Phi ta Khon Festival – Thailand’s Answer to Halloween

Picture thousands of people dressed up as monsters, roaming the streets of a tiny village in northeastern Thailand. Giant ears, huge hooked noses, and foot-long spiked teeth sprout from their masks. Their chin-to-toe costumes are sewn from scraps of cloth into a kaleidoscopic patchwork of colors. Many carry wooden truncheons shaped into phallic symbols. Others brandish mock swords. Strings of bells or tin cans hanging from their belts add to the cacophony. Whenever anyone raises a camera, the costumed characters stop and strike an evil, threatening pose. This is Phi ta Khon, a festival held once a year in Thailand’s northeastern province of Loei.

Costumed character at the Phi ta Khon Festival in the village of Dan Sai, Loei Province, Thailand

Though it might sound slightly threatening, it’s all in good fun. Phi ta Khon, which some call “Thailand’s answer to Halloween,” is part of the larger Bun Luang Buddhist merit-making holiday. The origins of festival are murky. Some say the events were originally meant to invite protection from Phra Upakut, the spirit of the Mun river. Others point to the legend penned in the great epic, Mahachat Khamluang: The Great Birth of Lord Buddha. It tells the tale of King Sanjaya, who sent his son, Prince Vessandorn, into exile as punishment for giving away the kingdom’s revered white elephant.

Costumed participants at Wat Phon Chai circumambulate the Wat three times in a counter-clockwise direction
Costumed participants at Wat Phon Chai circumambulate the Wat three times in a counter-clockwise direction
Costumed participants at Wat Phon Chai in Dan Sai
Costumed participants at Wat Phon Chai in Dan Sai
Traditional dance troupe performs at Wat Phon Chai in Loei Province
Traditional dance troupe performs at Wat Phon Chai in Dan Sai
Phi ta Khon masks are made of a bamboo steamer folded into a hat-like shape. Holes are punched for the eyes and a long, pointed nose is carved from wood to resemble an elephant’s trunk. Horns made from dried coconut husks.
Masks are made from a bamboo steamer folded into a hat-like shape. Holes are punched for the eyes and a long, pointed nose is carved from wood to resemble an elephant’s trunk. Horns are made from dried coconut husks.
Phi ta Khon masks displayed in the courtyard at Wat Phon Chai in Dan Sai
More masks displayed in the courtyard at Wat Phon Chai in Dan Sai

Prince Vessandorn was the incarnation of the Lord Buddha prior to the most resent reincarnation of Buddha, whom we know as Gautama Siddartha. Though the angry subjects of the King had demanded he be punished, they grew alarmed by his long absence and feared he had perished. When the Prince finally reappeared, villagers were so overcome with emotion that they rushed into the streets to celebrate. Their cheers and laughter were so loud that they woke the dead. Pi tam khon – ghosts that follow people – came pouring out of the forest and joined the festivities to show their respect to Prince Vessandorn.

Costumed man poses in front of a parade float that features a Phi ta Khon Yai
Costumed man poses in front of a parade float that features a Phi ta Khon Yai
Another float awaits the start of the festival's parade
Another float awaits the start of the festival’s parade
Local men in costume pose in front of a parade float that features a huge Phi ta Khon mask
Local men in costume pose in front of a parade float that features a huge Phi ta Khon mask

Although originally terrified by these ghostly spirits, the locals soon realized that all their bad luck had vanished after the spirits returned to their forest home. Over time, phi tam khon became phi ta khon and the festivities became associated with fertility and abundance, for both crops and people. Today, locals in the village of Dan Sai celebrate the Phi each year on the anniversary of their first appearance by dressing up in fierce costumes and parading through the streets.

Costumed characters roam the streets in Dan Sai prior to the parade stepping off. Pirates? Ghosts?
Costumed characters roam the strets in Dan Sai prior to the parade steppineg off. Pirates? Ghosts?
This troupe focused on social messages. Their signs declare don't smoke quit drinking and be a teacher
This troupe focused on social messages. Their signs declare “Don’t smoke,” “Quit drinking,” and “Be a teacher.”
Young girl awaits her turn to perform at Phi ta Khon Festival
Young girl awaits her turn to perform at the Festival

Costumed figures come in two varieties. Phi Ta Khon Yai (large Phi Ta Khon) are giant naked effigies that display erect wooden penises, oversize balls, and breasts. The genitalia are a symbol of fertility rather than obscenity, thus the Phi ta Khon Yai always lead the parade. People who play Phi Ta Khon Yais must receive permission from a ghost to do so. They perform the duty every year for at least three years. At the end of the festival the Phi Ta Khon Yai are thrown into the Man River to ensure that all misery and bad luck float away. Phi Ta Khon Lek (small Phi Ta Khon) refers to people who dress up as ghosts and join the parade.

