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Trip Report Phi Ta Khon - The Ghost Mask Festival

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It seems nobody has posted about this, so I thought I'd give you a short trip report for future reference.

The Phi Ta Khon, or "The Ghost Mask", festival is rather well known in Thailand and is one of several distinctive festivals promoted by the Tourism Authority. It is unique to the town and district of Dan Sai in the northeastern province of Loei. I've been wanting to go for years, but it's always been difficult to plan.

Part of the difficulty used to be timing. Traditionally the exact dates for the festival were fixed by the town elders only a few weeks beforehand. With prompting no doubt from the Tourism Authority they've now fixed the date as the first weekend after the sixth full moon, which is usually the end of June or very early July. You should be able to find the dates for the next festival easily.

The other hard part is getting there. The nearest airport is an hour away near Loei town, but there were only one or two flights a week available there. The next closest is Phitsanulok, two hours away, and Udon Thani a little further. Since I had no reason to rush, I decided to do a loop: Fly to Phitanulok, stay for two nights, take a bus to Dan Sai, then after the festival, stop for one night in Nong Khai before flying out of Udon.

Flew Nok Air to Phitanulok. They're currently the only option. There's not much to see in the city, so it turned out that with the early flight in, two nights was a bit much. I stayed at the Ayara Grand Palace, which was new and okay. There aren't really that many options, although I did note a new-ish 'boutique' place on the river. The main sights include two ancient temples, a Buddha foundry and a rather interesting folk museum.

There were buses every two hours to Dan Sai, and the trip took a little over two hours. It's a rather scenic drive, and the bus was comfortable enough for the length of the trip. Picking a place to stay in Dan Sai was difficult. There aren't many choices, and the Dan Sai municipality web site was the main reference for a list of possibilities. The main problem was finding a place that was close enough to where the action would be, as it seemed some of the resorts on offer were actually some distance from town. The other issue was cost. Since the festival is the main event for the area, a few of the places raise their rates (sometimes drastically) for the period. Rather than pay 1,500 Baht for a crappy bungalow that's overpriced at 500, I decided to go for Phunacome Resort, which I could tell was close to town. It turned out to be the perfect choice. The resort sits on a small hill just above town. It was a five minute drive into town, and even close enough to ride a bike (free from the resort) into town and beyond one day. The concept of the place is a little like the Four Seasons Chiang Mai - a few rooms set in a sort of farm-like setting. Really beautiful. You can find lots of pictures and my full review here:
http://thailandforvisitors.com/isan/loei/dan-sai/phunacome-resort.php

The festival: Nobody seems to know the exact origins of the festival, but it combines elements of several other Isan festivals with the entirely unique procession of masked men. The main event is a big procession through the middle of town of men and boys (and these days, some girls) dressed in the colorful ghost mask costumes. The costumes consist, traditionally, of a patchwork jumpsuit and a mask made from a rice steamer and palm trunk. There's a 'naughty' element to this, with many of the masked men carrying large wooden phallic objects, though I think this has been toned down in recent years. The procession on the first day lasts for hours and ends at the main temple in town, where there's some traditional games and dancing.

The second day is really just a scaled down version of the first day, except in the afternoon the elders bring out a small rocket. I took a bike out from the resort and went to see some of the outlying temples and a bit of the countryside. For photos of the festival, you can check my blog post:
http://chiengfa.com/journal/2011/07/11/phi-ta-khon-the-ghost-mask-festival-2011/

Leaving Dan Sai, I took the bus into Loei town, where I had assumed that there would be a direct bus to Nong Khai, as it's a neighboring province, but there weren't any, so I had to take a bus to Udon Thani and then on to Nong Khai. The bus to Udon was a bit of an ordeal, as the driver kept stopping to pick people up, even after the bus was packed with people. It got very uncomfortable, and took forever. There's not much to Nong Khai either, but it was quite pleasant after the other two small towns. There were plenty of places to eat, or just relax with a coffee.

I'm glad I finally got to Phi Ta Khon, but I'm not sure I'd go again. Next year, I have my sights set on the rocket festival in Yasothon.

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