Phi Tha Khon Festival 2017
Otherwise known as the “Ghost Festival”, this Buddhist holiday is a 3-day event where the locals make merit. Over the course of the event, they invoke protection from the Mun River spirit, participate in costume and dance contests, have parades, drink, eat, and wave phallic "guns" around, a symbol of power and fertility. (You'll see these guns in a few of the pictures.) Because the town’s mediums select the dates of the festival, the exact dates change each year, but it’s typically in May or June.
For more information on the origins of the festival, there's a good article about it from Thaiways Magazine.
Day 1: 2 Days Before the Festival Begins
Where We’re Going: The festival is located in the most western part of Loei province, in a district called Dan Sai (ด่านซ้าย, it literally translates to “Left Side”, which is… appropriate).
Where We’re Staying: I managed to find and book a camping site (Mountain Green Resort) with some tents available for rent very close to area where the festival was primarily going to take place.
How to Get There and Around: We did the hour flight to Loei from Bangkok instead of the 10+ hour drive to the province. Originally we were going to rent 3 motorbikes to get around but they only had 1 left.
The total amount of bikes they had? 3.
We rented a car.
we're hungry. Let's go eat in the middle of a lake
It’s a 2 hours drive from the airport, so we stocked up on drinks and “drinks” (i.e. bottle of Hong Tong, soda water, and a 1L bottle of wine) at the nearby Tesco, and then headed towards the district. Robbie and I had come to this province previously for the New Year's holiday 2 years ago (which I’ll eventually put a post up about), so we recommended a spot for lunch: the Huai Krathing Reservoir.
Typically not a spot you’d think of for lunch, but the local entrepreneurs have used the picturesque reservoir as a backdrop for their floating pavilions. It’s a fantastic arrangement: you order your food and drinks ahead of time, get on your raft house, and then they pull you out into the middle of the lake. A powered longboat will come by in a short while to bring the food and drinks that you ordered.
You’ll eat on the floor, Issan style on straw mats. We ordered some typical Issan dishes: som tam, laab (minced meat salad dish), moo dad deaw (sun dried pork, an Issan style pork jerky), a (presumably) local fish, and of course sticky rice.
And oh, did you forget to order steamed rice? Do you want more beer? There’s a phone number you call to add to your order. They'll send a longboat out to deliver it to you. It’s also the number you call to tell them to bring you back to shore.
The weather was wonderful, the food was delicious, and we weren’t in a city. So we stayed out in the middle of the reservoir for about 2 hours and then headed back to the car to continue our drive to our campsite in Dan Sai.
Huai Krathing Reservoir
It’s a little off the route to get to Dan Sai province from the airport, but it’s totally worth the extra 20 minutes to the drive! Coming from Loei City, going along Highway 21, turn right at the sign for the reservoir.
Originally just for irrigation, the locals have made it a relaxing local spot to eat. There seems to be a few different spots available for lunch, but the one we went to was “แพพ่อบ้านระเริงชถ” or “Phaa paw-baan ra reung chot” which literally translates to something along the lines of “Cheerful Rafting House” or how they have it on their English menu: “Head of the household raft rejoices the water”.
They had a flat fee of 200 THB or so (depends on the group size) to rent out the entire raft for as long as you wanted and then add the cost of whatever food and drinks you order. You’re also welcome to get out into the water. If you’re not a strong swimmer, they provide life jackets too.
Phone number: 0808109313
Sleeping in Tents, Under the Shining Silver Insulation
We arrived around 5pm to find that although we were in tents like they said, they had relocated all the tents under the roof of a to-be Issan dance hall. It truns out that our rented tents weren’t rain ready, and since the forecast predicted it over the festival weekend, this was their way to keep everyone dry.
But also hot.
Not surprisingly, many people sleeping in tents under a roof that has sliver roof insulation creates a fair amount of heat. They gave us some strong fans.
Before dinner, we took a quick trip into the town to see what it looked like and where the temple (Wat Phon Chai) for the festival was. While we were walking down the main street, we found a shop that had a few people painting masks, getting ready to sell them for the festival goers. They had some amazing masks, including a tiger one which I think really suited Abigail.
After grabbing some dinner nearby, we turned in kind of early for the night (around 9pm or so). We’d start tomorrow with the sunrise at Phu Ruea!
Day 2: Ghost Festival Eve
Phu Ruea, the Coldest Spot in Thailand
We started the day with the sunrise at Phu Ruea, or “boat mountain”, a nearby mountain at one of the national parks in the province. Some more friends from Bangkok arrived late in the night and one of them, Flo, joined us to go to the mountain. It’s a drive almost to the top and then the final kilometer or so is on foot (or a truck will drive you to the top for a small fee.) It’s an easy walk.