Phi ta Khon Yai figures
Phi Ta Khon Yai (large Phi Ta Khon) are double the size of a person
Phi ta Khon Yai teases onlookers with his giant penis
A Phi ta Khon Yai teases onlookers with his giant penis
Locals apply the finishing touches to a pair of Phi ta Khon Yai figures
Locals apply the finishing touches to a pair of Phi ta Khon Yai figures

Bun Luang/Phi ta Khon is typically scheduled for the first weekend after the sixth full moon of the year, which usually falls in the month of June. But the exact date is chosen by the great local ancestral spirit Chao Saen Muang and conveyed through a medium called Chao Por Guan. Sometimes, the spirit doesn’t cooperate, refusing to reveal the date of the event until the last moment. As a result, few foreigners even know about the festival, much less attend.

Parade performer rests before the crowds start to gather
Phi ta Khon Lek performer rests before the crowds start to gather
Close-up shows the level of detail that goes into the making of a Phi ta Khon mask
Close-up shows the level of detail that goes into the making a festival mask
Phi ta Khon masks are displayed on rubber cones along the parade route in Dan Sai
Masks are displayed on rubber cones along the parade route in Dan Sai

This year, the spirit seemed reluctant to decide. Due to Covid restrictions, the event had been cancelled in 2020 and 2021. Would it be allowed in 2022? The town held its collective breath as the government decided. Finally, the edict came down. Phi ta Khon was on! But by the time the news was translated into English, every single hotel room in Dan Sai had been booked by Thais who had the benefit of being able to read the news in Thai. Still, I wasn’t about to be deterred. I finally found a cabin for rent at a Farm Stay in nearby Phu Ruea.

Women gather in the central square of Loei gather for the opening ceremony of the Phi ta Khon Festival
Women gather in the central square of Loei, the Provincial capital, for the opening ceremony of the Phi ta Khon Festival
Troupe of young performers don a different kind of mask at the opening ceremony in Loei
Troupe of young performers don a different kind of mask at the opening ceremony in Loei
Women in traditional Pha Sin hand woven skirts graciously pose for a photo
Women in traditional Pha Sin hand woven skirts graciously pose for a photo
Three thumbs up and one thumbs down from Phi ta Khon costumed characters
Three thumbs up and one thumbs down from costumed characters

The opening ceremony was held in the main square of the provincial capital of Loei. On day two, festivities moved to the tiny farming community of Dan Sai, where most Phi ta Khon events are held. I arrived early enough to avoid the massive traffic jam and joined the parade heading to Wat Phon Chai, where the costumed characters circumambulated around the temple three times in a counter-clockwise direction. In addition to attracting participants from every Tambon (district) in the province, groups had traveled from as far away as Laos, Cambodia, and even China, to participate.

Phi ta Khon costumed characters from China
Phi ta Khon costumed characters from China
This group wears traditional costumes from northern Laos, where the festival originated
This group wears traditional costumes from northern Laos, where the festival originated
Some people wear animal body puppets like horses, elephants, or buffalo
Some people wear animal body puppets like horses, elephants, or buffalo
A group from one Tambon (district) in Loei wear traditional blue cotton Mor Hom attire and carry implements that represent their way of earning a living - chicken coop baskets and fishing poles
A group from one Tambon (district) in Loei Province wear traditional blue cotton Mor Hom attire and carry implements that represent their way of earning a living – chicken coop baskets and fishing poles
Men from a Tambon where rice growing is the main occupation cover themselves in mud and smear onlookers with it
Men from a Tambon where rice growing is the main occupation cover themselves in mud and smear onlookers with it

Throughout the morning, representatives from the Tambons performed cultural dances on a stage set up at the Wat. Meanwhile, thousands upon thousands of visitors streamed into the main street to await the main event, a miles-long parade featuring floats, costumed characters, and groups dressed in traditional attire from every Tambon. The crowds were massive by the time I made it to the main viewing area. Rather than try to see over a sea of bodies, I wrangled my way to the front of the crowd and simply joined the parade, walking backwards to take photos of the various groups.

