If you’ve ever found yourself in Venice for Carnivale, or endured Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, you’ll know that when ordinary people don masks, things can get a little raucous. Under the cloak of anonymity, people are liberated to do things they’d never ordinarily dare to.
But at one festival in the north of Thailand, the masks don’t just enable people to escape the trappings of ordinary life. They allow the dead to walk again.
Dan Sai is a town in Loei province, in the Isaan region where the local culture and language owe more to neighbouring Laos than with southern Thailand. Most of the year, it’s a sleepy place, with 50,000 residents. But once a year, Dan Sai fills with tourists from all over Thailand and the world. They’re accompanied by camera crews eager to film one of the nation’s most spectacular festivals.
The people of Isaan venerate the ghosts of their ancestors, and in recent years the eminent filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul has brought these traditions to the world with films like the 2010 Palme D’Or-winning film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.
While belief in ancestors’ ghosts occurs in many Asian cultures, the ghost masks made in Dan Sai are unique.
But while belief in ancestors’ ghosts occurs in many Asian cultures, the ghost masks made in Dan Sai are unique. The faces are made from dried sticky rice husks with faces painted on them. Eye holes are dug out, and a woven bamboo bowl that usually serves as a rice steamer is placed on top to finish the head. Pointy ears are affixed to either side, and then cloth with an intricately woven pattern is affixed underneath so that when it’s worn, the wearer’s neck and shoulders are obscured.
The rest of the body is clad in a jumpsuit made of multicoloured sheets of cloth sewn loosely together, producing an effect somewhere between a harlequin and a caterpillar - and ensuring that no human skin is visible to destroy the illusion.
Traditionally, the Phi Ta Khon masks were made of untreated wood – you can see them in a museum – and are somewhat reminiscent of the Old Gods’ trees in Game Of Thrones. But the advent of synthetic paint and fabrics has given the festival a flamboyant, technicolour feel. When I visited a decade ago, I filled my digital camera several times over.
Each Phi Ta Khon mask represents an ancestor, and not just symbolically – when I visited back in 2007, a Thai friend explained to me that the masks are believed to embody the ghosts themselves. So, once a year, they come out to play, and naturally the wearers cannot be responsible for what the ghosts might choose to do when they take over. (The festival’s other distinctive spirits, which are of the drinkable kind and made from rice, may also play a part.)
The ghosts’ outfits are completed with a palad khik – a penis amulet affixed to a long pole, like a spear. To add a fertility element to the festival, the ghosts will attempt to tap any women they pass with the stick, adding to the bawdy fun, although this proved somewhat disconcerting for the women in our party.
Nevertheless, our group of a dozen Thai, Laotian and Western tourists all agreed that the experience was unforgettable. It began with a pre-dawn visit to the local Buddhist temple for a ceremony to begin the festival. There was also a ceremony by the river to keep the town safe, a parade through the town alongside several giant masks, and a rocket festival of the sort common throughout Isaan.
Ghosts were dancing everywhere we looked, and they were only too happy to dance with any curious tourists.
But alongside the formal events was a non-stop outdoor party, culminating in a concert on an outdoor stage with dance troupes and live bands playing in the groovy local mor lam style. Ghosts were dancing everywhere we looked, and they were only too happy to dance with any curious tourists.
There were also plenty of opportunities to eat delicious Isaan food like larb (minced meat, most commonly chicken with salad), som tam (green papaya salad) and sai ua (sausages), along with the ubiquitous sticky rice. We sat at plastic folding tables in the town square, sipping soft drinks with straws stuck into ice-filled plastic bags, and also tried beer the local way – with ice cubes to cool it down.
There are various theories about why the Phi Ta Khon festival began. Some say it commemorates doomed lovers, whose ghosts fled to a cave to be together, and were then catered to by an increasing retinue of sympathetic ghosts. Others say it reflects the penultimate incarnation of the Buddha, Prince Vessantara, who was welcomed by joyous ghosts as he returned to his home town. But regardless of the precise origin, the present incarnation makes for just about the most entertaining religious ceremonies/cultural events/street parties I’ve ever experienced.
And the masks themselves, which are on sale throughout the festival, make for one of the most extraordinary-looking souvenirs you’ll find anywhere. As long as you’re comfortable having a ghost living on your wall.
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