Phi Ta Khon: A sexually charged festival haunted by long-nosed ghosts
If there’s one festival that's worth driving 500 kilometers from Bangkok for, it’s Phi Ta Khon.
Held annually in the Dan Sai district of Loei, in northeast Thailand, it might not be the wildest of Thai festivals -- that shared honor goes to the Bangfai Rocket Festival in Yasothon and the Phuket Vegetarian Festival.
But it certainly wins the prize for being the most -- how to put it? -- arousing, with its highly sexual undertones.
Here's a quick backgrounder. The origins of Phi Ta Khon lie in an ancient story that claims Prince Vessantara -- a.k.a. Buddha in his last life -- took a long journey and was presumed dead by his followers. When he returned, the celebrations were so wild they woke the dead.
"Phi" means ghost and "khon" means mask. In a re-enactment of the tale, the men of Dan Sai dress up as masked "spirits" wearing colorful long trailing costumes made from strips of cloth sewn together.
The famed masks, distinct to Loei and the Phi Ta Khon festival, are made of dried sticky rice husks and painted in bright colors.
Artistically impressive as most of the masks are, when the men are all suited up in their full Phi Ta Khon gear, legend has it many a small child has wet their pants upon first sight of the frightful spirits. They're just that scary.
The date of Phi Ta Khon changes every year, with this year's event taking place from July 1-3. Most of the action is on the first day, when the town's residents gather to call upon the spirit of the Mun River, Phra U Phakut, to protect them.
From there it descends into a wild day of games, concerts and parades, with the highlight being the procession of khon masks and other costumed locals who dance around the streets clanging cowbells to announce the presence of the spirits.
Ah, but you're wondering about those "sexual undertones" we promised you. Well, most of the masked men who dance in the procession carry giant red wooden phalluses around like swords, which they aren't shy about swinging around and pointing at bystanders -- particularly ladies.
Soon, many of the others in the procession are getting in on the action, pulling out their best thrusts as they dance around to the funky beats of the northeast.
Aside from the many Buddhist rituals held throughout the festival -- most early in the morning -- there's lots of alcohol consumed so the whole thing turns into a pretty wild party by late-afternoon on the first and second days. (Check out this Youtube video for evidence.)
One festival-goer describes his own encounter with the naughtiness on his blog: "There was the angler with a wooden phallus dangling from his line as bait, and I remember well the two middle-aged men wearing traditional blue cotton shirts, straw hats and rubber boots — the characteristic outfit when working the muddy fields — who mimed copulation with a large wooden phallus and a vulva adorned with bristly pubic hairs created from the husk of a coconut."
Fertility is indeed a strong theme of the festival. On day two, bamboo rockets are fired as an offering to the gods to encourage the coming of the rains.
On the third day, Buddhist sermons are delivered Don Sai's Phon Chai Temple to bring luck to the town's residents, followed by a merit-making ritual.
Around Dan Sai
There's more to Loei than Phi Ta Khon. Though the festival takes place in Dan Sai, the whole province is worth checking out year-round.
Loei has grown from being one Thailand’s most under-rated provinces into a full blown tourist attraction among Thais, though foreign tourists are few in numbers -- even in the Pai-esque riverside hotspot Chiang Khan.
More on CNNGo: Plastic junk and paranoid monks in Chiang Khan
The 130 kilometer drive from Chiang Khan to Dan Sai is one of Thailand’s most beautiful, a winding cruise that takes you away from the Mekong -- an especially muddy shade this time of the year -- inland through the jungle-covered mountains.
There are dozens of easily reached waterfalls in Loei, most in protected areas such as Phu Rua (Boat Mountain) National Park about 40 kilometers outside of Dan Sai.
Phu Rua has a few quality resorts, but they fill up fast during Phi Ta Khon given the area's close proximity to Dan Sai. Nothing five-star but certainly some comfortable spaces with amenities to match. A standout is the Phu Rua Resort, the only hotel with its own waterfall on the property.
About half way between Phu Rua and Dan Sai is one of Thailand’s few vineyards, Chateau de Loei, though there are no wine tours or tastings this time of year.
Do check out the Chateau de Loei Vineyard shop, open year-round selling fresh fruit, produce, dried goods, desserts and other homemade products in addition to bottles of its mediocre wine.
Another popular nature reserve for trekkers is Phu Kradeung National Park, which is about 140 kilometers southeast of Dan Sai.
Self-driving is recommended if you’ve got the time as Loei is best explored independently. The roads are decent and the locals extremely friendly. Website Thai-tour.com has details on the three main routes from Bangkok.
Nok Air recently started flying three times a week from Bangkok's old Don Muang Airport to Loei. From the Loei airport grab a connecting bus or taxi to Dan Sai.
Buses run several times a day from Bangkok's Mo Chit terminal to Dan Sai as well.
If you're planning to head there for Phi Ta Khon, book a hotel now as they fill fast. If Dan Sai is full, try Phu Rua. The Tourism Authority website has info on hotels, a map of the festivities as well as other attractions in the area.