U T O P I A

Phi Ta Khon, Ghosts with Human Eyes
by John Goss

all images and text are copyright 2000
by Utopia.
There is a remote village in Northeastern Thailand that is famous for being haunted. Abundant evidence for this claim exists -- phantoms float from walls in Thai restaurants, leer out of luridly colored travel posters, and leap from shadowy margins of tourist guidebooks -- yet few outsiders have witnessed the dazzling demon denizens of Dansai. In this village, during the Siamese "day of the dead," naughty ghouls roam the streets freely and actually enjoy posing for photographs. They materialize for the annual Phi Ta Khon (ghosts with human eyes) festival, which is usually observed in June or July. The exact date is divined not far in advance by the most revered and feared member of the village, Jao Paw Guan, a male maw duu (seer) and leader of the sacred portions of an otherwise profane party.
A fierce looking ghost is all fun and frolic
A fierce looking ghost is all fun and frolic.
The easiest way to get to Dansai is to fly to Udon Thani and set off by car down country roads to the nearby province of Loei. The scenery along the way is clean and green; an enchanting landscape of farms, limestone karsts in misty distance, and rolling hills bordering Laos. The cool mountain air there is home to Thailand's famous (only) winery, Chateau de Loei. You can drive through the rolling vineyards for free, but you may be spooked to learn that there isn't any wine tasting, or even a Chateau (a phantom of marketing). There is a small resort next to the winery offering basic accommodation and Dansai is only about 30 minutes farther up to road. Book a room early, because it fills with busloads of Thai tourists who journey here for Halloween, Siam-style.

Before dawn, in the dead of upcountry morning (about 3:30am), village elders march with Jao Paw Guan to the Muan River. There, they perform a sacrificial rite to awaken Pra Ub-pa-kud. This supernaturally adept monk spends the entire year meditating peacefully beneath the flowing waters in the form of a white marble orb. With his advanced magical abilities, he is the only homeboy who is strong enough to protect the 'hood from the evil army set to descend upon them. While most of the village is still asleep, fearsome entities are clawing their way across the divide between life and eternal twilight. The river bubbles and Pra Ub-pa-kud is awakened. Flashes of an albino sphere shimmer under the liquid surface of dreams.

By 7am the procession has moved from the river to Phon-Chai temple in the center of town. Food is offered to monks as worshippers circle a whitewashed stupa rising from a red dirt courtyard. Overly amplified announcements echo from speakers hung from a tilting, teakwood seminary.

The littlest ghosts are the first to show themselves, pursued by a throng of Thai press photographers. These ghastly tikes, modeling their hand-made masks and riotously colored costumes, are destined to appear on covers of in-flight magazines and tourist promotional brochures around the world. What follows, during the next two days of drunken excess, is hardly sort of wholesome family event that gets promoted. The children are charming enough for the press corps, even as their elder siblings are behind closed doors, stripping down and covering each other with mud and soot, and arming themselves with penis-shaped weapons of monstrous proportions.
Phi Ta Khon is Halloween for kids in Dansai
Phi Ta Khon is Halloween for kids in Dansai.
At 9am, the center of activity shifts to Jao Paw Guan's house along the main road. Here, he sits for the next few hours, the center of a swirling whirlpool of village elders and devotees who move slowly forward to crouch down and tie string amulets around his raised wrists. By the end of this ceremony both of his arms will be wound tightly with thick bracelets of magical white threads to protect him with the communal power of the village. Men and women, dressed in their finest outfits of white linen and silk, dance around in a circle, gesturing to the beat of drums, cymbals and bamboo harmonicas.
Music, dance and celebration at Jao Paw Guan's
Dance and celebration at Jao Paw Guan's.
At noon, Jao Paw Guan exits his home and strides to the center of town trailing a euphoric entourage of newly deputized spirit mediums. His countenance is serious, aware that while the rest of the village becomes possessed with demonic frolic, he and his charmed circle of assistants must remain ever vigilant lest forces of nature tip in favor of the assembling confabulation of spirits.
Jao Paw Guan (left) leads the village elders
Jao Paw Guan (left) leads the village elders.
The streets of Dansai village are suddenly filled with lewd demons. Roving bands of adolescent ghosts chase teenage girls, and the odd foreigner, with ingeniously designed balad kik (phallic charms). There is an endless variety of styles, shapes and sizes of these tormenting toys. Most possess a crimson crown swollen out of proportion to the human variety. Some are hinged and jiggle on springs, bringing shrieks from the girls (and that odd foreigner) who try to hide in the gathering crowd of spectators. Many of the demonic dicks are inscribed with Chinese characters referring to "the Big Man". There are zombies with fishing poles strung with penis bait. There are swords whose arching handles have cleanly dispensed with Freudian interpretation. One ghoul dressed as a reporter approaches bystanders as if to interview them. The "TV camera" resting on his shoulders captures shots of hilarious public humiliation as a big, red schlong jumps out from behind the lens.

