A festival of ghosts sounds like it could be a terrifying and dark event, but not in Thailand. At the Pi Dta Khon ghost festival hundreds walk around with vibrant colored costumes of mismatched fabric strewn together, long, intricately painted masks, and cowbells strapped around their waist while waving wooden phalluses. The festival takes place in Dan Sai, a small town nestled in the mountains of Loei province in Isaan, the area of Northeast Thailand. The quiet town completely transforms as crowds flock to see the spectacle of this unique festival. Its origin comes from the Jataka tails which recount the life of Buddha. Legend has it Prince Vessantara (the Buddha in his last former life) had gone on a long journey and was presumed dead. Upon his return the celebration was so lively and joyous it woke the dead. The festival begins by calling the spirit of Phra Uppakut, a forest monk who in his lifetime reached the highest level of enlightenment possible and was able to choose how he would be reencarnated. He chose to be a white stone and to live in peace and solitude. Today his spirit is considered to be a protector and guardian, thus keeping the town safe from evil spirits.
The festivities began in the early hours of Friday morning. We arrived at the local river at 3:30 a.m. and the ceremony had already started. About a hundred locals clothed in white were gathered around one of the elders who was sitting cross legged on a platform reading about the lives of Buddha by candelight. After about fifteen minutes or so the crowd move to the river as another member of the community submerged himself into the brown water in search of the white stone of protection. He quickly held it up as everyone joyfully cheered and a gong was struck. The leader descended from the platform and led everyone in a procession as they danced and played their drums to the local temple. Once arriving at the temple the group stopped at four different corners as the leader read more of the holy text and lit candles. At the first glimpse of dawn the gathering had moved to one of the local houses so they could give respect to the elders of the community.
The official opening of the festival took place around 9 am, as an MC made jokes to an audience of clothes and food vendors and the few foreigners that were still hanging around. People slowly trickled in until a loud commotion began and the group of white robed locals came parading through the temple’s gates carrying a large male and female puppet-like figure, both with large genitalia and disturbingly drawn faces. Following were hundreds of others dressed in the colorful ghost garb, bells clanging around the waist. The parade continued up the staircase and proceeded to walk around the temple three times, dancing and playing drums along the way. The opening cermony ended with traditional dance performances by different schools and a huge dance party as crowds gathered around taking pictures of the ghosts. The day was not yet over though, and by early evening the party had moved a short walk up the road as more and more locals joined the fun and showed off their creative costumes. A stage was set up and bass pumping music was played. Within a few minutes it started to rain, but that didn’t stop the celebration as the road turned into a dance stage for the ghosts.
Day two of the festival draws a large crowd as everyone from around the province flocks to see the big two hour parade. It was definitely a sight to see, but not nearly as charming or intimate as the day before. The streets were one big traffic jam and the spectators watching the parade were quickly swept up into it themselves. There was a lot of energy but we were glad to have participated in the events the day before. That afternoon rockets were shot off as part of the larger Bun Bang Fai festival that takes place throughout the Northeast region of Thailand, meant as a ceremony to pray for rain and fertility (hence the highly sexulized ghosts and phallic props being carried around throughout the festival.) The third and final day of the festival concludes with reading of the life of Buddha, prayers, and merit making. A quiet close for a wild and unique three days!