Phu Ruea boasts that it’s the coldest place in Thailand. It definitely felt that way when we were there in December, but it being June, it was still cold (at least for our Bangkok acclimated bodies), but not freezing. I’m glad I brought a long sleeved shirt!
There was a fog that we had to walk through to get to the top. Combined with the fact that we seemed to be the only ones there for the sunrise, it made the whole morning really special. From one side of the mountain the sun was peeking in and out of the heavy clouds that blocked the views of the valley below. Another side had less cloud cover and the valley was stunningly on full display.
Phu Ruea National Park
You’ll most likely pass the entrance to the park on your way to Dan Sai province on Highway 21. The park entrance sign is a little hidden among the signs along the street. It’s 200 THB or so for foreigners to enter the park and you can rent tents and cabins at the visitor’s center if you want to stay within the park grounds. The visitor center is little bit of a drive from the entrance from the highway.
Opens at 5AM
Male Lions and Women-Friendly Temples
Eventually we headed back to camp. Some of us went to take a nap, the others proceeded to have coffee and breakfast. We all reconvened after lunch at Wat Neramit Wipatsana, a Buddhist temple with some well-manicured grounds, golden murals on the window shutters, and apparently one of the few temples in Thailand built with laterite (it looks like red brick). Other than a few other visitors, we were the only ones exploring. It was serene, charming, and hot.
Fun moment: discovering that the Singha, or guardian lions that protect the temple, were, undoubtedly, ah, male.
Afterwards we visited the nearby Phra That Sri Song Rak, one of the oldest structures in the province. The name means “Stupa of Love from Two Nations” and it stands where the border between Thailand and Laos used to be in the late 1500s.
As it’s a symbol of friendship between Thailand and Laos, wearing the color red (viewed as a symbol of bad luck/violence) into the temple is prohibited. And if you’re a woman, they, ah “strongly prefer” you don’t enter while you’re on your period. Yes, that’s a thing. And no, this isn’t the only temple (in Thailand or other countries) that has that rule.
Finding a Communist Temple Instead of a Waterfall
The group wanted to go swim at a waterfall and apparently the highest rated one (on Google) that was worth the drive was in the next province over in Phitsanulok. The waterfall was a failure – it apparently closed earlier in the day and it cost 500 THB for foreigners to enter the park anyway.
But on the way there we passed a highly unusual structure. The name of the establishment is “สามแสงธรรม ธรรมอุทยาน” or the “Third Light Dhamma Park”. On Google it’s listed as “Sam Saeng Tham Bureau of Monks”. It looked like the place wasn’t really a tourist attraction despite the unusual structure facing the main road.
Our little exploration around the grounds attracted one of the caretakers of the place and she offered to let us into one of the buildings. She allowed us to explore the 3 floors and I tried to understand her explanation of the significance of the design. It’s something about the soul and how it can ascend to Buddha? Maybe?
The lower level was “underwater”, with the floor covered with tiles designed to look like sand and pebbles. The ceiling was painted in such a way to make it look like you’re looking at the sky from beneath the surface of the water. There’s even a watery blur of an airplane.
The ground floor was, I guess “Earth” or maybe the “Earthly plane”. The walls were covered with arranged cut stems of bamboo shoots and the center of the floor a platform for a pictures celebrating Thai royalty. The lighting was done in such a way that the daylight coming in through these small portals in the ceiling would create intersecting glowing rings on the floor.
The top level was something along the lines of “heaven”. We were in a lotus flower looking towards a palace or temple in further above in heaven.
It’s times like these where I wish I my Thai was more fluent and I could ask pointed questions about the design and the concept. I mean, I always would like to be my Thai to be more fluent, but typically I can get by enough where it’s not really a problem.
Before we were about to leave, the caretaker that had allowed us in had alerted the head caretaker of our presence and he asked if we could take a photo all together, in front of the building, to show the architect of the complex.
In doing some additional research on the place while writing this post, I found a blog post of someone’s motorbike trip through the area . They mentioned something about a communist fighter and had given a link to a newspaper article from 2006 about its inception.
It turns out the place was created by a former communist rebel turned monk. He uses his temple as a way to teach the locals. “I mix Marxism, communism and Buddhism to teach people in the village to manage their lives to get out of the vicious circle of capitalist exploitation.” Not only that, the temple is also a meeting place for former communist fighters to have their reunion every year.
I wonder what they did with the photo they took of us.
To end the day, we watched the sun set over the campground turning the sky into a mixture of pinks, yellows, and purples. We then headed into the town to see the locals get ramped up for the start of the festival tomorrow. After watching some traditional Thai performances by some of the district’s students we headed back to the campsite to start the day at 4AM when the monks would come out to start the festival.
Day 3: Phi Tha Khon Festival Begins!
We got up at 8AM. Damn it.
