Business & Industrial
Dan Sai’s Phi Ta Khon Festival: Thai ghosts find global fame
Published Date : 2 Mar 2020
Resource : Creative Thailand
A festival born out of the belief and faith of the residents of Dan Sai district in Loei Province, Phi Ta Khon has evolved into a unique identity that spiritually unites Dan Sai villagers through time. It has also turned this small district into a popular tourist destination as people from around the world flock in to enjoy the colourful parade that is filled with fun and laughter. The success of Phi Ta Khon festival comes not only from cultural heritage, but also how it has been adapted to fit the town’s context and way of life. That demonstrates the potential of cultural assets which can be promoted and exported to stimulate the economy with tourism. By promoting this small district globally, a great deal of revenue can be generated from selling souvenirs and community products as well as from the hospitality industry.
From Faith to Fun
From the end of June to the beginning of July every year, many streets in Dan Sai district will be crowded with people who come to watch and join in the fun of the Phi Ta Khon parades. The spectacular procession is made up with people wearing masks and ghost-like costumes singing and dancing around the streets. Its highlights are two Phi Ta Khon figures made from woven bamboo. Twice the size of a man, the large figures are known as “Phi Ta Khon Yai” (big Phi Ta Khon) and decorated as male and female. Only those who have received permission by the mediums can dress in Phi Ta Khon Yai costumes and they must serve this duty for at least 3 years. Villagers and tourists regardless of their age or gender can dress as Phi Ta Khon Lek (small Phi Ta Khon) to join the parades.
From the outside, the festival created from unique cultural heritage and creativity of Dan Sai villagers may be a fun-filled attraction. Its origins, however, are ascribed to Buddhist belief and faith. The Phi Ta Khon is part of Bun Luang, or a grand Buddhist merit-making festival which includes Bun Phawet, Bun Songkran, Boon Bung Fai and Bun Chamra. The Bun Luang festival is carried out to worship the city pillar and make sacrifices to sacred spirits for protection. The Phi Ta Khon festival is influenced by the Vessantara Jataka in which the Buddha in one of his past lives as Prince Wetsanthon made a long journey back to town with Princess Matree. Many ghosts and animals disguised as villagers and followed the beloved couple to see them home, thus came the name “Phi Tam Khon” (ghosts who follow people) which was later distorted into the present “Phi Ta Khon”.
Moreover, the Phi Ta Khon festival shares similarities with the ancestor worship tradition of Lan Chang Kingdom in Luang Prabang. Both are carried out to worship the ancestral spirits who have the power to protect or destroy the kingdom. The Phi Ta Khon festival is therefore held alongside the Bun Luang festival to please the ancestral spirits and bring peace to the land.
The festival begins at Wat Phon Chai, the ancient temple which has been the place of worship for Dan Sai villagers since settlement. Chao Por Kuan, the town’s spirit leader whose role has been inherited from generation to generation, serves as the medium to determine the Bun Luang date by casting lots. The Bun Luang festival is held for three days every year. On the first day, Chao Por Kuan will lead the procession to invite Phra Uppakut, the powerful sacred spirit who resides in the ocean to protect the peace in Mun River area, and bring him back to Hor Phra Uppakut in Wat Phon Chai to defeat demons and prevent any harm that may happen during the merit-making festival. On the second day, there will be a parade to welcome Prince Wetsanthon and Princess Matree into town. People will dress as Phi Ta Khon to join the parades and play with festival goers. On the third day, villagers will gather at Wat Phon Chai to attend the 13 chapters of Mahachat Sermon to make merits for festival goers.
|Disguising into Ghosts
The head of the Phi Ta Khon Lek costume is made of hat-like sticky rice steamer while the face is made from coconut tree trunks carved into a mask shape; two holes for eyes, softwood decorated as nose, and then painted imaginatively. Besides the masks and costumes, Phi Ta Khons also carry a sword made from softwood whose handle is carved in phallus shape and painted red. It is believed that bringing phallus to play in the Bun Luang festival will please the sacred powers and ensure plentiful rain for the farming season. The red colour symbolizes abundant harvest while the phallus is believed to prevent harms since it will distract demons from obstructing the merit-making activities, thus ensuring the festival will be carried out smoothly. Besides the swords, Phi Ta Khons also wear square cowbells around the waist to make noise while walking to announce their presence.
From Ritual to Performance
From the religious ritual to worship sacred spirits tracing back to Luang Prabang, the Phi Ta Khon festival has been adapted to the changing way of life, society and economy of Dan Sai to stimulate local tourism and Loei province’s economy, particularly during 1957-1987. It receives support from both the government sector and the media in promoting the Phi Ta Khon festival into a top domestic tourist destination and drawing interests from both Thai and foreign tourists. After being included in the1987 tourism promotion plan, the local festival has been adapted to add more “performance” elements to create an impressive cultural product for tourists. For example, an opening ceremony has been added along with a parade contest and Phi Ta Khon mask, costume and dance competitions. The festival’s status has thus changed from a ritual that reflects local belief and way of life into a performance that focuses on entertaining and fun. The activities are split into two types: ritual plays and performances for tourists which are handled by professional teams.
