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Sunday, July 29, 2007

'Phi Ta Khon' Festival - Day 1 of 3

Once a year, in late June/early July, the spirits wake up, don masks and other accoutrements, and take to the streets of Dan Sai, a small town in eastern Thailand near the Lao border, for two days of merriment and innocent mayhem. The timing coincides with the beginning of the Rainy Season and the planting of the rice crop.

‘Phi’ is Thai for ‘ghost’, or ‘spirit’ (pronounced as ‘pee’); ‘Ta’ (technically it sounds like ‘dtah’) means ‘eyes’; and ‘Khon’ means 'people', as well as referring to the famous Thai traditional, masked dance discipline. (Some translate the name as "spirits with human eyes", which may refer to earlier mask designs with large, more human-like eyes.) Most of the masks are made of traditional materials: a large ‘huat’, or basket for steaming sticky rice, is attached to the hard end of a large palm frond, thus forming the now-famous face and ‘hat’ configuration. Various media are used to embellish the creations including enamel paints, carved wood, sawdust paste, curved rattan, stickers, etc.

We also spied the more
traditional palm leaf sunhats being used with masks by one group, as well as papier mache masks on different types of ogres.

Costumes have also evolved from pieced collections of old scrap materials of traditional pattern, to colorful new, but still handmade outfits in polyester or cotton.

Phallic accoutrements took the form of sword handles, guns, tree branches, and even a plow and buffalo nose (!).

Some aspects of the celebration are Buddhist, including daily merit-making processions to the main temple in town, but most activities are spirit-related. Each year the celebration starts with a ‘Bai Sii’ at the home of the local spirit medium, the Jao Por Guan, with offerings made to the ancestor spirits. (His female counterpart is Jao Mae Nangtiam, who connects with female spirits.) He and Jao Mae Nangtiam, then led a procession of townspeople and masked ‘Phi Ta Khon’ down the main street of the town and to the temple.

A carnival atmosphere reigned throughout the town, with throngs of the colorful, masked tricksters brandishing phallic accessories, photographers equally rampant, and families out in full force. Blatantly bawdy, this is also a fertility festival as evidenced by the many versions of phalluses, and invocations of good luck for the new agricultural cycle.

A judged contest for the best masks and performances was a nod to modern times. And in true Thai style there were food vendors every few feet, with shops setting up temporary booths offering cold drinks, snacks, seasonal fruits, and even quick meals. At night the regional popular music ‘moh lam’ kicked in, along with the ‘lao kao’ (local rice wine) and everyone partied heartily, forgetting that tomorrow would be another day of processions and merit-making.

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