Women perform traditional dances along the parade route
Women perform traditional dances along the parade route
Some Tambons carry poles with mobiles woven from colored yarn along the parade route
Some Tambons carry poles with mobiles woven from colored yarn along the parade route
Phi ta Khon Festival king and queen ride atop a float in the parade in Dan Sai
Festival king and queen ride atop a float in the parade in Dan Sai
Float slowly makes i ts way through immense crowds at the parade
Float slowly makes its way through immense crowds at the parade
Following two years of cancelled events, thousands of onlookers flock to Dan Sai to witness this year's Phi ta Khon Festival
Following two years of cancelled events, thousands of onlookers flock to Dan Sai to witness this year’s Phi ta Khon Festival

Following the parade, rain-making rockets rockets were launched into the sky to appease Phaya Thaen, the main god of the Isaan region where Loei Province is located. A happy Phaya Thaen sends rain that ensures fertile crops and the well-being of the local folks. I had planned to attend the rocket launching ceremony, during which the medium Chao Por Guan sits atop the largest rocket as it is carried to the launching site, but the massive crowds had exhausted me. Instead, I fled the hubbub for a popular Thai restaurant where my driver and I feasted for less than $10.

Phi ta Khon parade troupe with wooden swords do their best to appear scary
Members of a troupe carrying wooden swords do their best to appear scary
A favorite at any parade, the balloon vendor
A favorite at any parade, the balloon vendor
Group wearing traditional Pha Sin (woven wrap skirts) and bamboo hats dance in the street
Group wearing traditional Pha Sin (woven wrap skirts) and bamboo hats dance in the street
Masks and costumes come in myriad colors and designs
Masks and costumes come in myriad colors and designs
Phi ta Khon Festival participant strikes a menacing pose
Phi ta Khon Festival participant strikes a menacing pose

On the third and final day of Phi ta Khon, locals flock to the temples to hear monks give sermons about the ten lives of Buddha. Those who attend are said to earn merit, which in turn helps them to be released from the Wheel of Samsara (the Wheel of Suffering). In other words, they have a greater chance that they will not have to suffer rebirth after they die. Since my Thai is not (yet) good enough to understand the sermons thoroughly, I skipped day three. We headed out early in the morning for our eight-hour drive back to my home in Chiang Mai, stopping only at roadside stands along the way to stock up on the delicious Dragon Fruits that are grown in Loei Province.

Locals wave goodbye as I leave Dan Sai
Locals wave goodbye as I leave Dan Sai

To learn more about the history and significance of the Phi ta Khon celebration and rituals, this article published by the Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn Anthropology Centre is excellent.

7 thoughts on “Phi ta Khon Festival – Thailand’s Answer to Halloween”

  1. Wonderful photos Barbara of such a wonderful festival.
    Hopefully we can meet up next year when I am in Thailand for my son’s wedding – late August hopefully. Not sure if you will be able to direct me to the site of this festival???

    Reply
  2. Barbara, you have opened up a colorful slice of Thailand in photos and your narrative of the festival. I continued saying to myself, ‘I wish I were there,’ followed by, ‘but this is like being there.’ I’m in awe of your outstanding in-depth journalism.

    Reply
  3. I loved every word and every picture…..outstanding! How I wished I knew about this celebration while I was there. What a great experience and how wonderful that you were in the thick of things…..great job, Barbara! Excellent blog!!!!

    Reply
  4. Outstanding, interesting narrative of this event. Loved the masks! I visited Thailand in the 70’s. Such a magical place! Your description of the festival and people inspire me to visit again. Thank you for sharing your experience. ?

    Reply
  5. Outstanding, interesting narrative of this event. Loved the masks! I visited Thailand in the 70’s. Such a magical place! Your description of the festival and people inspire me to visit again. Thank you for sharing your experience. ?

    Reply
  6. Didn’t know about this festival, Barbara. So glad you attended and wrote about it. Your photos are fantastic, as usual! You have really travelled around Thailand since everything reopened. Love hearing/reading about your travels. Thank you!

    Reply

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