The Spirit Festival of Dan Sai

by Daniel Fraser

In late June a group of us friends from Bangkok made a 14-hour journey up to the remote northeast section of Thailand, known as Isaan. Our destination was the small town of Dan Sai located in Loei Province, where we would take part in one of the most interesting and unusual Thai festivals in the Kingdom, known as Phi Tha Khon.

Phi Tha Khon, or ghost procession, is part of a colorful and VERY bizarre

Wild masks are the highlight
Wild masks are the highlight

merit making ceremony performed annually by the peoples of northeastern Thailand. The three-day event is said to honor the guardian spirits of the city, who, according to legend, died together after eloping through village tunnels centuries earlier.

A local spirit medium named Jai Phaw Kuan (also the caretaker of the one of the village temples for the rest of the year) is said to channel information from the spirit deities and conducts the weekend event in their honor. It is also believed that those attending the festivities will receive the mercy and blessing of the town guardian spirits.

Eagerly anticipating all of the antics, we arrived a day early but the only lodging we could find was a rustic set of cabins on the outskirts of the village of Dan Sai. Swarms of Thai visitors began arriving several days earlier and the tiny village quickly became a muddy roadside parade of Thai tourists, locals, monks, vendors, children, farmers and colorfully-clad festival participants who dressed up as what looked like Shakespearian demons. The young men of the community dress in this manner to portray the images of the ghosts believed to be present during the festival.

Covered in mud
Covered in mud

Local spirit medium, Jao Phaw Kuan, led an early morning merit-making ceremony at the village wat and then a parade of followers attended somber thread-tying ceremonies at his home. In festive Thai tradition the streets then became filled with dancing, parading and a general cacophony of music, banging pots and noise-making instruments said to summon supportive spirits.

Being one of only a handful of westerners at the event, I was struck with the eagerness for the Thais to involve us in the festivities. It seemed everywhere you turned an ambitious local was pouring us a glass of lao kao (a white liquor that is capable of launching a Sputnik). Though not a thirst-quencher by any means, it seemed as though the lao kao did help boost the energy-level and endurance of the event’s faithful. There was street dancing, temple marching, musical performances hosted on rickety road-side platforms, costuming parades and phallus waving. And it seemed to go on non-stop through all of Saturday and Sunday. The purpose of the giant phallus waving at the event is really anyone’s guess these days, but some have claimed it blesses the fertility of all those present (or maybe that was the lao kao, one can’t be sure). In any case, the festival certainly invited individual creativity into the spirit worship and it brought out some of the most unique characters I’ve seen in Thailand.

On the second morning of the festival Jao Phaw Kuan’s shamen wife, Jao Mae Nang Tiam, lead a marching ceremony around the town wat. Crowds gathered to join the procession and take part in more dancing and partying. The temple march is said to bring luck and harmony to all participants. One man was dressed as a wooden water buffalo and proceeded to playfully charge at the crowds. This fellow was accompanied by a small troupe of farmers who had attached giant wooden phalluses to their farming equipment as decorations.

The group made several theatrical charges around the temple grounds and when the music, dancing, parading and praying all reached a frantic peak in front of the temple, they toppled on top of one another making a hysterical wooden water buffalo-phallus-plow-combine-human sandwich. It was a symphony of movement – locals, children, parents and monks alike joined in the festivities with varying levels of enthusiasm. But ALL had fun, let there be no doubt.

Perhaps the strangest part of the event (although many of us are still trying

Joining the festivities
Joining the festivities

to decide on what the strangest part was) was the Bumper Car derby held near the festival temple on the Saturday evening. Swarms of teens (and a few Canadians!) steered electric Bumber Cars around a course crammed with eager partygoers dancing to music blaring from giant speakers. The result was something like what you’d see if you set 50 Bumper Cars loose in a packed nightclub. The excitement and hilarity did cause some spectacular collisions between the Bee-Boppers and Bumper Car enthusiasts, but miraculously no one suffered any injuries. Perhaps the local spirits were looking out for us that weekend indeed!

The Phi Tha Khon festival combines so many of the enchanting mysteries and unusual theatrics that really define Thailand. It was a memorable event is should not be missed by anyone visiting the Kingdom during the month of June.