Besides the change in format, Phi Ta Khon masks and costumes have been adapted in response to the social and economic conditions as well. That demonstrates how the artistic skills of Dan Sai villagers have evolved through time. In the early days, Phi Ta Khon masks and costumes were made from natural or scrap materials. The masks were made from used steamers sewn together with coconut husks and painted with natural colours such as black from charcoal, red from slaked lime and white from hydrated lime. Simply painted, the eyes and mouth were vaguely drawn to create a sense of mystery and spookiness. As for the costumes, they were sewn from scrap fabric or robe of Buddhist monks to minimize costs. However, after the Phi Ta Khon festival has been included in the1987 tourism promotion plan, the masks and costumes became more colourful so as to attract tourists. Villagers began using new steamers and artificial colours such as oil paints or plastic-based paints to add more pigments. The patterns have also become more detailed through several techniques such as lacquer and gilding as well as adding other patterns such as geometry, traditional Thai and typography for aesthetic purpose.
As Phi Ta Khon masks became more elaborated, the production has changed hands from villagers to craftspeople who are skilled with pattern design. A unified pattern for each group is emphasized in order for them to be easily recognizable among the parades and to increase the chance of winning. The costumes have also changed over time. From scrap monk robes to save costs since the villagers were rather impoverished in the past, those colourful costumes are now created from silk or sarong fabrics. Police Captain Sanong Uppala who conducted the study on the development of the Phi Ta Khon festival, Dan Sai district, Loei province stated that, “It’s an era where Phi Ta Khon looks haughty and aristocratic. And the reason is they expect to win the contest award money.”
Imagination Brings Income
The colourful and fun-filled parades unique to the Phi Ta Khon festival attract more and more tourists, both domestic and international, each year. In 2019, over 103,000 tourists joined the festival and generated over 123.6 million baht revenue through tourism, accommodation, restaurants, community products and souvenirs to Dan Sai and other districts in Loei province such as Phurua and Chiang Khan. Phi Ta Khon masks has become a source of considerable income for community members. Narong Khamyee, owner of the ‘Khon Khon’ shop in Dan Sai, said that many people had preordered the masks to wear during the Bun Luang and Phi Ta Khon festivals last year. That forced them to work against time to meet the demand. However, since the mask details must be crafted by hand, it takes 7-14 days to finish one. Each mask is made from coconut leaf sheaths soaked in water for 2-3 days so that they will be softened enough to be shaped using a can. After that, they will be sun-dried for 1-2 weeks and then attached to a bamboo steamer before being carved and painted to create the mask’s face. The prices range from 500-1,000 baht based on how elaborate the patterns are. In the past, once the festival ended, villagers would not bring the masks and costumes back into their home. They would throw them away instead as a gesture of throwing away unhappiness. Nowadays, the masks’ exotically beautiful patterns entice tourists to buy them as souvenirs. After the festival ends, the masks that have been worn in the parades can now be sold for as much as 3,000-4,000 baht each.
As the value of Phi Ta Khon masks vary according to the makers’ artistic skills, its high price makes many tourists think twice before buying or choose not to buy at all. Filling this gap for low-budget tourists in the market for souvenirs, Araya Kruahong, a 12 grader at Sri Song Rak Wittaya School, has founded the Ta Khon Co, Ltd. in 2018. Araya teams up with her friends to make affordable souvenirs such as tiny Phi Ta Khon masks, t-shirts, key chains and lamps with Phi Ta Khon patterns. “The distinction of our products is that they are all handmade. My friends paint the key chains and the mini masks themselves while the t-shirts are screen-printed. Our products are on sale in souvenir shops throughout Dan Sai and other nearby districts,” Araya said. These affordable products meet the need of tourists very well as seen from the average t-shirt sales of 300-400 per month, even outside the festival month. When there are too many orders to handle, Araya will hire other villagers to paint the products. That helps bring additional income of approximately 3,000-4,000 baht to the villagers who are mostly farmers.
Parading to Enthrall the World
The continuous support of Bun Luang and Phi Ta Khon festivals from several sectors to promote Loei tourism has made the Phi Ta Khon festival well-known among both Thai and foreign tourists. From a local tradition, the festival has been upgraded into a provincial, national and eventually international event which led to cultural exchange collaboration. In 2019, the Ministry of Culture and Loei Province along with both government and private sectors jointly held the “Bun Luang and Phi Ta Khon and International Mask Festivals 2019” during 5-4 July 2019. The event not only featured Phi Ta Khon performances, but also showcased masks from countries such as China, Lao, Indonesia and the Philippines which drew much interest from the festival visitors. “The festival is organised in a bigger scale each year. This time, we’ll see the local parades and the King Rama 10 parade which shows the loyalty of the people. In addition, there’s a showcase of masks from 4 countries as a cultural exchange. We also see visitors from foreign countries which generate income for our locals,” Kitsayapong Siri, Permanent Secretary for Culture said.
Upgrading our cultural asset into an international attraction, the unique patterns and vibrant colours of Phi Ta Khon masks not only catch the eyes of festival visitors, but also enthrall Andrea Marcon, Royal Thai Honorary Consulate-General in Venice. Marcon invited Phi Ta Khons to perform at the Carnival of Venice, the ancient mask festival held in Venice, Italy. It is a festival where people in sumptuous costumes and masks fill the streets. The colourful carnival brings fun and excitement to visitors from all over the world. And Thailand was the first country in Asia that was invited to join the festival.
The Phi Ta Khon festival has been passed down from generation to generation and adapted to align with the town and way of life that change over time. It reflects the potential of this cultural asset that brings fame to the town and generates jobs and income for the locals. At the same time, it spiritually unites and brings laughter to Dan Sai villagers through every era.
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