During breakfast we got our first hint of what was to come. Coming down the street, surrounded by people dressed in white tops and traditional Thai bottoms, were two large human-like figures, one presumably male and one presumably female. The male one kind of looked like he was chasing the female one with his large, red…um, penis.
After they passed by, the street returned to its generally quiet state. There were occasionally people walking around the street dressed as the Thai ghosts, although with their masks off, but we didn’t know where they were going or coming from. Did we miss everything?
Asking different shop owners gave us different schedules as well. It wasn’t when we got to the temple that we found the official schedule for the festival. A copy of the schedule is in the gallery to the left (or above if you're on mobile).
So it turns out that we missed the formal stuff in the morning, but there was still the parade and performances to come later in the day.
International Masks and Drunk Mud Men
Alongside the Phi Tha Khon Festival, Loei also hosted the International Mask Festival. Seven countries participated: Laos, Cambodia, Indonesia, South Korea, India, the Philippines, and Malaysia. We had seen the banners celebrating this other festival, but didn’t really pay much attention to them.
While we were exploring Wat Phon Chai and the various booths and stands inside (we got to dress up as Thai ghosts!), they paraded in, country by country. Leading the way was the return of the giant white figures from this morning. According to the festival’s museum at the temple, these are the “Phi Tha Khon Yai” or “Big Festival Ghosts”.
The countries came in one by one to lots of picture taking and amusement, but it was the Philippines that really drew some attention. It reminded me of something from Carnival in Rio de Janeiro or some Las Vegas show, except with more skin coverage.
After they all arrived, more Thai ghosts entered the temple grounds, all dressed in long, brown robes instead of the colorful, piñata-like jumpsuits. Some of them were carrying brown metal poles, which they used in unison to keep a beat to their chanting and singing.
Mixed in with this crowd of ghosts, drawing lots of attention were seemingly very drunk, dancing topless men, completely covered in mud. I’m not completely sure what they signify, if there’s any symbolism to be found at all. Maybe it just sounded like a fun idea to come to the festival covered in mud.
As a show of respect, all the countries’ performers and their fans, walked or danced around the main temple building three times, counterclockwise. After that came the performances.
It looked like we missed Thailand’s performance while we were watching the circumambulating, but we got to see most of the other performances. The organizers were mindful of their audience – they had one Thai-speaking presenter and one English-speaking presenter describing the history and story behind the dances.
Afterward, hungry for lunch, we headed back to the campsite to change, get food, and rest/drink before heading out again for some nighttime festivities. The locals seemed to really enjoy this time to drink, eat, and just let loose. There were definitely a few drunk Thai ghosts stumbling home that night.
Day 4: Time to Go but the Party Continues On
With our work schedules, we had booked flights to return to Bangkok Sunday afternoon so we missed the final day of celebrations before they end the festival with a series of sermons by the local monks. Some of our group got to stay longer and based on the pictures and videos, it looked like the entire town basically continued drinking and partying into the next day.
We wanted to make the most of our time left in Loei and so we managed to find a mountain close to the airport that we could do a quick hike up. It’s called Phu Bo Bit Forest Park and according to Lonely Planet’s article, there are 600 steps. Abigail counted. They lied. There are more than 600 and parts of the climb don’t have steps (think inclined ramps) so it’s kind of a misleading measurement.
There’s also a giant gong at the start of the climb that we were encouraged to hit. The man told us that the “sweet spot” was not in the center, but on any of the bumps circling the center. It made a deep rumble, but not as deep as you would think for a gong that size. (That’s what she said?)
Towards the summit is a cave with a Buddha shrine where you can rest, take in the view, and pray. After you get to the cave, the path becomes a series of metal staircases, a nice, stable change from the irregular stone steps.
It took us about 45 minutes or so to reach the top (with a break at the cave). The top is a 360-degree view of Loei city and the surrounding park. According to the park ranger I talked to at the cave, it’s a really popular place for sunrise and sunset. Pro tip: Bring lots of water and maybe don’t try to hike up the mountain right before your flight like we did. So much sweat. Oh well.
Phu Bo Bit Forest Park
About 6km from the city center, the entrance is off of Route 2138 with a small sign indicating where to turn. The reason why this area is called a “Forest Park” and not a “National Park” is simply due to its small size. It’s free to enter.
Open 7am till 8pm.
It's not the best photo sphere I've taken, but you get the idea of what it's like to be on top of the mountain. :)
Loei is a beautiful province with lots of natural wonders to explore! The festivals and people make it that much more welcoming. If you want to go next year, you’ll have to occasionally do a search for announcements on the festival dates for that year since it changes from year to year. (Or check Richard Barrow’s excellent website (http://www.thaitravelblogs.com/) or his social media feeds – he’s the reason I found out the dates for this year.)
Till next time!