The Khmer-speaking Kui party with their ancestors as the Saen Donta Festival rolls into town
The arrival of the Saen Donta Festival next week will see natives of Si Sa Ket celebrating their annual reunion with their relatives – all of them departed.
There isn’t George Romero’s “Day of the Dead”, where troops of dead bodies roam around the small town though, but a happy time that promises visitors a feast of colourful costumes, lots of food and drink, plus parades and fanfare.
“We, the Kui people, have a strong commitment to making offerings during the Saen Donta Festival,” says Suwan, an elderly member of the Khmer-speaking people who are scattered around Si Sa Ket, Surin, Buri Ram and the southern part of Thailand's Northeast. “Otherwise, the hungry spirits will curse us.”
Part of Kui tradition, the two-day festival takes place in the small town of Khukhan district, Si Sa Ket province, on October 11 and 12.
“Sons, daughters, in-laws, grandchildren – all family members will return home,” says an 80-something grandmother, as she starts to explain the notion of this reunion of family members – both alive and dead – for the Saen Donta Festival. “The members (the one who are alive, of course) help to prepare the food and offer it to the dead ones.”
The Saen Donta Festival lasts for two days, kicking off the day before the new moon of the 10th Lunar Month.
“On the eve of new moon, the relatives will bring a tray of offerings – including roasted chicken, pork, khao tom and dessert – to the family at the top of their lineage,” says the woman. “Names of every departed one will be called to take the offering. Not a single name is to be missed or we’re in trouble with the curse of the deceased ancestor."
On the second day, the day of new moon, the villagers wake up early to make offerings at the community temple. Once back from the temple, the villagers take small portions of food to their paddy fields and leave them around for the wandering and hungry ghosts
The festival won’t be creepy – rather, it’s beautiful.
On the second day, the local people dressed in their unique tribal costumes, carry baskets full of roasted chicken, barbecued fish, fried meats, mainly pork, vegetables, cigarettes and jars of rice wine before gathering at the public park in front of the town hall. Apparently, this impressive feast should make the hungry ghosts happy for a few days.
The festival is a real treat for hungry travellers too and you’ll catch sight of several Saen Donta “groupies” convening along the main road.
As you’re waiting for the new floats to arrive, the locals offer the onlookers some steamed rice buns, bananas and a sort of rice cake. Gulping down the throat-burning, home-made rice wine, you’ll also pick up a few Khmer words and earn some good-natured laughter.
The rite ends as the last incense burns down to ashes and the villagers head home with baskets full of roasted chicken for dinner.
If you go
<< Si Sa Ket is about 500 kilometres to Bangkok’s East. Trains depart Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong station daily as do air-conditioned buses.
<< The nearest airport is in Ubon Ratchathani – to which Thai Airways, Nok Air and AirAsia operate daily flights from Bangkok.