Phi Ta Khon Festival: A Photo Essay
The Phi Ta Khon Festival (ผีตาโขน) originated as a form of ancestral worship – a series of merit-making rituals where villagers must make offerings to the guardian spirits of Dan Sai. If for any reason Phi Ta Khon was not held annually, then it was believed that Dan Sai would be subjected to wraths such as illnesses, insufficient rain leading to famine, and more.
Presently, Phi Ta Khon has manifested into a joyful celebration born out of a vivid homage to the spirits of Dan Sai’s ancestors. 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 is a very important part of life for the villagers of Dan Sai. The local people believe that if they make merit to the town’s ancestral spirits, their lives would go smoothly and be bountiful. Therefore, the Phi Ta Khon processions are only able to take place after the villagers have invoked good karma by offering food to the local Buddhist monks.
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 special costumes (large cloth-covered bamboo frames) known as Phi Ta Khon Yai or the “big spirits” which bare the genitalia of both men and women as symbols of fertility as well as protection against evil spirits.
To walk as a Phi Ta Khon Yai, an individual must have been chosen by a spirit and must perform the duty for three consecutive years – it’s considered both an honor and a privilege.
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).
Once the Pali chants were completed, the villagers began tying dozens of sacred threads around the wrists of both mediums as music and dance broke out within the shrine’s walls.
*Pali is a dead language of ancient India in which Gautama Buddha preached and the Buddhist scriptures were written and preserved.
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 Ba-si ceremony fully wrapped up, the spiritual leaders led a procession to Wat Phon Chai where they walked around the ubosot (main temple) three times in a clockwise direction. This act of circumambulation, known to Buddhist’s as pradakshina, is believed to purify negative karma and ensure a favorable rebirth.
After the pradakshina was completed, the Phi Ta Khon kept dancing ilometers from the top, the park’s rangers have set up a makeshift roadblock with an accompanying parking lot for visitors. From the parking lot, you have two options to reach the peak: 1) pay 10 baht and take a gas-guzzling cramped songthaew all the way up or 2) take the nature trail and walk underneath a beautiful rainforest canopy.
Phi Ta Khon Grand Parade: on this day, the villagers believe that the spirit of Phra Upakhut will arrive in Dan Sai and Wat Phon Chai, specifically. To commemorate the arrival of this powerful and benevolent spirit, the villagers dressed as Phi Ta Khon parade cheerfully around Dan Sai while dancing at a high-octane to traditional folk music. Essentially, the grand parade is a giant block party that’s steeped in rich cultural ties.
*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, villagers will attend the monk-led Thet Mahachat – a series of 13 sermons that are meant to dedicate merit offerings to Dan Sai’s ancestral spirits for both protection and good fortune.
*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 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.
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.