One of Thailand’s more unusual events, the annual Phi Ta Khon Ghost Festival is held in June in the north-east town of Dan Sai in Loei province. Travel writer and award-winning photographer, Mick Shippen, sheds light on this colourful Isaan festival.
Living in a ghost town
The return of Prince Vessandorn, the penultimate incarnation of the Lord Buddha, was unexpected. His prolonged absence had been taken by some as a sign that he had forsaken them, by others that he had perished. Upon seeing him again, villagers, overcome with emotion, rushed into the streets to celebrate his homecoming. Unable to contain their excitement, the noise from the cheering and laughter proved loud enough to rend the skies and waken the dead. Out of the forest came pi tam khon – the ‘ghosts that follow people’ – eager to join the festivities and show their respect to Prince Vessandorn.
I had always been under the impression that Thailand’s north-east, Isaan, was a flat and barren land. Yet here I was on the road to Dan Sai in Loei province, travelling across a range of rolling mountains that pushed up from beneath a thick carpet of bottle-green foliage. The sinuous line of tarmac to which I was attached stumbled forward with all the urgency of an amiable old soak. Rounding a sobering corner, the rice paddies on the fertile valley floor came into view. It was apparent that I was being carried toward a town that promised to be different. And so it proved to be.
For three days each year Dan Sai becomes a ghost town. Under the guidance of headman and shaman Jao Paw Guan, the people gladly welcome the annual return of the spirits and join with them in boisterous celebration. The day before the festivities were due to begin, I had sat with the headman at Pon Chai temple. While his followers, seated all around him, listened attentively this strikingly calm and handsome man welcomed my questions.
“Nobody is really sure how or when this festival came to Dan Sai but it is the only town in Thailand in which it takes place”, he explained.
The decision as to when is one that lies with Jao Paw Guan – and the spirits. Although usually held sometime during the fourth lunar month (June), the exact date isn’t usually announced until shortly before the event. Claiming to be in direct contact with the spirits, the shaman patiently waits for word of the most auspicious day before giving notice.
Not only is there a veil of secrecy regarding the exact origins and timing of the festival, things have changed in more subtle ways too. A little semantic shift has taken place.
“The pi tam khon have become pi ta khon or the ‘ghosts wearing masks’. Years ago, the locals began making masks so that they could conceal their identity and thus accompany the ghosts as they paraded through the town”, says Jao Paw Guan.
Early the next day, a devout few gathered to give thanks at the home of Jao Paw Guan while elsewhere the rest of the town’s population and that of surrounding villages prepared for what is perhaps the largest, loudest and most colourful undercover operation known to man!
“Twenty or thirty years ago the masks that people made were very plain. We used sticky rice baskets and, using soot and turmeric powder, decorated them with simple faces”, explained one of the locals. “The pi ta khon are traditionally friendly and playful ghosts. In the past it was once common for people to don their masks and enter people’s gardens to steal fruit”, he added.
As the procession began it soon became clear that cheap throwaway masks were no longer in vogue. Members of the present-day ghostly cortege obviously took their craft very seriously. What were once simple, almost child-like creations have evolved into a most elaborate form of artistic expression. The sticky rice basket still features but for the main elongated face, a dried frond from a coconut palm is used. Over the years the features, particularly the nose, have become extremely exaggerated. Beautifully and meticulously painted, the highly stylised masks are no longer considered a throwaway item.
“People used to discard the masks after the festival as it was considered bad luck to keep one in the house. Today, however, they have become prized possessions and the best ones can sell for thousands of baht at the end of the festival”, I was told.
By midday, the previously sleepy provincial town had been well and truly jolted from its slumber. Curiosities were plentiful. Men plastered with mud and adorned with necklaces of oranges and limes filed past, followed by groups of young boys painted black from head to toe but displaying the same taste in edible jewellery. The sight of thousands of people in kaleidoscopic costumes and ornate masks was a visually arresting, spiritually uplifting and, it must be said, a somewhat surreal experience. Here was the entire – highly visible – population of a town in joyous pursuit of the unseen!
To even the most casual observer or armchair anthropologist the festival’s connection to fertility – of the land and no doubt the townsfolk – through attempts to provoke the clouds into unleashing the season’s rain, is obvious. The procession is led by the pi ta khon yai, a pair of enormous ghost effigies both of which stand, undeniably and shamelessly, stark naked. In addition, many of the villagers carry with them wooden phallic symbols, the belief being that if a touch of good-humoured vulgarity is brought to bear on the proceedings it will encourage fon tok fa pa – rain and thunder.
In case this fails to gain attention or even bring a little blush to the cheeks of those on high, a contingency plan has been laid. On the third day of the festival bamboo rockets primed with an irascible powder leave a smoky grey rip in the sky, exploding with what is hopefully a cloud-bursting salvo.
Come rain or shine, the final stages of the festival take on a much more sedate and serious air. By the evening of day three many of the town’s older residents make their way to the local temple and listen to sermons relating to the life of Prince Vessandorn. The pi ta khon, meanwhile, slip quietly back into the forest where they will remain for another year.
All images in this article are copyright of Mick Shippen and used here with kind permission.
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Freelance writer & photographer
Mick Shippen is a writer and award-winning photographer from the UK. He is the author and photographer of several books including the ‘Enchanting Asia’ series. Known for his colourful, exuberant photos of South-East Asia, Mick’s images have appeared in a number of publications including Vanity Fair, NatGeo Traveller, the UK’s Sunday Times Magazine, the Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday, and numerous cookery books.
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