Phi Ta Khon Essentials
The festival starts before dawn with a delegation of elders walking to the river to awake the spirit of Pra Ubpakud, a supernatural monk that is believed to spend the rest of the year meditating in the river and that is the only one able to protect the community from the evil spirits that will invade the city in the next few days. After that, everyone goes back to Wat Pon Chai, the temple in town which is the center of all the activities during Phi Ta Khon, and the procession can start. The first ones to show up are the younger kids all dressed up with scary costumes and ghosts’ masks. By noon children time is over and it’s time for the most profane part of the festival. The naughtiest spirits (teenagers in costume) take possession of the streets chasing each other (especially girls and foreigners) with penis shaped toys while the adults start celebrating with beers and whiskey (be prepared to be offered a lot of alcohol). Processions go on all day long and each one represents something different, either sacred or profane, while the market is getting ready for a night of food and drinks.
The second day is dedicated to dances, chants and contests and in the afternoon bamboo rockets and fireworks are used to scare the evil spirits and to praise the gods for an abundant rainy season (this is believed to be the main reason why Phi Ta Khon originally started).
The third and last day is the day of reconciliation with religion. Everyone will throw their masks in the river to get rid of the bad influence of the ghosts and the afternoon is spent listening to Buddha’s sermons and meditating.
Even if Phi Ta Khon is quite famous among travelers, the actual number of foreigners visiting and spending the night in town is still low, so be prepared to get a lot of attentions from the kids asking for a picture, from the youngster teasing you with their phallic toys, and the elders willing to have a drink with you; have fun and enjoy the moment without being intimidated; it’s a privilege to be considered an attraction during Phi Ta Khon and when you leave you’ll have a bag full of unforgettable memories.
Wat Phon Chai and Phi Ta Khon Museum
Wat Phon Chai is a temple in the south part of Dan Sai, not far from the bus stop. It is where all the processions start from and head to during Phi Ta Khon and the center of all the activities of the festival. The temple itself is nice, but nothing too impressive and the main reason to visit it is the Phi Ta Khon Museum which is located on the temple ground. An impressive collection of masks and costumes are on display and a lot of information in English will provide you with a basic understanding of what the festival is and how little it has changed over the years. The museum is free of charge and it’s open every day from 9:00am to 5:00pm.
Phra Tat Si Song Rak
After being in Thailand a few years, it’s not surprising that the town that host the most irreverent festival in the country is also home of the most revered and respected chedi in the Isaan region. Built in the 16th century as a symbol of the friendship and the alliance between Ayutthaya and Vientiane kingdoms against the common enemy (Burma), it features a beautiful 20 mt high pagoda in Lao style and a set of strict rules that differentiate it from any other religious site in Thailand; if you want to visit it make sure you don’t wear anything red, leave out the umbrellas, take off your shoes and hat and (this is quite mysterious) keep in mind that kids younger than three years old are not allowed inside. Phra Tat Song Rak is located 10 minutes walking west from the bus stop.