Masked Ghosts at the Dansai, Thailand

After a long day of mayhem and merriment, even ghosts need a rest

Click here for more images of the Dansai Ghost Festival, including the mud-men.

Phi Ta Khon, otherwise known as the Dansai Ghost Festival in Loei, Thailand, is a series of festivals held over three days in Dan Sai, Loei province, Isan, Thailand. Sometimes called the Siamese “Day of the Dead”, the Ghost Festival is one of the most colorful sensations in all of Thailand. Origins of the festival are a bit murky, but believed to be based upon a tale where — after an absence so long that his followers believe he was dead — the Buddha returned, and the celebrations were so animated that they woke the dead.

During the festival hordes of “ghosts” wearing brightly painted masks, constructed of sticky-rice husks, stream into town from the provinces. Many of the masked ghosts also carry giant wooden phalluses, that they seem to take great joy in swinging around like blunt swords. No one I talked to could explain this to me, but the origins seem to come from more ancient animist beliefs.  There are parades where the forces of good, symbolized by beautiful young dancing maidens dressed in traditional costumes, mix with “evil” symbolized by the mud-men who randomly terrorize the village. It is all a very complicated series of performances, processions and Buddhist temple services, that to an outsider, seems almost indecipherable. One common string holding everything together seems to be good spirits and a liberal about of rice whiskey.

At the end of the festival participants traditionally throw their masks and other implements into the river, but lately more entrepreneurial penitents use the opportunity make money by selling their colorful creations and wooden phalluses to visitors as souvenirs.

Usually held between March and July, planning to attend Phi Ta Khon can be a bit tricky because exact scheduling is only done, with short notice, by the town’s Jao Paw Guan or seer, after consultations with the spirits of the dead. This was one of the most interesting festivals that I have seen in Asia and, if you can figure out when it is, you should go see it.

I made this image handheld with my Canon EOS 6D 20.2 MP DSLR with the EF24-105mm L IS Lens.

Exposure: 1/60 @ f/13.0
ISO: 320
Focal Length: 45mm

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