Once the streets have been secured by the spooks, a macabre procession begins, lead by two towering ghost puppets, made from bamboo lattice and scraps of cloth and coconut tree, which jiggle comically as they walk. The arrival of these male and female fertility totems (their once-private parts are animated with day-glo exaggeration) announces that bawdy banshees have conquered Dansai.

Denizens of the Thai twilight zone
Denizens of the Thai twilight zone.

Big Man, one of the comic parade marshals
Big Man, one of the comic parade marshals.

A great din echoes down the street as ghosts stream into town from all over the province. Even though they don't speak a word, there is plenty of clatter from the mark-ka-lang (cowbells) tied to their waists and the playful screams that their antics inspire. Each costume is unique, crafted by the men and women who wear them. Bodies are fully covered in ragged suits of shredded fabric, usually in a rainbow of bright colors. Masks are made from sticky-rice steamer baskets that serve as crowns, with coconut husk faces fitted with carved wooden noses and horns. Individualized patterns and painting techniques are on display. Some crafty ghosts have varnished their creations plain to highlight the natural materials and the artistry of their masterpieces. Product logos are worked into the designs (Harley Davidson is a favorite). There are color-coordinated teams of boogiemen. There are monochrome phantoms-of-the-rice-fields. There are glitter-gangster-monstrosities, and florescent-butterfly-Venus Flytrap-raptors. And, there are...mudmen.
Close-up of a spectacularly painted mask
Close-up of a spectacularly painted mask.

A primitive beastie of glitter and coconut fiber
A primitive beastie of glitter and coconut fiber.

A column of shadows advances down the avenue, stomping bamboo clubs onto the asphalt in a booming rhythm. Stark white eyeballs glare from smudged faces and blinding flashes of teenage grins burst from the menacing marchers. Blackened from beanies to tootsies, these nearly-naked gangs resemble distant aboriginal ancestors, stone-aged punk rockers, or tribal initiates lining up for the mysteries of manhood. Throughout the day, men in grass skirts and a coating of mud stumble drunkenly, all too eager to shake hands and swipe stains onto your smiling face or too-clean shirt.
Mudmen march through town stomping bamboo staffs.
Mudmen march stomping bamboo staffs.
Slowly the ghosts and goblins make their way to the school yard at the center of town where judging of costumed contingents takes place. The nearby market has taken on the carnival atmosphere of an upcountry fair whose spook house has been turned inside out. There is every chance you will be hauled up onto a passing float and offered a plastic cup full of rice wine, several cans of beer and countless swigs from bottles of local rum proffered by over-friendly, penis-wielding partiers at this Mardi Gras from hell.
Color and creativity on parade
Color and creativity on parade.
At about 2pm another parade commences, this time an unholy mix of the forces of good and evil; stately pageantry versus perverse pixies. Handsome young men and beautiful girls in traditional costume, bearing sacred offerings, cleanse the pathway. A throng of bare-chested slave boys pulls a golden chariot bearing a prince and princess garbed in jewels and finery. Lines of young women dancing in unison follow. Red Cross nurses and village farmers mingle with mud-slung hoards. The combined effects of withering heat and free-flowing liquor begin to take their toll on the ghostly minions who retreat into the shadows to sleep it off until the cool of evening revives their ghoulish foolishness.
Regal beings from paradise on a gold chariot
Regal beings from paradise on a gold chariot.
Day two of the festival continues with dance contests, sporting events, and an afternoon procession of giant bang fai bamboo rockets which are launched into the hot season skies hopes of appeasing the spirits and attracting rain.

Day three of the festival finds Jao Paw Guan summoning all of his powers, with the divine assistance of the mystical monk Ub-pa-kud, to drive the demons back to their underworld for yet another year. Festival participants throw their ghost masks into the river to rid themselves of misfortune (entrepreneurial penitents gain a small fortune by selling their masks and phallic weapons to visitors as souvenirs). The Big Man's private parts are stowed modestly away again and this final festival day is spent reflecting on Buddhist sermon, to make merit and take a step closer to Nirvana.

A ghost fishes for humans using phallic bait
A ghost fishes for humans using phallic bait.
Despite the overlay of more recent Buddhist beliefs, Phi Ta Khon retains the earthy flavor of its origins in agrarian fertility rites. Dansai's Ghost Festival is certainly one of Thailand's most creative and lively traditional folk festivals. Don't be shy to try your hand at bargaining a rather lewd saber or magical mask off one of the apparitions -- it will make quite a conversation piece in years to come and a fitting souvenir of your supernatural encounters in Thailand's twilight zone.


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