelers and could be skipped in good conscious – it felt like it was meant to be a more of an intimate day for the villagers only.
Tip #3: during all three days of the festival, there are hundreds of street food hawkers selling fair-priced snacks and meals all throughout the soi that the grand parade is held on. Be sure to try some local delicacies while you’re there.